Going by the book, Indians are incestuous by default

Hypocritical mores are at the heart of India’s sociocultural problems

The raw anger and frustration sweeping India after the Delhi rape and murder has generated more heat than light. While the outburst of emotions is completely understandable especially coming from a culture and ethos where heart rules over head, it would be worthwhile to dispassionately and rationally find one’s way to the core of the issue peeling layer after complex layer of Indian sociocultural mores. The issue of sexual discrimination – naked misogyny at its worst – is complex, indeed far too complex, to be discussed threadbare in a piece such as this one, let alone come up with solutions. But it is well worth it to try to find the root of at least one aspect of the problem, not be content with dealing with the symptom alone. Here is a brief attempt to peel off a few layers of the glorified hypocrisy of some social mores…

I was once reprimanded in school because I asked of my teacher if I wouldn’t be able to marry any Indian woman when I grew up. I referred to the paragraph called “Pledge” that was printed on the first page of every textbook of my time (it probably still is). It said, “India is my country. All Indians are my brothers and sisters… [and so on]”. If I take the pledge that all Indians are my brothers and sisters, I will perforce be incestuous in my physical relationship with any and every Indian woman and so would have to look outside the country, I said.

I was told to shut up by the scandalised though cheerfully disposed teacher because this was, as he told me, merely a metaphorical statement. What’s the point, then? What does it seek to prove or teach? No wonder no one ever bothers to read the pledge*. If they haven’t already, the government should dispense with it just as it dispensed with the national anthem being compulsorily screened at the end of every movie in a theatre.

Welcome to the phony world of Indian hypocrisy.

The heart-over-head mentality (perhaps ‘heartality’?) – that permeates Indian sociocultural mores is what causes an eternal conflict between symbolism and reality – metaphor mistaken for reality. Metaphor is the constant crutch of traditional Indian teachings. In ancient philosophical texts where a point is sought to be made, the teacher or the text has something like “Just as you discard old clothes and get new ones, so does the soul discard an old body and find a new one,” connecting symbolic metaphor to practical reality. Modern gurus of every persuasion use metaphor to drive home a point. It works like sleight of hand. You believe you’re seeing what you’re seeing, though you know it isn’t true. Metaphor undoubtedly drives home a point exceedingly well. But as semanticist Alfred Korzybsky said, “the map can never be the territory”.

For Indians metaphor isn’t restricted to literature, poetry or philosophical and religious teaching. It permeates everyday lives moulding the very worldview. Looked at analytically, much of Indian sociocultural mores seem deeply hypocritical because they see metaphor as reality. Therefore, hypocrisy imbues every ‘acceptable’ social interaction. By default then, every woman is a mother, sister, daughter, grandmother or even ‘Devi’. She is rarely, if at all, ever acceptable as a partner, friend or simply a woman for who she is. She is immediately deemed suspect with all sorts of aspersions cast. So complete strangers can comfortably be Behenji, Maa, Bhaiyya, Maasi, Uncle, Auntie and so on (of course you will never call a man other than your father a “baap” – that is absolutely sacrosanct). But a man and a woman cannot be partners or friends without overtones of the relationship being “najayz” and something seriously black in the daal.

Doesn’t calling all and sundry brothers, sisters and mothers greatly devalue the real blood relationship between mothers, children and siblings? Why would you want to equate strangers with your mothers, sisters and daughters? Aren’t they special? After all, you won’t do the same with ‘father’! What does it do except devalue real relationships? Is it not hypocritical nonsense in the very extreme?

I’ve known so many of my mates who ended up dating and marrying their “maani hui” of “muh boli behen” when the warming of their hearts’ cockles transmogrified the hypocritical sibling love into something natural – Kaamdev’s precision arrows cutting the threads of the raakhi. The lovebirds were vilified for a time (often teased, “din mein sister, raat mein bistar”), but what the heck – the muh boli phase actually helped them get closer together blossoming into love in times when it was not the norm for a boy and girl to be just friends. Ooh, the sweet rewards of subterfuge!

The cover of every woman being a mother, sister, daughter is a convenient handle for justifying the male role as the “protector”, therefore actualising an illusion of physical superiority over the “fair sex”. Thanks to modern laws, women have long ceased to be treated as property legally, but attitudinally, they still are. There is any number of Hindi and other Indian language films that have reinforced this for generations and continue to do so, to speak nothing of the utterly nonsensical, mind numbing “family” TV soaps that plague the airtime on dozens of channels.

Women are still referred to as “Maal” or “Saamaan” [property] in men’s conversations (including in movies where, incidentally, chhed-chhad is a legitimate, sure-shot technique of winning female hearts). And perfectly decent and educated, well-heeled families still use the expression that loosely translates as “we’ve given away our daughter to so-and-so family in so-and-so town” – as if the daughter were a thing. But of course she is – a thing of liability, which must be gotten rid off either before she sees the light of day (when the sex detection clinician utters ‘Jai Mata Di’ – imagine uttering the all powerful Mataji’s name to convey the ‘sandesa’ for killing off the female foetus. Many would think nothing of appeasing goddesses for the favour of a son the next time.) – or as soon as it is possible to palm her off, with money and gifts if necessary.

Favouring males over females is by no means unique to Indian culture – it is in fact prevalent in nearly every culture (there always are sons of bitches – never daughters of philanderers, remember?). It begins with guns and swords for boys and dolls and play utensils for girls, where traditional roles are embedded into their respective psyches at a young age.

But Indian culture, thanks to its great proclivity for taking hypocrisy to absurd levels by twisting logic using emotional casuistry ingeniously, finds justification for soft-pedalling gender discrimination, even misogyny.

The most popular version of the epic Ramayana in northern India is the one credited to the authorship of Tulsidas. One of the verses says: “Dhol Ganwaar Shudra Pashu Naari Sab Taadan ke Adhikari”. Simply translated, it reads: Dhol [folk rhythmic instrument], illetarate [persons], lowest caste [persons], animals and women deserve to be beaten. Indian feminists have long used this verse to prove their point about deeply embedded and institutionalised, even spiritualised misogynistic thinking in Indian literature, religion and culture.

But scholars have countered this by suggesting punctuation at convenient points while adjectivising alternate nouns in the verse, in another instance of a spectacularly failed attempt in defending the indefensible using flawed logic. According to one expert, the verse should read Dhol, Ganwaar Shudra, Pashu Naari – meaning dhol, illiterate lowest caste persons and animal [like] women deserve to be beaten. This makes it even worse, raising many more questions of the so-called social equity that was supposed to exist in the golden age of Ram Rajya. The fig leaf flies off even with the feeblest gust of logic.

If one can justify beating illiterate lowest caste persons, why spare the illiterate higher caste persons? And pray, what are animal-like women? Can’t think of any women even remotely animal like compared to the Delhi rapists who ravaged a sister, a future mother (as described even in the mainstream media) – and undoubtedly now a goddess in the making, with shrines very probably set to mushroom in many parts of the country.

In the wake of the Delhi tragedy, several remedies have been suggested – legislating capital punishment, life imprisonment and chemical castration for convicted rapists, sensitising the executive and tightening up its enforcement machinery; speeding up judicial processes and so on. No one though is talking about holding a mirror to Indian sociocultural mores, taking a long hard look at the anachronistic rot of hypocritical attitudes that will stare every Indian in the face.

Unless a close, self-critical look is taken at their own selves, their beliefs, their sociocultural mores, their attitudes toward women, castes, classes, religions, little can ever change at the individual, family and community levels – and of course nationally.

A bold willingness to eschew hypocrisy is required. A spade must be called a spade – not worshipped as some god’s implement. A woman must be seen and treated as a person, an individual not a metaphorised behen, maa, beti or devi. Just as no man other than a biological father will ever be referred to as baap.

Of course this is no silver bullet. It will not magically bring down the incidence of rape and murder. But then so won’t tighter legislation, more policing and faster justice. And neither will protests no matter how widespread and how intense.

What it has potential to do is perhaps usher in an attitudinal change at different levels of India’s highly stratified society. For the malaise does not afflict any single stratum – it seems to be spread out across the spectrum with an obvious greater concentration at the lower levels. Only attitudinal change can in time ensure changes at the governmental and administrative levels.

As the old adage goes, people only get the government they deserve.


* I have a hunch about how the “All Indians are my brothers and sisters” bit came into the “Pledge”. It probably has reference to Swami Vivekananda’s address in Chicago where he referred to the audience as “Dear Brothers and Sisters”, which is believed to have drawn thunderous applause because it was a novelty for westerners to be addressed in that manner. But it’s just my hunch.