If a person were to walk into an average household in an apartment or a villa in a city in India, they would possibly find a nuclear family in relative comfort, enjoying all the fruits of globalization, fully emancipated in their worldview and having left “Bharat” behind. They shop at the fanciest malls, wear only branded clothes and their view of celebration includes occasional scotch and cigars. You know, right, who I am talking about?
However, the one thing these apartments do beyond providing living spaces is guarding their inhabitants against scrutiny. Their habits, their lifestyles, much like Purdah in the days of yore, are hidden from the view of onlookers. The external habits are designed to impress, but in reality, how impressive are they? Let us ask ourselves the question, since I belong to this class too, whether we have imbibed a different value set or are we different from our brethren only on the surface.
At first glance, this class looks very different from the often rural towns where we once came. Go to a village even today and the first thing that strikes you is a sense of community that scarcely exists in the city. Everyone knows each other’s neighbors, fairs and common markets happen on a regular basis and everyone seems to send their children to the local school. They are obviously closer to nature, which is a luxury they have which city dwellers do not have. The clothes they wear, even though there are a splash and dash of western clothing, are more dominated by Indian traditional attires. Joint families are still common where multiple brothers and generations live together.
But, scratch under this surface and we realize that the traditions, rituals, and superstitions that we follow are not that different from our rural counterparts. Certainly, we have let go of many of the folkloric habits of those places, but in the process, we have lost many of the benefits of rural life like familial bonds and organic lifestyles. To compensate for those losses and perhaps to retain a sense of our identity, we have carried on some aspects from our previous existence and in the process have forgotten to cast off some of the worst among them. Let us look and see some of those habits here in this article. The purpose here is not to highlight the best of the culture that we have retained, but to analyze where we keep falling short despite our material progress.
Tradition is a mainstay of Indian society. We are proud of our culture and rightly so. It is diverse and colorful and every region and religion appears to have its unique style that leaves us spellbound. We often want to take on certain aspects of others superficially and call it fusion, because it makes us look progressive.
However, under this veneer are the same old traits that have held back India for many generations. Misogyny stands out at the very beginning. Domestic violence abuse cases have been shown to be going up during the COVID-19 pandemic when men and women have been confined to close spaces over an extended period. The prevalence of domestic violence against women a couple of years ago was 23% in the cities, just a mere 6% lesser than villages. However, it does not stop there. In fact, it becomes worse in the case of female foeticide. This is possible because those in the city have more disposable income to determine the sex of their children but the numbers are shocking. Going back a couple of years, cities had a sex ratio of 902 females to 1000 males vis-à-vis 923 females to 1000 males in rural areas. The statistics given here were measured from the ages of 0-6 years. What is perhaps most shocking are the numbers of the two biggest cities in India: Delhi and Mumbai. The national capital has an appalling sex ratio of merely 832 girls per 1000 boys whereas in the financial capital it is marginally better at 852 girls per 1000 boys. Both are below the national average, which itself is meager. The reason for female foeticide is primarily because women are considered a burden to society. That financial burden is best quantified by dowry. It is nearly universal in India with 90 percent of marriages involving dowry, making any differences across the urban-rural divide merely notional.
The next issue that comes up is caste-based discrimination. While due to the proliferation of international companies and coeducational schools, forced intermixing of people of different castes is commonplace across the board which is a marked improvement on caste-based segregation in many villages, the attitude towards caste shines through when we get to talk about marriages. If a person were to register on a matrimony website today, he would be immediately segregated into domains in the virtual space such as Brahmin Matrimony or Bengali Matrimony. A person has to opt-out on most sites from being limited to caste because the default is to marry within their caste. Now, obviously we could be rightfully indignant about the way the websites have been designed. However, we have to ask ourselves why the services are skewed in such a fashion. Studies show that 95% of the marriages are from the same sub-caste and urban areas have only improved 2 percent above the rural landscape. We could demand some changes from the websites that domains based on caste be removed and caste as a field should be removed from marriage as should be the surname. These are some changes that might make us move away from judging the people ’s character by their ancestry.
Another aspect we have to confront in our society is our preference for fair skin. Possibly due to wider availability of brands, greater customer engagement, and general peer pressure, the use of fairness creams, as per a 2019 study by Bhardwaj et al., is a full 15% higher among urban users as compared to rural users. While fairness creams were found to be 22.2% of the beauty products used among rural respondents, 37.9% of urban respondents used them and it was their first choice.
Rituals and Superstitions
The urban class also often likes to sneer at the rural class for their rituals and superstitions. It holds them up as an example of their lack of education and often uses this as the stick to beat them back when the issue of rural development comes up. And indeed, across regions and religions, there are so many instances of superstitious beliefs, from harmless to the downright cruel, it is impossible to catalog them all. While the superstitious beliefs of the village are coarser in nature and more visible to a casual observer, the ritualistic beliefs of cities are perhaps what drives this economy of false healers.
Indian cities are awash with numerologists, astrologers, Vastu experts, Feng shui experts, gemologists, and maybe some others that this writer is not abreast of. The contribution of these people to the economy, they would have you believe, is immense. For example, just the Jumaani family has consulted the producers of Bollywood, cricketers like Anil Kumble and businessmen like the Ambanis. These beliefs are widespread across urban India and more so than rural India which can be evidenced by one special thing to note. All these supposed experts, who charge a fortune to bring you a fortune, often work on Roman calendars and English names which are prevalent in the cities, whereas in villages it is still tradition to follow the Indic calendars and the syllabic Indian names. Anecdotal evidence such as these proves how rampant such beliefs are within urban and educated India.
However, while the above superstitions are harmless, some are downright harmful. One of them concerns the ordinary bodily function of menstruation. conducted this decade mostly among the urbanites of Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, Kolkata, Bangalore, and Hyderabad, found some startling figures. A majority of women wrap sanitary napkins in newspapers or brown paper when buying, avoid wearing white, prefer to stay at home, wash hair on the 4th day, don’t touch the pickle jar, and don’t water plants during their periods. There are multiple other superstitions related to this which do not constitute a majority but are substantially widespread.
Above are but just a couple of examples on superstitions and rituals to show how widespread some beliefs are in the city; some of them newfangled, while many of them carried on from lore.
What this clearly points to is that cities in India are superficially different from rural counterparts and while we have changed our look, we have not changed our outlook. Globalization has brought many international companies to India and now we require a large talent pool to do the work. Since most of them are based in cities, we come and settle there. There are many private companies in recent times to work for and the razzle and dazzle of the city life with its malls and bars and restaurants is addictive. Infrastructure is much better too and therefore we physically stay in the city but many of our mannerisms and traditions carry on from our rustic places of origin. Unfortunately, we appear to forget the best of the bucolic routines and imbibe only the worst. Hence, we find that there is a scant divide in politics across cities and villages in India, whereas in Western countries it is heavily pronounced.
To leave these traditions, rituals, and superstitions that hold us behind, we need to change wholesale our education system, which from personal experience, focuses on rote learning. We are given data that we are taught to cram up without ever asking whether the authority can be wrong. We are never taught to question. Instead, in a new India, we must change that habit and teach everything in a way where learning is a thought experiment.
Visiting museums, theatres, and public libraries should be inculcated as habits from a young age to truly use the full scope of living in a city. Village students should get to visit cities to sample these experiences and urban students should visit farms and fields to have an appreciation of rural life. Students are supposed to arrive at answers, not merely be fed them. This will require an overhaul of our entire education system and how that can be done is a topic for another day by someone else. However, only such a sea change will make us leave behind the malediction of harmful practices, which can reform our society as a whole. That will not only benefit those who live in cities, but also in villages. And perhaps then, we in the cities can actually retain the part of our traditions that should matter: a sense of community, family, and nature.
The views and opinions expressed in this opinion article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Eastern Herald.