This Indian Life by Shoba Narayan: 

Would individual principles work in a population that is largely contradictory, inconsistent, and boundary-free


To understand what constitutes Indian family values, we need to first define what constitutes the Indian family.

Is it the phrase that grandparents end their prayers with: Loka Samastha Sukhino Bhavanthu (let the whole world be happy)?

Or is it the phrase from the Maha Upanishad that is engraved at the entrance hall of the Indian parliament: Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam (the whole world is my family)?

Is it the many legal definitions of the family that we have in India (unlike, I would wager, any other nation)? Nuclear family, joint family, undivided family, extended family…the list goes on.

Or is it how we print our wedding cards? Not only do we invite a specific person, couple, or indeed a family to a function, but we always add, “Please come with friends and family to bless the couple.” Who are these friends and family? It doesn’t matter. “All are welcome.”

Family is a nebulous concept in India. It implies community, caste, village and a wide spectrum of what constitutes a relative. Wedding caterers are told to expect “plus or minus 100 people” for the feast. In contrast, Western weddings expect an individual RSVP with military precision about numbers. Everyone gets a seat with a name tag on the plate. Extra guests are not accounted for or accommodated.

This then is the number one Indian value, which anyone who grows up in India intuits: boundaries between self and others are porous. Things are shared between cousins, ranging from saris to safety pins. Kids are hauled out of beds to make room for visiting elders or friends. Bedroom doors are not shut. Privacy and personal space are a Western concept. People pack themselves into autorickshaws, sitting atop each other without care for body odour. They walk in and out of homes without need for appointments or phone calls. Guests are accommodated even if they sometimes are not welcome (particularly in the evening when television serials take hold of even the most hospitable lady).

The number one Indian value: boundaries between self and others are porous

The second Indian value is epitomised by the act that all of us Indians joke and rue about: how we keep our houses clean and dump the garbage on the street or in our neighbour’s house. Call it hypocrisy or call it comfort with contradictions. Indians are two-faced. They can hold two contradictory thoughts, combining deep religious conviction and rational astronomy with insouciance as A P J Abdul Kalam did. We do this every day. We are nice to relatives, going to railway stations in the middle of the night carrying hot tea and tiffin for them. But ask us to read to the blind or volunteer at an old age home and the whole notion of “the world is my family” flies out of the door. Contradiction: thy name is India. Is this a good thing? I think so. Any child growing up in India develops a nimble mind that is flexible and able to process contradictions. We disdain systems and consistency. Then again, consistency, as Ralph Waldo Emerson said, is the hobgoblin of little minds.

The third value that distinguishes India is something that A K Ramanujan has written about. We are a context-sensitive society. How we behave is not based on absolute ideas of honesty or ethics. It is entirely explainable by situation and circumstance. The same man who venerates goddesses can treat the women in his life like s*#t and see no inconsistency in this. We don’t understand absolutes, be it with respect to time or place. It all depends on who, what, where, when and why. I know an 80-year-old woman who travels the world in a sari and diamond nose rings, speaking at women’s conferences. She encourages, coaches and empowers her women colleagues. Yet, this same woman comes home and does not allow her husband or son into the kitchen; her behaviour entirely explainable by context. One is home, the other is work.

Okay, so we are inconsistent, full of contradictions, context-sensitive and have a loose sense of boundaries. How now to translate these into the family? Are these the values you want to teach your children as unique to India and something to be proud of? Like it or not, I think these four values are something that every Indian family passes on to the next generation, simply by living in India. You may be in a posh Lutyens bungalow or a high-rise in Mumbai. But any child that lives through Ganesh Chaturthi in Mumbai or election campaigns in Delhi understands that living in India is like a dream where Gods can morph into floats and priests can openly ask for bribes in order to get close to an equal God.

The question then becomes: can each family have its own set of values on top of these Indian ones? Can you figure out values that family members can adhere to and practice?

More next time.

(This column addresses the issue of parenting our parents and other unique facets of This Indian Life and our culture. If you have stories about the weird and wonderful relationships that enrich or enervate your life, write in.)

This Indian Life appears every fortnight

From HT Brunch, October 13, 2019

BRUNCH Updated: Oct 13, 2019 00:00 IST

Shoba Narayan

Shoba Narayan
Hindustan Times

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