Tuesday, 12 December 2006

What is different?

A few years ago, when I was visiting India, my friend's father asked me:
"So, you have been away from India for a while now and you have seen both the West and India. What would you say is the difference between India and the US? What is making India not be as prosperous as the west?". That question caught me off guard. I was not really prepared, but I had thought along similar lines on several occasions. So, I made some observations, some perhaps contradicting, some un-connected, some perhaps only partially valid. I am going to attempt to continue that thought here.

I guess I should start off with some disclaimers: I cannot talk for a "class" of people since I can only talk from my own experiences and the experiences of people I know. Having said this, I am still only talking "on an average". I am not making a case that all countries need to follow one guaranteed blue print for "success". Nor do I claim that there is a unique (or a finite set of) blue prints for success or even that there is a unique definition of success. However, I guess most people would agree that a "successful society" should be characterized by certain fundamental traits: that people should be able to earn their own living and that it should be sufficient for the basics of life; that on an average people in that society should have a feeling of being able to influence the course of their own lives; that they should not have to live in fear.

Despite the recent surge in our economy, we are not quite there yet. In all three areas. Several writers (Indians and others) have observed that we seem to be a land of contrasts. For example, we are a nation that values freedom of speech -- we are not like North Korea or other places. Yet, most "good boys" and "good girls" are not expected to talk back to their parents, teachers, elders. Depending upon the parents/teachers/elders, the definition of "talking back" varies. Some people regard a difference of opinion, freely stated, as talking back. While some, more tolerant folk, will allow some almighty verbal rows before they say "enough is enough". This is sometimes touted as "our culture" something we need to be proud of. I don't believe that this is because of "our culture". I don't even believe that our culture expects this from us. I am now going to take an example from the Hindu epic, Mahabharatha. Take Draupadi for instance. Her husband lost her in a game of chance and the winning "team" ordered that she be brought centre stage to be humiliated in front of a vast gathering. She had the courage to ask: what right does a person have to wager his wife, when he has already lost himself in a game of chance?

Second point against the, "its our culture" argument. Let's take the definition of culture. Webster's dictionary has several definitions of it, the most relevant being:
5 a : the integrated pattern of human knowledge, belief, and behavior that depends upon the capacity for learning and transmitting knowledge to succeeding generations b : the customary beliefs, social forms, and material traits of a racial, religious, or social group; also : the characteristic features of everyday existence (as diversions or a way of life) shared by people in a place or time

To me the operative phrase in definition 5a) is: "capacity for... succeeding generations". If we collectively do not learn, would not all of humanity's culture be the same thing? Something to do with our predecessors in the chain of evolution? Can we not interpret the "learning transmitting the knowledge to other generations" part of the definition to be about making sure that the future generations do not make the same mistakes that we do? Then is it more relevant that we follow something that has worked for the previous generations (not necessarily perfectly) verbatim or that we analyze what worked and what did not work in the previous generation and try our best to create new knowledge that we can than pass on to the next in line so that they may make what they will of it?

Coming back to those "differences": perhaps one of the first is that there is not so much emphasis in the West, on not contradicting parents and elders. This was not always the way here in the US. It was the result of the revolution of the 60's. So, even here, it is fairly recent. It is true that "free will" could result in disastrous consequences to the more experimental individual. Taken to the extreme there could be a lot of lives lost due to the lure of experimentation and the practice of free will -- example, so much drug addiction in that period in the West.

So, perhaps, if we allow ourselves as much free will in private -- to those near and dear to us -- as we do in newspaper articles (and blogs! ;-P) would we converge eventually to a better state for the entire nation? A place where there will be political debates on issues that matter instead of a "Vishu's arattai arangam on -- thaaya tharama?". By the way folks, is that even a matter that we could make a universal decision on? Like a national policy? Imagine a law that would read something like, "in times of conflict thou shalt always side with thine ".

----- to be continued.. someday!...


Little Miss Sunshine said...

To be brutally honest, I am not sure what stand you are taking!
Let me attempt to comment on some of the statements you have made :
About freewill in India :I am not sure how much of success as a nation in India is dependent on it. But yes on a personal level the decrease in the amount of societal pressure given in India could help individual lives be more happy. If I make a list of all my Indian friends and tried counting the ones who use their freewill in day-to-day decisions affected by family and society in India, they are unfortunately(unfortunately because they are sad after those decisions) a minority. But when I do the same with my non-Indian friends they come out to be a majority. I guess it will take some more years to change, but it eventually will. There's too much globalisation for it to not happen.

I am not sure if it's just that I have a biased sample space, but have you noticed that south indian families are more averse to publicly accepting that they are happy or having a good time in life than people from other parts of India? In a social gathering, I have always found them trying to be 'modest' and not graciously accepting the fact that they are having a good time....now is that a culture?

magicrna said...

wow that was a long post! and an even longer comment:) just kidding...anyway...you have raised some very valid points for which I am not sure there is any easy solution/answer. However, I am reading "the argumentative indian" right now and he has raised a lot of similar points and attempted to give answers to those. It is a great read (so far) so perhaps you should try it at your leisure (might inspire the sequel post:)).
@sunanda: I am not so sure about the first part of your comment about freewill in personal choices. I mean I agree it is harder to have it in an indian setting, but as far as I can tell it is harder to have it in most of the other asian nation setting too. However, not all asian nations are as underdeveloped as india. I totally agree with your second point though (south indian families and having a good time). The best example is (as a good friend of mine put it) the Kerala royal family. Any other royal family in India, always take pains to show off their wealth and status, but the Kerala royal family is the only one that will walk around in the most "avingified" (my friends word) clothes they can lay their hands on. To counter the evil-eye you see:) all the good clothes and aadambaram are all kept safely hidden away so no one envies them and thus casts the evil eye!!!
Whew! managed to make it a decent sized comment:)

Agnija said...

First off: brutally honest is good (free will see :)).
However, I am not so sure that all south Indian families have a hard time admitting that they have a good time. But I suppose that depends on what you mean by "good times". I have way too many married women friends who take extra special care to say that their husbands are the best there ever could be. This despite the fact that they spent the previous 0.5 hours complaining about not being able to exercise certain choices that they believe they are entitled to make. From that 0.5 hours of discussion it would be quite apparent that the husband is either guilt of commission or omission, and yet they see a need to say that their husbands are the best ever.