When East meets West

Snake charmers in Jaipur. Photo by Charmain Smith
Snake charmers in Jaipur. Photo by Charmain Smith
A pile of rubbish is nosed at by cows and stray dogs in Jaipur. Photo by Charmain Smith.
A pile of rubbish is nosed at by cows and stray dogs in Jaipur. Photo by Charmain Smith.
The ubiquitous modern cellphone in a traditional Indian market in Agra. Photo by Charmain Smith.
The ubiquitous modern cellphone in a traditional Indian market in Agra. Photo by Charmain Smith.

India is vibrant, full of optimism and fast becoming one of the world's superpowers. While rural areas may lag behind, life in the cities is changing fast, and the young, educated middle class is growing, modernising and part of the global consumer culture. But that does not mean people are necessarily discarding all their millennia-old traditions. Charmian Smith looks behind the face of modern India.

When Lavanya Sankaran was 18 in the mid-1980s, like many other well-to-do Indians, she felt she had to leave because there was no future for her in her country.

Educated in the United States and a former investment banker in New York, Ms Sankaran is now a full-time writer living with her husband and daughter in Bangalore, India.

Her internationally acclaimed The Red Carpet (2005) is a book of short stories about the lifestyle of young educated Indians and their conflicts and misunderstandings with the older, more traditional generation - it's the world Ms Sankaran lives in and knows well.

She suggests we meet at Windsor Manor, a five-star hotel themed as an English country house, in Bangalore, one of India's economic hubs, a major manufacturing city and one of the world's information technology centres.

"You no longer have to leave the country to make a future. You can stay and make a life for yourself and you can create products the rest of the world can use with respect. That changes your attitude to your country," she says.

Although millions of rural Indians still live in much the same way as their forebears, life is changing fast for many others.

Everywhere in cities modern shopping malls, international retail chains and glass-walled office towers are being built alongside roads that are often little better than potholed tracks, people living on footpaths (where there are footpaths), and piles of rubbish nosed at by mild-mannered cows and stray dogs.

It's all part of the great contrast that is India, a young country with a young population and enormous energy, but with a culture and civilisation that goes back millennia.

Formed in 1947, modern India has 28 states and seven union territories, each state with its own government and language, customs and cuisine.

When Ms Sankaran studied in America, she felt she needed to identify herself politically and economically.

In India she feels free not to have to do that; to lead both a post-feminist life and engage in spiritual practices that go back to Buddha.

"You don't feel you have to tie yourself in a knot about making a statement about it," she said.

Despite a tide of consumerism, Indians were finding a renewed pride in their heritage and reviving traditional crafts and practices, from weaving and dancing to meditation and yoga.

"There's a certain Indian core to you, and I think people sense there is such a thing however ill we define it, but we are also simultaneously dealing with influxes of cultures and ideas.

It's something that has been done for hundreds and thousands of years, so people don't think too much about it."

Indians have had centuries of experience integrating outside influences into their culture.

Successive waves of foreign invaders - Aryans, Mongols, Arabs, Moguls, Europeans and British have left their marks.

People can pick and choose and live with whatever combination they like, according to Ms Sankaran.

Where she does see a conflict is between the traditional concept of family and the modern concept of individuality.

"When we say family we are not just talking about parents and children, we are talking about vast numbers. There will be cousins, and grandaunts and someone married to someone else who is vaguely connected to someone else, and it's all family.

I think in South Indian languages, there is no word for sister-in-law, it's just sister, there's no word for cousin, it's just brother and sister, so that's all part of the great Indian connection."

In a traditional extended family, there's an assumption that you are there for everyone and everyone is there for you, but in practical terms that means that you are willing to spend a certain amount of time and energy sorting out some sick cousin's problems, and that they will be there for you when things are bad for you, she said.

That kind of traditional value system does not sit easily with modern corporate work ethics or the concept of the individual and personal achievement.

"This is not a café society - it's a society where home rules. But that is not to say there aren't single women living by themselves going to cafés and bars, and choosing their own spouses instead of having an arranged marriage."

It is still common for sons and their wives and families to live with their parents, the mother ruling the household.

Traditionally, the daughters-in-law would cook but now many are going out to work.

At first families tended to be diffident about daughters-in-law working, but once the pay started coming in the complaints stopped.

It increased the financial capability of the family and working mothers had support from mothers-in-law, Ms Sankaran said.

"The concept of middle class in India is elastic - it stretches from those just not poor to those just shy of being extremely rich, but the same values often stretch through the lot. Today if you are middle class not only can you live a good life for yourself but your capacity to improve the lives of others is something you can do nowhere else in the world."

In the past, middle-class people struggled to pay domestic servants and others who worked for them.

Now there is more prosperity, they extend their range of dependents, she said.

She pays for the education of her driver's daughter who is studying computer science at an English-medium school and, even though the girl's mother is barely literate, she will be able to have whatever future she chooses, Ms Sankaran said.

"Many people in the developed world can say `I've lived a decent life' but how many people can say `well I've transformed the lives of at least one other family completely'. You can certainly do that and much more."

The importance of family also extends to larger workplaces.

Generations of workers have worked for the same family companies, and become almost like family.

Many bosses refer to their employees as their "boys" and many companies, especially in the country, supply housing, electricity, water, medical care or insurance, and education, although wages remain low.

This may create a dependence according to some observers, but young people, educated in company schools, are leaving rural areas in droves, looking for a better life in the cities.

Many rural-based industries, such as tea plantations, are finding it difficult to retain staff - no longer do children automatically take over their parents' jobs.

Everywhere are abandoned fields, many of those near cities now sprouting apartment blocks.

Like most New Zealanders, Michaela Gordon Anchan thought arranged marriages were dreadful when she first came to India.

But now, having lived in Mumbai for three years, she sees them as a kind of dating service with your parents vetting the dates, and says they usually work well.

Arranged marriages have changed over the generations.

No longer do teenage brides meet their husbands at their weddings, and these days people are often free to choose their partners.

However, there's a back-up of parents and relatives ready to swoop in and help find a prospective spouse if you want.

Nevertheless, love marriages are still rare in India although lifestyles are changing with the younger generation and youth culture, she says.

After trekking round Nepal, Ms Gordon fell in love with Mumbai and her future husband, Kishore Anchan.

Theirs was a love match and they married about 18 months ago in a traditional Hindu wedding.

It included a pre-wedding party with dancing and drinking, then the ceremony, and a formal reception to which business colleagues were invited, she said.

As is usual in India, she and her husband live with her mother-in-law.

It took a bit of getting used to, but in India you marry into a family, not just a person, she said.

Her mother-in-law looks after the household.

Life in a city like Mumbai is oriented around having someone at home - people come to collect laundry and bill payments - and she found it difficult when she was living in a flat on her own.

However, it does mean that Indian men generally can't cook, she said with a laugh.

For a couple of years she worked for the German shipping company her husband managed but now she is setting up an online company selling Indian handcrafts that appeal to Westerners.

Her website, roseandsunder.com will be operational soon.

"Mumbai is exciting, the energy is addictive, there's always something happening. I love watching people go past with crazy things - maybe with 500 containers on their head, or maybe they've got a snake.

It's an exciting place to live, there's so much going on. It's like diving into the world of the unknown. The Indian economy could take over the world," she said.

Although she loves living in Mumbai, she worries about bringing up children there.

The education system is competitive and parents see children as hope for the future and push them to get good exam results so they can get into a good university.

Those who go to a local college instead of the Indian Institute of Technology or one of the other high-ranking universities don't get the quality of education or the respect from employers.

It's no wonder there is a lot of teen suicide, she said.

India is full of paradoxes.

Any statement you make about India is likely to be true, and so is its opposite, and several other versions as well, says Lavanya Sankaran.

One such paradox is the place of women in Indian society.

Despite being a traditionally patriarchal society, India still worships the female in the form of various Hindu goddesses and that, she says, has a strong psychological effect on how female strengths are perceived.

"Within the home the mother is the supreme power figure, so you have a sense that the female is something to be protected on one hand and you also have a sense of the female as very, very powerful.

You also see them in strong leadership positions - we've had a woman prime minister, the head of India's largest biotechnology company and the heads of several banks are women.

"I think men are protective of females younger than themselves and they are very accepting of females in authority but less comfortable with female peers; women have this peculiar - it's not really a glass ceiling, because once you cross a certain level it's very easy to be female and in authority.

But crossing your peers and handling them, that's dicey," Ms Sankaran said.

On the other hand, "Eve teasing", an unpleasant form of sexual harassment, is rife.

Michaela Anchan is careful what she wears to go jogging along Marine Dr in Mumbai, although she says she never actually feels unsafe.

As she now speaks a little Hindi she understands the suggestive comments some men call out.

There's still a sense that men own women and sometimes women are blamed for being raped because they wore a short skirt, she said.

Ms Sankaran says "Eve teasing is the shabby result of a strange confluence of traditional values, that dictate female behaviour, a with perception of Western values as being decadent.

So if you are uneducated or less exposed, seeing a woman mimicking Western behaviour opens boundaries that earlier were tightly closed.

And especially if you are of European descent you are fair game because the images that people see are those of pornography and kissing, which are all traditional taboos. It's behaviour that's born of ignorance."

•Charmian Smith visited India with assistance from an Asia New Zealand journalist travel award.

On the Net:

Vishal Kadakia: www.thewinepark.com
Alok Chandra: www.gryphonbrands.com
www.newzealandnatural.com
Nintin Chordia: www.technopak.com
www.nzembassy.com

 

 

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