Sunday, May 15, 2011

Being Indian

After a particularly frustrating week here in India I felt like taking out a full page add in the Hindustan Times simply saying

                                     “Say what you mean and do what you say”

I have never felt frustration like I did that week. In the back office of the post office I had seen my friend Ashwinee pick up a chair and while waving it over her head she screamed at a postal worker to get the postmaster. Later in the week I found myself yelling at a roomful of tailors and then ripping their iron out of the wall and smashing it on the floor in frustration. These are just two of the many frustrations that I had experienced that week.

You would think after two years here I would understand the culture well enough that I know how to deal with these situations without behaving like a crazed lunatic, but clearly I don’t. I think the clash comes because the Australian and Indian cultures are quite opposite. Australia is a relatively young country, which means we have very little in the way of deep cultural norms and traditions; we are comparatively cultureless. India however is one of the longest inhabited lands on the earth; in fact it is claimed that Varanasi is the oldest city on earth. This long history means that this country has a lot of deeply rooted traditions, values and for want of a better word behaviours.
So the line was drawn in the sand. I either leave now or I get to know and understand this country and its culture better. I guess I chose the latter because I am now wading through a very enlightening book called Being Indian by Pavan K Varma.
As I am reading the book I am taking notes so that at the end of the particularly long chapters I have a summary of the key points. I thought that people who are interested in Indian culture, but do not necessarily want to wade through such a wordy and detailed commentary, might find my notes informative and perhaps useful.

I am not going to add my notes from the complete book here as this would mean a protracted blog and could be too much to digest in one sitting. So I plan to add an entry on each chapter week by week. So, for this week I will cover some background information on the Indian Culture and how they perceive themselves.

Disclaimer- Some of these observations and generalisations are quite controversial, so I want to make it clear that they are not my own but rather those of an Indian National. So please don’t feel the need to have a go at me if something I have noted upsets you. Also, these are generalisations; there are always exceptions to the rule.

Image Vs Reality

Indian leadership and educated Indians have projected an embellished image of India and Indians that they know to be untrue and have encouraged foreign observers to accept it. This is so much so that they have become convinced in their own mind that this projected image is true. They have projected an image of what they think India ‘ought’ to be rather than what it ‘is’. This is not unique to India a lot of societies perceive themselves incorrectly.
The projected Indian image is not entirely based on fiction. Every myth is based on a kernel of truth. The Indian myth creates unity yet it also deceives the nation.

Hierarchy is immensely important- Bending to those above and being dismissive to those below.

Indians pursue profit and hanker for material goods. They esteem the wealthy.

Spiritualism- the motivation is for divine support for power and money (even when gained in a dishonest way).

Indians are largely indifferent to whatever is not of direct benefit to them. This means that they have no problem tolerating inequality, filth and human suffering.

Indians are naturally amoral in outlook; any action is justified. Corruption has thrived because it is not considered wrong as long as it yields the desired result.

There is a limit to the amount of change the culture (inherited ethical habit) can go through due to it being so long and ingrained. It may be slightly diluted or modified but never changed.

Indians have an amazing ability to retain hope even in the most abject situations. This is due to the resilience they have formed from continued exposure to adversity. An amazing will to survive.

Although much of the listed traits are uncomplimentary they have actually helped India develop many of its positive attributes.

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