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5 Tea and the Forest: Making a Western Institution Indian One of the most important contributions anthropology has made to the scholarly study of globalization over the past few decades has been its emphasis on the complex and crucial ways that people around the world do not simply passively receive commodities and other phenomena that travel to their nations from the West. Instead, in fundamental and intricate ways, persons in any community always bring local cultural frameworks to bear, actively interpreting, appropriating, rejecting, and resignifying imported commodities, images, ideologies, and institutional forms. Anthropologists have variously termed such processes the “customization of foreign cultural forms,” the “indigenization of modernity,” and the “localization of the global,” arguing against any simple hypothesis that “globalization entails a cultural homogenization of the world.”1 India’s old age homes provide a revealing example of such important processes of customization. Those participating in India’s new old age homes are innovatively striving to maintain older needs, desires, and values while also producing and fulfilling , and sometimes resisting, new ones, wrestling strategically with what they see as the conditions of their modern society. When I first began this project, I myself thought of the old age homes in India as largely “Western”-style institutions. Historically, institutional care for the elderly has been predominantly a Western phenomenon, developing in Western Europe and North America beginning in the mid-1800s and gradually coming to be very widespread and normal, although never practiced universally, in these nations.2 This is also how so many of my informants, and so much of public and media discourse in India, often put it. “Old Age Homes Against Our Culture,” reads one representative newspaper headline, with the article moving on to report a government official in the southern state of Tamil Nadu proclaiming to a group of students that “the concept of old age homes reflects the impact of western culture” and asking the students to “take a vow that they would not leave their parents in old age homes” (The Hindu Staff Reporter, 2004). Retired 2-LAMB_pages_133-342.indd 133 5/13/09 3:35:26 PM Aging and the Indian Diaspora  psychiatrist and old-age-home resident Dr. Ranjan Banerjee asserted to me: “‘Old age homes’3 are not a concept of our country. These days, we are throwing away our ‘culture.’ The U.S. is the richest nation in the world and therefore has won us over.” Gradually, however, after delving further into my fieldwork, learning and thinking more about it all, and preparing several lectures on old age homes for Indian audiences in Kolkata, I began to realize profoundly how very Indian are the institutions in India, in really important ways. To make this judgment, one first needs to understand something about Western residences for elders. Although I have not done the same kind of anthropological fieldwork on elder residences in any Western nation as I have done in India, I have had quite a lot of informal experience in U.S. senior residential facilities. I volunteered for four years on Sunday mornings at one (Jewish Home for the Aged) while in college in Providence, Rhode Island. I then worked as the Activities Director at a nursing home in a small town in Maine for the year between college and graduate school. Now my own mother-in-law, with whom I feel very close, lives in a “retirement community ” in northern California (a fact that I would surely be embarrassed to admit in many contexts if I were in an Indian family). I have also long been interested in reading academic literature about and collecting brochures and media stories pertaining to senior residences in the United States. So, here I first present what I see as a few core aims of U.S. residential facilities for elders. I then move on to elaborate what I have come to understand as key, distinctly Indian values and aims embedded in the rising old age homes in India. The “Indian” cultural forms here, however, like the “Western” forms the Indians are engaging with, are of course not static; rather, both Western and Indian cultural forms take on new, hybrid meanings and shapes in a dialectical process of rich interplay, negotiation , and translation.4 This chapter’s examination thus seeks to counter simplistic arguments about “Westernization” versus “traditional identity” both in India and around the world, moving beyond simple binaries such as tradition and modernity, East and West, the local and the global, that...


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