This is my latest book. Based on my travel to over 4 dozen countries and the wit, wisdom and vignettes gathered in various meetings, conversations and experiences with various people from presidents, pushcart vendors, policemen to pole dancers. all written in a positive spirit. It is in #4 rank now… you can make it #1.
This is rather bashful and may sound offensive to some of you; so please exercise discretion to read or reject. But pl feel free to be copious in criticism , in case you read it: I will know if my line of thought is directionally correct or i need to relook. Thanks.
From time to time there are whatsapp waves or internet deluges claiming or implying India’s Culture is the Best and that it can teach so much to the West but India has itself nothing much to learn from the rest. (if You don’t agree? – you can trawl internet. Or give up reading further). Sure any ancient civilization like India’s must be having something great to give others. The things cited in favour are the family values, mohella culture, way we come to others’ rescue during crises, our everlasting marriages, and of course West’s flippant marriages and divorce rates of 43%, 67%, 97% whichever way the tongue twists and as soon as this trump card is dealt … if you are sensible you are supposed to concede defeat and shut up.
Without perfecting the art of Match making, to expect marriage that last a life time seems rather naive to me. This threat to quit I think is essential for both sides … for the men folks to defend excessive hen pecking and domineering and for the women folk against abuse and philandering by their men. Otherwise it will become like a football match where the referee has no powers of yellow or Red cards. I am within striking distance of kissing death with my first marriage intact … so i can say this without guilt of justification.
First the West, then the East
A few years back, I was escorting the CEO of the 2nd largest paper company in Europe after a day long discussions in our office. The first thing he told me on entering the lift was that he had a 21 year daughter and that his concerns regarding her were she does not take to wrong husband or go lesbo since that seemed to be the fashion. “i am sure she is not into drugs or other addiction”. I naively asked him if she was his daughter. “why you ask? This is my only marriage and only daughter”.
At another time the chief of Business Development of the largest European player, while on a drive to their plant, started lamenting that his daughter of 19 was not coming with them for vacations, participating in family get togethers etc. ‘We have even told her to take her separate room and otherwise offered incentives … but then you know we are clueless’. I have had a middle aged German PhD telling me once over phone on a holiday (i dialled without knowing it) that he was busy cutting trees in his father in laws farm since his FIL was too old to handle it and that he would dial once done.
I have not often come across those who are into 2nd and 3rd marriage. I don’t go about doing a survey and hence it will be foolish of me to be conclusive. So I would rather reserve my judgement. The images I carried till i started interacting with them closely and frequently is vastly at variance with I have heard from others.
When the Vietnam Cabinet had come to India, since we were pursuing some project there we were asked to see them. We were seated and the person from their delegation who was to be seated opposite me came in and even while pulling the chair and trying to sit, shot straight as an arrow …”how many children you have”. My neighbour who was more in tune with their culture whispered ‘its normal for them’. He enquired what my daughter was doing and i said engineering. He shared his sons plans and said ‘he is Ok, I have discussed and let him have his choice but my daughter i am confused and i will suggest engineering to her after your daughter’. All these even without shaking hands or introduction. I later came to know he was their Industries Minister.
So howsoever high may you be, concern for the family and sons and daughters run deep even in permissive societies.
So much for my boast about high profile meetings…now some show off about my rub with other cultures.
Whether it is our cultural shortcoming or otherwise, we have a lot to learn where it concerns treatment of women, children and the old and underprivileged … in public and in private, collectively and individually. Without substantive correctives on this, we would continue to be a Banana republic reporting and reading daily doses of gruesome acts of murders, rapes, ragging deaths, bullying, eve teasing, lewd looks and violative abuses.
The kind of eve teasing or unsavoury remarks (even if the target of comments is out of earshot) i see on the Indian roads is aweful. A feudal mindset …as if God has created their targets for the exclusive comfort of the commentator. The same thing is the base for rampant ragging on campuses (you accept my/our superiority and we will take you under our wings). Lewd looks and cheapness of comments is something unique to India – at least the market share it enjoys in this is far disproportionate to its population. As a society and more as Individuals we show the least sensitivity to others rights, conveniences, and dignity.
Our Hindi movies peddle eve teasing and molestations as Romance. The more bizarre the Gender abuse, the better the justification for concocted heroism and chances of coffers hitting high numbers. Tell me the last time we evaluated any cinema by the social changes that they helped bring about? But minute to minute updates on the amount grossed by each cinema are available on the internet. They have a decisive negative influence on our next generation and are my prime suspects for the increasing crimes against women.The worst of photo journalism in recent years is the wordrobe malfunction.
Give up wants and expectations and embrace Happiness
I don’t subscribe to the Western notions of women’s rights and gender equality. The fight for right itself recognises someone else’ superiority. True equality will be achieved only when people don’t even have to think about it. That I would say has been achieved in some East Asian Buddhist societies. In Vietnam, Bhutan and Myanmar there is such a high degree of respect for each other that its almost like there is only one sex where both recognise that they are designed to perform different biological functions and there is nothing more to it. I haven’t read or heard of any rapes or molestations in their societies, don’t see people teasing girls or women. During formal or informal dinners and sit ins, I see them cut even crasser jokes (enough to make me blush profusely) but its both ways. They get very explicit (like a girl about 27 years who i had known hardly for 90 secs till then once informed me that although she has a secure job and wealth she didn’t have assets in the right place and hence not able to get married). But its never with any sense of deriving cheap feudal satisfaction at being able to impose abuse and or inflict insult on the unfortunate recipients – present on the scene or otherwise: can’t be called ridicule by any stretch of imagination.
If I have to be born a woman, my top choice will be one of the Buddhist countries except perhaps Thailand if I should heed the advice of a friend who has lived there.
“Give up wants and expectations and embrace Happiness” seems to be the signature line of Buddhism. It settles a lot of modern distress including inter-gender friction, inter-age friction, and breeds responsible child care and public behaviour.
Probably our cultural fault lines as far as shoddy treatment of women is reflected in our great epics. One leading Epic (MB) starts with shaming a women. What is even more demeaning is that the very group we worship today put her as the bait for their bets. The other (R) is about a hijacked women. Again after all the trauma his wife goes through, the man finds it necessary to defend personal honour above her travails – honour before responsibility of providing life along expected lines. I refrain from further elaboration due to fear of hurting religious sentiments. I am aware that these Epics have a great lot of lessons to teach. I am aware that the Epics may not be actual (but there are too many evidences at various places in India to indicate otherwise) but a mere metaphor. Even if it is, the authors could have chosen a more sensitive story line. Sure even Greek Epics have Helen and Eurydice as the lead characters in their storyline. But as much as I have read it there is nothing crass or abusive about them.
The bogies about the Middle east
Much against prevailing wisdom, I would say that the next lesson in respectful treatment of women, children or underprivileged should be from the middle east Islamic countries. I know its not popular going by the image or false illusions that have been created by the media.
Four 4 marriages is the prime reason or target of attack as if that is where abuse starts and ends. Triple Talaks are the next reason, as if the Divorces these days take any longer in the West – just the decision on % share of spoils takes time in Courts but the physicality is as immediate as the time it takes to say Talaks in the Middle East. So who are we fooling? When the ratio of women to men develops as 4 : 1 due to internecine war between various nomadic societies or as in Vietnam when men were reduced to 65% of women due to the American War, social changes and marriage customs are bound to shape suitably. “1: 1 and let the rest go to hell” cannot be a responsible social answer. But whether such a ratio should be hard coded into religion or left to evolve with times may be a matter of debate.
Oman which has been rated as the Paradise on Earth by the Spice Jet in house travel magazine is exactly that. Although there is a slant of protection towards women there -be it in workplace or streets or I would reckon at home. But who is complaining? There is also a lot more sensitivity to treating their poor almost on socialistic lines than reliance on Fate or Karma have allowed our society. The serene face of women does not reveal any fault lines between gender or age.
Looking at some Syrian women and men and their serene faces can be an exercise in meditation by itself. Such serenity could only come out of inner beauty and happiness and peace with the World around, stability of relations, feeling of security around life. That this is my observation from my only trip there which was when the country was deeply in ‘Civil’ war should speak volumes. ( as I had cheekily written in one of my earlier posts, I would any day prefer Syrian type ‘Civil’ War to the ‘Uncivil’ violations against women in Delhi streets everyday and the mindless manner in which the Press tries to milk it).
The stories that my friends tell about the courtesies at home (much of the hosting of business courtesy lunches and Dinners take place at home, I am told) about Iran and Iraq makes me believe that women are treated like Queens within; only they have to wear their Hijabs outside their house. The patience of Indonesia is awesome.
Whether these countries alone are representative of muslim world may be questionable. But why do we have to bother with their religion? If there is something to learn, why not?
I wouldn’t want to mix up with the debates in India/South Asia.
Repeating myself I don’t subscribe to the Western notions of women’s rights and gender equality. The fight for right itself recognises someone else’ superiority. But if we were given that scale of Income and social realities where both spouses work, stability of jobs is not a reality and there is need for frequent job switches across cities or even countries, I am sure basic instincts will overpower our values and Culture and make us behave much the same way. With our lack of respect for rules and regulations and irreverent mindset, we might even evolve rather crudely. Future alone can tell.
I don’t think our Culture and Values alone will overcome human instincts.
Lets both teach and learn
It is not just biological differences, but several things else – race, colour, income, caste, etc … we let them become permanent handicaps right through one’s life term from birth rather than be accidental co-ordinates at birth after which one is free to develop on equal terms.
I know there are a zillion other things that make upthe Culture than just the way we treat Children, a great lot of society (not all) look at women, spit on the road, defecate, jump queues even ahead of elders, break road rules, jump signals, ask for bribes and accept them, confer favours on the undeserving or have no qualms in seeking them. I am sure India can be great on all those other things … but on these things we smell foul and are way below qualifying marks.
I reckon India should market its Yoga, Ayurveda, Epics, or other aspects of its culture more aggressively for its own benefit.
In substance and summary, the boasts about our culture seems a surrogate swagger or justification for our inability to progress, a failing attempt to hide our shortcomings. (I think so). People who are at the top and truly belong there don’t go about proclaiming that they are the best. (unlike Tyson or Md Ali). If we have something great to offer others will sure learn it from us given the ways of internet. If we find nothing great about the West, we don’t have to learn from them but there are others out there who can offer lessons. But even if we consider we are 80% perfect, lets learn the balance from the rest.
(PS: God has been kind to provide lots of travel opportunities to me but also appears to have imposed the responsibility to find out more about many who are not in any way connected the underlying business purpose. Pl pardon the offshoot boasts).
 As per official reports Netherlands and Czech republic (or is it just Amsterdam and Prague) have the highest divorce rate of 52%; the highest for the balance is 1/3rd. That is in 2012 or 13. May be we have made perverse progress by leaps and bounds since then.
This is based on my conversations with several drivers, some corporate executives in The Hague and Paris and the pantry car/bar sales guy in the Thalys high speed train between Rotterdam and Paris, during the last week. All these conversation were for 15-20 minutes over drives except 3 which were fairly lengthy. If there is a surprising lack of rainbow of opinions that is the way it was. You are perfectly welcome to be sceptical about what I have written below. I am recovering from the surprise myself … so no offer of explanations or rationalisations. (Also pardon my grammar. Of late I have started seeing it more as a nuisance).
I was curious about the impact of the Paris bombing on life in Western Europe.
- In The Hague our first driver was a Mohd Rafi listening, Hindi speaking Surinamese. I was surprised that several generations after migration there is still such a strong cultural affinity in him. He dismissed having to face discrimination on Colour or nationality or religion in The Hague where he has been for the last 19 years. He is a Hindu.
- Our next driver, a Pakistani. I enquired if there was any animosity towards him in general and if after the Paris attack he is facing any animosity due to his religion (one could make out his religion easily). No not all. During the conversation, he mentioned that things in Holland, Belgium and France are not like the UK where discrimination is visible, perceptible and rampant according to him. I asked him how he knew. His dad migrated to the UK several years ago and he himself came to Holland in 2000 from UK and keeps going there every once in six months or so.
- In between I had spoken to 2 Algerian Muslims, an Afghan, 2 more Surinamese drivers (both Hindus), 1 Moroccan and a 3-4 Africans (i had language issues with them esp. in France) the views were pretty much the same. Only the Pakistani chuckled and said ‘unless the locals huddle secretly and talk behind my back’ … obviously to satisfy me more than out of conviction. An Iranian driver who appeared suave and erudite claimed that he has been in Holland for last 30-odd years and he has not felt any discrimination. He was aware that a blast took place but then he does not keep pace with daily news regularly and dismissed the whole conversation with a ‘shrug of shoulder’ – inconsequential it seemed to suggest. (so many drivers since we were shuttling from place to place in taxis)
- Subsequently in Paris we were driven around by an Algerian Muslim who has been in France since he was Seven. He must have been with us for 7-8 hours through the day. I also spent about ½ hour with a Muslim (did not ask his nationality) owner of a street corner shop (Kirana store) right (actually on the left) next to Moulin Rouge while waiting for the show to open. Pretty much the same stuff.
- We had a dinner at Safron (Indian restaurant) near Notre Dame. It is co-owned (part) by a Hydrabadi Muslim, a civil engineer by education. He first spent 11 years in Baghdad in the late 70s and 80s (he quit in 1987 to come to Paris and has been in Paris since then). He had happy memories of Baghdad. Unlike some other countries in its neighbourhood, Baghdad did not prohibit drinking or smoking. There were also dance bars, music clubs, and some night life. On my question of discrimination he said, ‘We all work together and know each other and in our daily life interact so much. There is so much bon-homie and give and take. Before or after there is nothing of the kind you are enquiring after’ was his refrain. He did confirm that the Business had gone down sharply. At this time (9.30 pm) this place would have been milling with crowd; it is not the locals… they are out as usual: it is the foreigners who have stopped coming. It would take 2-3 months for things would revive. He works in Transportation business during day time (don’t know what it means) and evenings in the restaurant. He last went to India for his mother’s death (Hyd) in 2007 and could not go for his Fathers in 2011. His two brothers continue to live in Hyd.
- After the initial opinions counter to what I thought would be the case, I also spoke to my host professionals (3 Dutch and 2 from Paris who were very much there during the days of blast). And a 10-15 minutes talk with a slim, near 7 footer, humorous and garrulous Portuguese waiter at the restaurant (while we were waiting for the taxi and were perhaps the last ones to get out after a formal Dinner). They all had similar opinions and denied witnessing any discrimination. Perhaps one should not attribute the same level of significance to their opinions as the other set.
- I asked the Paris guys how life had changed for them since the attack. ‘Not much actually. The Government has done a fantastic job and will sure trace the remaining bits also and get the theatre up and running soon… We don’t believe it is the locals. Most likely they are from outside, perhaps Syria… There are 6 million Muslims in France and we have to live with them. We know most of them are more worried about their daily life, jobs and employment and income, like the rest of us and not much bothered about waging wars’. He gave me (on my asking) the names of places that were hit and told me that all of them were back to running and only the Opera or theatre hall at Le Bataclan is still under repair. There was no agitation in his (or his accompanying colleague) voice or gesticulations or expressions except for a trace of sadness. Similar conversations in India tend to fill up buckets of bile within minutes.
- I must mention however, that one of the people attending our meeting was a bearded Indian (Hindu actually) and he was frisked for 20 minutes at Schipol Airport.
In between these I met the guy (pantry/bar salesman in the train). I had gone there to take a tea, some snacks and water. He gave me those and a chocolate stick the size of index finger as bonus with a half-bestowing, half-‘I enjoy my work’ kind of smile, giving me the opening for a long conversation, interrupted many times by others approaching him for sales. He lives in Paris. Spoke English fluently.
1 I began by asking him, ‘how is life after the attack’. He was relaxed and did not burst forth with any pre decided answers like I used to jump at well rehearsed questions in my childhood years. “Yeah it was bad. But the government has done well to restore order quickly’.
‘How is it for you as an individual’
‘So long as you don’t believe the media and are sceptical about what the politicians say it will all be OK’. (A blast of a statement from him, I thought. They both (more so the former and less the latter) need some punching. I thought Indian media is the worst aggressor but things look same elsewhere too. (Later we discussed the media’s immaturity in some other context)
‘So no effect on you’
‘I do sympathize with the Victims and more their near and dear ones. But then I have to worry about my job, my family, children’s education, income and neighbourhood. Things are normal with these’.
‘So what do you think caused it’
‘I guess it may be the reaction to France’s bombing of Syria. But then the right wing was also getting increasingly edgy and aggressive here. But I don’t think it is the locals. There are many Muslims and we adjust to each other and we have to co-exist (some similarity of opinions there with my host Parisians)’.
2 Me: ‘You had mentioned about right wing. What is Mr Hollande?’
Him: ’He is Leftist. But you know all politicians are same. Till they are elected they are left, they are right, but then once in power they all do the same thing… Work for their own welfare, protecting their power base, etc. In that sense he is as right or left as any. And if not now will sure become a right very soon’.
‘What would you have done differently on this incident’
‘The Government pretty much did the right thing. They restored order quickly. Rounded up many involved and brought them to justice and will perhaps erect some monument or something for the affected. They saw it as a law and order problem’.
‘So nothing that you think could have been done better’
A slight shrug of the shoulder.
3 Me: ‘How do you think this problem can be solved?’
Him: ‘We should be conscious that a similar attack can take place and hence security at times has to be tighter. New entrants should be thoroughly checked and the border posts vigil has to be tightened’. (Must admit after his initial responses, this disappointed me somewhat).
‘What can France do about it as a nation?’
‘I think one of the reasons also may be we side with the US and since the disgruntled can’t hit them they hit us. That is a possibility. But then we can do very little about this. We need the US and we live similarly’.
We meandered on several other topics and came back to this topic.
4 ‘What can be the long term solution,’ I asked.
‘Both sides have to realise that this is circular. But we (he meant France and the Western World perhaps) have to realise we have far more to lose. I have my income, job safety, and my children go to schools, there is future for them. We have a good administration, a system which functions well. Most are well off and we have everything to lose. But what do they (terrorists) have to lose. Nothing. In that sense it is unequal warfare which we are destined to lose anyway. So if we are bombing them for Oil or religion, it’s time to stop it. We have a lot more to gain if this violence stops and we should be conscious of it’.
‘You think France can do it?’
‘Humh! France? There may be no one of that stature in France. But then what can we do alone? Our society and economy are so intertwined with the rest of Europe. And I don’t think they will allow us to do anything of that sort.
Me: ‘So it’s a problem which will linger’
Him: ‘Unless someone like Dr Mandela or Gandhi can rise to the occasion and stop it, it is not likely.
‘But then there is no one in the horizon. It is unlikely someone from Politics will do this’. (I did not know what to make of his last sentence. But then the interruptions were becoming more and i felt apologetic about disturbing him and wound up with a selfie. (I have however not posted the same since I have not taken his permission and it would be unethical to expose him without his consent)
I was deeply impressed with the maturity of his views, calm response to a disturbing national tragedy and the way ahead. As well as the calmness of my 2 Parisian hosts. I forgot to take his name or email id but he does the Amsterdam- Paris duty in the Thalys. (Unless the roster keeps changing).
I know it sounds surreal and unrealistic to see so much patience, tolerance from both sides, I did not expect it to be so one sided. I thought I would get a cross section of opinions. No luck. I have to blow my kisses to the people of France and salute their leaders and administration. For their extra-ordinarily mature and peaceful response. The politicians have not tried muddling the issue further. They have primarily treated it as a law and order problem and dealt with it. They have not tried ‘religionising’ it. Even if there was some right wing simmering, it was well controlled or they themselves perhaps saw it as not the fit occasion. My salutations to the Dutch as well on the issue of racialism or discrimination.
I would like to believe that i am a 100% Hindu, 50% Muslim (i have seen several of their places, read some of their literature and understand that the purpose of all the religion appear so starkly similar), 25% Christian and a large influence, of late, on my social behaviour from Parsis. But must admit in comparison to what i saw in my trip, that I(ndians) am racial and discriminatory and intolerant. I would reckon most of my friends are even more so. I don’t think it is the work of any politician in the last 12 months or 18. I don’t think anyone can bring about tolerance or intolerance within such a short time. It’s the way we are. We use every differentiating factor to mentally feel discriminated or administer it – caste, region, religion, colour, place, rich vs poor, etc. So if you are from the same community the benefit (and bias) will go in your favour, likewise same cadre, same service, same class (poor/rich). We are brushing too many things under the carpet named Gandhi…so instantly we become champions of secularism, non discrimination, non-violence and all other things nice to hear.
Know I am sounding pompous and preachy, but I think there is a lesson there from Paris and the way their people have responded, which we Indians are missing.
May 11, 2012
The Hindu BusinessLine
Representative democracy, unlike the Greek direct version from which it has evolved, has drifted far from its essential moorings. It is now largely a power of attorney for unknown actions.