Even the basic prerequisites of civilisation are getting eroded. A nation becomes powerful only if there is cultural progress.
We in India pride ourselves on being an ancient civilisation—of its lofty philosophies and great religions, of pluralism and tolerance. Some of us even fantasise about India becoming the world’s moral leader, a Vishwaguru. But can we?
We might have been a great civilisation in some distant past but one has to be a zealous nationalist to say the same about contemporary India. A nation becomes great and powerful only if there is cultural progress. Bharttruhari, a Sanskrit poet, wrote: Sahitya sangeeta kala vihinah/Sakshyat pashu puchha bishanahinah (Without literature, music, and art, a man is like a tailless beast). Do we measure up to the standards of the great poet?
While consumerism flourishes—with global brands making way into smaller towns and even not-very upmarket places offering all manner of cuisine—there are entire localities without a bookshop. Educated people don’t read books after getting their degrees; even journalists, who are supposed to be well-read, don’t find time for books.
As for cultural refinement, one has to watch any entertainment channel to realise what kind of infantilising forces are at work, how much dumbing down goes on incessantly, how much crassness is disseminated every day. It shows.
If people are sober, discerning, and rational—and if the economic, political, and institutional ecosystems value sobriety, discernment, and reason—then culture is vibrant. But if people are animated only by the vicissitudes of emotions, it is not. Unfortunately, this is the case today in India in many places.
Unsurprising, Indians are increasingly becoming incapable of equanimity and poise. A cricket match is won, and the players become gods; a match is lost a couple of days later, they become demons. In both cases, emotions get the better of us, making us forget that cricketers are neither gods nor demons but men, and men succeed and fail. In public life, major events like, say, the Nirbhaya rape, unleash a great deal of sanctimony which cause a lot of heat but no light.
Even the basic prerequisites of civilisation are getting eroded in some Indians. Not just in remote countryside but also in cities, even in posh areas.
There is a very posh mall in south Delhi. In a cinema hall in that mall, I was recently watching a movie. All around me, there were people continuously using cellphones. In the row in front of me, there were a couple of men, one of whom was regularly taking and making calls, talking loudly. Yet, nobody was complaining, mainly because most of the others were also chatting intermittently. Not many had put their phones on the silent mode; a man sitting on my right would immediately reject a call as soon as it started ringing, but didn’t put the phone on the silent mode.
When I requested the person in the front row to stop talking, he confronted me, his deportment and demeanour an essay in insolence—“Kya ho gaya?” Very reluctantly, he stopped chatting. But not for long, though the next calls he took didn’t cause much disturbance.
This is what happens at the best cinema halls. But such behaviour is not confined to such public places and vis-à-vis strangers; it can happen in your neighbourhood, by people you know. You would surely know if you have ever in lived in a middle or lower middle class locality
Early last year, I spent an ordeal of a night. A jagran or kirtan was being held in my neighbourhood in Ghaziabad. Loudspeakers were on full blast. Those worshipping were more interested in screaming to their neighbours to show how religious they were, rather than praying to the deities they were ostensibly paying obeisance to. The organisers didn’t let others sleep.
I called police number 100 at about 2.45 am. A lady received it with considerable courtesy. I duly got a ring from a cop who wanted to know the exact location of the kirtan. After that, for some time, about 20 minutes, there was lull. But again loudspeakers started blaring. The cop, who had taken the address from me, stopped taking my call.
This is New India. It is not that only a politician who can trouble you with his rally or yatra; any pious bully can make your life miserable. In fact, his piety is just a pretext to exhibit his money and might. “See how much I spend to propitiate the deity I venerate,” he seems to be saying. And if you object to it and call the police, he convinces and manages them into abandoning their duty. They also get convinced—arrey bhagwan ka naam hi to le rahe hain. Again the exhibition of his power.
He is more religious because he organises an extravaganza masquerading as kirtan, as if splurging money on gaudy functions were a yardstick of measuring religiosity. Another yardstick is the sound: the higher the decibels, the greater the piety.
The sad truth, however, is that the sanskari function cannot cover the creeping absence of genuine Indian culture.
Ravi Shanker Kapoor is Editor, Power Corridors