The simplest of decisions can be so difficult to execute.
Take rakhi for instance. I’ve been saying it for quite some time now, but this year I firmly decided to stop observing rakhi. A simple decision, one would think, involving no one but me and the sisters concerned. Just a matter of personal choice, of talking it out and being done with it.
A paternal outburst was expected, but that ‘twould come a full blown storm was the least of my expectations. Bitter accusations and criminations apart though, the incident proved interesting by throwing in sharp relief some of the many values and behavioural patterns which we tend to take for granted and which provide a comforting cushion to everyday existence – that, and the validity of our, or at least mine, questioning of them.
But first things first. Why did I want to stop observing rakhi? Well, simply because I think it’s an antiquated ritual which has lost its symbolic value in the present scenario. Of course, when I say the present scenario I mean my own milieu, the narrow circle I move in and not the world at large. Also, when I talk of the symbolic value of rakhi, I take the meaning understood and inculcated in most of us urban bourgeoisies – that rakhi, as a pan-cultural symbol common not just to the Hindu religion, is an observation and assertion of a brother’s duties to his sisters, to love and protect her from all harm.
Which is what’s problematic. Protect her from all harm? Of course, it’s not written anywhere, but that’s what’s implied, and being so includes almost everything possible, from bees to boyfriends, rats to rapists. I always say I’m a sorry excuse of a mard and that I manage to keep myself alive is enough without being specifically tasked with the protection of any female as a particular duty. If it’s bad, it’s bad for me as well as for the sisters and so it’s unfair to expect me to be a saviour of any sort for anybody. Got enough to fend for myself without bothering being ever-so-old-fashionedly chivalrous.
Sounds valid? That’s what I thought. It’s nice to put an end to these patriarchal, paternalistic rituals, isn’t it? As feminists of some sort of the other that’s what we ought to do too, I suppose. Put an end to patriarchal, paternalistic, phallocentric modes of being.
For what? Ay, for what? For what and what for?
In this specific case, given my narrow, urban, predominantly kayasth bourgeoisie circle, none of that bit about rakhi meaning protection is valid. Nobody expects brothers to protect sisters from harm in that bhaiya mere mode of the 70s; in particular, nobody expects me to bother much. It’s just a ritual shorn completely of its meaning, a collective habit which is just observed. Of course, it’s all very nice and proper to argue that even if the ritual’s meaning is not evoked its symbolism still stands and that to be enmeshed within that too is a sign of ideological indoctrination so that it’s still our responsibility to resist and change, but then, well, even that’s a bit facile, hmm?
How? Well, first and foremost, not only can the ritual not be taken in a particular way, but its symbolism too can change. There isn’t anything particular which can fix a meaning to something in any inherent manner, is there? If rakhi can mean paternalistic protection, it can also be just another bahana for meeting.
Which is what it’s taken as for the most. True, brotherly obligations are still part of the world we live in, but then those values are not in the least thrust upon us as writ in stone to-dos. As family one has certain obligations – and indeed, obligations which, given proper indoctrination, needn’t appear so – towards caring for and feeling, to varying, subjectively determined degrees, responsible for the welfare and well-being of family members and the brother-sister dynamic, if not exaggerated back into the 70s of Hindi cinema, is a legitimate part of them. That scratching the surface does indeed propel quite a few of us back there is also true, yes, but so is the fact that in quite a few cases it doesn’t. Besides, while it’s alright to argue in isolation that families are patriarchal and their idiom and basis phallocentric, one can’t but concede that with a little give and take, with a little adjustment – indoctrination and assimilation if you will – there’s nothing too bad about them. What, indeed, would we do without them? Do we have any alternatives to families? Not families as we know them, families as they have been, but families, groups of humans clustered together with a certain commonality of birth and relation – can we exist without being together?
We can. Not in the same way of course, but then not with the same, or even similar, basis. Humanity can be organised in a zillion other ways I suppose, but then all of those would be conscious efforts, would be structures systematically thought out and rationalised. We can have, with a supreme, well nigh impossible effort, a society structured on the basis of equality and justice – and equality and justice as some of us who bother about them today understand them – but then, well, is that even desirable?
Seriously, is a just and equal society even desirable? I’m all for comparatively just and comparatively equitable, but wholly so? A society where legality and the rhetoric of rationality would keep in check all truant desires, negate the possibility of violence and discrimination by intricate mechanisms of checks and balances and create, enforce, a sense of equality is just way too Orwellian for my comfort. Personal relations and subjectivity would, in such a world, be subsumed under the larger need for objectively defined equality. Men and women would be equal, yes, but what then all those gamut of passions and desires which make inter-sexual dynamics what they are today would no longer be valid. Just as it wouldn’t do to expect your female partner to cook your food (if you were a male i.e.), it would also not do to abuse someone just because they cheated on you. Truths tend to be ossified, but in a social setup guided wholly by rationally determined codes and legality that sort of ossification, backed by appropriate indoctrination, would be complete.
Which, even if it were not for an overwhelming taint of absolutism, would be stifling boring.
Wouldn’t it? I mean, who would want to live a life wholly determined by received notions of rationally acceptable behaviour? To be correct all the time, to always give a damn and never, ever be wrong, who would possibly want that? Of course we need safeguards to make sure we don’t all run amok, but isn’t doing that every now and then part of being human as we know it? Who would want to completely change that, to deny themselves the privilege, even if rare, of not caring – or pretending not to and doing all possible bosh in the guise? To not do as one is expected to but deliberately go against, to feel that sheer, perverse joy of going against and do so knowing, after all, that even though it’s not justified completely it is, given certain received circumcisions, understandable, even pardonable. All said and done, there might be an essence to things – that there needn’t be one, that for all our rationality we needn’t be so all the time, that we may let go and accept, critique that acceptance, nuance it, but let go, let be.
To think of rakhi just as a patriarchal custom and so condemn it is, then, to be naive in a way that that curious creature, the campus feminist, is. Yes, it is patriarchal and heavily consumeristic as a festival, but even as it is, to argue against it just on those grounds, grounds based on the logic of rationality and semantics, is to further deprive our lives of those moments of sparkling irrationality, unthinking-ness if I may, which the larger social framework of post-enlightenment global capital has already made suspect. In many ways one is and must be thankful for that, for the life we live is quite literally a creation of these ideas and ideals; but even so one cannot but be wary of the banishment of irrationality, of craziness and insanity, from life. The world, perhaps, is not half as crazy as it used to be a hundred or so years ago and one must be glad that it’s not, but if it were to wholly be not so – and regardless of the way, good or bad (again, these as understood by most today) – it would be not half as nice a place to live as it is now. Rakhi, as a ritual without meaning, a symbol sans its symbolism, is just one instance of the insanity we are intent on proving obsolete: it might be nice to prove it so and push it out of consciousness, but then whether it’ll be worth the effort is, and will be, open to continual contention.
Which is why, I suppose, it’s so difficult to execute the simplest of decisions.
Of course that bloke off Har-ki-paudi was right – in just this one instance, that this would materialise. This, then, to him.