Sentimental circle of reason

Sentimental circle of reason

 “All Indian mothers are Jewish,” I decided then, an opinion I later revised to “Any Indian mother could teach any Jewish mother a thing or two.”

The Supreme Court’s recent ruling that there’s nothing wrong with live-in relationships provoked a spate of protest from conservative commentators. One wrote, in a newspaper widely, and perhaps not fairly, perceived as our most conservative: “…it is in the interest of all that we continue to be old-fashioned and prude [sic] rather than bold and brazen throwing caution to the winds, only to regret it all later.”

These writers sincerely believe it is only our strong family ties that prevent Indian society going the way of ‘Western’; corrode this bulwark, and here come the barbarians (and the bastards).

I differ. I believe the family way, as practised in India, is now largely a force for evil. I agree it has contributed much to the stability of our society and the continuity of our culture; but look around. Do you see much stability or continuity? In this century, when courage and innovation are imperative, a reliance on family is a return to the womb. Ossification. A refusal to face facts. An excuse to do nothing (“I have to think about my family”).

Those who laud family values are usually those who have gained most from them. The conservative commentators owe the education, and the material comforts, that allow them to pronounce on these matters, to their having done well by the deal. The powerful people who control our politics and business — and figure prominently in media and bureaucracy as well — have also profited from family and its connections. I’d like to know what Mayawati thinks of the idea.

Yet so pervasive is this culture that even those who have worked their way up on their own seek its refuge. When Laloo Prasad had nowhere to go, he anointed not one of his many disciples but his wife. Dhirubhai Ambani’s success had little to do with Indian traditions of ethics. He used methods that are not part of the curriculum, anyway, at Harvard Business School. He still sent his sons there, and he was hardly ashes when they applied another great Indian tradition, stabbing each other in the back. No wonder Laloo didn’t want to take the chance.

An Upanishad, I understand, says that a man about to die must have his heir lie atop him, body corresponding to body. The father then says, “I give you my life-breath.” The son replies, “I accept.” “I give you my senses.” “I accept.” And so on. (Vidura and Yudhishthira enact something like this in the Ashramavasika Parva.) The business of smrti — remembering — is paramount to a Hindu. It involves remembering exactly what and who one is; and one is also the legacy of the ancestors. In this matter at least, I fear, the Hindutva people have got it right. All inhabitants of Bharat are Hindus, or behave like them.

Animal story

Gerald Durrell called his first book My Family and Other Animals. It was a catchy title, but a misnomer. No animal interferes in the life of its progeny as humans do. Durrell’s mother, indeed, once wished aloud that she could have left her eggs to hatch by themselves and pursued her own interests.

Only look at the domestic animal which most seems to share our concerns: The dog. James Thurber — a writer whose fragile grasp on reality I often take refuge in, to strengthen my own — once wrote a little essay he called, ‘A Preface to Dogs’: “The insistence of parents on dedicating their lives to their children is carried on year after year in the face of all that dogs have done, and are doing, to prove how much happier the parent-child relationship can become, if managed without sentiment, worry or dedication.”

The results of our sentimentality and lack of sanity are everywhere to see. “Dowry deaths” and sati don’t happen in the developed and immoral West. Neither does female foeticide. Where else do adults go running to their mothers and grandmothers for comfort? Where else are political and corporate spoils parcelled out to relations with no one to answer to? Where does ‘sweat equity’ mean ‘no-sweat equity’? Where could a sports league — engaging 400 million voters at least — be run like a family business?

There is a Sanskrit saying, “Janani janmabhoomischa svargaadapi gareeyasi”: The mother and the motherland are greater than heaven. Except at political rallies, the ‘motherland’ bit is mostly forgotten. A typical Indian’s areas of concern — an elected politician’s, for instance — run thus in concentric circles: Family, caste, community, constituency, state. Only see what our railway ministers have been doing for the last 30 years.

The conservatives point to the cavalier treatment of elderly parents in the USA as proof of our superior traditions. But those traditions, as well, are only fossils. An adult without the imagination to be independent will also lack the imagination to distinguish between sentiment and genuine emotion, between custom and duty. Our duty is all too often the asking of the question, “What will the neighbours say?” Where the neighbours say nothing — as in the big cities — there are sometimes ugly scenes. The bhadralok man of the world will indignantly deny it, but Vrindavan still holds thousands of Bengali widows thrown out of home by their sons.

Many years ago, I seized with delight upon one of those quotes newspapers print to make you think: “Friends are the relations you find for yourself.” My experiences and observations have perhaps made me a cynic; certainly I’ve worked hard at my friendships. Using relationships is the easy way out. All families are Jewish, but some are more Jewish than others. After all, who could be friends with Lalit Modi, or Laloo Prasad, or Shashi Tharoor, without a percentage?