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In the name of Tradition

Posted: December 29, 2010
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We Indians – we are big on Tradition. We like to revere it, uphold it, force others to uphold it, kill them if they don’t – yes, we love Tradition. And we are so fond of it, we will uphold one tradition even when it conflicts with another. Our “adjustable” mindset allows us to do that. Sometimes, that’s a good thing – the world is not black and white, and it’s good to let it be when things clash with each other. But sometimes, peculiar things occur in the name of such tradition.

Here is one such story. I belong to the Tamilian Brahmin community, and I mention this only because that has some relevance to this story. Tamilian Brahmins (or TamBrams, as they are sometimes known) have certain well-laid out rules when it comes to the handling of food. These include the strict separation of vessels/implements used for cooking and eating, not eating or touching food on others’ plates, not letting certain foods mix with other foods and so on. My idea is not to diss these rules – some of these make sense from a hygiene/disease prevention point of view, and others such as not letting cold foods near hot ones would have made sense in a pre-refrigeration era.

Some of these rules are so ingrained in one from childhood that even today, while I can pick up a piece of dry roti from someone else’s plate, the idea of sharing something messy like rice revolts me instinctively.

Which is why, a few years ago, at a Tambram wedding, I was horrified when it emerged that one of the ‘traditions’ was for the bride to eat her first post-wedding meal from the same plantain leaf that her husband had used – after he had eaten. Disgusting to anyone (both the practice and the idea – to imply that the woman should be happy with what her man leaves her), but particularly surprising in the context of Tambram traditions that lay so much stress on ritual purity.

Of course, most people did not see the conflict. This was a tradition too, wasn’t it? And Tradition cannot be questioned. The unwilling bride was coaxed into following the tradition – and although it cannot have been a pleasant meal for her, the peace was kept. Ultimately, the tradition of keeping the woman in her place won the day.

Founder & Chief Editor of Women's Web, Aparna believes in the power of ideas

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