A study of the human condition has always been one full of surprises and paradoxes. More often than not, the seemingly mundane falls apart to reveal untold depth and complexity, while that which had shown promise turns out to be gravely disappointing.
What a person does as part of a certain social setting turns out to be so different from what he might have done without the influence of his external environment. Nature and nurture are so intertwined in the personality of an individual that it becomes impossible to untangle and separate the two in the making of one’s character.
As a continuity of this vein of thought, an interesting study can be made of contemporary society. Today’s well-to-do urbanised youth with even just a rudimentarily intellectualised bent of mind is well-versed in the rhetoric of individuality. The highest ambition that a person can hold today is to be a unique individual, or so it would seem.
When a question of individuality or homogeneity arises, individuality is always the more desired prospect.
Being one’s own person seems to have become the catchphrase that serves as an entry into elitist circles of intelligentsia. Uniqueness and distinctiveness seem to be given the highest degree of respect and appreciation. This is the picture that social media wants to portray to the world at large.
Ground reality seeks to hold up a starkly contrasting picture, however. Never have human lives been more homogenised than in contemporary society. Human tendency has always been to follow the herd; to be part of a group. Being different in the true sense of the word has certain ramifications in terms of social acceptability that the ordinary human being finds terrifying.
The human need to relate and belong overrides the urge to stand out and be distinctive. Globalisation and a network of social connectivity have increased the level of homogeneity manifold. A comparative study of the social environment of metropolitan cities all around the world – Mumbai, New York, Shanghai and Sydney for example – would reveal a surprising level of similarity in cuisine, sartorial habits, musical tastes, even aspirations of the youth.
The ubiquitous jeans clad-pizza eating-English speaking youth who owns an iPhone, watches The Game of Thrones and grooves to the songs of Adele is truly a citizen of the world; he has no distinctive identity. This development could be celebrated as bringing the world closer and breaking the artificial barriers of nationality. Yet is this really a good thing in its entirety?
Take us Indians for example. In the crazy race to become more ‘modern’, more ‘sophisticated’ we seem to have made a deliberate decision to obliterate all that is good and beautiful in our own heritage while blindly trying to catch up to global tastes. Much that is innately Indian is now given lip service on select days of the year: songs of patriotic fervour on 26th of January and 15th of August, saris on Saraswati Pujo.
Urban bred Indians no longer communicate with each other in their mother tongues; they prefer English and are often much more conversant in it. Indian classical music might soon become a lost art except in niche circles, and the same goes for literature in Indian languages. In the context of individuality or homogeneity, homogeneity, by far, seems to have outpaced the other.
What is worse, a certain section of the population has taken this to an extreme by treating Indian-ness with derision. As a Bengali myself, I find it sad to see so many of my contemporaries taking a perverse pride in speaking a horribly mutilated version of their mother tongue and making snide comments at anyone who continues to remain ‘Indian’ in habit and attire.
The colonial hangover that still remains in the Indian psyche continues to bode ill for the cultural richness and diversity that we have.
The response to such Westernization that is raising its ugly head in the form of right-wing pseudo-religious groups like the RSS or the Bajrang Dal are a travesty, but they may be an inevitable reaction. There is a vague sense of discontent and anger simmering just under the surface of the masses.
Mainstream India – the masses that live in small towns and villages and eke out meagre livings – has a perception of the urbanised youth as heralding in an era of debauchery and mayhem inspired by Western lifestyles. As a result, moral policing and violence in the name of protecting the Indian culture has become an accepted part of society.
Before anyone gets the idea that I am unilaterally condemning contemporary urban lifestyle and condoning the violence wrought by self- styled radical reactionaries let me make my stand clear – I am not. In fact, I am as much part of the city based way of life as most people who read this article. I have merely tried to make certain connections and correlations between various rather disturbing developments that I feel should be a cause for reflection.
As a parting shot, I have two observations to make: I think we as today’s youth need to fight – truly fight for individuality, not only in the realm of idealism but in real life. It does no good to live in a comfortable bubble of like minded peer groups who willingly boost each others’ sense of worth with adulation; a bubble by definition is meant to be burst. Conversely, we also need to fight to preserve all that is worth reserving. As a nation that has made an art out of aping the West, it is time we learnt from some of their higher ideals.
The day a Bengali is as proud of his mother tongue as a Frenchman is, or as acutely aware of a common primordial unity of his people as a Jew is, is going to be a day for celebration.