Centered on Ourselves
Writer's Note: The use of we and our, in this note, reflect its urban, Indian, middle-class locus.
We seem obsessed with domestic life - life of the family - children, parents, our food and our homes. We are raised in the belief that the only thing that counts is that we live a home life within a certain script and that is the most virtuous thing to do. Almost no one else beyond the family, or outside our caste-class-community, is worthy of serious interest. Might this be the reason our public spaces and relationships in the larger community (the larger community being one which intersects other classes, castes, religions, cultures, regions, etc, as opposed to one's 'own community' by familiarity, or birth) are as inadequate, stratified and compartmentalized as they are? As long we can get back into the control and familiarity of our 'home' culture, we are happy. And, conversely we are unhappy, and at odds, outside of this familiar cocoon.
The importance of family life - as the basis of social organization/order, in bringing up children, in the care of the elderly or disabled, in propagating a culture and so on - is hard to seriously question - but, to deify and sanctify it, to equate it to the only happiness, and once having embraced it, to so completely distance ourselves from the large, diverse world out there, to the extent of being entirely unappreciative or ignorant of it, seems a little bit unique to our condition. Does this inward looking, self-referential, obsessive, focus lead us to a lack of understanding, a scarcity of empathy, suspicion and even a loss of basic trust in people 'out there', who who are all, necessarily then, seen as 'others'?
Perhaps the prevalence of a robust, parallel, almost extreme, wanderer sub-culture (the sadhus, fakirs, jangamas, nirgunis) is a direct counterpoint to this oppressive embrace and celebration of domestic life. When one extreme is so overwhelmingly skewed, there will exist another one. The coin, of course, has both sides.
Is this excessive family and home centricism also the reason there is no genuine travel culture amongst us? (Other than the wandering fakir-sadhu society, of course, who are the perennial counter culture amongst us, our alter egos)
(Some will suggest, of course, that the four ashrama description of life, in fact, acknowledges, accommodates and even values the wandering/seeking urge. In reality, there is nothing but utter disdain among grihastis (family folks) for anyone from amongst them who may seek to live outside prescribed boundaries. So who's to say? The fourth ashrama might well have developed as a way of legitimizing an unsupressible human need to transgress stultifying, prescriptive ways of living)
Most undeniably, we Indians travel a lot. But such travel is almost always to visit family, on unavoidable business, or religious in nature (to shrines, ashrams or gurus). In today's context, and for those who may be victims/consumers of trade-advertising, travel glossies and TV shows, it may at most, translate to resort tourism. But again, this is almost always with family and friends, and in contrived and artificially created environments. More traditionally, group travel has been commonplace - where we might travel within a circle of family and friends (isolating ourselves in a rented bus/van, or a block-booked train carriage) to sightsee and on pilgrimage to the holy sites - but most often carrying our own food (cooks, even?), perspectives and conversations. The experience is entirely structured from 'within' a bubble (our specific bubble), looking outwards. Such travelers return with tales of beautiful places, shrines, a sense of satisfaction at having visited them - but stories of 'bad' food, language 'problems', disagreeable weather, travel difficulties and so on. Very infrequently is travel undertaken to merely explore, interact or experience another, different, way of life and viewpoint. Even less frequently is it accompanied by any appreciation of the 'other'. It almost seems like we are instructed to view our own home culture as the 'good' baseline and everything else as therefore relative and/or inferior to it. This is not to suggest we are intolerant. We will be ourselves, and largely allow others to be themselves (recent disturbing trends in our society might be changing this time-honored, Indian way). Almost every Indian language has a compact statement expressing the sentiment of 'live and let live'. But is true cosmopolitanism - of the kind that would imply appreciating, understanding, even seeking to imbibe a bit of 'the other' - entirely foreign to us?
Food is such a central and specific anchor of our lives and happiness (deeply ingrained and nurtured in the ultra-insular home/family environment), that our country's breathtaking diversity ensures that we are always minorities in any, even slightly larger, context. When our homes or 'home communities' are our entire world, we are strangers in our own neighborhoods, given the diversity of our society. Witness incessant arguments and complaints, even in 'modern', 'cosmopolitan', mobile India - about the in-availability of 'simple dal chaval ("like my mum makes it")' in the south, or about Karnataka sambar vs Tamil Nadu sambar, or about 'sweet' Gujarati food, or the use of some different oil medium, and so on. This claustrophobic view makes it virtually impossible for us to even acknowledge the subjectivity of taste, the diversity of ways of cooking and to remain non-judgemental about, leave alone appreciate, another kind of food. This insularity, also leaves us stupendously ignorant, and often in denial, about food habits that may be 'unfamiliar' to us, even though they may coexist in our neighborhoods - such as, say, the overwhelming non-vegetarianism in the South or the consumption of beef, across religious faiths, in Kerala.
On train and bus rides, with no particular agenda other than to travel, I have to wield incessant questioning (mostly out of honest incredulity) about why I am doing what I am. If I am not on a religious journey, or going to see family & friends, or on necessary business, why am I traveling? If I am sightseeing, I am told, surely I would want to do it with family or friends. So why alone? And why to the particular non-descript place I am going to, where I am told 'there is nothing'? I try futilely explaining that to travel alone seems the most interesting way. It forces a hundred percent of my interactions to be with other people - people I have not met before and whose viewpoints, perspectives and responses may be different from what I have been exposed to. It forces me to depend on them for support, food, shelter, information, conversation, companionship and enjoyment - and that is what I seek. Or maybe I will learn something totally unexpected, maybe even an entirely new way of looking at the world. But why would I want to do that leaving my home and family (and happiness) behind, I am asked. "Wahan to kuch bhi nahin hai. Aap sab kuch chhod ke kyun ja rahe ho?".
This quest for 'new' experience and perspective, outside of 'us' and outside 'our own', appears not to sit well in our culture. We are constantly instructed that there is no journey worth doing 'outside' of us. And that salvation lies inside the mind and heart. Journeying within is the only journey worth doing. No point climbing a mountain, or running away to find any answers (although that is exactly what a lot our sadhu-sant community is busy doing - but they are the counterpoint, let us remember). Enlightenment will come to you, if you are getting it right, even in the middle of the devastation of Kalasipalyam bus stand. Its all about the Lotus - roots in muck - but sublime flowers above. Whatever we seek is right here, inside of us and immediately around. There is nothing out there, that is not already present within. We are the world.
It is hard to argue with the proposition that you will touch something universal, if you journey deep enough into yourself. But perhaps we have been profoundly misled into complete insularity, self-delusion and denial of the wonder of the world out there, in the meantime.