Home >opinion >online-views >What Taboos reveal about India and the West

It is often said that in talking to people, what is said is important but that what is not said is equally revealing. In some ways, the same applies to cultures. In many ways, India and the West take opposite ends of many cultural dimensions. Individualism versus collectivism, a linear versus a circular concept of time, god as transcendent versus god as immanent, etc. But one of the most fascinating juxtapositions is what India and the West hide and reveal about the beginning and the end of our lives as humans.

In the West, the beginning of life or sexuality is a visible and integral part of public life and society. Surely, there are differences between western countries. In French advertising, almost every conceivable product is sold using scarcely dressed women. The French are also famously relaxed about the extramarital affairs of their heads of state. The Americans are not. Italian television sometimes resembles a beauty parade, where the content of some programmes is so flimsy that they seem made just as an excuse to put god’s best female creations on prime time television. German television is more restrained. But over the years, the big taboos in this area have been more or less resolved and sensuality is no longer hidden or the topic of only hushed conversations. This is liberating. But as freedom comes with responsibility, it also puts the burden on the individual to decide his or her own position on the issue. This is not always easy as some people take it to visible extremes which can be distorting, especially when confronted with it at a young age.

In India, almost the exact opposite is the case. Eroticism is mostly hidden. Even the most provocative Bollywood dance videos lack evidence of true emancipation. Dancers are often going through the motions of the real thing, but do not express an actual, deeper, lived liberty and deep experience with it. For the casual observer, the big theme of the beginning of life and the social rituals that come with it are practically invisible, making Indian public life a bit sterile compared with many western countries. There is no casual bodily contact, little flirting or exploratory talk, little playful interaction that could even hint at potential close encounters. With a population of 1.2 billion people, we can be sure that something is happening. It is just sealed of from public life.

A similar comparison holds for the end of life. In the West, death is hidden. Decay is plastered away. Old buildings are maintained to look like new. Cars have few scratches. Faces are lifted. Butts are botoxed. Wrinkles are nourished away with creams. Cosmetics companies sell hope, as the founder of Revlon once said. And that hope is always centred around the promise of postponing death and extending juvenility. As Westerners generally do not believe in reincarnation, death is considered the end of it all. Hence death is surrounded with fear and resentment. We try to remove it from daily life as much as possible, in all its forms. We just console ourselves with the fact that without death, there would not be life either.

In India, it is again the other way around. Indians do not love death either, of course, but are certainly much more relaxed about it. Perhaps even more mature. In India, decay happens in plain sight, to the point of irreverence, even indifference. Buildings are crumbling, cars are patched up, every product has a second or a third life. The consequence is sometimes that India’s beautiful architectural heritage, for instance, is under-maintained. Delhi, for instance, is in part an open air museum, much like Rome or Florence, where a bit more of fighting decay would be do wonders for local pride and tourism. On the other hand, one of my colleagues from Amsterdam recently visited and went on a train journey from Delhi to Agra. A few hours after she left, she called me to say she was standing next to a funeral site where big fires were lit for the dead along the river, in plain sight and open to everyone. While perhaps shocking at first, especially if one comes from a society that conceals death, this openness can be liberating also.

Where the West is focused on the beginning of life and tries to hide the end, India conceals the start but embraces the final. We are relaxed and uptight in opposite ways, both perhaps unnecessary. The beginning and the end mark two sides of the same coin—the birth and death of our physical form. Yet, they have different meanings also. Perhaps in the West, embracing sexuality gives us a sense of control, we influence creation. A focus on the end marks a more introverted and philosophical view, where we are more accepting of the futility of our efforts and of our debt to life itself. In the final analysis, India and the West could perhaps learn a great deal by understanding and learning from each other’s ways of dealing with the beginning and the end. It is after all a topic that, one way or another, affects us all.

Tjaco Walvis is the managing director of brand consulting and advertising agency THEY India, and a speaker at the Outstanding Speakers’ Bureau. He writes a fortnightly column on the softer cultural aspects of marketing that often tend to be ignored by marketers.

Subscribe to newsletters
* Enter a valid email
* Thank you for subscribing to our newsletter.

Click here to read the Mint ePaperLivemint.com is now on Telegram. Join Livemint channel in your Telegram and stay updated

My Reads Logout