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In search of ‘Indian culture’

In search of ‘Indian culture’
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First Published: Sat, Mar 07 2009. 12 30 AM IST

Cities within: (top) A couple sits on Marine Drive, Mumbai, on the eve of Valentine’s Day, when security was tightened because right-wing groups threatened to disrupt celebrations. Arko Datta / Reuter
Cities within: (top) A couple sits on Marine Drive, Mumbai, on the eve of Valentine’s Day, when security was tightened because right-wing groups threatened to disrupt celebrations. Arko Datta / Reuter
Updated: Sat, Mar 07 2009. 12 27 PM IST
I am at a Hindutva rally. I didn’t plan on being here. But Hosur, where Karnataka and Tamil Nadu meet, is a good place for a pit stop and coffee when you drive from Bangalore to Chennai. I sip my brew and notice a small crowd in the maidan (grounds) nearby.
Cities within: (top) A couple sits on Marine Drive, Mumbai, on the eve of Valentine’s Day, when security was tightened because right-wing groups threatened to disrupt celebrations. Arko Datta / Reuters; and a young girl in New Delhi holding a placard in support of Valentine’s Day. Manish Swarup / AP
I venture forth mostly to hear the oration, which is, if you ignore the content, quite wonderful. There is the standard, somewhat mind-bending opener in Tamil: “Elders, mothers, respected leaders on the dais.” And the kicker, “my blood’s blood”.
Rathathin rathame” sounds better in Tamil but I doubt that Barack Obama or Angela Merkel would begin a speech by referring first to elders and then playing on the blood-brother angle. 
Is that Indian culture?
A middle-aged man wearing what Tamilians call a minor chain—a thick gold confection that rests on his bushy chest—stands next to me. Every now and then, he looks quizzically at me, perhaps wondering what this lone lady in a salwar-kameez is doing in hinterland Hosur.
“When did the rally start?” I ask in Tamil.
The ice is broken. He smiles in relief. I am not an alien after all. We chat.
Later, the man with the minor chain, emboldened by my journalist’s pen poised to attention, gives me a list of things that are wrong with Indian culture today. His name is Selvam and we have adjourned to the Saravana Bhavan nearby. 
“You want to know why I joined the Sri Ram Sene?” Selvam begins and gives me the list that I am reproducing below:
1. Children are not listening to their elders.
2. Children are not wearing traditional clothes. Everyone is in jeans and “Muslim dresses” like the salwar-kameez.
3. Sari is dying.
4. What is worse, parents are not objecting to their children following Western culture. Fathers are giving sons drinks.
5. Wives are not respecting their husbands.
6. Boys and girls are freely mixing before marriage.
7. Women are not keeping traditions such as watering the tulsi plant for the well-being of the family.
8. Children talk back to adults.
9. Women in cut-piece clothes have become commercial objects. Even goddesses like Lakshmi are being used to sell liquor.
10. Last and the most important: Women are drinking and going to nightclubs.
Selvam wants to go deeper but he is hindered by my frowns and eye-rolls. We finish our masala dosas and leave. What rattles me is not what he has said, but the fact that we in “enlightened” urban India have no cohesive response. Instead, we are reactive and dismissive. When the sainiks usurp the culture debate, we disdain them as fringe elements. Or we play id to their superego; child to their parent. When they say, “Women can’t go to pubs,” we yell, “Yes, we will. Stop moral policing”, and launch the pink chaddi campaign. Unusual idea and a great piece of satire that serves to mock them, but can I get something more tangible? Something I can use against the Selvams of the world? Politicians call this “staying on message”.
What I need is a well-thought-out, clearly articulated dictum of what constitutes Indian culture; a list if you will; ammunition. So that when orators at a Hindutva meeting talk about Indian culture being screwed up, I can tell him that they are wrong. I can tell Selvam, “Indian culture is not just about wearing jasmine in the hair. It is X, Y, and Z.”
I need to know what that X, Y and Z are. Call it norms and mores that all of us outraged urban Indians agree upon. Mere anger isn’t enough. I need a strategy.
I need what Ruth Benedict called “patterns of culture”, a set of qualities—aesthetics, values and common personality traits—that make up Indian society’s gestalt. Gestalt is the favourite term of cultural anthropologists. It is all fascinating stuff and the people I tend to agree with are Benedict, Alexander von Humboldt and Adolf Bastian. Look them up if you wish. The problem is that culture is a vast topic; a maze if you will. Just figuring out if chimpanzees have culture can take a lifetime and that is usually where I get stuck. But all that stuff is not relevant to the question at hand, which is: Is there any such thing as Indian culture and, if so, what is it?
More and more, it seems, we urban Indians are refusing to be bound by a common culture. We live and let live, you and I—fellow travellers through the concrete jungles and shifting ideas of Mumbai, Delhi and Bangalore. We can’t agree on whether we will call our cities Mumbai or Bombay; Chennai or Madras. We are gypsies, refusing to affiliate ourselves to traditional notions of caste, religion and routine. We mix rock ‘n’ roll with rajma-chaawal; tuxedo with temple. The twin angels of convenience and impulse effectively submerge the seeming contradictions in our lives. Unlike our parents, who have a set of values that they all agree upon, we live by what Bastian called the “psychic unity of mankind”. We may fast during Lent, Karva Chauth and Ramzan but religion and rituals are usually an afterthought in our professional, idea-driven lives. We have more in common with the executive in Brussels than the mechanic in Bathinda. Or do we? Can we discount geography and a shared culture that easily? Do ideas trump history and heritage?
I’d like to think that there is something called Indian culture, but increasingly I am being told that there is no such thing. When I suggest that the Mangalore pub attacks are because of a cultural disconnect, my best friend from college—a Kannadiga herself—calls me clueless. “Mangalore was about frustration, cynicism and a soft target,” she says. “Please ask this same (Pramod) Muthalik if he will go to a brothel and beat up the men instead of giving me platitudes like ‘oh, we must be tolerant’.”
My neighbour, who routinely riles me with his flippant comments, says Indian culture is about “repressed sexuality, spices and software”.
Historian Ramachandra Guha offers a more nuanced response. He says there is “a plurality of cultures in India”, which cannot be “homogenized under a single rubric”. In a fundamental historic sense, Guha is absolutely right. I recognize that. Yet something in me cannot buy his argument fully. Cultures do evolve, but until very recently, they have done so at a glacial pace. India (and indeed most other cultures) have changed far more in the last 50 years than they have done in the last thousand. So I stutter and stammer and tell him that. We go back and forth spiritedly and then Guha quotes noted Kannada writer Shivaram Karanth who, among other things, saved the Yakshagana tradition of dance from near oblivion. Karanth questioned the idea of talking about Indian culture as if it were a monolithic thing. Sure, the roots of Indian culture are ancient, said Karanth, but it “is impossible to say surely what is native and what is alien, what is borrowed out of love and what has been imposed by force. If we view Indian culture thus, we realize that there is no place for chauvinism”.
“Yes, but,” is my knee-jerk reaction, and I’ll tell you why in a bit. More relevant to Karanth’s lyrical description, was I being chauvinistic? Could a feminist be chauvinistic about culture?
What is Indian culture? Do any of you know? It’s an honest question. When I think of Indian culture, several words come to mind: pluralism, oral poetry, the Vedas, spicy food, respect for elders, putting out for guests, hierarchy, the caste system, our hypocrisy towards women—at once goddess and geisha—colour, Raga Bhairavi, the curves of our dances and okay, I’ll say it, Kama Sutra, monolithic carvings, paddy fields, contradictions such as Slumdog Millionaire, Bollywood tunes, colourful fabric, polytheism, Hindu-Muslim clashes, arranged marriages. Are these just words or do they constitute an umbrella that for lack of a better word, we can call culture? And why am I clinging to this notion when most others seem comfortable with shifting frames? I think it is because of this: Cultures in the past were like icebergs—they moved slowly. Today, cultures all over the world are changing at warp speed and urban cultures appear more similar than different. A few countries—Japan and France come to mind—have been better at not just taking pride in their culture but also preserving and exporting it. But most other nations, particularly in the emerging markets, have put culture on the backburner and focused on more urgent issues such as GDP growth and employment. So what do we do? Should we just throw up our hands and say: “Cultures change, kid. Buddhas get blown up. Shit happens. Get used to it.” Or should we attempt to slow things down, I know not how.
“Ma,” I announce. “I am going to save Indian culture.” My mother replies that I am not qualified to talk about culture considering I don’t even light the lamp in our puja room every morning.
I am quite used to being told I am wrong. Happens every day. My kids say it; even my dog stares disapprovingly at me. In most cases, I rationalize. I cling to some woeful point, some obtuse nuance and tell myself that my sparring partners just don’t get it. In this case however, given that friends, family, interview sources and even my mother are suggesting the same thing, I am forced to confront a disquieting thought: Perhaps I really am clueless; perhaps there is no such thing as Indian culture.
Now to the Freudian backstory: Three years ago, I moved from Manhattan to Singapore to Bangalore for a variety of reasons but also because we wanted our kids to grow up with Indian culture. Maybe that is why I am so resistant when people say there is no fixed notion of what constitutes Indian culture. Hell, I moved continents to experience Indian culture and now you tell me that it is a chimera? And maybe I am a minority in this regard, but I find myself distressed at the speed with which we Indians are borrowing from the West instead of taking pride in what we have (like the Japanese). Typical NRI sentiment, I know, and maybe it is. But having been an NRI for nearly 20 years, I find that the diaspora has a stronger sense of Indian culture than those of us living here. A warped sense to be sure—most of them freeze India at the point when they left it—but they struggle to maintain and pass on “Indian culture” to their children. Does distance breed clarity? Who would know?
I call the ministry of culture. Surely, they will know. I dial down the line of phone numbers listed on the website. “Hello, I am a journalist who writes for Mint and I would like to know what Indian culture is. Could I please speak to Mr E.K. Bharat Bhushan, the joint secretary?” I say. Mr Bhushan is not here, is the response. Mr Jawahar Sircar is in a meeting. Mr Goel is out of town. Finally, I get someone called Sharma who seems to know what he is talking about. “Sharmaji,” I say earnestly, “can you please tell me what Indian culture is?” 
“Madam, I am in civil aviation. I know nothing about culture. Please contact Mr Lov Verma,” he replies.
Culture, I agree, is a nebulous concept; a slippery slope that morphs with time and place. Tangible to some; intangible to others. If you asked eminent Indian classical singers such as Ashwini Bhide or Aruna Sairam, or my college classmate, the renowned Bharatanatyam danseuse Urmila Satyanarayana, what Indian culture is, I wager they will tick off a list on their fingers. They are living culture in the etymological sense: from the Latin root “cultura” which comes from “colere”, which means “to cultivate”. It is harder for the rest of us who aren’t steeped in Indian arts to grasp what our culture is.
Yes, Karanth is right, India is a layered culture. We have begged, borrowed and been inflicted upon. But surely, that is true of most cultures in this global age. India isn’t that different from other colonial countries or even from the US and Canada, which claim to be a “melting pot” and “salad bowl”, respectively. To paraphrase the American poet Walt Whitman, all of us nations “contain multitudes”. Yet, does that mean we have no unified cultural identity?
I dislike using the word “should”, but I’ll make an exception in this case because I care so deeply about this idea. I think we should have a cultural identity. Not in a prescriptive sense but in a reflective sense. By that I mean that no one—not Muthalik, not me—should prescribe what Indian culture is, but that somebody, some coalition, needs to dig deep and find out what is reflected in our Indian culture. Right now, we only see ripples without reflection, both metaphorically and literally.
Just as mono no aware (empathy towards things) and wabi-sabi (rustic simplicity) are key concepts towards understanding Japanese culture; just as restraint is a hallmark of the Pueblo people and exuberance, of the Brazilians; just as individualism is a key component of the American psyche and “stiff upper lip” stoicism, of the British, we Indians need to know who we are. This applies especially to urban Indians and among them, most especially to the young and middle-aged among us. Our parents have a fairly good idea of Indian culture. More relevant, their ideas are shared. It is us youngsters who don’t have a clue. Okay, so it is I who don’t have a clue, but hey, cut me some slack, okay, and join the ranks.
If we have a cultural template that we agree upon; a loose list that can differentiate the Indian constellation from the Milky Way that is globalism, then I think we have a chance of discrediting and discounting the Muthaliks from hijacking the cultural high ground. We need to have a cultural blueprint to work with; one that we all agree upon, at least in principle if not practice. Until then, we are doomed to debate on their terms, not ours.
PS: As for Mr Lov Verma at the ministry of culture, I never could reach him. But to be fair, I didn’t give them much time to respond. One thing though: Even the ministry of culture’s website has no reference to what might constitute Indian culture. Forget a definition, this one doesn’t even allude to it.
Write to lounge@livemint.com
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First Published: Sat, Mar 07 2009. 12 30 AM IST