Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Warriors at Home

I live in an apartment in Chennai these days. The residents usually keep to themselves. We don't hear a lot of noises from outside. It is a good community, with some common facilities.
One of these facilities is a Gym. I can see people sneaking in and out some times. At times I walk around the complex listening to the birds. But otherwise I strain to hear a snatch of conversation from any other house.
You see, when I was growing up, we did not have Gyms in our flats. Instead families lost calories by having loud fights in their homes. Everyone could listen in and they usually did. I remember during one of my family fights, the entire neighborhood was standing outside, sometimes cheering. They all had broad smiles in their faces.
I keep saying this - while television saved our nation from itself, it messed up some old-fashioned entertainment and exercise.
People were healthier in olden days because they would have a lot of exercise at home; most of this came from fighting within joint families. This is why the joint family was a great idea. You put together two guys in a room, with a transistor radio in between. They will soon be fighting over the channel to turn to. Now imagine three different families with that same radio.

Our family issues were usually long running epic wars. At any point we may be engaged in a small battle and one or the other may lose. But we were focussed on long term victory and total domination. We even had epic battles, in which the location of the fight kept changing from room to room. One such battle with my brother started in the kitchen; and then my mother joined in and the action went from kitchen to hall to even the toilet.
My brother and me were having lunch. It is a small kitchen, so my brother reached out to get something. It stuck me that he deliberately dropped a bit of his food on my plate.
I yelled at him and we went back and forth. Finally I dumped my plate's content - not on his plate, but on him.
Brother did not expect this and before he could react my mother joined in and asked me what the hell I was doing. She took the plate from my brother's head, and dumped more food into it. And she wanted me to eat it. (Both of us ignored my brother who was sitting with Sambar dripping from his hair)
I ran to the toilet and tried to close the door. Mother follows me in and asks me to eat it right there. I push mother and mother falls on cement tank; cement tank breaks. Mother is fine.
I feel sorry for her. I feel more sorry for myself, because I know that Father will come in the evening; and he may not understand my perspective about the cement tank. In fact I am sure I won't have time to explain my perspective, before the beating started.
I sit at the dining room and was saying abject apologies to my mom, when my brother walks in. He has by now removed the food stuff from his person. He takes a metal pot and bangs it on my head.
There ended the battle of the cement tank.

I had seen some other families - they did not fight. But they also ended up being fat. In our family you have to be nimble. My brother was very nimble, but he also had the knack of saying the exact wrong thing to my Father.
One day we were all eating together. Joking to each other; Enjoying the meal. I remember now that I had a eerie sense of foreboding - the whole setting was unnatural.
Then my Father asked the Family a question - what was his first job?
I stayed quiet. My brother could not. He jumped in and started counting down from Senior Clerk, Upper Division Clerk etc. Father kept smiling and saying no.
Then my brother had a brain wave. He said, "Were you a peon?"
Soon he was running from cupboard to cupboard seeking sanctuary. His idea seemed to be that he could get in a closet and close the door; and Father will then abandon the "battle". Alas, none of our closets had doors. He only got himself wedged in a narrow closet, unable to move, while Father pummeled him.

One of our neighbor families had a different problem. Doordarshan telecast the movie "Mudhal Mariyadhai" in the usual Sunday afternoon slot. In that movie, Shivaji Ganesan plays a middle-aged man who is ill-treated by his wife. He falls in love with a young fisher-woman and they become very close.
This movie fulfilled the fantasy of every family man in Tamil Nadu at that time. Since the actress Radha played the young woman, these guys imagined that they all had their own Radhas waiting for them. They also imagined that they were all being ill-treated by their wives. It helped them feel like Shivaji Ganesan. More importantly, it made them find Radha in every younger woman they saw.
This particular neighbor was in a good mood until the movie started playing in the TV. Then as the movie progressed, the family noticed that he was being morose. he started complaining about his wife. By the end of the movie, he was in a frenzy about being ill-treated. He could not stand his malign family - nagging wife and ungrateful children. He started yelling and screaming. We all were listening and making fun of them.
It took him a few days to come out of "Mudhal Maryadhai" syndrome.

Now, during all this, there was one family, that was annoyingly peaceful. they never fought. We could never hear their voices outside. They were very proud of it and we were all waiting for them to have a big fight.
It finally happened this way. You have to follow this closely.
There was a teen aged girl who lived with her parents in our colony. This girl, thinking back now, was not all that great; but she was there (as Sir Edmund Hilary would have said). Her neighbor had a teen-aged son. This young man took a fancy to the girl next door. She had no idea.
There was a servant maid in the girl's home. That maid was also serving in another house.
Our Romeo thought that his way to the heart of the girl went through the maid. Why? No idea. But he wanted desperately to give the girl a love letter. He could easily have passed that letter on. But our genius, instead, approached the servant maid. He wanted her to pass on the love-letter.
This he did with the help of two other friends. One of these was the son of the peaceful family guy.
As you can imagine, it was not the best plan. First, the maid thought the letter was for herself. Then she was faced with three young guys assuring her that Romeo would take care of his lady love forever (he was in Plus One at that time). She went and told everyone.
One fine evening we were all playing downstairs, when there were shouts from somewhere. I automatically thought it was my family, in battle stations. Well, it was not. Surprise of surprises, the peaceful family were all yelling at each other and fighting. Their son had brought shame on them.

We watched the fight for some time. It followed us in our homes. We talked about it for a few days, complaining about how these families were too loud. Everybody felt very mature and good for some time.
Then my brother asked for a bicycle and all hell broke loose.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Five questions for India's leaders

Since we are having elections shortly; and our state's ruling family now has the pride of being the "invisible hand" behind the 2G scam, here are a few questions for India's "smarter" political leaders:
1. What do you think Government's role is, in society? Do you think government's focus should be on revenue or in ensuring long-term happiness of citizens?
If a neighborhood has a park, owned by the government; and that park is in a prime area of the city; do you think government should set up an SEZ there and bring more corporations and thus boost revenue? Or do you think the park should be available for the citizens to use?

2. Is due-process more important to you? Or are immediate benefits more important to you?
Let us say that you are offering a piece of government land. A corporation offers to provide a lot of benefits to the local community. Therefore, would you bypass an actual auction or bidding process and make the land available to the the said corporation? Let us say the bidding process takes more time; while the corporation can start providing benefits immediately. What is your role as a minister? Would you make sure due process is followed, or would you "cut" the process short?

3. Are party and the government the same?
Let us say that your actions as a minister affects a corporation. Let us say that corporation donates money to your party. Do you consider it necessary to act against the corporation? Let us then say that your party's success is crucial for the next elections and even for the future of India; and let us say the alternative party is horrible. Would you still act against the corporation?

4. Do you think government should be run like a company? Do you agree with the "CEO" title given to Chief Ministers? In other words, do you think the goals of a company and a government are the same?

5. Do you think political parties are open institutions, that are the first level of defense, when appointing a candidate? Or do you think it is the people who should decide if a candidate is fit or now?
In other words, if a candidate with somewhat shady dealings, was likely to win in a constituency, would you still choose them? Do you think people are the ultimate judge of a candidate or do political parties have a role in filtering candidates?

Those are my five questions for Karunanidhi, Jayalalitha, Manmohan Singh, Rahul Gandhi,Modi and all of the rest. I think answers to these are at the heart of the current "ideology" in India.

Sunday, April 03, 2011

Vijay TV Westernization debate

The Vijay TV debate show "Neeyaa Naanaa" covered the issue of Westernization last week. The topic of the debate was "Is Westernization desirable or not".
The comments by the people involved made me consider the topic in some detail. Here are my opinions:

Individual preferences
One of the participants in the show maintained that he preferred western food; but went on to claim that this was a matter of individual freedom.
I have encountered this argument before - and it is simply a means to shut the opponent down. It is truly a matter of individual freedom whatever someone chooses to eat; but, once you publicly talk about it in a debate show, any other person also has the freedom to criticize you.
Remember Richard Gere kissed Shilpa Shetty in a show and there was a big hue and cry over it? We were discussing this in a restaurant - and I said public displays of affection were ok. Another guy said he was offended even if a couple held hands in public. I said that seemed a pretty low bar to get offended over. He immediately said it was his personal opinion; and so by implication no one could talk about it.
It is only your personal opinion when you have a thought in your head. When you publicly express a thought, you have the freedom to do that. At the same time, others have the freedom to condemn your thought.
This is a not a trivial issue - it is the basis of a very bad misunderstanding of Freedom of Speech rights. Freedom of Speech right protects you from government censorship. It does not protect you from criticism at all. Your critic has the same Freedom of Speech.
Therefore the issue of Westernization in the private or public sphere is certainly open to commentary - as long as you are not advocating hanging everyone who orders a pizza.

Westernization and Sociology
There is certainly a case to be made that our society is changing rapidly. The pace of this change, the nature of it, its causes are all subject matter for Sociology. If a lot of people in the United States started using Hindi words while talking, do you think everyone would say "Ah...individual freedom at work" and throw up their hands? No, they would study the phenomenon to death - that is exactly why the pace and causes for Westernization are open to study.
Let us take the case of the Valentine's Day celebration. This has become a lightning rod for fights between the Indian culture police such as the Shiv Sena; and people who believe in individual freedom. That is fine. I think the Shiv Sena are thugs too.
But ANALYZING the sudden popularity of that day and the causes for it are completely game for an inquiring person. Such analysis itself does not mean that I want to ban the Valentine's Day - it simply means I want to find out the sociological reasons for its popularity.

Westernization vs Americanization

In the debate show I noticed that everyone stuck to the word "Westernization" even though a lot of what they were talking about was really Americanization or Modernization. These three words have become synonymous in our minds. But they do not mean the same thing.
The West itself, most of the states in Europe, for example, are actually a victim of "Westernization". From Scotland to Switzerland, a lot of homogeneity has developed over the past 50 years. These have been at the cost of local cultures and arts. The United States itself has become very homogenous in this time. This has been due to the cultural "hegemony" of the United States (I do not use the term hegemony in a negative way).
This is an important distinction - because when people broadly say Westernization it means a quest for new experiences or the celebration of a "better" culture, a culture of the Europeans. But the European native cultures themselves are under threat from "Westernization". And this mono-culture is actually changing too.
This is why debating about eating pizza or Dosa seem silly to me - the pizza as we eat it is not "Western" in any sense. The big companies that are pizza franchises are all American; and their preparation has little to do with the pizza prepared in Italian homes. (For one, they would never dream of putting masala on pizza)
There are bigger issues at stake than pizza.
The truth is the USA is a global hegemon in terms of money and power. Therefore there exists a good reason why it exercises cultural hegemony too.
The mono-culture in the USA itself, meanwhile is largely shaped by the corporate media there. Thus, you may as well celebrate "American-corporate-mediaization" instead of Westernization.

Westernization vs Modernization
Neither is Westernization synonymous with Modernization. In the debate show one person mentioned that her husband (who is a Christian) wonders why we should receive money all time with the right hand (as we do in India). She mentioned that she had no answer for this question.
If her point was that there are a lot of absurd social conventions in India, she is right. But that is the case in the West too. I lived in Philadelphia for a few years in an apartment complex that had four blocks. None of these blocks had a 13th floor! The floors reached 12 and then the next was 14. There was no 13th floor because 13 is an unlucky number.
Social conventions and rituals exist in all societies. The Americans have very absurd fashion rules such as not wearing certain colors in the winter.
My point is that it is easy - not really knowing anything about "Western" culture - to say that it is devoid of all the ills of ours.
One common confusion is about the Indian wedding. The Indian wedding involves 500 to 1000 invitees and a lot of rituals in some castes. In a forum debate someone said it was less meaningful as compared to a "Western" wedding.
But the Western wedding (the wedding rituals we see in Hollywood movies are not representative) has its own set of peculiarities. Once you have agreed to marriage as a ritual, almost every society has absurdities in marriages.
As human beings we are prone to meaningless rituals; it is hard to escape them. The NASA countdown to rocket launch is a ritual (the Russians do not do countdowns). The American Presidential inauguration is a ritual. Swearing in a political leader is a ritual.
There is very little specifically "better" about Western rituals.

Western Music
The SS Music Channel VJ Pooja, who was a guest in this debate show, started saying that Western music is better and has global reach. She mentioned that it influences Indian film music a lot.
I am always suspicious of people who claim about a better art or a better music based on regions or cultures. The amazing diversity you find in cultures in this world allows for many different dimensions of music, dance, painting, cinema, sculpture or literature. We cannot claim that one is better than the other based purely on a region to which an art belongs to.
The truth is that Western music has a big degree of penetration around the world because the West ruled most of the world (again, using the term West loosely).

To me, if Indian music borrows from the West it actually enriches Indian music. And vice versa. Music and other arts are not static - they get better when they borrow other influences. This is as true for Western music as it is for Indian music. Instead, it is weird to consider this "borrowing" to be a weak point of Indian music - it is a point in our favor, not against.
I have a great respect for all aspects of music including Western music - I don't think you can compare these music systems at all.
As an aside, the people who make such comparisons also make another mistake - they compare Indian CLASSICAL music with Western POPULAR music. This is a confusing comparison - classical music in any culture has lesser number of listeners (just as classical literature has lower number of readers). This is true in the West too - not everyone is grooving to Mozart over there.

The Biggest Issue
Having said all this, I thought the debate skipped the most important issues of Westernization.
The fact that our language is slowly decimated by schools which require students to speak only in English - that is a big concern. That is a conscious, deliberate attempt by the school system. I have written multiple times about this here.
The fact that all our advertisements in media show extremely fair people who move about in a Western styled landscape is a cause for concern. To me, it seems it makes us identify with white people, thereby subtly making us a client state.

These two combine to show a conscious attempt to push us into a forced Westernization program set by our elites.
That bothers me; Pizza eating does not.