Thursday, January 19, 2012


Like many of my fellow travelers, I imagine, I have spent the days since we landed re-acclimating, trying to right a wayward stomach, to persuade my circadian rhythm of the fact of Eastern standard time. Many times the past few days I have been awake when I ought to have been asleep (and vice versa, of course) and it is in these waking moments that I have given the India trip my most sustained thought. Much of the thought has been intellectual, but some of it has been purely visceral. I have felt profound relief and gratitude opening the tap and drinking the clean Hamilton water.

If potable water seems a luxury, all the more so a pantry full of food and a warm house whose construction has long been complete. A stable internet connection—something that eluded me the entirety of the trip—seems positively decadent.

In other respects, familiar aspects of life at home have a foreign cast: more than once I have looked down the bed or the couch at the two big dogs that share my home and felt a disjunction. Could they really be the same animal as the hundreds and hundreds of “free-ranging urban dogs” I saw roaming the streets of India’s cities, lying atop sand piles at construction sites, and digging garbage out of dumpsters? Why, when goats and sheep dot the landscape around our village, when on average 26.43 cows live on every acre of Madison County farmland (alongside 0.167 people, in case you were wondering), did I find the livestock of India so riveting?

As I’ve mused a little on this, a short passage from Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale keeps coming to me:
“This is one of the most bizarre things that’s happened to me, ever. Context is all.”
The questions I’m asking myself have everything to do with context, with the ways that the familiar and the foreign can become inverted in different settings. I have never seen a cow - or a wild board, a goat, a monkey, or a family of pigs, for that matter - walk down a city street before.

This issue of context was particularly pronounced for me in another key way in India. Connie Harsh has blogged about decoding language on signs: she wrote about the struggle and reward of deciphering an unknown alphabet. For me, the sign with which I struggled most in India was one I already knew: the swastika. An ancient Sanskrit sign used to denote auspiciousness, the swastika appears frequently on buildings throughout India. Like many of my fellow travelers, I found it difficult to overcome the dissonance I felt seeing the symbol placed so prominently: intellectually, as a professor of religion, I knew what it was supposed to convey; viscerally, as a professor of Jewish studies, I knew too well what it had come to represent in twentieth-century Europe. With every sighting, I had to assure myself that this was a sign of welcome and warmth, not hostility and hatred. It is hard, and not always good, for the brain to override the heart, but in this instance there was a reward to being able to assess the symbol intellectually: when I managed to make the familiar sign foreign (indeed, to restore it to its original context), the swastika gave me an unexpected sense of security in a very foreign setting.

Lesleigh Cushing
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1 comment:

  1. I had first seen the swastika used in the original, benign sense years ago on an old Chinese city map (to denote the location of Buddhist temples). At that time, it hit me like a punch to the gut. It wasn't till our time in India, seeing welcoming, friendly swastikas for two weeks that I could really learn to accept it.

    I didn't realize how much my view of the swastika had changed till we were in Delhi - our second to last day in India. We were buying embroidered hangings and bags from a street vendor. One of our colleagues had chosen a couple of bags for her daughters, including an especially lovely one with swastikas incorporated in the design. As I watched her, my brain slowly brought up the thought, "Wait. That's not a good idea." I spoke it aloud. We thought about it for a few minutes and concluded that she shouldn't buy it.

    I'm sure her daughter never would have carried that bag out in public, so I don't think we narrowly avoided a major scandal, just a moment of family awkwardness. But it amazes me that the two American women could have reached the point where we no longer felt the toxic, evil power that swastikas have in the West.