Cultural Consciousness in India: What can New Zealand Learn?

India. An opener of eyes. A challenger of assumptions. India is every exception, and every rule. India is cruel. India is kind.

A week after my cohort and I left Delhi, my Facebook Feed was filled with footage of riots. Taken less than 20 minutes’ drive from our hotel, I saw protests on the steps of temples we had visited, buses burning on roads not far from those we had walked upon. The BJP Party’s new Citizenship Law sees religious persecution, tension, and restriction rampant within India. This is why the many steps toward cultural solidarity I encountered in India are all the more remarkable – and worthy of noting as an antithesis to how India has appeared in the media as of late.

Jaipur Foot is a hospital where amputees are guaranteed replacement limbs, free of charge, upon arrival. In the waiting room one will find Jesus, Shiva, and the Buddha framed and hung side by side to ensure no patient feels less entitled to Jaipur Foot’s services than another. As we were guided through the halls, I met a man who had lived without legs for an entire year before getting word of Jaipur foot. Before my very eyes, he took his first steps since his machinery accident in 2018.

Auroville is a community of three thousand which functions independently from the rest of India. A home to individuals from 124 different countries and all Indian states, Auroville works to deconstruct religious and cultural barriers by mandating the renunciation of all religious affiliation upon accepting membership. During my two days here, I was able to visit the Matrimandir, a golden dome which acts as a centre for worship. Devoid of candles, incense, or any artefacts connotative of religion, the only rule users of Matrimandir must abide by is silence – so that all may focus upon and explore their own spirituality independently. While this approach toward cultural identity involves deconstruction of religious identity, it is fascinating to see how this is utilised as a vehicle for solidarity within an independent community context.

What do Jaipur Foot and Auroville have in common? Both reject the narrative of cultural division that pervade India’s religious politics. Auroville does this by asking members to renounce all religious ties. Jaipur Foot does so by making sure to accommodate all individuals. While different, both approaches speak to a desire to realise a manner of human interaction which functions independently of religious identity. While I am unable to speculate which is more successful in combatting religious stereotyping, both experiences assured me that there is an Indian population active in shaping a narrative of tolerance. Looking forward, I see the projects of solidarity either entity tend to being essential refuges to the Indian population. Perhaps New Zealanders, too, can take note of how religious tolerance can be brought to the forefront of Indian migratory experiences in Aotearoa.

– Zak Devey

Jenna: Initial India Impressions

When I first told my friends and colleagues that I was coming to India, I was surprised to have a number of them say “oh that’s not on my bucket list or one of the places I would want to go, why on earth would you go there?” I was asked if I was actually excited to be going. My answer was of course yes. 

I knew that India would be so much more than what we have seen or been told through photos, news, books and movies, however I didn’t expect to fall in love with this place so quickly. India is rich in so many ways. I don’t know if it’s just me, but there is such a sense of calm that can be felt amongst the colourful chaos that envelops this most diverse country. It’s crazy to think that more than 90% of tourism in India is domestic tourists, as there is so much that our Western society can learn from India. There’s a saying here that everything you think or say about India is true, but so is the opposite.

Everywhere you look in India there are juxtapositions. An example of this that really stood out to me was when we drove from Delhi to Agra where we visited the beautiful Taj Mahal. It’s perhaps the most breathtaking sight I have seen, a perfect example of beauty on the outside. The history behind the construction is a sad love story, with Mughal emperor Shah Jahan having it built in memory of his favourite wife who died giving birth to their 14th child. 20,000 people worked on the construction of the Taj for 22 years from 1632 to create the masterpiece that so many have visited today.

Taj Mahal, December 2019
The Taj is constructed of white marble
Blown away by the beautiful architecture

                

Not more than 10 minutes from the magnificent Taj sits the Sheroes cafe in Agra. This is a story that brings up a lot of emotions. Sheroes hangout space is an initiative which was started in New Delhi in 2013, and is run by acid attack survivors. During our visit to Sheroes we learnt about these many women who were victims of acid attacks. They may be badly scarred on the outside, but they are so beautiful and courageous. We heard their stories and experiences, and saw just how much this opportunity to earn a living and learn new skills through Sheroes has given them their lives back. They shared with us what it was like to finally be happy again and to have a feeling of pride and purpose after years of pain and suffering.

Sheroes cafe, Agra
They hand-make beautiful crafts to sell
Hearing about their stories of the attack and the aftermath

   

Everyday we learn more about India and see more examples of juxtapositions. However, no matter the context or situation, community seems to be at the centre of everything. The majority of people here appear to be happy, and it is a constant reminder to be grateful for everything we have, and how it is possible to be happy even with very little. All that is needed is an open mind and a willingness to see the beauty that is all around us.

Jenna Aalbers