Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The Perfect Balance

- By Aishwarya Pramod

My college, like a lot of other schools and colleges, organizes a ‘Traditional Day’ every year – a day when everybody dresses up in ‘traditional’ clothes, dances, eats good food and takes lots of pictures.

So why have a Traditional Day? Is it to celebrate our varied traditions? OK, that seems like a legitimate reason, but honestly I don’t know if it makes complete sense or not. Traditions change, some die out, and new ones are created through foreign influences and local changes. There are a lot of girls (including me) who combine jeans with T-shirts/western-style tops on some days, and kurtas on other days. Guys dress Western style, and wear kurtas less often than the girls. And on top of that, most people speak English 70-80% of the time, including outside classes (though this is only true of my college, not necessarily others).

Sometimes Traditional Day just seems like an easy way to assuage the guilt we feel about being so Westernized. Living in Mumbai, we’re disconnected from the lives of the millions of Indians in rural and semi-rural areas. But ‘the heart of India is its villages’ - we get bombarded with this message all the time. So we want in on that too. Sometimes I feel like Urban Indian Guilt is similar to The Great White Guilt :) subtly filled into us through overt and subliminal media messages and societal expectations.

What’s the solution? Celebrating our traditions, by clinging on to saris and salwar kameezes that we don’t really wear otherwise?

Well, alright, it’s not even as if *I* know the solution to our East vs. West confusion; in fact, Traditional Day maybe a good solution for some. It’s not Traditional Day that bothers me but the attitude that accompanies it, the comfortable “I’m in touch with my roots and therefore better than you” smugness. The whole “I’ve found the perfect balance between tradition and modernity with my strapless saree blouse and sexy heels” is simply ridiculous. Priyanka Chopra in Dostana spends the entire movie in shorts or little dresses and then suddenly in a (rather pointless) song sequence, she emerges as the 'Desi' girl. So much like Traditional Day, OMG.

All of us in India (and for that matter the developing world) are constantly faced with the choice of east vs. west, tradition vs. ‘modernity’. And each of us makes different choices in response to this, based on our family background, upbringing, media influence, peer group, conscious choice, etc. And every individual’s choice is okay by me.

Let me finally clarify what exactly I’m getting at:
There is no need to be either proud or ashamed.

I know people who wear western clothes 90% of the time, hardly speak in Hindi (or other Indian language), whose values are completely western; I know people at the other end, who are completely traditional and perfectly happy about it. And I know a bunch of people in the middle of these two extremes. All these choices are perfectly valid.

When I was 13, I went to camp. We were speaking to a camp instructor about our mother tongues and when he found out I wasn’t fluent in my father’s family’s language, Kannada, he immediately proceeded to tell me I should learn it and it was really sad and shameful I didn’t know it and that we should uphold our traditions and culture lest they die out.

Well. Firstly, culture is not a static concept that needs to be preserved or for that matter even can be preserved permanently. What I am today is the result of my upbringing – I was brought up near my mother’s family, so I speak Tamil. I’m not going to go out of my way to learn Kannada, just to ‘preserve’ culture. Instead, I’m the daughter of a Palakkad-Tamil mother and a Kannadiga father living in Mumbai who knows Tamil, Hindi, English and a smattering of Kannada.

And secondly, O venerable camp instructor, what about the fact that you’re wearing a shirt and trousers at the moment? How would you like it if someone came and told you you should be wearing kurta-pyjama and that you were helping destroy our culture? No, wait, not even kurta-pyjama, it should be angvastram-dhoti. :) I’m not judging YOU, am I? So please extend the same courtesy to me.

(I didn’t actually say any of these things to him, I just mumbled something and looked sheepish.)

So even though it’s all supposed to be relative, we all get judged every day. Either we’re too westernized and not ‘Indian’ enough, or we’re too ‘ghaati’ and not modern enough. I think this just reflects our lack of empathy. We don't want to understand others; we want to hang on to our little value judgements and preferences and impose them on others.

Sorry about this rant; for all its length it probably isn’t very coherent. That’s because my own thoughts on tradition and western influence aren’t very well formed. If there’s one thing I think I’ve conveyed clearly, it’s my confusion. Also, in the article I’ve focused on being judged for not being ‘rooted’ enough but there’s probably even more judgement on the other side – in certain circles, not being Westernized enough is social suicide.

I guess that’s what writing your opinion on the internet is all about, isn’t it? Putting your thoughts out there so anyone who wants to can berate the hell out of you. Oh well :)


Pramod said...

Ok, so how about that Kannada lesson now ? :)

GSDastur said...

You know what? It doesn't sound at all confused. It's a very lucid and wise view of a confusing situation. Very well done indeed.

Srikanth T said...

Frequently I keep telling my daughters that they should learn Tamil - their mother tongue and Kannada - the local language, both of which are not taught in their CBSE school. I do this only because I fear that they may not be able to communicate and connect with the ordinary folks around when they grow up. You can tell me from your experience if this fear is justified. Have you ever been in a non-Hindi non-English locale and what was your experience ?

cyberhippie said...

Wonderful insightful piece of writing!!
Hanging on to traditions you think represent your identity, is at best confusing and sometimes at grass root level downright insulting.

Aishwarya said...

Yeah it makes sense from a practical POV. :)
I lived in Chennai, but I knew Tamil so that wasn't a problem. After moving to Mumbai I had to seriously improve my Hindi to be able to talk to people. And most people in Mumbai speak Hindi but I think I should learn Marathi too... I know VERY little Marathi. It'd be useful to learn it.

Akshay said...

An insightful piece of writing, Aishwarya! I agree that a traditional day helps in identifying the so-called "Indianness" in us. It's very similar to the notion of how we only feel patriotic and listen to patriotic songs on 26th January or 15th August. I agree with the above viewpoint that hanging on to traditions is something which reflects the identity.

vandhana Srinivas said...

loved the article aishwarya and couldn't agree more at many levels. I could relate most to the camp experience at age 13. It can be a very awkward age where some of us are trying to find ourselves and we often end up feeling guilty because the so called 'sorted' adults propagate such myths. But clearly you have handled it a lot better than me given I had a similar experience at that age. On a lighter note, there is no better day than traditional day to unearth some flashy stuff from your wardrobe and feel chuffed about wearing it. Love vandhana

Satish said...

Good one, Aishu. I used to look forward to traditional day in college to ogle at the girls in their make-up and sari finery. Then of course, the thought of seeing them in saris all thro the year made me glad that it happened only once in the year! :)
Nicely articulated piece.

Chandra Kant said...

(a) You write better than your mom. Amazing clarity of thought!
(b) Balance has been a key philosophical thought. Whether it is emotional balance, balancing work and home, aggression vs acceptance etc. Moderation is possibly a version of balance. Any form of extremism is abhorrent. Which clearly comes through in your thoughts.
(c) However, the past vs future balance will always be iffy because the center point keeps shifting (as time moves.) Therefore you are focussing on a moving target and that creates the angst.

Gouri said...

Hi Aishwarya

This really neat stuff.( I met deepa during diwali afternoon and we spent sometime and she suggested i should read this article you wrote) so that is what i did and i am glad i did.People judge you all the time so best is to do what we beleive in and yes even our belives keep on changing with time.So change is inevitable and the only constant :-)

IN MUMBAI said...

Its always a pleasure reading your blogpost.

Chloe said...

This is a really interesting and well thought out post.

I'm from Australia and recently visited India for the first time. I did notice that Mumbai was easily the most Westernised area I visited, but there are also many aspects of Indian culture, things maybe only an outsider would really think about because they are new to them, that could be deemed "traditional" and quintessentially Indian.

Things like the way people interact with each other, emphasis on family, the food, and so many other things. These are traditions that seem alive and well in India and you can be wearing Westernised clothing and still be a part of it.

I think it's impossible to live in the modern world and not become somewhat Westernised. Whether that's a good or bad thing is for people to make their own judgements on and like you said, it's all about balance.

I miss Mumbai! Such an amazing city.

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Arabella said...

Something similar occurs everywhere, not just in India. And happens with dressmode, food, languages... Nothing lasts forever, everything changes and evolves. Culture is not something inert, but alive. I strongly recommend you to read "Frozen pizza and other slices of life", one of the tales shows this theme very clearly. I've really enjoyed this post. Congratulations!

Ruben Fanlo said...

I'm a spanish guy living in Bombay and I find really interesting reading what you write. And specially this post. Thanks!