August 29, 2008

Finding Compromises on the Meatiest Issues Letter From India

By Anand Giridharadas

In India, vegetarianism is not a passing Bohemian fad.

For 200 million or so people, it is an ancient means of purifying the body and pacifying the mind. Meat-eaters are widely believed to be aggressive and unclean. When Gandhi sailed to England to study, his caste excommunicated him for fear that he would succumb to the pleasures of the (animal) flesh.

Today, thanks to globalization, you need not visit Europe to be tempted by flesh. KFC and McDonald's and Pizza Hut outlets beckon to a swelling middle class. (Guess why they're swelling.) Fancy restaurants tantalize diners with sea bass, lamb shanks and duck confit. Children find meat-eating cool. Young executives want to fit in on business trips overseas.

How is a family to preserve its vegetarianism in a flesh-eaters' world?

Well, by doing what Indians have always done when faced with the wrenching choice between tradition and modernity: hair-splitting compromise.

Some families forbid meat in the house but let anything go beyond it.

Others allow the young to eat meat all days except Vegetarian Tuesday.

Still others have turned to kitchenettes: Children can bring in meat from takeout joints, but must microwave it in a separate, specially made carnivores alcove.

I once visited the home of pious Brahmins in Punjab. They lived on vegetables and colas by day. But every night an elder would circulate whispering "whiskey-chicken-mutton" to the other men, an alert that these occasions of sin were now available in his bedroom. By sunrise, everyone was vegetarian again.

It has become commonplace, in this globalizing age, to bemoan the world's creeping sameness. Vanishing day by day are rarely spoken languages, corner grocers who know your name, movies that don't end happily, ancient ways of making hams and cheeses, the siesta, the neighborhood pub.

In a sea of homogenization, India surfaces as an island of hybridization. Puristic neither about the past's indelibility nor the future's inevitability, Indians may offer a lesson in how to compromise with the past in order to save it - and how to be modern without being just like everybody else.

"Countries change around their DNA. And the Indian DNA is about continuity with change; it is about ' This as well as that, '" Rama Bijapurkar, an Indian management guru, writes in her recent book, "Winning in the Indian Market."

She adds: "Our faith in astrology does not decrease as a result of the rising levels of our scientific education; rather, as a consequence, we effortlessly move to computerized horoscope casting!"

The Western mind, steeped in Enlightenment rationalism, likes to draw lines: scientific and superstitious, sacred and profane. Indians, compelled over centuries to adjust to different conquerors' whims, tend to be less stark. They are not the with-us-or-against- us kind.

A tolerance for contradictions can be a flaw, when it allows a great democracy to treat its serving class like another species, when it allows companies that pride themselves on lean, world-class factories to tolerate a Mafia culture of nepotism, corruption and hierarchy.

But India may have found a solution to globalization to which the rest of us will eventually come: to enjoy history's many ages at the same time rather than in sequence.

In Hindu religious tradition, one visits a temple to do a "darshan," to have an audience with an idol of the divine. Busy city dwellers today have ever less time for such rituals. So Tata Sky, an Indian satellite-television provider, has started "Actve Darshan," an interactive service that allows you to encounter a real-time image of your favorite temple on television: a virtual darshan with your preferred deity.

If you're in a rush, piety can, alternatively, be texted. Airtel, a cellphone service, charges 10 cents to make a donation to your temple and add it to your monthly bill: divine ingratiation at 64655.

Even young urbanites, with scant memory of the India before globalization, treat tradition and modernity like a buffet rather than an all-or-nothing choice. It is hard to think of another place where so many young elites enjoy such freedom, dating now and drinking, and then quietly acquiesce when their parents notify them that the fun days are over and that there is an arranged bride waiting in the next room.

India is awash now in self-sufficient, independent women. They dress scantily on the weekends; they whiz through airports with their Blackberries all week. They take nothing from nobody - except when their mothers call eight times a day.

Indian mothers seem to fear eternally a daughter's going astray, even a 32-year-old one. Their questions are like those of a jealous lover: Where are you? Who are you with? Why did you go to this place, not that? Who dropped you? How will you get back?

The young woman will, the next morning, wake up and make a presentation to the board or direct a film or arrange a magazine shoot. But, for all their new-age power, many do not mind the nagging.

They don't feel their modernity compromised by the satisfaction of their mothers' protective urges; and mothers don't feel their tradition compromised by a child who perhaps smokes and sleeps around but always takes her mother's phone call.

There are other ways to protect a culture. One is to take it very, very seriously. The French, unrivaled at this, have set up commissions and academies to protect language, film, music. Their Culture Ministry once prohibited civil servants from calling e-mail "e-mail."

But a clinginess about the past can doom it. A willingness to bastardize the past and negotiate with the future is what might save it. The French, for all their talk, spend just one-third of their cinema money on their own movies. Indians spend 95 percent on theirs, because their movies have let the world infuse them. Indian actors traded dancing around trees for rolling on beds. The on- screen kiss, long taboo, was finally planted.

Walk the Bund in Shanghai or Ipanema in Rio de Janeiro or the Old Arbat in Moscow. Count the number of Chinese, Brazilian, Russian costumes you see.

Come, then, to Marine Drive in Mumbai. Men stroll in their kurtas and women, in their saris. Kurtas persist, perhaps, because a new generation wears the tunics over jeans and Western loafers. Saris, too, have adapted, their six yards of fabric draped now over bold, backless, midriff-baring blouses plunging low in the front, divulging more acreage of skin than the littlest little black dress.

The sari negotiated. And it's thriving.


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Tomorrow: Alan Cowell on Olympic Britain in 2012.

Originally published by The New York Times Media Group.

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