Glimpses of Myself and the World Beyond

Every day on campus, there are several events about cultures, arts and ideas I may have never heard of. Cornell brings together talented researchers, performers and artists of diverse interests, backgrounds and nationalities.This is a place where I only have to walk for a few minutes to get a glimpse of anything in the world beyond.

On Friday evening, I watched a documentary called “Walking the Camino: Six Ways to Santiago” at the Cornell Cinema. I had first read of El Camino de Santiago in a textbook for my Spanish class. It’s an ancient, Christian pilgrimage which now attracts modern pilgrims of all faiths, nationalities and purposes. One of my housemates who I watched the documentary with had studied abroad in Spain last year and walked a part of the Camino. I hadn’t imagined that many people even knew about the Camino, never mind that I might be living with someone who has walked it.

The documentary followed the journeys of six strangers along the Camino. Some were doing it for religious reasons, some for spiritual ones, some as a form of healing, and a few who had no idea why. What stood out to me was that along the way, everyone’s backpack seemed to get smaller and smaller. Perhaps we don’t need all the things we think we need. I also realized that the Cornell Cinema plays an excellent,diverse selection of films and documentaries throughout the semester and that I should probably be watching more than one film per semester there.

While making plans for Saturday night, a friend mentioned that SPICMACAY Cornell was sponsoring a concert by the Mysore Brothers, classical Indian violinists. Although I was initially uninterested, I decided to go because a friend convinced me to. The music was brilliant and we stayed for the entire duration of the concert – about two and a half hours. I left with the feeling that I should learn enough about music, art and dance to be able to truly appreciate it.

What was funny about the night was that I was being introduced to my own cultural heritage as far away from home as possible. Being a South Indian, I should have probably been more aware of Carnatic music while growing up. But at home,neither I nor my friends would have attended a classical music concert. I had to be half way across the world to be able to appreciate its beauty.

At the end of last semester, a graduate student from India had asked me how my identity as an Indian had evolved since I had come to Cornell. I didn’t have an answer then. Last night, I realized that I’ve only been aware of my identity as an Indian since I came to Cornell. In the homogeneity of Delhi, where everyone around me shared the a common culture and upbringing, I never had to think about it. Here I’m forced to think about my differences, to acknowledge and embrace them.

I left the concert feeling more consciously connected to India than I ever have before. At Cornell, I see not only glimpses of the world beyond but also glimpses of myself and where I come from. As a Cornell student, I probably have access to the best professors and resources in the world but I think the most valuable part of my education comes from these experiences and reflections I’d have never had in the familiarity and homogeneity of home.

Performing The Vagina Monologues

In November, several students from my theatre troupe (Ordinary People) were going to audition for a play which is produced annually by the Cornell Women’s Resource Center. I decided to audition as well. Although the play is very well known in the United States and has been performed for many years, I had never heard of it. It’s the episodic play “The Vagina Monologues”, written by Eve Ensler.

It’s not surprising that I had never heard of it before. In India, as in many other regions of the world, the word Vagina cannot freely be used in public. There’s a lot of shame, hesitation and embarrassment associated with it. In a place where the very word is taboo, I cannot expect an entire theatrical performance about Vaginas.

Last year, women from Beijing Foreign Studies University performed the Vagina Monologues in Beijing, China. They adapted the play to make it locally relevant. They were slandered on the internet and were threatened. “How could BFSU admit such vulgar girls?” and “If my daughter did this, I’d slap her across the face,” had been some of the least misogynistic responses online.

Most of the people who posted these comments probably did not even know what the play was about. The title was enough to awaken the moral police in them. I do not know if anyone has ever tried to perform the Vagina Monologues in India. But if there had been any public performances, I would expect a similar reaction to it in India.

Growing up in a different generation and environment, it’s easy for someone like me to label these people as ‘narrow minded’ or ‘conservative’. But I acknowledge that the context of their opinions and the experiences that have led to them cannot be explained by one label. So it’s completely acceptable for someone to not approve of the Vagina Monologues, but what I would ask of them is to read or watch the play, to understand its purpose before judging it.

Personally, I appreciate the Vagina Monologues for starting the conversation on women’s issues. But there are many aspects of it that I don’t endorse. So performing one of the monologues at Cornell this year is an experiment for me as well.

When I was talking about the play to my fall ’13 FWS instructor, she asked me what I’d told my family about the play. I said, “Hmm … I told them it’s about women’s empowerment.” She asked, “You did not mention the name?” I shook my head and we laughed.

What’s a better way to break the news than a comprehensive blog post?

P.S.: If you’re in Ithaca on March 7th or 8th, come watch the show and find out what this play is all about!