India is on the move. Not in housing, education or healthcare. Not in urban reconstruction. Certainly not in political maturity. The movement is almost dazzlingly rapid in what might be called the software of globalisation — dress, manners and everything the fashionable word “lifestyle” covers. Hence the sharp division in Calcutta legal circles over a new term — “outraging the modesty of society” — that a defence lawyer sprung in the Alipore court the other day.
He was defending 70-year-old Kamal Ganguly who is accused (with his 37-year-old son Shouvik and some others) of assaulting a 22-year-old girl student wearing shorts and sharing a cigarette with a young man. When Ganguly senior asked the girl to throw away her cigarette, she refused and argued back. “In our area, girls do not smoke or wear short dresses,” Shouvik told the media. “This is not Park Street or Jadavpur University where you can do anything… you are supposed to respect elders.” The incident took place in a lower middle-class suburban residential colony.
The case being sub judice, I am not commenting on either party’s conduct. My observations are confined to societal trends. Conflict is not unique to contemporary Bengal or even India. It surfaces wherever a minority races ahead of the rest. An Indian woman born and bred in India but married to an Indian Singaporean born and bred there told me how the two of them were sitting in a food court in Malaysia drinking beer when a local Tamil remarked in loud derision, “Wearing sari, drinking beer!” He was probably the son or grandson of a plantation worker who had migrated from the old Madras Presidency. That placed him in a special category for such expatriates tend to cling to norms that the parent society discarded long ago. They are caught in a time warp and, in Southeast Asia at least, are often surprisingly conservative.
But the contrast between attire and action would have struck others too. A sari still signified convention in Malaysia and Singapore. A sari-draped female drinking beer in a food court was like the girl in shorts smoking in modest lower middle-class Kolkata. Neither would merit a glance at a fashionable private party or in the lounge of a smart hotel. But conservative society might complain that both outrage its modesty.
Hindu orthodoxy was aghast when Brahmo Samaj pioneers championed the cause of women’s education, a higher marriage age and widow remarriage. I have mentioned before the aggressive 19th century Young Bengal pioneers who, when they encountered “a snan shuddh brahmin with the sacerdotal mark on his forehead, danced round him, bawling in his ears, ‘We eat beef. Listen, we eat beef’.” Those freethinking zealots from the Hindu College, which became Presidency College and is now Presidency University (where the assault victim studies) treated beef as a symbol of emancipation. Consumption implied pleasurable defiance.
Today, however, modernisation often lacks the intellectual understanding that inspired Brahmo Samaj or Young Bengal radicals. Modernisation can be Westernisation in a most superficial sense, expressed through drinking, designer clothes or American slang. It’s often either imitative or advertisement driven. One thinks of the American Virginia Slims cigarette advertisement showing a woman hanging laundry over the slogan “You’ve come a long way baby”. The catchphrase implied that women who smoked Virginia Slims were dashing young creatures who had rejected the fusty conservatism that tied their mothers and grandmothers to domestic chores. Since society everywhere is in a constant state of flux, clashes are inevitable when the majority steeped in orthodoxy is challenged by a few whose ways seem bewildering revolutionary.
In England, Emmeline Pankhurst’s Women’s Social and Political Union merrily took the sting out of the Daily Mail’s mocking word “suffragette” by embracing the term and calling themselves “suffraGETtes”. The message of the hard “g” was that they would get the vote they demanded. New York City’s Board of Aldermen outlawed women smoking in public when sophisticated American women tried to project cigarette smoking as a statement that they represented the independent-minded “New Woman”.
My grandmother told me of an incident that must have taken place in the late 1890s when she and her sister were waiting in their carriage outside the house their mother was visiting in conservative North Calcutta. Two young men passing by looked into the carriage and exclaimed in mock horror, “Such old girls and still unmarried!” My grandmother was nearing 20; her sister 18. No one would have said a word if they had been sitting in their carriage in smart, Westernised South Calcutta’s Park Street. But North Calcutta hadn’t seen anything like them — daughters of one of the first Indian members of the covenanted Indian Civil Service, they had been to boarding school in England and were members of the Brahmo Samaj. Slight in itself, the encounter represented a catalytic confrontation between two cultures. It wasn’t physically violent because the men were civilised and the girls were not provocative. But by 19th century norms, the intrusiveness was violence enough.
Lee Kuan Yew, the first Prime Minister of Singapore, never forgot a Sikh friend who tried to break “away from his past too fast and too quickly”. He cut his hair and shaved his beard but couldn’t bring himself to do away with either completely. Caught between two worlds, “in the end he cracked under emotional pressures”. His plight convinced Lee that Singapore should “make haste slowly” when modernising. That lesson should be dinned into young, upwardly mobile Indians. Modernisation is not just a suit of clothes; it’s the outer manifestation of inner rationalism that conquers the bonds of unreasoning tradition. To quote Gramsci: “The point of modernity is to live a life without illusions while not becoming disillusioned.”