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Our Land - 19th Century People Living in the 21st

When I happened to be hospitalized six months back, I got to experience firsthand all the aspects of privatized healthcare.
  • I opted for one of those premium hospitals to avoid having to wrestle with the long lines and the general all-round madhouse atmosphere of a government hospital in India.
  • I experienced the enormous cost of private healthcare which would surely be un-affordable for a vast majority of Indian families.
  • I experienced the tricks of health insurance -- I had 2 or 3 policies but had to pay the entire cost out of pocket [in advance]. Very clever of profit-minded insurers. An example: I happened to be in the hospital for only one day and that was the deductible for one of the policies I was holding. Clearly I was not sick enough.
But those are specific problems of the healthcare industry. What struck me was a personal experience which I feel I can extend and generalize.

I had chosen one of the twin-sharing rooms. When I was wheeled in, it was empty and feeling quite ok after a minor needle aspiration procedure and having nothing better to do, I switched on the TV.

An hour or so later, a young man of about 10 years old joined me -- I had in fact seen the boy in the procedure room sitting in a wheelchair when I was there for my needle aspiration.

Anyway, the kid probably had food poisoning of some sort and the doctors were merely keeping him under observation -- among other reasons, the insurance companies pay only if you're admitted for a minimum of 24 hours.

Our two beds were separated by a curtain -- so I was able to overhear all the conversation. The boy had his parents in attendance not to mention the grandfather.

I was mostly watching TV throughout the day but kept the TV in mute mode or used very little volume as I did not know if they would appreciate my selection of informational channels or not.

There was neither appreciation nor objection. However, as it reached about 8 pm in the evening, the kid came to my bed and asked if he could have the remote. I said okay and handed it over to him.

Lo and behold, soon the mother of the kid was watching one of the popular TV soap operas on a popular Hindi channel. So that was clearly a not-to-be-missed affair. You would fall behind the story if you miss watching it for a day.

I was subjected to the atrociousness of it all -- the incredible reinforcement of all that is wrong with Indian society in terms of the traditional roles of married women and the worst sort of scheming women one can imagine.

Next day morning, the newspaper came and the kid must have gone through it because he pointed out to his mother that Wikipedia is going to close. This was in January when the one day SOPA black out was happening. The kid admittedly got it wrong. So the mother apparently checked the story and told the kid something which I don't remember specifically but which was again incorrect. It was apparent that the woman was not the sort of person who is normally bothered with news or current affairs.

This is quite the norm in India -- I have mostly seen females being rather unconcerned with larger societal affairs and limiting themselves only to issues that immediately concern them or their close or extended family. The men are more likely to at least have some measure of interest in political developments for example -- if not quite the discovery of the Higgs boson or additional moons around Pluto.

Considering the upscale nature of the hospital and its location in posh south Delhi [Vasant Kunj to be specific for Delhites], the mother of the kid most have been a graduate or postgraduate in the humanities. It's normal for ladies to acquire those qualifications -- or even a degree in engineering and then settle down to the routine and humdrum and ritual-filled life of a housewife.

In the villages or smaller towns, among the women of a previous generation, the level of education would be much less. My mother did not complete her schooling.

I think the expectation in Indian society is that it is more important to have kids rather than to get a job or pursue professional achievements.

This is a relic of an agrarian society where the nature of work would have remained same from one generation to another and the cycle of life would have been repeated from generation to generation.

This mindset persists to this day. One would be looked at as some sort of a freak if one persists in staying single or is childless after being married. People live primarily in joint families. Even today, joint families persist. Sons continue to live in their parent's home after a getting a job themselves. I think if someone belongs to Mumbai or Delhi for instance, it would be commonplace and indeed a great advantage for a guy if his parents are already possessed of a home in a high-cost city. Therefore he would continue to live with his parents even after getting married. Doing otherwise would be crazy.

The contrast with US society is interesting. The parents in the US apparently expect that their kid will move out upon going to college and never really return home permanently.

In India, in the villages people only ever link up with their extensive clan. Their lives revolve around family functions such as cousins marrying or someone performing some ceremony for their newborn kid, etc. People's entire lives are thus spent in familiar surroundings among people who are more or less like themselves. And of course this attitude persists.

So if a bunch of people from Odisha happen to migrate to Gujarat or Mumbai or Delhi, what happens is that they all socialize with people from back home. Which is to say, I would be expected to socialize with my near or distant relatives living in the city where I live now.

The web of relationships in India can be intricate or complex and extensive enough to allow for this possibility. People's mindsets do not necessarily change in any fundamental manner even as they move out from the villages to cities or other states.

This outlook stays even when people move out of India. In the US, we see a proliferation of societies of people belonging to particular Indian states. They build temples in India and in the US too.

There's this persistence of identity. People of Bihar living in Delhi persist with their particular traditions such as performing chhat puja in Delhi. People of Odisha build Jagannath temples and go through rath yatra every year in Delhi and the other large cities.

People show who they are in the choices they make. Take marriage. Clearly, in the centuries before ours, people living in the villages of India did not travel a 1,000 miles looking for brides and grooms. The search would have been confined to perhaps a radius of 30 miles at the most. The other particulars in such arrangements -- namely caste and religion -- need not be pointed out.

Our society is thus fragmented at many levels. These old sensibilities endure to an astonishing degree. People, the youngsters, the future of this nation -- they are not all that different from their ancestors. They go back to their roots, their old identities, when the time comes for them to take decisions. The old patterns of caste, locality and religion are mostly repeated. The old divisions are mostly intact. There are just a few exceptions.

Every family has that story of the guy who had a 'love marriage' with a girl from a different caste which causes much discussion if not more serious upheavals. It's like those groups of deer or other antelopes in the jungle placidly going about their lives when suddenly they sense that a tiger is nearby and everyone is suddenly looking around with alarm -- everyone's ears perked up.

A marriage outside of the norm is like that tiger's appearance. The incidence of romances, extramarital affairs, or marriages among office colleagues is minuscule in India. Socializing among office colleagues is minimal outside of the office. The diversity of the office work environment is only tolerated because it's there and you can't do much about it.

That is sort of a rough portrait of the kind of people we are at this stage of the 21st century. What's the problem with being that kind of people?

I think the problem lies in what it shows about the mindset of Indians. The fact that they are so eager to hold on to their identities would be problematic when push comes to shove.

The partition riots were a particularly sad case in point. Other riots have happened since. As the population continues to increase and we hit limits in the availability of natural resources, there's scope for greater conflict. The conflicts over water between different Indian states is always simmering.

State and linguistic identities have erupted in different forms in the South Indian states and in Mumbai when there was talk of limiting the entry of non-Maharashtrians into Mumbai.

In general, India continues to be a nation with a thousand divisions based on language, religion, caste, sub-caste, class, and who knows what else.

People are focused on the betterment of their lives and the divisions are neither exacerbated nor do they disappear. The problems might occur when people are faced with having to make decisions that require them to look beyond the particularities of their birth situation.

The prejudices are several and severe and deep and enduring. They are not limited to how we look at the people of the North East. The physical differences in that case are somewhat egregious which has laid bare the fault lines.

But the fact of the matter is this: we are all prejudiced. Or hopefully not all but a significant percentage. A person from Bengal has a natural attitude of looking down upon a person from Bihar. Someone from Tamil Nadu tends to have a negative outlook towards a person from Kerala. And so on. There are intrastate divisions too. Someone from eastern UP may have a suspicious attitude towards a person from western UP. And vice versa.

These biases and attitudes have taken centuries to take root. It will neither be easy a task to remove them nor insignificant to accomplish.

The reality of today is that these differences are clear and present. It remains to be seen whether they turn out to be a danger to Indian society or not.

The education system -- indeed the patterns of our lives -- is such that there's no stress being put on the need to decimate these meaningless divisions. We do not utilize science as more than just a bunch of equations and a means to get a job.

Our understanding of the genomes of humans and other animals has shown conclusively how minute the differences are among the different human races -- and extended our kinship with all the species of life on Earth.

And yet we continue to be quite tolerant of our mildly-racist and mildly-caste-biased and mildly religion-centered identities.

I feel the bar is set too low. What we have come to expect of us humans is that it's ok as long as we do not utter racist profanities in public. It is enough to offer jobs to all irrespective of their caste. We pay lip service to the idea that there should be no discrimination based on religion by merely hiring people from all religions to work in offices. This is all good.

However -- is that all it takes to show our tolerance ... does that prove we have overcome our biases? I want to argue that it's not enough.

In America, the indignities of slave ownership ended a century and a half ago. India is -- on paper -- an egalitarian society. But who will honestly claim that the societies themselves have moved beyond those differences. In India, there are separate marriage laws applicable to people belonging to different religions.

In America, how many casual romances and how many marriages breach that color divide in the 21st century?

In India, how many marriages [for there are hardly any casual romances] succeed in breaking those centuries-old barriers?

My answer to both of the above questions would be -- not many. If that is so, then clearly we have a long way to go.

Surely it's not enough if India is merely a society consisting of a thousand little societies who merely co-exist with a show of superficial politeness [and much behind-the-curtains contempt] towards one another.

I do not know what it will take for people to grow over these innate inclinations. Our brains are very old structures -- results of evolutionary changes. We carry in our genes 'shadows of forgotten ancestors' as Carl Sagan put it. Those shadows are often dark.

I think we will do well to take active measures at a personal level to acknowledge the mental barriers we build around ourselves and then take steps to break those barriers down.

If not, we may be faced with problems. May be science will continue to make life better for humans and maybe we will live in a society of plenty in the future. Hopefully, we will not be faced with shortages and resource crunches which might force us to make choices. Because I fear, if we are forced to make choices, our choices will clearly reveal the biases we still carry.

The future is uncertain. I see dangers lurking. I hope my fears don't come true.


  1. Sachi, i like this piece of yours. But, I do see a lot of individuals in India desperately trying for change in small ways.
    Each individual developes their attitude from their own experinces in life and are also limited by economic/social consequences resulting from their choices.
    Also,a person who had limited oppurtunities to aquire social skills in early stages of life may find it difficult to evolve even when they have an oppurtunity to evolve. That, i believe, is one of the reasons why many NRI's, find it difficult in mingling with others. They (me too) find it daunting to cross that barrier. There are ofcourse other reasons too (Language barrier, Having something in common, overcoming stereotypes etc).

    Good luck and hope you continue to enjoy to blog.

    1. Sachi, I really liked the way you have been able to express your thoughts. I cannot agree with you any more but my perspective is that the society is more than mildly racist and deeply divided. I would like to cite an example in our apartment complex we are 8 families, 5 belonging to a particular community{I am part of this linguistic group} on basis of language. Recently there was some renovation work being carried out and one of the family said that they would not be able to contribute due to their financial issues and it all turned to talk about that particular community in all other homes. In my home when I told my parents that we should address that person who is not contributing to cause by name than by community even they did not listen to me.

      PS: Work is still own and I have my evening tea with the people involved in work{labor as they are called here} and they call me weird that I talk to these people which are lowly as per their view.


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