Tuesday, September 14, 2010

India Explained ( just an attempt with all my humility:)

An American friend on a lecture tour recently found himself in a guest house dining table with fellow Indian diners. Half in jest, half mockingly he mentioned that, during the entire dinner the only word spoken by them to him was 'chapatti' (to pass it), as if it was his name!

Oops, he has absolutely missed it, in spite of being in India for almost 2 years now and having many close Indian associates. But then, not everyone is really interested in understanding culture and its under currents... its too woolly for some.

My thoughts on one hand were..., Indians are usually informal people, often finding it hard to resist curiosity induced over familiarity, over concern or even roadside gawking at a 'firangi'/ foreigner (just read its common in Japan as well). But this kind of spontaneous behavior is engaged in by those who are aware of some differences, are bothered enough to want to know more, and do not have close contacts with such foreigners. But, when at close contacts, Indians can get highly conscious, feeling unsure of themselves, their manners and behaviour and their language proficiency (especially the middle class, who can be acutely aware of the differences).

So my guess is that, silence at the dining table was due to the presence of a white stranger.

Further, the art of small time conversations about weather (or whatever else) is really not developed and refined in India. It is either the intimate talks about one's family, one's children, one's history, one's experiences, one's health, one's woes or nothing (Here who would be courageous enough to ask a young western male about his wife, children or salary ;).

Sharing of deepest secrets or having life-transforming interactions during a railway journey, is a common theme of many Indian stories in vernacular languages. These conversations, even if seeming intrusive to introverts like me, (along with the free advices) do have a background, a reason. They crop up from growing up in a neighbourhood, where everyone knew everyone, events in some one's life was every one's concern and even a visitor in the neighbourhood was talk of afternoon gossips.

But somewhere it was also a joint meaning making about ways of life ... common sense, learning about rules of life, of culture and even wisdom develops this way...

And this cultural habit makes it difficult for psychotherapists to stay that 'Freudian blank slate' and interprete every personal question from the client (heard it's especially difficult when both the client and the psychotherapist is from the small state Kerala). It is normal, culturally learned attempt by the clients, to locate the therapist in time and space, and in the process connect with her/him.

As they say poetically, 'baat nikali hai to door talak jayegi'... (once you start a topic, it will go much further ...). This brings me to the issue of communication. Generally Indians are communicative in a different sort of way. Not so many verbal 'thank you s and sorries'. When well-meaning western family therapists tried to build workshops on such interactions, seasoned Indian family therapists raised their hands... Nope! here it doesn't work like that. A lot of coding and encoding aspects of a communication, the expression of regret, gratitude, love, respect etc is done in terms of either non-verbal form, in actions (doing more than required) or verbally but indirectly (through use of metaphors, poetry etc).

Availability of Bollywood songs for every occasion, does come to rescue, as a rich poetic, dramatic culture. Direct, 'in your face' kind of communication is generally avoided, and often scope for face-saving is left for others.

I'm reminded of my interactions with my mom. If, mid way through an occasional argument, I realised my mistake/ over-reaction and gave her an understanding eye-contact, my mom would often burst into tears. Only arguments were fine, but that eye contact would make the moment so dynamic (that gaze with mix of my frustration, my confusion, my regret, my sympathy, my understanding of her vulnerability and her point of view), it used to change the entire situation. It was a joint acknowledgement of the situation, of our mutual perspective, and our anger, sadness along with the issue behind, would flow out with those tears.

I do look at a culture from either a neutral or even a positive point of view. Something which is prevalent, often has good enough reasons for being so. Even when change is required, first an empathic, compassionate understanding needs to be fostered.

I often wonder, the way fatalistic-acceptance leading to some sense of contentment, works for someone from a 'poor world'... conflict-avoidance can work for an intelligent someone, from an elite background, trying to bring change and development in the same 'poor world'. Both are preventive approaches to maintain that tenuous homeostatic balance of one's state of mind. Period! At times it is a matter of being in a privileged position to decide 'who' needs to change 'what' !!!

Regarding few other cultural ethos... another area of misunderstanding is that of boundaries.

They say, because of our population rate soon every third/fourth person on this planet would be an Indian (don't have the data;). On the other hand the proportion of the land is small (I do not know the exact figures). Thus, in a resource starved country, beaming with people, it is not a good survival strategy to make clear boundaries. Resources are shared generously, with and among close connections, often that of one's extended family, one's village or one's own clan/ caste, for functional reasons. So the boundaries are fluid and instead of everyone being protective of their own boundaries, people are expected to understand and respect each others boundaries instead of violating sacred space of another. And every one needs to adjust a bit. (Even altars are crowded spaces for who else but Gods who were expected to understand and adjust a bit 'swalpa'). Some social psychologists in India reported that high achievement motivation in an individual is a burden rather than an asset, when the the resources are few.

(Just found something worth reading on 'Perspectives on Space and Time' http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/life-style/spirituality/speaking-tree/Perspectives-space-time/articleshow/6539861.cms)

When there are few resources, an inter personally focused cultural tradition make the resources shared as per the need of hour and person, without neatly falling into capitalism vs. Socialism camp. And mother earth is glad for these eco-friendly ways.

The farther one goes away from metropolitan India a lot of these traditions are still alive, even if shrinking. In my growing up neighbourhood, the only one family in possession of a car was the one to generously provide emergency free cab, or occasional free fun ride, for an extended area beyond our neighbourhood.

In those days, houses were full of children of relatives staying over for studies. A bright child was often helped by everyone, in whichever way possible. Yes, partial orphans, were also provided foster / multiple parenting that way. My dad and his siblings grew up like that, and my dad himself continued this tradition by sharing responsibilities of educating many aunts, uncles and cousins, who stayed for short or long at our place.

Regarding frequent or occasional visitors ... unexpected visits were norms, and taking appointments for meeting someone was unthinkable (is still considered a bit cold and formal). Actually, unexpected visitors were expected! Mistress of the house would make sure that some extra food is cooked and ready for any such visitors... Some families (where they can afford), still continue this tradition.

Too many celebrations and too many festivals are not just one easy way out of work by a lazy population, as many people would prefer to think. (India can be unique in having a series of festivals for almost 6-9 months in a year, starting from August-September and ending only in March-April). Summers are holiday time for holidays:) (In West-Bengal they say, 12 months 13 festivals).

Even from an economic perspective they have have their own solid utility. But otherwise too they are good ways to connect a community. For an agrarian economy, or a nature connected society, it makes real sense to celebrate by looking for sacredness in everything, from changing seasons to occasions of planting and harvesting different crops. Those are the times, connected with various mythologies, and different Gods.

These Gods themselves are a language in itself, iconographically depicted various attributes, values and powers of nature or life itself.

Well, a culture which has been flexible enough to survive for so long needs to think hard and be little more clear about its changing goals and aspirations. Self directness increases happiness, but I have a suspicion it might be for goals and values other than money...

But in the end I also would like to say that India for that matter is complicated, a really multi-layered psyche. For example on one hand Indian culture is considered to be a moderately collectivist culture, focusing on family relationships on the other hand it is highly individualistic in its philosophies and existential quests and answers about the ultimate goals of life. Buddha walks alone...

But still in contrast to Western celebration of individuality and personal achievements (each one like a little prince or princess in oneself), historically East has celebrated harmony, in family, in society. From Jain philosophy of relativity of truth (Syadvad), to Buddhist middle path and avoidance of extremes to Vedantic saying that while there is one truth, the wise say it in multiple ways ('ekam satya, vipra bahuda vadanti'). And the Chinese philosophy of 'blending-in' and smoothing the rough edges and Japanese saying that a 'nail that sticks out gets hammered down'.
While times are changing, still, one can see these under currents in majority, if not everyone from a culture. One interesting idea is that the Western culture is influenced by Greeks myths and the long lasting fame of the winner, the 'hero'. Adventure and 'doing' is important. On the other hand, East looks at time as cyclical, where heroes come and go, achievements are transient and bubble like, wealth is slippery (along with godesses of Wealth;), contemplation and 'being' is important and so the pedestral is reserved for the wise sage, who knows the nature of reality.


In the end, it is as easy for me, as for you to have sampling errors in understanding what India and Indian values stand for, for the majority.

Still I would say, the well schooled, well read, well travelled and well interacted are few and far in between. And there are millions for every such special one. So our understanding of a culture has to be really based on more representative samples, not based on the rarest of the rare ones.


Keep this in mind and keep connecting the dots of your discreet observations!!!
Good luck!

(Btw, its fun knowing places and cultures with an affectionate loving viewpoint ... even the quirky idiosyncracies looks endearing. Check this out http://japanexplained.wordpress.com/)

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