Culture Talk

By Shyama Parui

“We have a rich culture."

“We are very cultured, but look at them; compared to us they have no culture at all."

Whether you were deliberately eavesdropping or not, you might have overheard such remarks and observed heated debates about this complex C word, called culture. I am not alone in wondering if people pause to think about what culture truly means. In fact, Joshua Rothman dedicated an entire article about the complexity of this term, in his 2014 article “The Meaning of 'Culture'", published in The New Yorker magazine.

At a minimum, culture is a compilation of customs and fine arts in addition to belief systems and values. An exceptionally broad term, experts from the field of Sociology and Anthropology see culture as a series of behaviors that one generation passes on to the next. The legacy we inherit shapes the way we define our way of life, or who we are as a group. Our culture creates many artifacts that we preserve and nurture, so that we can pass the baton to our children. As Indians, we take great pride in our cultural heritage and rightly so. Dance, music, art, and literature are all forms of cultural manifestation, but culture is more than art or symbolism. How we treat each other as well as those outside our definition of “us" represents our cultural beliefs, too.

What we choose or feel obliged to follow become the customs, traditions, rituals of a community and, in time, represent culture. None of these occur in isolation. Let's take cuisines, for example. Traditional dishes unique to certain cultures come from the geographic location.

The climate and growing conditions affect what people eat and how the food is cooked. Just like geography, historical milestones influence the stories and poems recited around bonfires. In the true sense of the word, culture is not a commodity to own nor is it a synonym for formal education. In fact, it would be unfair to limit this multifaceted concept with one definition.

Honoring your own culture should be encouraged just as we are urged to cheer or chant for our favorite sports team at stadiums creating that electric atmosphere to charge the players. Ethnocentrism takes that positive feeling to the dark side. A community that assumes a sense of superiority and wants to forcibly impose their culture on other groups begins to brew problems. There is historical evidence of how the ethnocentric mindset of the colonists or religious extremists resulted in destruction of works of art and symbols along with suppression of certain languages. And these are only a few of the transgressions recorded. In milder forms, ethnocentric behavior may stem from regional groups in India thinking that their sub-culture should be held in higher esteem than others.

At an individual level, even if we do not wish to compare and compete with others from a cultural standpoint, we don't want to tarnish the image of our community either. We might be quick to associate with famous and successful persons, if they are say from your hometown, but quickly disassociate with those who have gained notoriety. There is hesitation to accept someone who distorts the picture of your community or sub-culture. Writer Jhumpa Lahiri's works come to mind. Although a work of fiction, the novel titled The Namesake was embraced by Indians both in India and around the world and subsequently made into a movie. Bengali Americans across generations identified with the characters and Lahiri's work was discussed over numerous cups of tea.

Contrast that with her newer novel, The Lowland which effectively portrays characters who are less than perfect humans, and in a way that imperfection makes them more human. But they are hardly the poster child for Bengali success. There was neither a movie version nor heavy “Lowland" discussions around the coffee table. This probably says something about our tendency to idolize our culture and an aversion to anything that fails to put our cultural image on a pedestal. For the same reason, the history of a nation is published after carefully filtering out unpleasant details. Social problems such as gun violence, racism, gender bias, or dowry demands, are harder to erase when the culture implicitly or explicitly supports it.

Immigrants constantly face the push and pull of dueling cultures, one for their motherland and the other for their adopted land. First generation members worry about the loss of their language and way of life as they attempt to assimilate, whereas the second generation members are keen to blend in. To me an individual does not have to sacrifice their uniqueness to be a part of a culture. Similarly, a shared culture does not mean that every person thinks and behaves uniformly. Our human attributes make that virtually impossible. Culture by definition is dynamic. It would be a mistake to lock it up and merely display it as a prized museum piece. Instead, we should allow it to evolve and thrive by permitting newer generations to cultivate novel ways of expression.


Shyama is a long time North Carolina resident and an ardent writer. You can reach her at: