Sunday, March 28, 2010

Dimensions of India Experience: Domesticity

Domesticity is Family Orientation - Indians are indeed one of the world's most family oriented people. Though what family means varies from one place to another, and arguably, male chauvinism comes in the way of this being a beautiful thing, family comes first in India. First, as in ahead of self or the community or the nation; something that India observers saw both as an obstacle and a help for India to grow as a modern nation.

Most Indians one would meet are intensely proud of their families. The family is large and includes uncles of uncles, as long as they are successful. Modern India is a country of being somebody, and any lineage that may help that quest is gratefully acknowledged. However, on a more benign level, Indians are also deeply committed to their immediate families - parents and brothers and sisters and cousins count as immediate family - and their universe is defined by the interplay of these relationships. One can say, you would not know an Indian unless you have met his/her family.

One can argue that it is possibly true anywhere. But, in India, family is not just a formative experience, but an inalienable part of the identity. With many implications: A job offer needs to meet the approval of the family, as should a choice of a bride. I often meet people who enquire, with wide-eyed wonder, whether arranged marriages are still common in India: their tone gives away that they consider it an equivalent of Sati, a pre-modern practise of buring the widow on the husband's pyre. I would not tell them that Indian executives often ask their parents whether or not to take a job offer, or regularly consult Gurus about whether to get into a particular business. Somewhere in the European mind, the arranged marriage as a practise has a direct linkage with honour killings; an impression reinforced by recent incidents in London and elsewhere. In context, it is difficult to explain why an arranged marriage, at least in most cases, may seem perfectly natural and even somewhat romantic, to an Indian middle class couple and may contain no violence or discord.

I must warn here that I am not oblivious that arranged marriages can go horribly wrong, and they do.Some argue that it is discriminatory, and many times, the bride does not have an equal say. However, this is no defence of arranged marriage as a practise: The point I am making here is that they don't seem as abnormal in context of Indian family orientation as they would seem to someone without the same.

Moreover, those, who are horrified by the existence of practise of arranged marriage, would find it hard to reconcile to the now usual practise of multi-national employers to engage employees' families - and that means the parents more than spouses - in pre-hire exercises. To an Indian, there is nothing unusual; I did turn down a job, at the very beginning of my career, because my family disapproved of it. Given that I was just out of university and this was about teaching computers in an exclusive girls' college, I obviously wanted the job; but, in the end, still deferred to my family's wishes and 'better judgement', and chose the boring career of a network administrator instead. .

One of the key contrasts in India from its East Asian neighbours, and particularly China, is the 'individualism' in India's culture. In fact, Count Okakura, the Japanese intellectual who viisualized an Asian union in the early part of Twentieth century, saw China, a great communitarian civilization, side by side with India, with its individualistic tradition, forming the core of Asia. Even the Indian 'individualism' shows up on Hofstede's scale, in comparison with more collective cultures of East Asia. One would, therefore, find it hard to reconcile with the primacy of the family in India.

India's individualism, largely, comes from its religious-cultural tradition of Hindu moral relativism, the belief that God resides inside every living being and what we do is somewhat part of the larger script of destiny. This does not take away Individual responsibility though: Indian tradition holds that human life is an interplay of efforts and destiny, and one does not happen without the other. Such belief systems have been sublimely passed on through the generations and even the advent of modernity only adapted, not changed, this world view. This essential ingredient of Indian thinking - God is in me - makes Indians individualistic at a personal level.

That, however, does not make them individualistic in the Western sense. Note the interplay of destiny, which persists beyond the individual effort. The deep Asian bonds also suggests that one needs to belong to his/her place in the scheme of things [which may explain why Hofstede discovered high Power Distance], and family, as witnessed in the great Indian epics, provides the ideal context of marrying the individual identity with the pre-set roles in the context of the wider world. To illustrate the point further, one should recommend a comparative reading of Indian epics in contrast to the Greek ones: While the European epics demonstrate the concepts of Romantic love and individual valour, the Indian ones are set in the context of family and roles inside it. The contrast that could be noted in the ancient epics will still be seen in the conception of Indian individualism in the modern day.

I have argued previously that Indian domesticity is somewhat favourable to Indian democracy, because it comes in the way of forming powerful community identities. Now, this is also a particularly Hindu thing, because some of the other communities, like Sikhs, have evolved a stronger sense of community around their religious practises. But, it should also be noted that Sikhs have clashed with the notions of an Indian state more than any other community in India.

I am not suggesting that the community competes with family; it does not. However, the family as an unit of existence somewhat overlaps with the community identity. This is more acute in the cities, and the family/ community duality further accentuates the two Indias - the rural/urban divide that one notices everywhere in India.

So, that's the second dimension of Indian experience - the Indian family - which everyone carries around all the time. It is just usual to talk about family in India - someone may just open a conversation asking about family in India. I would say this is equivalent to British weather talk, and just as inoffensive. Without this domesticity, the Indian experience is incomplete; this is also weaved into all the other dimensions of the India experience.

2 comments:

John Doe said...

This brings to mind something I had read in a pulp novel (Lustbader, was it?).

Anyways the writers point of view was - the foundation of the western civilisation is - "I think, therefore I exist."

On the other hand in the east (though he was talking about China or Japan), it is - "We think, therefore I exist."

Now to western democracy and the Indian (Hindu?) way of thinking.

In my opinion, democracy as we know today is the direct result of the rise of the Presbyterian church. The democratic, elective culture in the church found its reflection in the political systems of the west.

So what about the Hindu system. Hinduism might be a great philosophy and a way of life, but as an organisation is completely anarchic. It does give more freedom of thought and expression than any other religion I know of. My father could have a set of believes, I could have a completely different set of beliefs. But of them could coexist in harmony.

Now what should this lead to? Tolerance (I hate the word)? Yes. A respect for individual freedom? Yes. An acceptance of diversity? Yes.

Unfortunately the newspaper headlines in India speak otherwise. However, in my experience, the reality on the ground, for a large majority of Indians is different. We are not so defined by the Hindutva of the Modis and Advanis. Somewhere inside us is the belief (or so I sincerely hope) that it is good that we are all different.

Now, how did I digress from the topic so much?

Supriyo Chaudhuri said...

It is okay to digress :) because we are having a conversation.

Interesting point you make about the discipline of the church morphing into the rule of law in the west. And, the contrast of Hinduism and its inherent chaos. I can offer an alternate perspective though: The christianity has an institutional religion, whereas the Hindu religious experience is very individualistic. May be that reflects in our political system in a way.

However, you capture the point I wanted to make: India, in its essence, diverse, democratic and individualist. A far cry from the monolithic view of India and Hinduvta of Mr. Advani and Mr. Modi! However, they have lost, and I guess they will go down in history as one of those marginal demogogues, who tried to dominate Indian agenda from time to time, but got defeated by India hands down.

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