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Friday, October 21, 2016

Fighting Status Quo in “Culture”: A struggle of necessity

Every now and then, I find myself at the same crossroads. There I am, staring at my life from the point of view of an observer watching people make a major decision at a fork in the road ahead. The people are all me, and the only difference between them is that of their age. With each new arrival of mine at this same spot, I seem to be wearing a different set of hopes, fears, dreams and anxieties, but still, for whatever reason, the confusion of having to make the choice is still the same. Even as an observer, I feel extreme frustration at the fact that I am unable to make the right choice, not able to either understand or accept my purpose to be able to do so, the quintessential example of which was usually the manner in which other, key people in my life served to maintain, even revere the status quo. My choice was always limited by what tended to be right for the majority, and usually never myself. Now, I don’t mean to sound like an angel fallen to Earth, trying to do good wherever I go, or have been until now in my life. However, compared to the tendencies I entertain in my head, my realization rate is usually closer to near zero. In the interests of larger entities like “family” and “friends”, even “colleagues” on occasion, I tried to make a choice that suited all, with my whole gullible soul, but even this was never good enough. No, there was always something to nitpick at, or some obvious aspect of the whole patterned ritual that I had grossly missed, allowing others a chance at levity at my expense, and me much more shame to deal with. Now that I look back at this, I can’t believe I ever tried to ignore the obvious life truth of it not being worthwhile to attempt to keep everyone happy. But these were people like, well, my family, my own kith and kin, even those to whom I had pledged allegiance for having shown me kindnesses for no good reason, and so convinced was I that my best interests were always at the heart of everything that they ever pointed out, after some stubborn denial, I always caved in and went along with the advice I was given. After many attempts at this, and somehow growing up in the process, it began to dawn on me that all was certainly not as it seemed. It was time to do a rethink on this whole being a part of a culture that sought the best for all its adherents thing, and that was when the goggles started to come off.

One of my first and most lasting annoyances has been the imperative duty of respecting my elders. I was never a fan of the notion that my elders, usually a reference made to people a skip-generation above me but eventually including all who were of an age greater than my own, were to always be respected, no matter what. No, I don’t want you to think that there is a molestation story at the end of this example, because as much as I complain about my life and the goings-on that transpired therein, I have personally known many others who have suffered far worse fates at the hands of people related to them, directly, remotely or otherwise. The example I would like to open with is far simpler and nowhere as being forced to do things like answer the questions that my elders asked me, without ever entertaining the thought that they were stupid, intrusive, or even repetitive. Part of the issue was having members of my family be a part of my holiday experiences as a child, which is another way of saying that extended family and the related-by-blood individuals who comprised this group were only available in-person during vacations. This is an important distinction to make because many people view India as a collection of “joint families”, where the reality is not entirely the same. Most of my early childhood was spent with my father and mother in a two-bedroom apartment in Dubai, with no siblings as I am an only child. It was only when I went back to India, whether to my home state of Kerala, or the cities of residence of my parents’ parents, brothers and/or sisters to visit that I interacted with most of my other relatives. This included all of my cousins as well, many of whom were much older than I was. And, it was during these trips that I would interact with my aunts, uncles, their children (my cousins), and all manner of extendedly-related members of those families as well, such as my aunt’s, husband’s, second brother’s, in-laws’, aged parents who we simply had to see in case, and I kid you not, “they passed away before we saw them one last time.” I will get into other examples and aspects of the logic shoved at me to explain obligations of the culture that we were a part of in a while. For right now, it was a basic dislike for having to deal with the incessant and always mundane curiosities of my elders, and I found it really hard to accept the “have-to” nature of this proposition. Some of the easiest examples that come to mind are being in a gathering of people, often a mix of relatives and those not related at all, simply “friends” of the rest of us, usually during one of my holidays, and doing the rounds starting with the first person to come up to me and go, “Oh my, I haven’t seen you in ages.”, before rattling off the barrage of questions that began with, “What school are you studying in, What standard are you in”, (“standard” meaning grade level), “Are you on holiday, When do your holidays get over, When did they begin, What are you studying”, etc. Surely none of these are stupid questions, certainly not being asked if I am on holiday when I was on vacation, but what followed was a case of repetitive inquiry, where as my mother, for she was the one more determined to show how culturally pliable I was, would take me from elder to elder, only to be asked the same questions, usually in the same exact order, until I was all interrogated out. Of course, the younger I was, and the more I rebelled against having to perform my imitation of a stuck record, the more cute it was and therefore, it was temporarily permissible to get away with not wanting to answer another question, or skulking off. But, the tedium grew with age, and of course now, looking back, I wish I had learned the list of expletives that I have command over, certainly to be used with surgical precision in a once-and-for-all manner to avoid repeated bouts of obliged curiosity. 
On one such brief holiday, or “leave” as it happened to be, because I was now twenty-five years old and a “working professional” who was no longer entitled to school-length holidays, I finally hit a wall in my forced show of respect, by having to answer my elders no matter what. It was person number one, who in typical Indian fashion, went about with the list of questions. However, the major variants in the list of FAQs, for age tends to expand the curiosity that elders are allowed to show in the lives of their, well, juniors I suppose you could call it, were things related to my professional qualifications, such as my job, what it entailed, and my personal favorite, how much money I was earning. That was when a little voice in my head, which had always been fighting the good fight, went, “Hey, wait a minute.” It was strange, not to mention extremely inappropriate even if people in India give me the but-everyone-does-this poor logic, mostly because it was at a funeral of a distant relative’s distant relative, and I will spare you the lengthy connection because I understand how it pains one to join the dots, dots which are individuals who exist/existed at any given point in time, and quite honestly, in spite of the sombre occasion, it was disheartening, no, disgusting to find people who still cared more to exercise their conversational idiocy than to simply hold their tongue and let the sanctity of gathering at another’s passing on from life be free from any indecency. Thankfully, I didn’t get overly upset, or even upset at all for that matter. No, I simply looked person number one in the eyes and very politely asked, “I’m sorry, but why would you ask something like this?”

As if to give me practice with exercising my newfound courage, or perhaps to display the depths of his conversational prowess, he deflected with, “Oh nothing really. But, is it in the ten to twenty thousand range or...”

Before he could finish, I cut him off with a whispered but curt, “I’m really sorry, but I am not comfortable discussing this with you.” Wish I’d done this first, but no sooner had I uttered it he stopped, looked up at me, then quickly glanced around to see if anyone else had caught this affront to his “elder” status being threatened, and went off in a silent huff. Some victories may certainly be more well cherished than others, but standing there, I wanted to jump up and shout “In your face!” Thankfully I did not because that would have gone down poorly with the rest of the mourners assembled there. However, the fact that a simple push-back, or putting my foot down, was all it took to stop the perpetual perpetration of unwarranted curiosities from being thrust upon the youth, generation after generation, was an amazing discovery to me. Don’t get me wrong, I was also thinking about the fact that for generations, in the name of maintaining culture, people like my grandparents, parents, and maybe even a few generations prior to my great-grandparents, no one had managed to pull this off, which is scary. No, I didn’t mean to disrespect my elders, but I had managed to make it known that I was unwilling to participate in a certain brand of cultural idiocy. This would be the start of many a similar battle for me, and I was quite sure I was going to like what followed as I unraveled the myths that were always presented as truth.

The next battle or perhaps a more accurate description would be to call it an annoyance, is a form of cultural institutionalism, a sort of core of the Malayalee cultural experience, forcefully kept alive in honor of itself, usually by parents or the first few waves of immigrants from the state of Kerala, in spite of the fact that in actuality, this was very much a do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do farce. To be honest, I’ve seen this with many of the Indian sub-cultures, and by extension, this sort of thing is true of most cultures around the world, especially those that experienced a diaspora, voluntary or otherwise, and to a certain extent, I am even willing to go as far as to call it a natural reaction to having to leave “home” behind with no great certainty of when and how a return will manifest itself. However, in many regards, resorting to knee-jerk instincts like animals do, but denying our origins and claiming some sort of moral, or ethical superiority is precisely the phenomenon which leads people to create rigid frameworks of institutions that are absurd caricatures of anything remotely resembling he human spirit. This institutionalism that I speak of comes in many forms, some more insidious than others, and includes not just aspects of apparel, or food, or the language spoken. The real forces of a wholesome mental and physical oppression are the attitudinal vices that are built into the system, where separation of word and action becomes the privilege of a chosen few, either by achieving a certain age, or being part of an unassailable wealth category, either through means mercantile or religious, just in case some of us choose to see a difference between the two.

One of the most obvious forms of the institution of culture being shoved down people’s throats is acceptance of gender roles. Most Indian sub-cultures end up having very well defined notions of what men and women are allowed to do, in terms of work, or even how they make use of their spare time, how they must comport themselves in public, and in the specific case of women, what behaviours are expected of them once they leave their own homes and start to live with their in-laws. Indian ladies have told me stories about how when they first got married, and then had to leave their homes and live with their in-laws, the kind of rude awakening they were in for, not anything malicious per se, but things like being reminded by their mothers-in-law about how as wives of their ‘darling sons’, they were to ensure that every need of his was to be taken care of, which included not allowing him the inconvenience of having to approach the general vicinity of the kitchen to ask for a glass of water. No, he should be able to do so from wherever in the house he may be, and because a lot of this kind of communication was of the at-the-top-of-the-lungs variety, not hearing a plea to assist in wetting the whistle would be considered a ghastly offence; it would be a matter relegated to the immediate background, but surely to be dragged out and re-exhibited at the next transgression of a similar nature, until the end of the poor unfortunate idiot’s life. I’ve seen and had recounted to me closer-to-home versions of this, as played out by my mother and aunts, being on the receiving end of their respective in-laws and such excellent “feedback”. This trend is changing, however, for the betterment of all I hope, but still, these changes are more cosmetic than real, and how long before such perpetual psychological scarring can cease to be of amusement, let alone of any kind of value is a question I leave to the philosophers. As far as I am concerned, it’s a dangerous two-way street with willing participants on both sides; I would actually prefer to call one group the subjugators and the other the subjugates. For me, this is one of the elements of culture that we are too often forced to put up with because of the age-old, it-has-always-been-this-way logic that denotes acceptance without understanding, no matter how inane that which is being forced upon the suspicious but pious victim may really be.

In an attempt to offset the victimized female played by hapless, and sometimes willing-martyr Malayalee women, I offer up the opposite example of the Malayalee male. He, above all else, is as infallible as his actions are unquestionable. Again, I would like to point out that this can, either in whole or in part, be the case for Indian males of all Indian sub-cultures. But I would like to stick to what I have witnessed firsthand, for the sake of posterity, if nothing else. The Malayalee boy, for having come this far in my life I myself am forced to admit “his” lack of growing up, is the pride of the household. There may be a few, several, or as in my case, simply one in most families, which is again the generally Indian cultural preference for siring male, as opposed to female offspring. The reason for this is, or has always been explained to me as being related to the practice of “dowry”, where as part of the ‘arranged marriage’ phenomenon, the bride’s family usually ends up footing most of the expenses as well as making a payment as demanded by the groom’s family, almost as a show of gratitude for the privilege of the allegiance. In a most ironic twist then, the average Malayalee male is often revered and put on a pedestal by his mother, and very rarely his father. In fact, as some examples I have seen myself go, the father usually ends up being extra-strict on his son, whether or not there is a daughter for whom he holds a soft spot in the organ that pumps his blood, almost as if his realization of what constituted his youth haunts him enough to want to dispel it from his own male progeny, lest society think negatively of him for it. However, this treatment is more true for a son during his formative years, for upon growing up and resembling the father in his later years, he becomes accepted with open arms for having fought the good fight and suffered the upbringing which is always for his own good. I attempt to over-simplify on purpose because tales that focus on the individual nitty-gritties always fail to justify the similar behaviour in the collective organism that is in this case, a subset of “society”, separated by gender. So,. The infallible son, apple of his mother’s eye, goes through life much like any other male child, with the essential difference being that by virtue of his status, he tends to get away with a lot more than his sister would, for being able to do things like hang out with friends after school, as opposed to his sister(s) who would have to come immediately home, unless there was a legitimate, verifiable, and chaperoned reason for them to have to associate with their own friends after school hours. Perhaps then, it would come as no surprise that in the event of anything extra-curricular, particularly during their teenage years, should they decide to act on intimate instincts, this action not resulting in marriage thereafter, it is the girl, now a young lady, who will be publicly shunned for being less virtuous, while her male accomplice would be unaffected in the eyes of the public. I have had the unfortunate occasion to see this happen innumerable times, not during my or anyone else’s teenage years, for in hindsight it would have been most preferable to get such ignominy out of the way and attempt to start life over with so much more of it left to live, but among married couples who have gone so far as to raise a family, all while the man of the house was frequenting other affairs, and possibly other houses, sowing his wild oats, as it were, for no good reason other than being somehow given the privilege of doing so by the culture of a society so intent on preserving it at all costs. This is a wholly strange phenomenon to me, not because I don’t understand that being male, as Robin Williams so succinctly put it, “The problem is, God gave man a brain and a penis and only enough blood to run one at a time”, but because if a woman was ever to have an affair, no, to entertain the thought of doing so, the culture-frenzied keepers of social mores, would burn her at the stake, or worse, make it news worthy of national headlines, just so everyone else in the world would know what kind of person she is. This is a double standard I have had the opportunity to ask some of my married friends about, and a wider group of people than just other Malayalees. But to my utter exasperation, most of them have told me that this is the way the world is, and that I would not understand because I am not married. If this is truly the case, or at least what it may said to be with the state of marriage in our present era, then I have no interest in achieving this level of understanding. Of course, you can see how problematic it is when children growing up see tired, forced, and often dead marriages being dragged out for their sake apparently, while the men of the house entertain themselves at the expense of their wives, and then decide to play along because of the fear of disappointing their parents, who will nag them to death should they ever become disappointed due to the actions of their descendants, only to keep the whole sickly cycle carrying on and on.

In line with the male double standard in the Malayalee sub-culture, and the fact that I thought the act of offering/receiving dowry was all but dead with us, because many Malayalees have traveled the world and lived abroad to understand, and hopefully, attempt some self-analysis of their own culture. However, I was shocked to find out that this was not the case. To make matters infinitely worse, in my estimation, I heard news of Malayalee boys who had spent most of their lives in a foreign country, or countries as the case was, were still demanding dowries when they came back to find their brides-to-be in their home state of Kerala, “God’s Own Country”. This helps me set up the last point that I wish to talk about regarding culture and the need for its evolution. There is a strange and often unspoken taboo among the parents of Malayalees who have spent a significant portion of their life abroad. Maybe “taboo” is too strong a word, so let us just call it a really, really, really, very, very, strong preference that their sons, and obviously daughters for they have no real say in this matter as I have established already, should marry one of their own kind. Many of you reading this will immediately recognize this as somehow warranted, you know, as a means of preserving a culture that would otherwise die out, and I would be wholly inclined to agree. However, allow me to point out a couple of things. No wait, first an example of this in my own life. Ever since I graduated college and started working, my mother and all manner of relatives, some closer, and others “removed” in degree of direct “relative” status several times over, began to express interest in my getting married. However, I always found some humorous but legitimate reasoning to delay my, and I don’t enjoy using this phrase a lot because it honestly sounds like what a cattle-herder does to his beloved livestock, “tying the knot”, usually for reasons such as not having saved enough, or needing to establish some stability in my career and professional life before being able to take up the commitment of spending the rest of my life with another person, not to mention having the means to raise a family. However, as time went on, the concern grew, and so did the numbers of people who seemed to care about my single status. Additionally, and thanks to the cultural understanding of these, our modern times, there began to grow a fear that I might be entertaining homosexual tendencies, or worse, planning on finding a partner who was not Malayalee. Surely, and quite obviously from those people who were most vociferously concerned, a flurry of advice began to inundate my life, all well-meaning, I assure you. Yet, somehow, the relevance of it all was wasted on me. The questions I had in my life were different, and among these queries of curiosity, were the points I briefly alluded to a few sentences ago; the couple of things that I wanted to point out.

First, for those who value a culture that is essentially tied in to their lifestyles as most sensibly lived in their homeland, seeking better opportunities outside of said homeland was like hammering a nail in the coffin that would ultimately be the doom of their beloved culture. Why? Because instead of staying back and working through the issues that they sought to escape from, unemployment, lack of employment opportunity, some form of persecution, or simply boredom and wanting to pursue their unshakeable wanderlust, and in the process helping their homeland and its beloved culture evolve to be more resilient in a changing age, they left it high and dry, practicing imagined piety in holding on the values and morals that were not very well adhered to to begin with, but which they believed defined them and their “kind”.

The next instance of enacting the slow death of a culture wishing to be saved is to enforce it without providing a good example for it. I never had my Malayalee culture shoved down my throat, not except for my grandmother reminding me how sad it was that I never learned to read or write the Malayalam language, almost every time I met her, so in some strange sense, later on in my life I was drawn to explore it a little bit more, I dare say “naturally”. But wearing the clothes and eating the food are just the tip of the cultural iceberg. What lies beneath is a whole range of attitudes and opinions, those that deal with things of the nature of which I have sought to bring up, and go a lot deeper too. Yet, the clothes, food, holidays, and other “enforceables” become the easiest things to point out as needing to be strictly adhered to, and therefore most easily monitored. The trouble is, this allows for all the practices that slip under the radar, finding legitimization not necessarily as part of the cultural pretext, but as part of status quo, tied heavily into an unholy guilt trip, and therefore, above and beyond the realm of possible question.

And so it goes, from generation to generation, each wondering, perhaps, but never questioning beyond the right to enact the practices of its elders, the sum total of which has led us to a stage in the non-existent evolution of the culture, which is how it will die, eventually. Maybe I don’t need to fight anything, with reference to the title of this post. Maybe I should just silently observe as bad becomes worse, and ignominious undoings become the new raison d’etre, the celebrated, more modern face of a once revered culture, now floating in limbo with no roots to secure it, and no sense of direction into which it may be headed. Maybe Robert Frost was right about the world not ending with a bang, but with a whimper. Or maybe, just maybe, more and more people will wake up and realize that walking the walk, but doing so differently, and with a view to understand without blindly accepting, this will be the way they lead themselves out of the mountain, and away from the clutches of an aggrieved piper, as manifested by their own confusions and mistrust. There is always hope, is there not? But what are you hoping for? A shot at the way things are? Or a chance to make something different, and lead the way to what will be?
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