Have you ever wondered why, in contrast to the West, people in India rarely admire, only revere, a person? Or, when you stop a person on the street to get directions, they may proceed to give them even when they may have no idea about the place? Or, on the flip side, why at the office, once our faith in the leadership is instilled, we are willing to forego our personal space and slog well past the closing hour and into our weekends?
Simply put, it is because we are Indian.
Ask Sudhir Kakar and he will tell you that it flows from one word: familyism. Or, so he writes in his new book, The Indians, Portrait of a People, co-authored with his wife, Katharina Poggendorf-Kakar. Regardless of our individual cultural heritage (18 official languages and 350-odd dialects), in more instances than we can imagine, our family roots, they say, hold the key to our Indianness and have come to define the institutions around us—whether it be government, the firm or political parties.
While Kakar is a psychoanalyst and a prolific writer—having published 16 books of non-fiction and four of fiction—his wife is a writer and a scholar of comparative religion.
Combining their western and Indian perspectives, they have psychoanalysed India as it exists today and hint at the changes that are underway. They argue that the “culture in which an infant grows up constitutes the software of the brain” and, in turn, influences his or her responses as an adult. “Once someone has grown up in a particular culture and, let us say, is 20 years old, he will never acquire a full understanding of other cultures since the brain has passed through the narrow bottleneck of culturalization.”
But, as Kakar says, with globalization and the country’s economic upsurge, many of the paradigms are up for change.
The notion of joint families is already falling apart as urban space and lifestyle preclude such a social arrangement. With women now on the move, many conventional equations are being redefined—not the least the one between husband and spouse and the mother-in-law. The father is no longer the distant figure that we would revere, in fear and awe.
And once proximity sets in, the earlier charisma fades and will, presumably, be replaced by something else.
Female sexuality—and the acceptance, in fits and starts, of alternate sexuality—too is undergoing an unprecedented overhaul. As Kakar says: “All social change in India is led by women. The biggest driver of change has been the acceptance of education of women. They have not got this by fighting for their rights, but through acceptance by men. So it is natural to expect that as women emerge, they will start making demands with both the mind and the body.” What does it augur for the future of India as it opens up culturally and economically to the world? Will we be McDonalized? Will we become a hedonistic society like the Romans?
Kakar believes that at present, India is in ferment and is yet to settle down. Going by its history of such exposures, it is clear that the India we know will change by accepting something new, but rejecting wholesomely too.
The challenge, as Kakar tells me, will be in managing the balance—redefining the familial relationship without unduly disturbing social balance. “The institution that we have kept very well is the family. Because this has absorbed so much energy, we have neglected other institutions. Now, if we have to divide our energies then we have to balance the two extremes.”
So next time you walk down the street and ask a passer-by for directions, don’t be surprised if he or she actually put up their hands and say they don’t know. Or better still, actually gives you the right directions. It is, after all, the new India.