The old folks of my city believe that the City Development Authority develops and maintains public parks exclusively for their benefit. Towards twilight, you can find any number of these seniors scattered around these parks, like over-ripe fruits fallen from the trees above. Some are sitting morosely on the benches; others inhaling and exhaling great gusts of air, like scaly fishes freshly yanked out of water, performing the lung calisthenics prescribed by the winking yoga guru with the straggly beard who peddles them as cures for all maladies – asthma, arthritis, hypertension, diabetes, and possibly even lymphosarcoma of the intestines. And periodically these veterans cast baleful glances at the children gamboling carelessly on their precious grass and flower beds, desecrating their ‘meditation’ with their raucous play. They barely tolerate the salwar suit clad portly aunties huffing and puffing in their Reebok sports shoes through their weight loss kilometers. But their severest disapproval is reserved for the young couples cloistered in imaginary bubbles of privacy in secluded corners beneath shady trees, stuck to each other with the glue of fresh lust, delighting in the refreshing hormonal breeze of rebellion and daring. The geezers shake their heads and mutter to each other, worried about the degeneration of Indian culture and values.
From the feeble mumblings of old men in public parks to discourses over Marigold biscuits dipped in light brown tea in middle class drawing rooms, the same dirge to the dying Indian culture and values is sung. From his black cat commando cordoned pulpit, the khadi clad politician attempts to hide his failures by blaming the increasing crimes against women on the same degeneration of culture. Young English-hating men with vermillion dabbed foreheads, smash glasses and furniture and terrorize young girls and boys enjoying themselves in pubs and discs to defend this same culture.
What is this thing called the Indian Culture – this all pervasive force that is supposed to be the guide and control of our society? How do you define Indian culture? Which fountainhead does it spring from? From where does it derive its immense and unquestionable authority?
Certain images immediately waft into the mind. Young men and women bending low to touch the feet of elders. Women in brightly colored flowing dresses, twirling to the musical notes emanating from a piped instrument at the lips of a heavily mustached man. Huge numbers of people in varying stages of devotional frenzy, swarming up a hill to the famous shrine of a goddess. Young men in checkered neckties, digging their teeth into MacDonald’s burgers and chomping out statistics about the high divorce rates in America.
The images rush in now. Women scrubbing their fingers off to keep their own homes spotlessly clean, while strewing the garbage onto the streets. Men winding down car windows to expectorate out globs of pan or gutkha on the same long-suffering street. Plump, jewel-bedecked women jiggling their bosoms and hips in a garishly lit marriage procession, while the clogged traffic behind them blares its horns in strident, yet futile protest.
Some more images, if you reflect further. Hard-working cynical parents, silently dismissing their child’s dream to become Superman, while plotting his rise to the top of the corporate ladder. And if he persists in this foolishness, then crushing his dream with the debt of gratitude for all their sacrifices as he grows up. The same parents, poring over the classifieds of several newspapers, selecting the perfect bride for him – very fair, well-educated but homely; the daughter of rich parents of the same caste. Is the grounding of the fragile glass of dreams into the mortar that glues together the identical bricks of society the thing that we call our culture? Are the aspirations of young men and women mere weeds that have to be brutally hacked away by the gardener to maintain the beautiful garden of our culture?
The images get murkier. A few old men with hateful eyes of the past, bubbling hookahs in the village square, calmly condemning a young couple to execution for daring to love against the tenets of caste or gotra. People segregated and branded, not on the basis of merit, but on the basis of something called caste, which is supposed to be determined by caste of the father whose loins he/she has sprung from- the chain extending backwards to the murky swamps of an extinct past.
Our culture teaches us family values. My parents, my spouse, my children, are all that matter to me. I drop my popcorn and cola and stand up dutifully when the national anthem plays in the movie hall, but the rhythm doesn’t resonate with the beats of my heart. I continue to bribe and swindle the citizens of my country, so that I can accumulate wealth for my family. I have a strong work ethic – I work long hard hours, not because I have a passion for my work, but because I have a passion for money. I don’t create anything new in my work, because my creativity is employed in finding new ways to earn money and secure my family. I don’t love my spouse, but I continue to drag the heavy burden of my cheerless marriage because I’m afraid of what people will say if I free myself from the shackles. My culture has taught me to accept the hegemony of my neighbor, to let him bind me in his rules of behavior and thinking, just as I bind him myself. I’m afraid of freedom, because my culture has taught me that freedom is poisonous.
Why do we let these cultural irons fetter our imagination and our lives? Why do we think that the ghosts of the past have the right to enunciate their rules of living and thinking into our ears? The promulgators of these rules of living are long dead, ground into the dust by the ruthless feet of time. Is it reverence for our ancestors, or is it mere intellectual and spiritual laziness that prevents us from exerting ourselves to frame new rules that suit our present circumstances? Rules that help us grow, rather than shrink; that help us to express rather than suppress our inner selves.
Yes, this culture is the breath of dead spirits, but it is very much alive. And yet, it’s not the breath that gives life – it’s a puff of poison that suffocates our inner spirit. It makes us yearn for an imaginary past of glory, while our imagination should be fervently alive with dreams of a better present. Are the living meant to enslave their souls to the dead?
Throw this culture to where it belongs – into the dustbin of history and mythology. Sure it will entail difficulties. There will be the pain of intellectual teething and the agony of emotional uprooting. The fear of the unkown will haunt us as our ship cuts away its deeply rooted anchor and drifts off into the vast ocean of intellectual and spiritual possibilities. But somewhere beyond that turbulent ocean with its deeply buried incredible treasures is, I believe, the horizon of a brave new world of freedom, hope and happiness.