In India, we are all kinds of complicated. Being ‘good’ is simply too spartan. We prefer embellishment instead in a myth-making culture that has primed our senses to the make-believe. The contradictions in daily life are immense because of this clash between the bare minimal rules of modernity, goodness, and the florid curlicues of a persistently fictionalising, feudal past. People can be soap-opera mean, as they cannot suppress the urge to crush and subjugate, top other people, with a kind of remorselessness that is subconscious, ancient and passed down.
Bizarrely, this is not out of place, and even accepted. Paradoxically, what is not socially acceptable is to confront this kind of subliminal behaviour from people who are supposed to be family or friends. We still live in the remnants of a stubbornly pervasive, hierarchical, feudal society, where such behaviour was/is acceptable, especially when it involves the showing of implicit dominance towards perceived inferiors. People at the receiving end adapt their deportment around this unspoken stricture, and fight back through passive counter plotting.
Neither the dominant, nor the subjugated are ‘nice’. They cannot afford to be, when holding a grudge is a national pastime. A feudal spine in the culture is why niceness feels effete. Take a peek at the roads of our cities for proof, or into your personal Indian lives. Some of the most popular news-based Indian TV debates are grudge matches and television at 9 pm is a mirror we look into fascinated, unable to turn our eyes away from the exaggerated torsions of the purveyors of news, as they struggle to set aside an ancient magic realism and stuff all our issues into the straitjacket of good and bad. It’s fascinating because try as they might, the magic real is ever present, the straitjacket bursts every night all over our screens, the news anchors are themselves children of the culture; their biases and grudges eventually cracking through the facade of minimalism.
The magic realism of feudal legerdemain was used to transform puerile grudge-holding into incredible stories to help us transcend the merely simplistic. In the complex world of the magic-real, only the naive will believe in Good and Bad. But it doesn’t stop anyone from finding ways to appropriate the ‘nice’ label through the sophistry of myth making. You will hardly meet a person who has trouble identifying themselves as good.
But as you may have guessed by this point, ‘good’ is a restrictive, new-fangled thing in an old world, a round concept hole and we are the square pegs trying to bash through. If you live in India, you will find yourself growing up with very elasticated ethics. We are able to bend these to suit circumstances, as well, this is the will of the gods.
People are supposed to need answers. But as a clever contrarian people we are the opposite, we don’t like answers. Truth is dismissed as judgement. An answer or the truth has a taste of being in the box. A true or false answer system is too binary in our fractional world, where simplistic good-bad duality can cramp resourcefulness, and magic-real fictionalising. Towns can have plans and organisations in place, but the citizenry will tenaciously defy all attempt at social order.
Rubber band existence it is, which allows you to flex your ethics around the million tiny cruelties you dole out every day. It permits in our midst vicious discriminations based on caste and race. Then you lose yourself in fairy tales of the past where a great god said you were born to be noble, or there’s no such thing as a lie when what you have to do is survive. In Indian folklore, the protagonist with principles is weak and he will lose in the final battle to trump everyone else, though ultimately he ascends to heaven. But crucially, in the magic-real world of the myth he is portrayed as eternally deficient although good. You see, in ancient times, ‘good’ was not such a great thing. You could not raid your neighbouring tribe for their food, wealth, abduct their women and still be ‘good’. Back in the safety of your own tribe, along would come the scribes to mythologise and valourize your dastardly deeds.
We have evolved a clever culture, which apportions a certain amount of fiction into daily lives, to make surviving at all costs possible, but most importantly, to let us believe the fantasies we tell ourselves to feel grandiose. Goodness is mythically written into your caste, class and religiousness; the higher, the holier, the more ‘good’ you get, and even if that ‘goodness’ is spurious, it is practically guaranteed. It is a kind of fantastic insulation that allows the practising of a monumental selfishness, and still emerge teflon pious before your peers. The urban chaos of Indian cities is splendidly magic-real and it is made by the epic-scale egotisms of millions of idiosyncratic individuals going about trying to get their way.
The ‘good’ have no means of knowing how self-preserving their lives have become. We might feel pity, but the ability to feel pity is not enough to ensure the wielding of compassion, an essential attribute of modern goodness. As Richard Dawkins says in The Selfish Gene, kindness is learned. Lessons in empathy have to begin really early, the earliest you can get a child to read facial cues and learn to grasp the concept of other people’s sadness, that their behaviour could be inconveniencing to other people, the better it will be for their future relationships.
When we were in school we had a period devoted to a corny sounding subject called moral science. It was ironic because there was no real science in the way we were taught moral science. Although, today studies into the human brain can shed light on why humans feel compassion and have ethics. In those days, the subject was pleasant story time and brought easy good grades. Teachers and students alike treated this class as break period. While some of us remained in moral science, others took up religious studies. Morality is archaic now, reduced to a conservative throwback, a word that has developed a taste for right-wing circles. It has transformed in nuance to something Victorian, attaching itself to religion and even something like the abstinence policy, which was advocated back in George W’s America. Can an Emma Watson turn around morality at the UN? Morality is now even more unfashionable than feminism, which is experiencing a revival thanks to its uptake among celebrities and pop-stars. In those simple moral-science stories, two or three pages long, back in school were hidden basic lessons in empathy and fellow-feeling, and these would turn out to be the only time in our lives we would receive these critical messages. Looking back, it seems we could not take the subject seriously, we laughed it off, as our ethos did not have the time for rudimentary sensitivities. It clashed with our propensity for ornate magic real.