By Anto Bhaskar:
I was wearing a dhoti and driving my bike. I was on my way from a liquor store down the street and my girlfriend was tagging along, in her moped. And, we were coming back after getting take-out dinner and a six-pack of beer.
The unspeakable happened when my neighbours saw us. What followed was a hodge-podge of confusion: I was called a boorish, vile man who is insensitive to the cultural requisites of his fellow men. I was given to think that a ‘single man’ is not to entertain a ‘single woman’ after dark, without a chaperone, and all hell broke loose when they saw the beer cans.
Now, the thing that threw me for a loop was what happened after this – my wizened neighbour (whose wife was majorly responsible for the lines above), took me aside and said that he personally did not mind the girls and the booze. What he could not abide was me moving around the apartment dressed like an uncouth barbarian. Apparently dhotis in an upscale apartment in a metro is a cardinal sin.
What? I was being called a callous, ‘non-sanskaari‘ Western ‘copycat’ and an uncultured village idiot, all in the same breath. And I am not even going into the things my partner had to hear.
This actually gave me a fascinating thought that evening – what is Indian culture? How does one define it?
Let’s take marriage – arranged by parents, within one’s own religion and caste – only heterosexual and monogamous. Is this how we define marriage in Indian culture? How about the 16000 women married to a single King who fathered a son who is an exemplar for monogamy? The one woman married to 5 men at the same time? How do these fit into Indian culture? Were these aberrations or cautionary tales? (unlikely, as all these are protagonists in their own stories). Or is it possible that the presence of these characters is a testament to the fact that Indian culture defines marriage as human beings living together in love, governed by the tenets of matrimony – the number of people, genders and sexual preferences notwithstanding?
Now, that is a tantalising thought. Such a culture would truly be nuanced, sophisticated and far ahead of its time, would it not?
Let’s take another point – clothing.
There has always been a ‘boundary discussion’ on the Indianness of clothes people wear (this discussion always seems to center around women’s apparels while o one seems to care when a Hrithik Roshan or Salman Khan is topless.) There have been a million views and counterviews on whether a woman should dress her mind or she should dress in a way she does not “raise the libido” of her fellow man. But a far more fundamental question lurks beneath – if a provocatively dressed woman raises a man’s sexual imagination, how about a provocatively dressed man? If women are to dress conservatively, should not men follow suit? If we are banning bikinis in the beaches of Goa, should we also not ban sleeveless tees and shorts for men? Or are we saying men and women are not equal sexually?
Above all else, we need to consider a very simple point in all these arguments. What everyone argues in all these ‘culture’ related discussions ultimately boils down to one’s own taste. What we all are discussing in these points is our own tastes and an attempt to force that down the other person’s throat.
As to what is Indian, well, the discussion on marriage says it all, I think. Everything is and will be Indian, if we are open to embrace each others tastes, opinions and differences.
And that should be the essence of India – not the fact that we were open to the thoughts of the entire world during pre-historic times, but the day-to-day readiness to accept the existence of opinions and thoughts which might be contrary to our own, in all walks of life.