East & West: a world of distinction

Ira Pande

The great season of festivals starts this weekend, and never have I felt so unenthusiastic about it. Traditionally, after a hot summer and muggy monsoon season, the change in weather signals start of the most delightful time of the year in India. Mornings and evenings turn balmy, encouraging people to step out and meet each other. Puja sales beckon shoppers to come and spend their money on new clothes and household goods. Housewives are delighted that they can now offer bored children a change from the usual lauki, torai and bhindi menus as fresh and tender cauliflower, cabbage and greens are available. Silks and woollens are aired to become ready for the nip that will surely follow Diwali. In short, everyone awakes to a renewed life and looks forward to the next few months.

None of this is visible this year. People in Delhi, at least, are still wary of stepping into markets and meeting friends. The same, however, cannot be said of some other metros, such as Kolkata, where Puja bargain hunters are jostling each other to grab their trophies. Some wear a mask as if it is a cosmetic appendage, with their noses and mouths exposed, others do not even bother with that. I dread to think of what may happen if there is (and this is a real possibility) a second surge of infections. We have the example of a frightened Europe where cafes and bars, opened just a few weeks back, are being hurriedly shut down again.

Hopefully, we in India will be more fortunate because our population, despite its size and low literacy levels, is far more responsible about following the protocols laid down by the health authorities. Often the offenders are people who think they are invincible simply because they are rich. I think this can now be called the Donald Trump syndrome.

For those of us who are in the vulnerable category, this has been an opportunity to read and see films and documentaries that have enriched us. I have spoken of some of the books that stimulated my mind in the past few months, so let me talk today of what I have learnt from binge-watching some really gripping crime thrillers and political serials on the net. Many of the most gripping are the noir stories in this genre made by the Nordic countries: Sweden, Denmark and Iceland. Tightly scripted, brilliantly edited and with subtitles, they have kept me awake late into the night because I could not stop devouring the episodes, one after another.

What has remained with me is the enviable skill of their police investigators, with remarkable forensic and digital set-ups and their dedication to duty. Of course, there are bad eggs and the nexus between politicians and complicit police officers exists there as well, but it is the rule of law that ultimately prevails and no one can escape the scales of justice. Yet beyond this is the realisation that even though these societies rank among the highest in terms of social welfare and standard of living, their young people are among the most troubled and unhappy. The unit of the family hardly exists and where it does, parents live in terror of their sullen and unhappy children. Drug and alcohol abuse are only the half of it, sexual profligacy that leads to a frightening spiral of casual relations and the complete breakdown of marriage as an institution is a sad reminder that communities that no longer respect human relations within a family become adrift in a world shorn of all warmth and love that is natural and necessary.

Rarely in these stories does one see a family sitting down to a meal together or engaged in any activity that does not lead to slammed doors. The addiction to mobile phones and laptops is endemic and doing hideous things to young minds that are beyond parental control. If this is what economic well-being leads to, then one should seriously think about promoting social welfare to a degree where human relationships cease to mean anything. Parents leave the care of their difficult children to social organisations or foster families, old parents are dumped in care homes, single mothers fend for themselves up to a point, and then cave in to career demands. It has always puzzled me that while developed societies are so compassionate about community welfare and look after all kinds of vulnerable social groups, their individual lives reflect little of that care and concern where their own kin are concerned.

Not for nothing is the Indian vocabulary so rich in naming relatives: a simple aunt or uncle will never do. Each aunt and uncle has a distinct identity: mami/mama, chachi/chacha and so on. A similar taxonomy extends to nieces and nephews: bhanja/bhatija or bhanji/bhatiji. No wonder we have such a rich lode of relatives that remembering them all is bewildering. I often quiz my children about the names of their first, second and third cousins and they laugh at my memory. Yet secretly, I know they also respect that I cherish each family link and the accompanying memories of eccentric relatives.

I pray that at least this does not change in India even as we hurtle to ape the rich and powerful countries that we aspire to become one day.

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