Politics in India: External Perfection, eternal pursuit
Warning: This is a rambling article. Not edited. It is not intended to present any argument, but wander in ideas. What you feel as you read it is probably more important than the sense it makes.
I had tweeted once “Where we once had reformers, we now have activists”. That sentence has stayed in me and spawned a thousand trains of thought. I have written about how Western Standards in India are actually creating cultural orphan out of our country. The goal, the vision of perfection is something in another place. Something with different roots and we are proceeding to divorce our roots and plant ourself into a different soil while desperately wanting to be ‘native’ to it.
Somewhere along the lines, we have swallowed so much bullshit, that we have no clue on who we are, what we want and what we think of the world we live in. Thus, our whole understanding of ourselves is based on “ideals” fed to us that are based on what someone in some other place thinks. Our whole ability to think for ourselves is diminished. It appears we are powerless and have no voice, but in reality, we have no clue what to do with what voice we do have.
Indian society has reinvented itself time and again. It has been a flexible, adaptive culture that has flown around obstacles and assimilated them, in the process creating something that is uniquely Bharatiya – Indian (now – post independence). Today, we are a brittle, suspicious society overwhelmed with influences and little capacity to reinvent ourselves around them. Where our adaptability could have set a new paradigm for the world, we are letting it go ourselves and entering an increasingly narrow minded way of thought that is actually quite alien in the way we apply it.
The difference is that our change now is determined by someone outside us. An activist fights for a cause. A worthy one (hopefully). The deciding that the cause is worthy is determined by the activist in choosing to engage and the needy people get “helped” by such interventions. The subject of the activism is ‘presented’ or whatever BY someone else. We speak of empowering the poor, the tribals, the this, that and the other. Yet, our media usually overlooks local change agents in favour of someone who will put it in a language we understand – someone usually not suffering the cause.
India went through a harsh struggle with social reform when we abolished sati or encouraged widow remarriage (for example). The reformers were part of society. They chose not to marry young girls, to marry widows, to talk about it, set an example and shape the society they lived in. It was effective – to put it mildly.
There is a behavioral learning method called T-Groups where people learn from interaction, one important learning that comes up is that it is addressing and working with the “here and now” that causes change. Experience also made it evident that “here and now” is the MOST difficult to address, because it requires us to be vulnerable. To change right now means admitting that what we are doing is not working. To try something different, which may work, or we may fail (oh the horror!). There is a loss of “perfection”, which is getting more and more unbearable with time, because we have started investing our very identity on an external image. On how we appear, how we are seen, followed, admired, appreciated, loved, etc. To admit that I am jealous of someone, for instance exposes me as a person who is jealous, which is not the “gold standard”. The approved way to be is to be above such “petty emotions”, while the jealousy taints all our interaction with subtle attacks. It is recognizing what is going on with self that triggers change. We are the only people we can change. Each of us can only change himself or herself.
This activism is also a symbol of that. I am not saying activism is bad. I am saying that the total disappearance of reform and the extensive noise around activism is basically the sound of a society busy fixing the world for others, while the real risk – of looking at my own role in contributing to this, or other messes that are more immediately relevant to my life can be turned away from by “not noticing” it by “being absorbed” in fighting for what is right – for someone else.
A facilitator I respect deeply often asks just as a group gets really intense on debating something. “By looking at this, what are we avoiding looking at?”. It holds as true for a group of people learning together in a room as it does for a society, country and our world. It is a question worth asking when some news story occupies media to the oblivion of all else. By looking at this, what are we avoiding looking at? By spending all our energies, intent and attention on things that ‘fix’ someone else’s life, what is it that we are depriving of attention. What is it that we are actively, though unconsciously blocking change in?
We have, as a group, as a society, as a country, and possibly as a world begun jumping from ideal to norm without the change that should be in middle. As in, when we consider something ideal or desirable, we start imagining that that is our reality. That is what is normal for us. We are essentially the same people. We only have started ignoring anything that doesn’t fit our new claim of reality. With time, we get better at the pretense, but our hidden “oldness” is still there, just hidden.
Feminism is the new “in” thing. So we are all feminists, and who are these strange patriarchal people raining on our ideal world where no one gropes at women? We have found the ideal, and quite forgotten to do it, but we imagine that it is already true. These people are not what our “real” rights are. They are the squatters. We have this right to not be groped. But wait. When had the world stopped groping women? It has always been that world, we imagine it is not, and now we are ready to file call up customer care over this shoddy service. “Consumers” of law and order and democracy and rights and everything. Not doers. Not fixers. Not change agents.
Thus, we have a country where discrimination on the basis of caste is banned. Yet, we have laws and policies and a thousand other things specifically on the basis of caste (we didn’t realize that these are manifestations of caste and will need to be hidden). We have horrendous violence based on caste, which we cannot address, because we are busy pretending that we don’t practice the caste system, so where do we apply the fix? Those people are “criminals”. They are not the real India.
We have similar narratives around the dowry system, child labour, female foeticide, sexual abuse….. Its not us. Its a few people who are animals, the exception.
We do this with our desires too. We fear our own sexuality. We dress in a manner that is not “provocative” we tell ourselves, but heck, most of the time, its not even attractive. We wish we had an easy grace around the people/objects of our desire. We wish we had their attention, but of course, we fear to risk making a fool of ourselves in trying to get it. Then, we grudge everyone who is able to achieve it. A student getting a lot of attention from a favourite teacher becomes a “chamcha” because he had the sweetness to carry a few books for her. A girl who is adored by guys is a slut.
We build all these stereotypes as somehow less worthy than us to console ourselves that those people may have what we desire, but we are somehow better, we win.
How are these things related, you ask? They are, because they arise from a fundamental problem – we have no clue what to do with ourselves. Our identity is defined externally. We are fine with defining another’s identity and are fine seeing it defined by a convenient source or oppose it defined by an inconvenient source. It is the new normal – self-identity can be defined by anything except the self. If someone dares to define themselves, they are viciously attacked. It is too scandalous, too threatening, too much of a mirror into what is missing in our life. It cannot be allowed.
I am often called a rebel, when half the time, I couldn’t care less about what the world is up to, let alone challenge it. In a conflict that arises, I take the easiest path, including cowardice, simply because I am eager to get back to what interests me, which is not what the world thinks and says. The same people also call me a doormat because of this. Go figure. “The doormat who rebelled?” They are simply unable to comprehend that I don’t need to measure myself against the world to be meaningful.
We have desires that we deny because they aren’t approved by some external authority. We have our realities that don’t match some external standard. It is the root for everything from domestic abuse to Kashmir. Domestic violence would be far less, if people didn’t think one of them could decide what the other is or should do. Kashmir would be a total non-issue if we didn’t have a stand and instead chose to look at what irreplacable personal meaning it has for us, if any and what makes sense in the situation, rather than see us as pro, anti, etc and then act accordingly.
Last year, I attended a workshop by Shankar and Wasundhara on the Shadow Aspect as described by Carl Jung. The workshop began with us making a list of what we were and what we were not. Just…. long lists of words. Descriptors. Out of a group of about 10-15 people, not a single person had written something along the lines of “male/female”, “age”, “relation – son, daughter, mother, sibling, etc”, “Nationality or state – Indian/Goan/Bihari/etc” …. blank. Lists had stuff like “creative”, “honest”, etc – qualities we can claim credit for. Nothing we didn’t earn. Mostly, not even things like “beautiful/handsome” <– though a couple of people did write these. The only real exception on the missing aspects list was the one thing we do earn, but is too much a measure to judge us by – it was “rich/poor”. Not a single person wrote this, or anything to lead or even imply their financial measure.
Yet, when people see me, they see a middle aged woman with an infant on her hip. They respond accordingly. I have trained myself to see me as this asexual, ageless, child of the world. Generic. When I am far more flavoured. I see an old man walking down the street, and I see a young man on the street corner, or a smartly dressed man with flowers in his hand looking at an expensive watch as he leans against an expensive car. I “feel” them differently. I am more or less favourable to them on the basis of that one glance and perception alone – even if I never speak with either or see them again. It is a deeply personal and unique response. The person I am favourable to may not be another’s liking. Much as I pretend that they are all equal, they are not. My pretending only makes me totally dysfunctional at understanding my own actions around them, which then become inexplicable, much like abuses on low castes become inexplicable when we deny any difference between them and us.
We are completely unaware of ourselves as a whole for the most part. We are unaware of the qualities in us that we aren’t trying to acquire or hide. We are unaware that we respond to qualities in others that we wouldn’t be caught dead noticing. We don’t admit it. Not even to ourselves. I may pretend to treat everyone equally, but chances are, I’ll probably speak longer with a man with a certain height or color of skin or woman with a certain hairstyle….. whatever my personal prejudice tells me is a better person than another. It is real, but I am so intent on claiming to be “just” that I am not even aware that a certain kind of voice in a man appeals to me, or a certain quality in a woman makes me trust her – without any further information about the person. It is my “like”.
Not acknowledging that difference doesn’t make it go away. If we really want to get rid of it, we will have to learn to recognize ourselves acting on it, and examining if the automatic response is how we want to be. An activist or anyone else can’t do it. It has to be lived. It can be role modeled. Twenty speeches on equality can be replaced by one party where a high caste reformer sits and eats at a low caste person’s house, tickles his kids and helps his wife carry trays of food (No, not the Rahul Gandhi version). To live it, and stand without allocating any blame, simply as an example that it isn’t the end of the world if this barrier breaks. Change happens slowly, not as a demand, not as a ruling. Imposition generates resistance and fear. Judgment brings about contempt.
Does a patriarchal person really hate feminists or they hate their whole belief system being trashed without examination and a general prescription to think in a different manner to be respectworthy? It is like trashing them as a person, no? Is the resistance a determination to enslave women or a resistance to a threat to their very legitimacy – not from the empowerment of women, but from it being proof of their uselessness? Can both be true at the same time? Does one party have to be innocent for us to sleep at peace in the night? How many shades of grey exist between black and white?
This fear is a big thing in our society. I suspect that it has its origins in our society pretty much prostrating its spirit before the British. And the education system, that took the reputation of pursuit of knowledge and applied it to manufacturing templates for clerks. We are either belligerent or subservient – never independent. We take that habit and apply it to all authority figures.
We live in such fear of that external standard, that even as there is research recommending squat type toilets as being healthier, toilets in cities in India are becoming western. Its difficult to find a hygenic design of toilet in an expensive restaurant and seeing how they don’t clean it after every use (and that we don’t know how well they clean). <– Men may not think this is a big deal.
India is possibly unmatched in the sheer number of intellectuals it has given the world. Yet, India pretty much waits to get the memo in defining any standard. This seems to be serving our foreign policy well, though, because we are a tremendous boost to the egos of our allies. “Such a vast country willing to do as we tell them. Really, India is an upcoming power”. It is an intellectual colonization.
Our self-esteem now requires that “western mark” so instinctively, that a gazzillionaire can still not wear a comfortable cotton lungi to his office. The suit will feel uncomfortable as hell, but wearing something more suited to the weather will not “feel right”. Like I often say, Gandhi would violate the dress code in most restaurants in the country he fathered.
These are meaningless distinctions on a practical level. It truly doesn’t matter if you squat or sit to shit. They don’t add any particular value to our lives. They require considerable re-designing of ourselves from our roots. To what purpose? What is this invisible value that we have attached to them?
Note: I will likely be editing this article to address any incoherence in a few days when I am in a more detached mood.