Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Holidays, Services, and Untouchability

This Monday was a holiday and all but one of the men in the hostel went home to take advantage of the three-day weekend. Overall, the weekend was fairly uneventful; the two of us both enjoy reading, which consumed most of our time. In fact, we spent about an hour on Sunday afternoon reading The Hindu, the national English newspaper, and I would explain the definitions of words here and there. Also on Sunday, I was able to visit my fifth church in Kerala. I must say the differences between services that I am able to pick up on are few and far between thanks to my friend The Language Barrier.

However, my first Sunday at CMS I went with a friend (now gone to Goa, another state, to work after completing his graduate work this September) to a Catholic service. Some clear differences were definitely present. Of special note was the amazingness that was the priest’s robe and cape combo; he would have fit right in on a stage in Vegas. I found myself daydreaming of becoming Catholic so that upon ordination I could take advantage of such exhilarating attire (it would even make up for that whole celibacy thing… maybe). But I digress…

After spending the entire weekend at a professor’s house the weekend before, I learned this Sunday that I much prefer one-day visits where I am able to return to my room to process the day. This trip consisted of being picked up at the hostel by my Malayalam tutor, a CMS student and quite the character, taking a rather empty bus to his village, having coffee with his family (including his adorable 29-day-old nephew who made me miss my own nephew terribly), having breakfast at a CMS staff members home, attending the customary two hour church service, being escorted back to the bus stop, braving an impressively crowded bus back to Kottayam on my own, and finally crashing on my bed for a nap until lunch. One of my “favorite” things is being asked by everyone, “How was the service?” Of course, my answer is always positive while I think to myself, “I have no idea what was going on!” This is not to say that I didn’t enjoy the visit, because I most certainly did.

Aside from The Language Barrier, my constant companion, there are a few other aspects of Kerala worship services that I have found challenging to reconcile with my theology. One of the main characteristics is that women sit on one side of the church and men on the other. This isn’t particular to churches though; the same is true for busses, classrooms, eating, etc. Communion, which I’m thinking may be served every Sunday, further reinforces some gender separation. Not only do men go to one side of the altar(?) and women to the other, but the women obediently cover their heads with their saris to receive communion. And lastly, the services are extraordinarily liturgical. Every week the same order of worship is followed with the same prayers (except for slight variations where allowed by the Book). And they call Presbyterians “the frozen chosen.” Oh, and did I mention the services are usually around two hours long?

Disclaimer: I mean for none of this to serve as a critique; I just thought I’d share a few examples of what has made me appreciate my own Presbyterianism and give my readers a little less of my regular white-washed view of India

After tea on Sunday, my friend and I watched a documentary that his friend, who is working on a Masters in Film and Editing, lent him. The documentary, India Untouched, was directed by Stalin K, who is, I believe, a Malayali (a more often used term for Keralite) to highlight the issue of Untouchability in India. Now I’m not going to go into an explanation of the caste system because (1) I don’t know enough about it and (2) it’s two exhaustive of a subject to attempt to explain in a blog, but the film brought a lot to my attention; mostly along the lines of how incredibly diverse India is and as a result, how little I really comprehend of this nation’s complexity.

Kerala, which, by the way, uses Untouchability (practiced like it sounds) against the Dalits (lowest caste) only in more subtle ways, is renowned for its level of development, literacy rates, and beauty. Therefore, I’m really looking forward to April when the volunteers will embark on our All-India Tour (specific states yet to be determined by us) and Christmas break which will be spent at an orphanage in Andhra Pradesh. I’m excited to be able to have something to compare Kerala too because I’m finding my current lens is pretty limited.

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