Remember ME - You Me and Dementia

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Is Indian society degenerating? M V Kamath

Can it be claimed that Indian society is in a state of ferment? That values are disappearing faster than usual and that the 'chalta hai' philosophy is having a great run? What were Indian social values like when 'Kaama Sutra' was first written or when the temples were built at Khajuraho? Social norms change as do food and dress habits. What seems right and normal for one age sounds atrocious in another. When the Indian film industry first started, kissing was not taboo. It became so in subsequent years. Who, for heaven's sake, is Richard Gere and who, for that matter, is Shilpa Shetty that the media should get agitated over so trivial an incident as one kissing the other? What kind of journalistic standards are we pursuing? Was it necessary to publish the picture of the kissing do in the first place? Or take M F Hussain whose paintings now fetch crores of rupees and is now described as "the country's greatest living painter". The man who is now in his nineties should have had enough sense not to portray Hindu goddesses in questionable modes of undress and in conditions close to indecency. That a well-known only too well-known industrial house should have brought out a calendar incorporating these vulgar paintings only shows the vileness to which the country has sunk.

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Our secularists expect Hussain to be forgiven. Isn't he"the country's greatest living painter"? Doesn't the Indian Constitution guarantee freedom of expression? To that Oliver Wendell Holmes, the great US judge known as "The Great Dissenter" had the right answer. Freedom of expression, he said in one of his famous dissenting judgements, does not mean one has the right to shout "Fire!" in a crowded and closed theatre.

Certain sensibilities have to be respected. The Spanish and Portuguese Catholic Priests in the 16th and upto the 18th Century in Goa and British missionaries in the 19th and early 20th centuries went on a conversion spree that has no parallel and in
utter contempt of Hinduism. Conversion is a feudal concept; many in India resent it and in recent times those who have felt offended have gone on a violence spree. It is not for the public to take action and those who resort to violence invite punishment. But how does one handle a situation where public sensibilities are disregarded and logic flies out of the window?

One may dismiss violators or public order as fundamentalists, communalists or whatsoever and impose the strongest punishment for their wild behaviour but how does one assuage deep spiritual and emotional hurts endured for centuries? Islam is sliding back into its historical past in a vain effort to retain its identity and is a marginal segment of Hinduism. One can fret and fume and condemn them both but they represent a sense of reality that one cannot ignore. In the case of the Hindus the reality is the distant past. In the case of Muslims, it is the oppressive present as in Iraq or Afghanistan. We can't blame the mullahs.

We have to blame George Bush and Tony Blair for the Taliban and the Al-Qaeda and for Islamic terrorism in all its vile and urderous faces. And yet, we might well ask; why have values come to be degraded? Is this a new thing or an inevitable reaction to unexceptionally fast changes in social structure, rise in consumption and, to use a common phrase, inevitable globalisation?

Time was, in the early years of the 20th century, the rich and the powerful kept mistresses quite openly and it was the done thing. Wives seldom complained, even if they felt deeply hurt and neglected. But let a married man keep a mistress now. Either the wife will seek a divorce or, perhaps on the side, she will have a lover.

In the old days, especially in a joint family, there were often accepted liaisons among members with no eyebrows raised. Today live-ins are becoming, if not common, certainly not much discussed in polite circles. Does anyone remember the time when 'contract marriages' had suddenly become the talk-of-the-town, especially in Gujarat? Whatever happened to such marriages? Did the couples separate once the contract period was over? Time was when there were separate schools and colleges for boys and girls - even in the United States. Most of such schools have gone out of fashion. In the thirties and forties of the 20th century it was considered quite a novelty for an educated woman to work in an office.

At best she could serve as a school teacher in a girl's school, that too. There were no women journalists. One is not aware of a single I C S officer as a woman, but today's Indian Administrative Service (IAS) teems with women as do banks, business houses and other public service organisations. In many business houses, women outnumber men. Indeed woman wouldn't even mind working at night if the wages were correspondingly better. It is a question of livelihood. They don't want children. It is fashionable to be a DINK - Double Income No Kids.

It sounds wonderful not to bear any responsibilities to bring up children. Trouble arises only when both husband and wife attain retirement age or one of them dies, leaving the other without any family support. Such things happen. And then it would be too late to make amends.

Which explains the growth of old age homes for those who have no one to take care of them. As to women working long night hours, the explanation for making that illegal is that working night shifts often leads to crime and assaults on women. The answer to that, of course, is provision of greater security, employment of women night guards and assurance that no one is allowed to go home at nights, say after 10 pm but are given rest facilities at places where they work. But that still does not meet the issue of a lowering of societal values. This is where the world of films and of the media should indulge in some introspection. But the real reason for the change in values is the almost overnight and widely spread increase in income levels and the spread of the middle class.

Given the leap-frogging of the economy and the rise of consumerism, a value-change in society was only to be expected. How this will be held in retention of old world values is debatable. But already one sees instances of film-makers sending intimacy back into the closet. The likelihood is, that there will in the coming years, be fewer steamy scenes in films and fewer Gere-Shetty shots. Like everything in life, it is an acknowledged fact that every fashion whether in dress, life-style or community living has a short life-span. In that sense, there is no need to panic. But there is no denying that today's society is in a state of ferment.


Forget yourself for others, and others will never forget you.

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