Sean Gilhooly Speaks on his Inter-cultural Experience

Sean Gilhooly Speaks on his Inter-cultural Experience

FSL India has given to me is the opportunity to gain a unique insight into life in an Indian family which remains the country’s most powerful institution



When FSL India coordinator asked me to write this piece on my inter-cultural experience in India, my first thoughts were about editorship in the sense of what to include and what to leave out. For the article you are about to read would have been far longer if I had included all of my inter-cultural experience. It seems to be that since my arrival in India some three months ago that I have been saturated by such experience.

Perhaps the most important thing FSL India has given to me is the opportunity to gain a unique insight into life in an Indian family which remains the country’s most powerful institution. This power does not just reside within the nuclear family but stretches outwards and includes grandparents, uncles, aunties and cousins. This unity is expressed through the language they use to address one another. For example cousins are often addressed as cousin brothers or sisters. Likewise symbolic gestures such as touching the feet of elders are used to convey respect. These bonds transcend the towns and villages and cover huge geographical spaces, forming powerful networks that can be called upon in times of both need and celebration. This contrasts vividly with my own British culture where the nuclear families often become isolated from the extended family. This I believe makes the family more fragile and therefore more likely to break. In my time with the Savithri Erappa family, I have enjoyed going to the temple to celebrate a special religious day. I was also lucky enough to be invited to celebrate the Coorgi festival of Puthari which is a yearly harvest festival. Food of course plays a major role in Indian family life and I have enjoyed a wide range of dishes, which include both the traditional and those which are unique to the Coorgi tribe.


India plays host to all of the world’s major religions. It seems to me that barely a day passes that does not have some kind of religious significance. Of course religion chiefly supports people’s religious needs, but it also enables greater social cohesion as it binds people together with shared values and beliefs. In my short time in Kushalanagar, I have been able to bear witness to this collective spirit. For example there was a death in the local village, people came from all around to pay their respects to the dead man and to offer support to the family. Likewise in my role as a teacher in Melinda School which is situated in the village of Koppa, I have been able to feel of this collective power. On one occasion the school heard the sad news that one of their ex-pupils had ran away from home. On hearing this news, my fellow teaches and I got into the school bus and went to the village to offer comfort to the family.


A more positive example was when I was asked by one of my pupil’s father to attend a village celebration. This celebration was in honour of his daughter-in-law who was eight months pregnant, and was returning to her native village to give birth to her child. In this celebration the whole village and we all enjoyed a huge feast. I felt greatly honoured to be included amongst the guests. Without doubt my favourite cultural experience so far was the cultural day at Melinda school. On this day the children performed no less than 35 different acts, which involved singing, dancing, comedy and drama. This day was heavy with symbolism as one could see the collective consciousness being kept alive as the children performed old folk songs and dances that had been transmitted to them by their teachers and parents. In contrast these acts shared the stage with songs and dances that celebrated a modern vibrant India. This show was witnessed by a crowd of some five hundred people that included parents, V.I.Ps and teachers. These experiences showed me how the school and the wider community come together to support one another.


Once again this sharply contrasts to my own culture where community spirit has been replaced by rampant individualism. Someone once compared an Englishman’s home to a castle one may say that today it resembles a comfortable dungeon. Families in Britain often prefer to lock themselves away from the wider community and instead seek social pleasure through the TV or the internet. In Britain from an early age we are told not to talk to strangers. Whereas, in India the old saying about a stranger being a friend you have not met seems to be very much in vogue.


In conclusion one of the things that struck me most about India culture is both its strength and perhaps paradoxically its porous nature. What I mean by porous is that it takes only a little effort to penetrate into it. This is greatly aided by the fact that the people want you to enter into their culture, to both enjoy it and to learn from it. I am also aware that I often have used generalisations in the course of this work. I did this mainly to simplify points, which enabled me to give a brief overview of some of the many cultural experiences I have enjoyed over the last three months. Therefore, it seems important to stress that although both the family and the wider community seem weaker in Britain, there are pockets of resistance. These pockets are often found in social economical deprived areas, rural towns and villages and also within Britain’s many ethnic minorities. Likewise it would be wrong to paint India as a utopia while failing to recognise the harmful effects of caste, corruption, religion, poverty and various other agents that often act against social cohesion. In my remaining time in India, I am sure that I will enjoy a constant stream of cultural experience, from which I hope to gain both great pleasure and knowledge. 



Sean Gilhooly

FSL India Volunteer from England

Comments are closed.