I am confused. There is this phrase `Indian Cul ture’ we like to bring out to justify our warped beliefs and twisted, inhuman, brutal acts. There is this word `culture’ we hang on our pennants and brandish to the world to explain everything we do from why we eat with our hands [which is perfectly fine], to why we defecate in the open [which isn’t]. There is this mantra `Indian Culture’ that we hug to our many thousand-year-old bosoms and preen with the smug nonchalant expression of the cat that drank up the baby’s milk: it is the nature of a cat to do so. Take it or leave it, but this is who I am and will continue to be.
But what is our culture? Is it a mob attacking a family and killing a man because he is alleged to have eaten beef ? Is it shooting voyeuristic photographs of women in leggings and running it as a cover story?
Is it a group of priapic young men pouncing on a lone girl like a murder of crows on a baby mouse and tearing her to shreds? Is it as silly as a `mandoos’ man suing a hotel for not having a health faucet? Is it a bunch of right wing political parties extenuating each one of these crimes with a grudging `it is wrong, of course, but it is our Indian Culture to not eat beef, not to wear leggings or for women to not go out on their own late in the night, and of course, to wash our bottoms.’ The sub text being you will pay the price if you do not follow the diktats of what we believe is our ancient culture. But how can any value system be termed culture if it stays stagnant and ceases to grow?
What was once right may not be right anymore! Then there is the other and more frightening dimension. Where is it written that only men are the custodians of our culture? What makes it the man’s prerogative to appoint himself as the culture vigilante? Perhaps it is just me but I am yet to read about a mob of women who will attack a family for eating a particular kind of meat. I am yet to hear of a woman who will shoot pictures of the bulge in a man’s pants. I am yet to meet a group of women who will harass a man out on his own at night or do him bodily harm. So don’t women have a responsibility to uphold the cultural flame?
They do, but without the extremism that seems to enter the male cultural deacon’s efforts. Look around you, gentlemen, or better still, sit in a corner of your home for one full day and watch the women in your family and you will see for yourself what culture is truly about. It is your sister drawing a kolam in your front yard improvising on a design that your grandmother probably taught her, for culture is kept alive only by regular injections of fresh thought; it is your little daughter sharing her toy with your son because culture is about a generosity of spirit and deed; it is your wife cooking you fish even though she is a vegetarian herself because culture is about accepting a fundamental tenet of humanity: live and let live; it is your mother haggling with the vegetable seller without raising her voice or punching his nose because culture is about stating your point of view without violence or creating mayhem. It is your niece tending to her little garden of flowers and vegetables, for culture is also about nurturing and keeping; and sustaining what there is to make our lives better.
Gentlemen, you tell yourself that these are not life changing things. Women have always done them. But we men have larger issues to grapple with. Would you kindly explain to me what these larger issues are?
Moral policing? Caste politics? Milking the exchequer dry? Corruption? Working against the larger interest of the nation by turning politics into a power play?
Segregating the country into groups and forcing the rest to follow one belief system? Destroying nature to satiate your greed? And before you say it, women do all of these as well. There are women bootleggers and brothel keepers, women traffickers and smugglers; there are corrupt and power hungry women politicians; there are women who are a disgrace to world womanhood with their archaic thoughts on what an Indian woman must wear, do, say and show.[`No cleavage please, we are Indian’ being one of their favourite chants]. But somehow you men manage to out shadow the women when it comes to retrograde thinking. Just as in the Indian Parliament, your percentage is way above the seats reserved for women MPs.
So here it is, gentlemen, let me share with you what I think culture is all about. And as a woman, let me use a womanly metaphor to explain. Let us see culture as a silk sari which so embodies our pan Indian DNA.Like silk saris, culture needs to be washed periodically . Grime and rankness have a way of clinging to anything with time; that does not mean we wring away its very life. Instead, we treat it gently but with a sure hand and iron out the wrinkles that appear after the washing. Culture needs frequent airing for both silk and culture are organic and can survive only when allowed to breathe. Culture, just as silk saris, are not to be stacked up in the cupboards of our mind, but to be worn every day and be made part of our daily existence. And there is a time and place to play the culture card just as there is a time and place to wear a silk sari. So it may be prudent to wear a short dress on the beach, stride around in leggings on a morning walk, and yet choose to wear saris at other times.
Culture is mostly about being able to make a choice and not because it is demanded of us. So I will eat beef if I choose to and turn vegetarian if I want to. I will embrace both the occidental way of life and my Indianness for true Indian culture is about being catholic and expansive enough to accept and absorb multiple ways of thought and life. I will read the Bhagwad Gita, the Bible, the Guru Granth Sahib and the Quran. I will sing both carnatic music and strum a rock song on the guitar. I will not stuff my values down your throat and nor will I allow you to stuff your values down mine. I will live and let live. Culture exists to enhance my life; I do not exist to enhance culture.
I think of my little village Mundakotukkurussi where the population veers equally between Hindus and Muslims. Once upon a time there wasn’t any tension in the name of religion or culture. Neither the Hindu women adorned their foreheads with a beaconlike kumkum nor did the Muslim women hide under a burkah. What happened in the last ten years? In the name of culture, we are seeing an erosion of individuality and a sameness creeping in. The culture we so want to uphold is turning into a mask to condone religious intolerance.
Gentlemen and Ladies as well, culture does not come with a corollary -that one has to be at the cost of other. Instead a culture becomes richer and more textured by the more number of elements it is able to keep and safeguard with an openness that is not detrimental to democracy and equal rights. Is that so hard for us to understand or accept?