How to Make Traditions Work for You

Traditions can be the smallest things. The Spanish wearing red underwear at Christmas. A football team supported by generations of a family. Your grandmother’s curry recipe. Strawberries and cream at Wimbledon. Bonfires on Guy Fawkes Night. Carving pumpkins. Poppies on Armistice Day. The Scots and kilts. Telling stories around a campfire. A bride wearing white, or red, if she is Indian.

Scientists have discovered that animals, too, pass on traditions. For example, research showed that meerkats in neighbouring burrows kept different sleeping patterns that were passed down through the generations: one group consistently had a much longer lie in than the other. Chimpanzees have different cultural traditions that mean they pass on specific ways to find food, groom and communicate with each other.

Of course, rituals and shared histories are important to our sense of connection. They can be magical and heavy with meaning. But traditions are complex. They can envelop or alienate you, they can smother you or ground you. They can be watered down with outside influences until they are a pale imitation of themselves. They can be hijacked by those outside the culture, until their meaning is lost and their presentation is kitsch. They evolve as they are passed on from generation to generation, and their essence cannot be bottled, however much traditionalists might want to safeguard them.

Photo by Kamal Hamid

We are at a crossroads in time, when communities seem divided amongst multiple fault lines. The world is fraught with tension, as if we are at a point when humans are more aware of difference than what we have in common. It is true that traditions often provide a map of who we are, but they are not set in stone. I’d hope that we find a way to reject both inflexibility and homogenisation. That we find the confidence to allow traditions to be fluid rather than rigid.

I’m of Indian heritage, born in the UK. My grandparents were born in India and my parents were born in East Africa. My husband is German. We live with our family in London, but consider ourselves European. Globalisation might be a tricky beast, but I am proud of my pick ’n’ mix family, rooted across continents, fuelled by immigration and education, by opportunities to travel and by love. We follow the traditions that appeal to us, and have made some anew.

We’ve always had a Christmas tree, though we are not Christian. We open our presents on Christmas eve because that is how it is done in Germany. We celebrate with champagne and with sherbet, the pink milky concoction in Indian culture, which leaves almonds stuck in your teeth. We make room for Bollywood songs, ghazals, disco and arias at our family parties. Tabla – South Asian drums – are played, but so too are guitars, and even spoons. I have prayed in churches, in mosques and gurudwaras. The traditions of my forefathers are starting points. They are signposts that are enriched by influences that have found me by chance or design. Two things can coexist, without extinguishing the other.

There’s every reason to be hopeful about the future. With technology making the world a  smaller place, and tech companies investing in ways to help poorer communities get online, it stands to reason that there will come a day when distance and cultures will be less of a barrier, and that our families will be the tribes we choose to be a part of, not necessarily the ones we are born into.

Excerpt from Nillu’s debut novel, All the Tomorrows:

He smiled wryly, recognising the irony of being beholden to Muslim traditions when his mother scarcely practiced the faith. He knew she had found the social norms at the masjid alienating for single, unmarried mothers. A two-by-two culture pervaded. More than this, Arjun suspected the fierce independence of his mother clashed with the patriarchal society she found there. As a boy, he had rarely set foot inside a mosque; even less as an adult. Still, there had been times when he’d been taken ill in his childhood, that he remembered his mother muttering a prayer under her breath, an instinctive reversion to God whilst under stress. He’d thought hard about what form her final passage should take. In the absence of instructions to the contrary, he decided to proceed in the same mould as the funerals for his grandparents.

It had only ever been the two of them since he was a young boy. Though they had lived under the same roof as her parents until he was five, there had been no question that Arjun belonged to her alone. Even when he married Muna, his mother’s hold on him persisted, fortified by their shared experiences and confidences. No one competed with that.
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