Category Archives: Communalism

Efficiency VS. Tradition- Two Polarized Notions

Which is better- efficiency or tradition?

Anyone who has spent more than a few days in India will notice that efficiency is not a top priority. As outsiders have studied the subcontinent, this efficiency “problem” has been brushed off as a “developing country problem.” But I believe that the pushing aside of efficiency is more deliberate and has a deeper root in Indian culture.

In Indian culture, efficiency has never been the highest goal. And whenever that is the case, a culture doesn’t operate on methods of making life easy, quick or streamlined. But there are reasons for this.

I’ve outlined two Indian habits that point to the tension between efficiency and tradition: 1) the toil of simple daily survival activities 2) the obsession what other people are doing.

#1 Being Overly Occupied with the Simple Tasks of Life

Here is a small example that shows the complexities and frustrations of day to day life:

This family lives in a small hut on an empty plot. I watch the main woman of the house out my window every day. She is ping ponging around most of the morning, shifting wet laundry to the driest spot on the clothes hanging line. As you can see, every available place to put clothes is covered. She goes in and out of the outhouse washing dishes, washing more rags, all the while, chasing her half naked child so he doesn’t end up in the busy street outside the poorly latched gate.

I see her life and realize that most of her energy is spent on just the basic survival within the daily tasks of food, clothing and keeping the children safe.  Where are the men? Why are they living on this plot of land? My observation is that she is fulfilling her duty as the dutiful daughter in law. She spends her time fulfilling tradition, not disturbing the men to help watch the child, spending her time cooking hand made food, piping hot just at the right time. Traditions of caste keep the men of the family in certain jobs. Societal traditions keep the whole family as caretakers where they will be the watchmen of the land owned by their “malik” or “boss.”

Even though there is a large economic disparity between this woman and the middle class, most women can relate to her plight. They feel the weight of dutiful household responsibilities, the chaos of shifting priorities and being at complete mercy of the environmental factors around them. Yet tradition and honor must be carried on.

So lets look at another behavior that hinders efficiency.

#2 Being Overly Occupied with Others’ Activities

(aka “nosy auntie syndrome”)

 

In comparison to Westerners, Indians spend an amazing amount of time thinking about what other people are doing. Social norms require it.

Where I live in Bihar, someone once told me that Indians will ask you 20 questions before they tell you one thing about themselves. The skilled conversationalists already know a lot about you just from what they have seen. Conversation is stemmed from observation.

After years of living in India, I find myself doing the same thing. For example – the other day when a friend pulled up to the gym late, I found myself thinking, “She must have come around the train tracks because of construction on the main road her near her house. I bet she doesn’t have a meeting today because she is arriving a bit late. I wonder how her meeting yesterday was. I bet she is skipping out on the office today because her meeting went poorly.” The thoughts went on.

As an American, I rarely would have these thoughts in a Western context. Spending energy mulling on who is coming, going, what they are doing are seen as totally irrelevant wastes of mind space . Before living in India, I used to be totally occupied with my own thoughts on work, my own projects and my family, the news, etc.

In India, if you aren’t a few steps ahead of people in conversation, they will think you are self-absorbed. 

This is why Westerners sometimes label Indians to be a bit nosy or too into their business. Westerners spend very little time anticipating the actions of other people, unless it is an immediate threat or benefit to them. But in India, it is seen as a sport or hobby and even a requirement to having a connected conversation.

Americans have invented the copyright on productivity by being obsessed with efficiency.  But in this obsession, there is much that is lost. We lose the nuances of relationships. We reinvent ourselves so much that we forget what is important in our most basic needs. We suffer with affluenza. We lose contact with each other. We forget what really matters.

Time Magazine Cover 2006- captures the tension between efficiency and tradition

So, which is better? Efficiency or tradition?

From my observations- The highest priorities in Indian life are maintaining traditions and honoring relationships.

These are the questions I have for today’s generation:

Are efficiency and tradition really as polarized as I think?

If so, what do you think India needs more of?

Does India need to sacrifice tradition for efficiency or can they take place at the same time?

Any habits that we need to dispose of to increase efficiency in society?

Any aspects of efficiency we need to dispose of to maintain tradition?

What do you think? Leave your comments for me and lets discuss.

 

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Themes of Honor and Shame in Bollywood Movies

Two huge Bollywood blockbusters just hit theaters in the last two weeks across the world. Both are selling out as crowds flock and millions of dollars have been made so far.

On the surface both films look quite different.

Padmaavat is an epic drama about two warring kingdoms, staged in the 13th century. It capitalizes on the glamor of the royal life in the prime of Rajput glory. It has clear protagonist (Queen Padmaavati and King Maharawal Ratan Singh) and antagonist (Sultan Alaudin Khilji). The basic thrust is that Sultan Khilji becomes obsessed with Queen Padmaavat and conquers her kingdom so that he can take her for himself. Spoiler alert- in the end, upon defeat of the Rajput army, the entire clan of Rajput women burn themselves alive to prevent capture by the conquering army, thus maintaining the honor of the community.

Pad Man, is staged in dusty streets of North Indian Varanasi, in modern times. The protagonist is real life inventor, Arunachalam Muruganantham and the antagonist is society itself. He is a simple man fighting against societal norms to create low cost sanitary pads for women. The thrust of the film has created a movement across India to openly discuss menstrual health of women, a topic which has been taboo for millennia in the Indian subcontinent. He faces many obstacles, the biggest one being the sheer shame put on him from the community, accusing him of being a pervert, an adulterer and mentally ill.

However different these two films may appear, a common thread ties through both of the films – defending honor and avoiding shame.

In understanding the underlying motivations of societies, there are three worldviews:

  1. Guilt-innocence cultures are individualistic societies (mostly Western), where people who break the laws are guilty and seek justice or forgiveness to rectify a wrong.
  2. Shame-honor cultures describe collectivistic cultures (common in the East), where people are shamed for not fulfilling group expectations and seek to restore their honor before the community.
  3. Fear-power cultures refer to animistic contexts (typically tribal), where people afraid of evil and harm pursue power over the spirit world through magical rituals.

These differing worldviews are what propel a number of our East/West conflicts and misunderstandings. Grasping the shame and honor context is one of the most critical pieces to understanding modern India, as we know it today.

Most of the Bollywood films have some sort of shame/honor theme. If you watch closely, even the most seemingly glitzy and modern Bollywood films carry this theme underneath the skimpy dancing and flashy cars.

Amidst the glamor of Padmaavat and the simplicity of Pad Man, these films show how critical these motivations are to Indians. However modern, anglicized and forward India may be on the world stage, lets not confuse the true underlying motivations of shame and honor that lay in the modern Indian heart.

 

Credit to Author, J. Georges, for definition of three worldviews.

Cultural Values in Kids’ Movies

Movies reinforce ideas of family, culture, and societal expectations to kids, but especially they reinforce expectations of love and relationships. If I ever had doubts about this, they vanished last night as I watched “Shrek Forever After”. An innocent kids movie, as I watched it I realized how much these kids of movies subconsciously influence kids in their expectations of how relationships work.

In this movie, Shrek is trying to win back his wife Fiona after a confusing bout with Rumpelstiltskin. Due to a magic spell, she doesn’t know who Shrek is and he has to convince her that he knows her and in a previous time they were in love.

One dialogue goes something like this:

“Fiona I know everything about you.

I know that when you see a shooting star you close your eyes and make a wish.

I know that you don’t like the covers over your feet when you sleep.

I know that you only like grape jelly, not strawberry on your toast.”

Notice that every single statement is a very personal and focused on her as an individual.

My husband laughed out loud and made the comment: “In knowing so much about her, he didn’t say anything about her family, her upbringing, or her education.”

He was right. In America our love stories are based on affection between two people. A common understanding. The here and now.

Often times our view is, if you find someone who can understand you completely and that you get along with, those are real signs of a long lasting relationship. But is that a faulty expectation that comes out of our individualistic culture? These simple quote from a movie are small pointers to individualistic values communicating through film when it comes to love and relationships.

Imagine this same dialogue in an Indian (communal) context:

“Fiona I know everything about you:

I know that your mother made you moolee parantha every morning for breakfast.

I know that you got your family wanted you to go to IIT, but you did not get admission.

I know that your father had to take out a loan for your sister’s dowry that took him 13 years to pay back.”

Most likely, every statement would be family related!

I’m not saying that Indian culture is superior, just pointing out the differences in priorities and examining the differences in traditionally communal and individualistic cultures.

What do movies communicate about relationships?

After growing up in the US, I have been desensitized to see cartoon characters kissing. After several years of being immersed in Indian culture, I was very weirded out to see that they showed cartoon ogres kissing. Kissing was a central part of the story…and therefore a pointer to True Love. I never uncoded it as a kid, but now as an adult I can clearly see the message.

What kind of things are we teaching our kids with these movies? It is intended as an innocent fairy tale, but we need to be careful to make sure our kids understand that real love does not have to be wrapped up or expressed in physical affection.

And maybe we can learn to be careful what kind of values are being reinforced with film love stories like this. Is the here and now and personal preference all that matters in choosing a life partner?