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Young India, Old India

By: Rituparna Chatterjee Email By: Rituparna Chatterjee
August 2010
Young India, Old India

When it comes to July 4, it is all about celebrating a long weekend and finding the right deals at the malls. While these commercial celebrations, along with food and fireworks, are great, when’s the last time we referred to this holiday as Independence Day? How often does that day remind us of everything the 12-letter-word stands for? How often do we appreciate that this freedom was not for free?

America ’s freedom is over two centuries old. Comparatively, the world’s largest democracy, India, won it fairly recently in 1947. The association of August 15 with Independence still lingers on with Indians. For schoolchildren, the month of August heralds a holiday, yes, but also preparations and rehearsals of skits, patriotic songs, speeches and more that stress the significance of Independence.

For many in the older generations, August 15 brings back strong memories. Ninety-four-year-old labor rights activist Jagdish Ajmera fondly remembers his Satyagraha days and spending time with Mahatma Gandhi in jail. The freedom struggle had given Ajmera the meaning of his life—fighting for humanity and justice. He was a rare freedom fighter who continued the fight against injustice long after Independence and throughout his life.

Suratwati Prasad remembers renting a truck, boarding it with all her relatives and touring the length and breadth of her state of Bihar to celebrate Indian Independence in 1947. This was a rather bold thing to do for a woman who had spent much of her life indoors in a zenana, as was common back then. Narayani Roy remembers that the nation was in a festive mood as it never had been before. Throughout the country, bus rides were free that day. She had gone out to watch a film called Chandrasekhar, written by Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay—who also wrote Vande Mataram, a song that inspired freedom fighters and was later adapted as the national song of India. Celebrated author Kiran Nagarkar remembers his father taking him to Bombay’s Victoria’s Terminus (now Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus). The place was decked up in fancy lights for the very first time, in honor of the country’s newfound independence.

Those memories are etched deeply because they belong to either those who fought for Independence or their children who were privileged enough to witness history first hand. This is a historic generation of people whom we are losing fast. Compared to the “Old India” represented by such folks, the youth of today’s India—or “Young India” as we call them in this article—are naturally unlikely to feel as passionately about India’s independence. (Read More)

Khabar spoke with dozens of Indians to bring you personal tales representing various facets of Old India and Young India respectively. Some are scarred by memories of the freedom struggle. Others appear to be living what seems to be the dream of the majority of Young India. Along with their life stories, they share their thoughts about the India that was, and the India that is.

The young versus the old

Roughly speaking, Young India refers to present day India with its economic superpower dreams, as well as the consequences and side-effects of those ambitions. Old India refers to all that India once was, where family, friendships and good relations were more prized than materialistic achievements, and simultaneously, aspirations were sacrificed when in conflict with honor, respect and society.

You could be an Indian as young as twenty-something and still feel like a misfit in Young India. So it is impossible to segregate the two Indias by age or a timeline or even arrive at a strict working definition. After all, the land in question is an uncommonly complex sociological living laboratory. This seems only natural given that India accounts for approximately 17.3% of the entire world’s population, while occupying only 2.4% of the world’s land area.

“It is this incredible complexity and diversity that makes India one of the most interesting anthropological subjects ever,” says Sarah Lamb, chair of the Department of Anthropology and co-chair of the South Asian Studies Program at Brandeis University.

But what do people feel about the two Indias? Given India’s enormous economic strides, the general vibe about Young India is certainly positive. There are great frontiers such as economic growth, space exploration, and nuclear energy where India has been making global headlines. At the individual level, the wide spectrum of growth is giving Young India a chockfull of career choices. Parents no longer have to push their children only towards being a doctor or an engineer. The increasing opportunities are seen in the whole spectrum of jobs, from white collar to blue collar ones. Shouldering the dual burdens of rising inflation and consumerism, the social-stigma-obsessed Indian middle class is opening up to allowing its children options – like working at McDonald’s or as a pizza delivery boy.

A barrage of opportunities that were previously only available to the privileged is cropping up in various sectors. Take the media and the entertainment industries—which, in Old India, were considered the bastion of the well-to-do and the connected. The advent of TV talent shows, along with other developments, has democratized these industries. Apart from churning out hundreds of thousands of jobs, the media boom also unleashed a million dreams. The likes of Sa Re Ga Ma have opened as many possibilities of making it big as a singer, as American Idol has been doing here.

“In Young India, you don’t know your next door neighbor,” says Narayani Roy (Read More) .

“Things weren’t as sophisticated in Old India as they are today. But we had good relations. In today’s India, even relations have become sophisticated,” says Jyotsna Goswami (Read More)

“Consumerism, tremendous greed and stifling rat races are rampant in Young India. This is the very antithesis of the values of Old India and the simple but more content lives we led then,” says Niharika Ghosh  (Read More)

“ India has changed drastically,” says Raj Razdan, a prominent Atlanta-based community worker. “It has become very modern in strange ways. Just because I don’t drink Scotch in clubs, young Indians think I’m old-fashioned. I might not like the way young Indian women dress, but I’m delighted about their liberation, jobs and the enormous push on female education. More women are speaking out today about their abuse than they did in Old India. Young Indians are smarter and wealthier, but also much lonelier than we ever were. After all, Young India is a society of ‘I’ and ‘me,’ not ‘us,’ like it was in Old India, where we grew up in joint families and never felt lonely. Instead of isolating senior citizens, Young India should realize how much they can benefit by tapping into their experiences.”

Twenty-seven-year-old Indian Kalki Koechlin (Read More) agrees: “Young India is very immature. One of the worst things that they are doing is hiding their lifestyle choices—like drinking, partying, and late nights—from their parents, thinking that they would freak out. It takes some courage, but they should be open to their parents. When you are lost, you need your parents to turn to, or else you will be alone, as is happening with a lot of young Indians.”

Koechlin, who starred as Chanda/Leni in the critically acclaimed film Dev D, says she sees parents looking worried all the time. “They don’t want things to go wrong. They are more accommodating than ever before, because they are terribly insecure of losing their bonds with their children.”

Other young Indians like Samson Koletkar, a Jewish standup comic based in San Francisco who identifies himself as a Bombayite (Read More) , miss bits of Old India. “I remember my childhood, when you didn’t have to make appointments to meet your friends. You simply showed up. But not in today’s India; everyone’s too busy.”

Much of Young India is defined by hot-blooded youngsters with stars in their eyes, dreams in their hearts, and utter determination in their minds to pursue those dreams. Some subtly state it, others bluntly, that they simply don’t have the time for Old India. “Who has the time to brood over things like Independence, freedom fighters and traditions?” says Alok (name changed). “And what’s the point? Sure, they did a great job in their time, and we all love nostalgia. But the past is the past. We don’t even sit down to think of technologies that were a few years old, while Independence is ancient history. And why would we? There’s too much to do too fast.”

A lot of this “doing” that young India is consumed by is centered on careers. They have never been more important. In fact, it would not be a stretch to say that careers are becoming as important to young Indians as family has been to Old India. Young Indians are willing to do go to college and work simultaneously, so that they can afford to buy the latest gadget or designer labels from outrageously expensive malls. “Young Indians and India are like the brash new kid on the block, who wants to brag and show off when he gets his first pay check,” Koletkar says. “‘With great power there must come great responsibility.’ I hope India settles down and realizes this before it is too late.”

A new way of growing old

A prominent trait of Young India is the new way of growing old, as is evident in a surge of old-age homes. This is arguably Young India’s strongest deviation from Old India and, in that sense, from Indianness itself. “Traditional Indian values are all about the family,” Koechlin says. “Taking care of parents when they are old was just a way of life.”

Old age homes, seen as a Western concept, were first started in India, it is believed, by a missionary organization during the British Raj. These were mainly for the aged poor with no family. Now, as young Indians are increasingly leaving their homes to seek opportunities either in Indian metros or abroad, the need for such homes is increasing, regardless of the senior citizens’ socio-economic status.

While exact numbers are unavailable, the growth of old age homes is enough for anthropologists like Lamb to travel to India and undertake extensive research on the subject. Lamb’s book Aging and the Indian Diaspora (Cosmopolitan Families in India and Abroad) focuses on old age homes in the Indian state of West Bengal. “In the US, people expect to live alone when they are older,” she says. “But old Indians are often not prepared for this and find it terribly lonely. But what is truly impressive is how accepting they are to change. Many are making the most of the situation, seeing this as freedom and the opportunity to make friends with more like-minded people.” Indeed, Lamb says, many of the seniors are beginning to prefer old age homes because of the joint family environment where meals are eaten together, rooms are shared, and there are nightly gatherings for gossip.

The next stage of evolution

Another distinct development that defines Young Indians is their growing penchant to relinquish the cocoons of family and hometown to venture to distant cities in search of jobs and education. The new circle of friends and colleagues in their new towns—many of whom are on similar journeys and who empathize with their trials and tribulations—make up a new type of extended family. Thus a new kind of “joint family” is mushrooming in Young India; one that’s very accepting of things which the traditional joint family of Old India would never approve of. Things like live-in relationships, sexual preferences, dressing preferences, late night parties, and other edgy pursuits.

With young Indians increasingly being sandwiched between the traditional values of their families and their newfound freedom, it is this new joint family that is frequently seen standing up for them. This phenomenon is most pronounced in situations such as when young Indians marry against their parents’ consent. Take the example of Razia and Rohit (names changed), both from Rajasthan, who met in Chennai. Both had a liberal upbringing. Both their families were open enough to allow them to choose their education and careers and to pursue them wherever necessary. In spite of their apparently liberal mindset, Razia’s family threatened to sever all ties with her if she married a Hindu boy. Rohit’s family had finally reluctantly nodded, but was not remotely happy about the Hindu-Muslim union. The entire social structure seemed at odds with them. Landlords in Chennai weren’t keen on renting to them. The couple moved to Hyderabad and lived together for two years, all the while pleading with their families for acceptance. “We were battling hardships only to win our families,” Razia says. “But it is our friends who stood by us, the way family is supposed to. Pretty ironic, isn’t it?”

On the upside, the benefits have trickled down to the bottom of the pyramid. Moumita, a teacher based in San Jose, California recalls an incident from a recent trip to India. She was buying rahu (an inexpensive fish eaten as a daily staple in Bengali households) at the fish market. Just then, a laborer clad in a lungi and bearing signs of dust and sweat from a hard work day, bought hilsa (an expensive fish reserved for special occasions). It was selling for Rs. 350 a kilo. “I was pleasantly shocked,” chuckles Moumita. Things like the Nano (Tata’s budget car) are bound to further blur class differences and bring in the kind of equality that only capitalism can.

Consumerism, brand mania and the urge to show off all the things that money can buy have spread like a viral infection throughout India. While this is not exactly news, it explains the rat race culture. In spite of all that money, every other person toils like a slave, working long hours and, in turn, is a slave-driver, urging junior colleagues to do more and more. In Indian journalism, for instance, a part-time job could easily entail working more than 40 hours a week, considered a full-time job in the US.

“But we have always had rat races,” Koletkar says. “The only difference is that earlier, our parents were struggling in their own ways, and today we (young Indians) are the rats. In fact, earlier, the rat race was far more cut-throat, because the options were so limited, unlike today when you can pursue what you really want to do. The key is what you make of it. At the end of the race, are you still going to be a rat, or are you going to be something else?”

The question applies not just to young Indians but to Young India itself, as a nation. “At Davos, the Indian Minister of Commerce touted India’s developments versus China’s,” Nagarkar says. “But he didn’t mention the most important thing: that we are a democracy! We tend to forget that.”

Democracy is just one of the important things India appears to be forgetting. It is great that India is patting its own back on its shining “developments” like GDP growth, Chandrayaan ( India’s moon mission), the Commonwealth Games, and so on. It needs to look beyond the luster of these brags and rectify imbalances like those terribly skewed ones in rural India between farmers, some of whom are driven to suicide, and others who are driving their shiny Land Cruisers and BMWs past their fields.

“And look at what this phony love for language has done to the country,” says Nagarkar, pointing to Shiv Sena’s vicious Marathi Manas and other malicious campaigns of fundamentalists across the country. These regressive developments, along with dozens of other social ills, are rising just as rapidly as the various facets of “development” and “modernity.” “The youth should have the moral fiber,” Nagarkar says. “It will come to India, but I’m afraid it will be too late. So I just wish to God that we wake up!” Koechlin mirrors this sentiment when she says, “Evolution happens in waves. These dismal things will reach a peak and then die down. I only hope that people realize what’s happening before it is too late.”

Some of Young India is indeed creating tiny silver linings to the materialistic clouds. There are those like artist Himanshu Verma who is campaigning to save the historic flower markets of Delhi, which provide livelihoods to thousands, but have come under fire from government in its attempt to move them in the name of development. Socially and culturally, Young India demonstrates tolerance. Gay pride parades are becoming annual rituals, as are film festivals and cultural events that give the gay and transgender community voices like never before.

Young India owes much of its development to Old India. In fact, the economic development grew out of the liberalization brought about by Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh—a senior citizen and product of Old India. Many of the successes of Indians abroad are courtesy of their parents—again, belonging to Old India—who invested in their children’s education and helped them go abroad. Traditionally, it is elders and parents whom Indians have looked up to, for guidance, answers and wisdom in tough times. Perhaps it is time that Young India tuned in to Old India for the same. What would Young India be without Old India?


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