Monday, 30th October 2017

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HABITS DIE HARD - Enforced culture isn't always a good idea

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  • Published 10.03.07

We are going to be a polite society. Kerala has banned spitting. Bangalore will round up and destroy 56,000 stray dogs. Other states and cities will surely follow, for lifestyle must match the aspirations of a designated world power.

Many Asian habits and mannerisms seem crude by Western standards. Modernization (which, in practice, means Westernization) is thus a perennial but complex challenge for developing countries. No set of rules can be laid down for the transition, no one can dictate how much of traditional ways to retain and how much to jettison without jeopardizing identity. Japan is an outstanding example of an Asian nation that has modernized, yet demonstrates that oriental culture is not incompatible with industrial society. South Korea is briskly following the same path.

Visiting Seoul recently, I was struck by the number of bankers and businessmen in immaculate dark lounge suits who did not speak a word of English. My speech at the Bloomberg conference had to be translated sentence by sentence into Korean for them. It’s much the same in Japan, but would be unthinkable in India, where Western sartorial packaging means Western values and an approximation of a Western lifestyle. Nirad C. Chaudhuri may have made a fetish of wearing his dhoti in Oxford, but you will seldom find the opposite — a culturally indigenous Indian in Western attire.

Clothes and lifestyle are so closely linked even for Diaspora Indians that when an Indian woman I know was drinking a glass of beer with her husband in Malaysia, an Indian Malaysian at another table sniffed in loud disapproval, “Wearing sari drinking beer!” Someone in a sari, he thought, should be busy with puja or cooking. East Asians don’t make that connection. Their sharp suits and smart frocks look as if they belong to New York or London but their clothes are just that, not the outer mark of inner Westernization.

No wonder Indian diplomats chafe at having to pirouette in striped trousers and cutaway coat in Tokyo and Seoul. They feel it debases the meaning of modernism, which became synonymous with Westernization long before economic globalization.

Apparel is the most import- ant index that the United Nations Development Programme or, maybe, Unesco should use to grade societies as they move from barbarism to modernism. In 1825, the Ottoman Sultan Mahmud II banished turbans whose folds and fabric denoted oriental subtleties like class and status. He felt the red felt fez was more modern because it was closer to contemporary European headgear. Alas, exactly a century later, another modernizer, Kemal Ataturk, banned the fez. Far from being the symbol of modernity, it had become the symbol of backwardness. Even making allowance for the Muslim factor, the readiness with which Turkish women are today adopting the headscarf suggests that Ataturk’s campaign did not touch Turkey’s heart and soul.

But UNDP/Unesco must also include other lifestyle indices like stray dogs, belching, breaking wind in public, toilet habits, scratching private parts of the body and, of course, spitting. Whether bans can be imposed is another matter. Rules are necessary and, perhaps, even the threat of the rod hovering menacingly in the distance. But each society must work out the methods to which its people respond best. Britain’s justification in the Sixties for forbidding race discrimination was that the Briton is essentially law-abiding. No matter how much he might want to kick a Jamaican or an Indian in the teeth, he would shrink from doing so if it were illegal. Not the fear of punishment so much as the knowledge that the act would place him outside the law and, therefore, beyond respectability.

It is arguable whether that particular argument works with others. Some may not need any law. Some may ignore laws not backed by force. Polite society rules might confuse some. When Shanghai’s Patriotic Sanitation Committee forbade people to spit and introduced roadside spittoons (as Kerala promises to do), many thought they were ashtrays. When Singapore promised to usher in the courteous society by 1990, simple Chinese wondered if the traditional greeting, “Have you eaten?”, would seem impolite since it harked back to famine and starvation.

Sadly, courtesy rules are usually sought to be imposed for an ulterior — commercial — motive. Shanghai’s reason is the 2010 World Expo. Bangalore is concerned that mangy and diseased dogs might discourage the city’s 1,500 top IT firms. Kerala’s anti-spitting crusade may not be unconnected with plans to lure non-resident Malayalees into spending their dollars at home. The number of foreign tourists in Kerala went up by 23.67 per cent last year. Though domestic tourists also rose by 5.41 per cent, they don’t count for our desi bhais do enough spitting themselves. But foreigners are pernickety and — even more — desis lately reborn as foreigners, as I saw on a drive to Malaysia.

The only America-based family in our convoy spurned the wayside stalls that serve delicious Chinese, Indian and Malay food and where expatriate whites love gorging: only McDonald’s or KFC would do for them. At our destination — a small seaside resort — they demanded a hotel room with a long bath. It was not easily available because cold showers are commoner and infinitely more comfortable in Malaysia’s hot humidity than stewing in your own juice.

Lasting change is something that emerges from within an organic society. It is a consensual evolutionary process. If forced from outside, it can become something people do or obey only so long as they are forced to. “An Armed Society is a Polite Society,” wrote Robert Heinlein, one of science fiction’s Big Three (with Arthur Clarke and Isaac Asimov), but only so long as it remains armed.

Lee Kuan Yew was saddened by the surprise visits he paid, in the manner of Haroun-al-Raschid of Arabian Nights fame, to Singaporeans who had exchanged slums for spanking new government flats. “I see hi-fi, marble or terrazo tiles, expensive furniture, colour television,” he noted, “But I have never seen a bookcase or a book shelf. I have seldom seen a painting.” He also worried about Singaporeans plundering the mango and other fruit trees he had planted in public areas. I can understand his concern. Apart from persistent rumours of urine detectors having to be concealed in the elevators of government flats, there are complaints of children urinating in the landscaped gardens even of the condominium for expatriate academics where I live.

Individuals must change before society does. Inevitably, it’s a long haul. If British slum dwellers, whom Clement Attlee’s welfare state rehoused in flats, stored coal in bathtubs, it is not surprising that airlines in India — one of the world’s fastest-growing aviation markets — report chaotic scenes like passengers wanting to chat with the pilot or struggling to open a door in mid-flight. It was an old sardarji joke but, apparently, a passenger on a domestic flight in China preferred the great outside to the lavatory. I recall the East Bengal refugee who insisted on riding the bonnet of the lorry to Dandakaranya because he was a boatman who had always commanded the prow. Habits die hard.

An apocryphal story about Jawaharlal Nehru visiting Bali illustrates the perils of compulsion. Balinese women — who wore no tops then, only a long skirt — were given blouses and ordered to drape bare bosoms so that the leader of the country that had given them their religion and civilization did not think them savages. The police inspection, as Nehru’s motorcade approached, showed rows of demurely bloused women crowding both sides of the road but, horror, one pretty belle right in front had ignored instructions. Nehru’s car was almost upon them when, frightened by the policeman’s abuse and raised cane, the girl threw up her skirt to cover face and naked breasts. A startled Nehru whizzing past saw she wore nothing underneath.

Enforced culture isn’t always a good idea.