Friday, January 30, 2009

Indian Culture


I was watching the attacks in the Mangalore pub on TV. In earlier days, when I was feisty and change-the-world, this would have earned a nice long blog post all by itself. Not that it makes me any less angry now, but I've sort of given up ranting on subjects I'm going to do nothing about. I'm also a little weary of people who send me email forwards about Sri Lanka while acting mean to everyone else around them. They remind me of the lady in The Catcher in the Rye who cries for a scene in the movie but will not take the kid next to her to the bathroom. This is not to say that you ought to wash your hands off the world. But merely agreeing to be angry in little cliques changes nothing.

But I can rant about what I can change. That's allowed. So when I was watching the Mangalore attacks and listening to these Ram Sene people vowing that they were doing their duty by saving Indian Culture from the corrupting influences of the West, I was reminded of the conversations and snarly email exchanges at my workplace. Culture, somehow, has become a thing of the past, something that remains beautiful because it is veiled from the present. I had to struggle quite a bit to include the contemporary section in the revamped magazine. Contemporary stories are, apparently, not part of Indian Culture because well, how can children learn the Right from the Wrong in this godless age? I have nothing against mythology- on the contrary, I read as much of it as I can because I delight in ambiguity. I love the same tale recast in several moulds. I love folk tales and the whole Akbar-Birbal witticisms. But I cannot see why contemporary writing should be treated with disdain just because it is set in the here and now of things.

I watched Slumdog Millionaire on Monday. I loved the O Saya song in which the kids race from the airport to their homes in the slums. This is perhaps one of the not-okay scenes for those branding the film as 'selling poverty to the West'. And yet, the mood of the song does not dwell on the squalor. The filth is in the background, something that the children hardly notice in their mad, joyous scramble to safety. This is not to romanticize poverty at all- I think the film had enough gut-wrenching material ('feel good' movie it certainly isn't, improbable perhaps) to demolish such notions. Instead, what I found interesting was the script's genuine attempt to engage with the children's reality. The fact that Salim tells Jamal he dropped a sitter- the noisy plane that flies over Jamal's head is of no significance to the cricketers because it is the everyday, the unremarkable- shows an understanding of their lives and their realities. Cricket everywhere, cricket anywhere is a scene that we are all familiar with and it's not surprising at all that the audience unanimously cheers for the players, no matter how many rules they break in the process. Because this is such an integral part of our culture. And this is a story that is set in its here and now.

At present, only the English magazine has been revamped. When I suggested that we begin to do the same for regional languages as well, there began a dispute on whether we should 'contemporarize' the content at all since the brand stands for Indian Culture. I find this self-imposed alienation from everyday culture indigestible. That by writing a story in which I mention a mobile phone or a packet of Lays, I have somehow squandered away the wisdom of my ancestors. That by mentioning incidents that happened in real life which can serve as reference points in chronology for children, I have somehow killed their value systems. You can't teach culture to someone. You learn it by observation and through experience. You can tell a child not to spit on the roads till your face is blue, but if you spit on the roads right after the lesson, chances are that he/she will remember your deviance more and devalue the lesson.

A refusal to talk to children about everyday reality and contemporary culture is a dangerous trend. We have somehow convinced ourselves that the word 'culture' means 'tradition' and that anything traditional is compulsorily good. By the same logic, anything 'modern' becomes compulsorily bad. It's funny how 'modern' has come to have such heavy negative connotations. There is no creature more dangerous than the Modern Young Woman. She is an indisciplined child who has set out to wreck the cultural ethos of entire nations. Whether it be Arvind Swamy in Roja who wants to marry a 'simple, village girl' or Vijay in Sivakasi exhorting Asin to wear silk sarees, our movies have made it amply clear that Modern Young Women are undesirable in the family scene. They are great for item numbers to show the hero's unbridled sexuality, of course. While the issues I've mentioned here might seem different, they all hinge upon the rhetoric of Indian Culture- an increasingly saffron and ironically Talibanesque ideology that is being allowed to grow. While the obvious reasons for this growth are political, it is also true that such ideologies receive some degree of support from the societies that they thrive in- not for political reasons but because the people believe they are indeed the protectors of Indian Culture.

I don't want to write about the Kamasutra or Kajuraho because citing them time and again makes it seem as if these are the only examples of a different Indian Culture. Besides, doing so once again makes culture a thing of the past. I read Meenakshi Madhavan Reddy's You're Here a while ago and quite enjoyed it. Before reading the book, I'd read a number of vicious comments on her blog, scathing reviews that criticized her for equating a 'sex and drink' lifestyle with feminism, and strong denials that her urban India was anything close to reality. Nowhere in the novel does Meenakshi say that her protagonist is a feminist. I found it funny that so many reviewers, predominantly male, were thumping her down as a pseudo-feminist while crying themselves hoarse for upholding brand feminism that is self-sacrificing in its desire to save poor women in rural India. If one is female, one necessarily has to be self-sacrificing, I guess. If you self-sacrifice yourself for a man/family, you are an acceptable woman, if you self-sacrifice yourself for a woman, you are an acceptable feminist. But if you lead your life the way you choose to for nobody else but you, you lose the right to call yourself a feminist. I don't think You're Here is chick-lit either. It is the story of a young woman in urban India and it is pretty realistic in its description, accurate in its moods, and funny in all the right parts. Novels by Sashi Deshpande that typically deal with the sodden, depressing 'realities' of uninspiring women who will do nothing about their lives somehow find their way to the Feminist section in bookshops. I guess her protagonists' typical disenchantment with sex automatically displaces them from the chick-lit genre. The brooding misery of the women in her book have always bored me, they are all victims, women who absolve themselves from the crime of letting their lives get so pathetic by wearing the helpless tag of womanhood. And yet, Deshpande won the Sahitya Akademi while a book like You're Here that's far more realistic and honest about a growing section in contemporary culture gets flayed because of the unapologetic Modern Young Woman who tells her story in the book. I am not suggesting that You're Here is the greatest book I've ever read. But it is certainly a book that I enjoyed because it's refreshing to read writing that you can relate to. That celebrates ordinary moments and admits that however much life sucks, there are plenty of things that make one laugh. Deshpande's heroines never laugh. Not in a self-loving way at any rate.

If we as adults- writers, editors, publishers, and parents- must produce literature for children that teaches them about Indian Culture, let's not play down the value of a culture that they see and experience around them. Explaining contemporary culture does not translate into morbid and scary realities alone. While it is important to discuss child sexual abuse with children, discussing issues such as these is not the only claim to contemporary culture that we have. There are so many stories tumbling out of everyday India that children will take pleasure in reading. I say this with some degree of evidence since month after month, I get mails from kids who tell me what stories they enjoyed in the magazine. And contemporary stories figure heavily in the lists. If these stories did not touch a chord in the lives of these children (again, not necessarily a chord of tragedy), they wouldn't have stayed in their memories. It is difficult to explain content to people who ride the Holy Cow of Indian Culture. Who assume that contemporary stories lack values because they don't come with a moral at the end. It is frustrating to explain day after day that if children reject the trite moral stories and didactic mythology that forms much of our editorial fodder, it is not because they don't know any better. It is because they do know and have read better. If you don't respect your audience's ability to discern good material, then you are making a grave mistake. This is an editorial moral, a valuable lesson, a great value that we must all digest before we begin to 'educate' our audience.

This strange appropriation of Indian Culture that has turned its back upon so many of our realities must not be allowed to continue. Whether it is a question of beating up pub-goers in Mangalore or insisting that children don't know what Lays is. Philip Larkin once said, "Deprivation is for me what daffodils were for Wordsworth." If you continue to write about flowers in idyllic settings as if this is in the here and now long after they have been mowed down to build roads, somewhere down the line, you will lose your audience. Instead, look at what Allen Ginsberg did with flowers:
"...A perfect beauty of a sunflower! a perfect excellent
lovely sunflower existence! a sweet natural eye
to the new hip moon, woke up alive and excited
grasping in the sunset shadow sunrise golden
monthly breeze!
How many flies buzzed round you innocent of your
grime, while you cursed the heavens of the
railroad and your flower soul?
Poor dead flower? when did you forget you were a
flower? when did you look at your skin and
decide you were an impotent dirty old locomotive?
the ghost of a locomotive? the specter and
shade of a once powerful mad American locomotive?
You were never no locomotive, Sunflower, you were a
And you Locomotive, you are a locomotive, forget me
not!..." [From Sunflower Sutra]
People who are not fans of poetry may find Ginsberg difficult to understand. This poem was a mighty favourite for many of us in our BA. I don't want to do a critical analysis of it here, but the fantastic thing about Sunflower Sutra is that it situates the sunflower in a sordid reality that we all know (the grime, the dirt, and the dust that make all of us resemble tired machines by the time we come back home after boiling for hours in Vadapalani traffic) and yet celebrates nature without alienating it from humanity. The nicest thing you can say about Daffodils is that it is a nice poem. It reads nice; the images are nice; the rhyme scheme is nice. But it is difficult to whoop through the poem in joy because fields of daffodils are merely paintings to me. I can admire them, but they do nothing for my soul. Ginsberg's sunflowers, on the other hand, are the flowers that bloom on the narrow parks that serve as road dividers in my city. Never mind if he imagined them to be in America. They bloom in my city, in my time, in my culture.

So my dear colleagues, I did not send out this email because this Modern Young Woman has no hope that you will read it with patience. How will you when you don't read your own magazine? But I do intend to go after you with my claws out, with every rage that is worthy of a shrew. You have no right to define my India for me. And so I will rant here about this and not about Mangalore.


Karthik Sivaramakrishnan said...


vishesh said...

hmm...I don't feel like writing a comment..I mean I have written so many comments on this topic,that i am getting bored...but your post is the most rhetoric and forceful of all i have read..
I wear sleeveless and people stare at (even though I am guy) ,they make weird jokes like can't your father buy you the sleeves as well and then give up seeing the brand...but i hold myself from telling them,shall wear huge namams all over my body and come topless?

And about this whole Indian culture stuff....oh come on ,a century back we were getting married when we were we get married in our 30s naturally all those hormones need something right? I am not encouraging child marriage ,far from it,by going around etc we come to know of the world and the people in it ...all i can say is these senas are run by jobless old nitwits who think it is alright to blog(ya the BJP PM candidate has blog)...can they show the ideal woman? Shankunthala? Godessess? Who? They just wait for a chance to get offended and show how strong they are,since they can't run along with the rest of us...and they can't afford the drugs or the beer,so they try to steal it...

I do wish they all are put in a room ,in one big room...left to themselves and we should see what they violence etc...and as you said people are filthy hypocrites...

frissko said...

Great post.
Your reasoning for having contemporary stories in a magazine that usually dishes out folklore or stories from the past is solid. But if i pick up a, say, 'Tinkle', tomorrow and find in it a jean-wearing Alok speaking into a cell-phone and eating Lays, i'll feel betrayed :). There's no logic or reasoning, and it definitely has nothing to do with 'culture' (it is a fairly abused term, and i am not sure what it means). It is just that in 'Tinkle' i want to see Raja Hodja and Suppandi and Kalia the crow and a merchant on a horse riding through a forest. I am not the target audience, but a plain resistance to change could be part of the challenge you're facing, wherever you're working. And terms like 'culture' and 'moral' can be used to ward off change.

And i am not sure kids dig morals so much. I mean, as a kid i loved the out-of-the world charm of pre-read borrowed 'Amar chitra kathas' and 'Chandamamas', but that's about it. The non-contemporary stuff adds a whole new dimension to a child's imagination, which is not bad. But i am not saying doses of contemporary stories would hurt.

GB said...

@Karthik Sivaramakrishnan- "The labels are immaterial." Teehee.

@Vishesh- From "I don't feel like writing a comment", you've written quite an essay :D And sadly, yes, I don't feel like blogging about issues like this any more simply because I start to sound like someone on TV.

@Frissko- I am all for having the classics intact (with the necessary editing required to make these interesting and sensitive). My only grouse is that they don't see anything contemporary as being part of culture.

Also, Tinkle does have children dressed in jeans and shorts. And if you remember Tantri stories, he was forever plotting to send Raja Hodja off to space on a rocket or blow him up with a bomb (at least during the time when I was a child). These are modern elements that appear anachronistically to provide humour. Same goes for Kalia the crow who fools Chamataka using things like radios and walkie-talkies left behind by 'picnickers'. Tinkle managed to provide such points of reference for their young readers which made for good entertainment.

My problem is that we don't see stories in our everyday life worth telling. That is a severe curb on imagination as well as story-telling. Charm needn't always be old world. It's good to see it in what one sees routinely. Too.

Shreyas said...

oh have you read this book called "the classic popular" by Nandini Chandra? I came across it while doing some research about Amar Chitra katha for an assignment, I so so so want to get my hands on it.

and yes, i'm the milankari, I seemed to have missed a few of the Novemeber posts I just realise :)

Shreyas said...

also Hams and I want to (ok, I want to and she's my aide in this) start fan club. you get to choose.

gounder brownie thoundar sangam
gounder brownie p(h)an kilub

Shreyas said...

and i have just diluted the seriousness of this post.


vishesh said...

lol ya well you should read a few posts,not good for the heart at all...they make you think you are in hell(and no doubt they are right to a certain extent :P )
And maybe you will be good on T.V.? You can then sue bloggers :P

vishesh said...

ok i can't help it given you another award :P its the garland award so put it on before it rots :P

Anonymous said...

GBS - Much as it galls me to say this, i have to agree with you. The philosophies that guide me arent grounded in ancient ageless wisdom handed down from confucius or socrates or even the more local thiruvalluvar. I probably sound a bit sad as i say this, but my guiding lights are the grandmother-selling, dime a dozen hollywood and tollywood script writers. Be it batman when he says ," It is not whom iam underneath, but what i do that defines me" or MGR when he pontificates "It doesnt matter whether you have a rich mans feast or poor mans gruel because in the end both give the same satisfaction of a full stomach ", i feel their appeal more enduring. Like you say it is probably because i can relate more due to their contemporariness.
Poetry on the other hand has always eluded me, some of my best friends cherish poetry but i have to agree with the chap who said "In science you want to say something nobody knew before in words which everyone can understand, in poetry it is the exact opposite." well it probably has someting to do with "camphor smell" and "smelly mammals".

Beware colleagues of GBS, hell hath no fury like an untamed and erudite shrew.
N (alias nattammai)

Vini said...

This is extremely well-written. I am a fan of your writing. What I absolutely love is that a lot of your posts read less like tea-time manoranjan and more like essays that I would love to revisit.

frissko said...

Like you said, you've got 'half a decade and more' to get where i am :). Plus i had read old Tinkles borrowed from someone 6 years my senior! So our Tinkles are really far apart (plus if Tantri the Mantri wanted to send Raja Hodja off to space in a Rocket, i would've remembered that). Someone must've come in and brought about those changes...

GB said...

@Shreyas- Nope, haven't. Sounds interesting though, especially since it's about a rival company ;)

Very touched and proud about your initiative and drive to set up an organization of such stature. You pick the title, tic tic tic tic tic, ah tic tic tic tic tic!

@Vishesh- Sorry, had a busy week in office, shall check soon!

@N- You njana sooniyam, poetry does things in your head that nothing else can match. Sigh. I want to go do my BA all over again!

GB said...

@Vini- Thanks :) Please keep visiting...I hope I continue to make sense in my convoluted self-conscious essays.

@Frissko- Yup, yup, yup. Yay, am not as much a fuddy duddy as you are :D