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Cultural Conundrums

Updated on October 23, 2017
Cultural cues
Cultural cues


"Oh! Our culture is any day better than that of the westerners," remarked the young woman, a visitor to our home, invited by the lady of the house on the occasion of the traditional nine-day-long annual festival. The one mandatory barter among women-folk, between the guest and the host at such junctures, was the exchange of betel leaf, and vermilion. People pandered to the temptation of many more forms of barters alongside, some equal, others unequal in content and value. My loathing for any such extensions of basic protocols was the, perhaps judgmental, view that such acts were essentially motivated by the irresistible need to indulge in one-upmanship camouflaged as piety. Perhaps, this was too severe a viewpoint. But my justification to hold this perspective was the thought that the basic cultural norm of a symbolic exchange was primarily instituted as a simple but strong display of adherence to the social necessity of recognizing, respecting, and acknowledging a willingness to promote the other's need and expectation of societal order, material and physical safety, and continuity in habitual modes of living. Vermilion signified a settled and vibrant marital life, while a betel leaf suggested adequate availability of food to digest because the consumption of this leaf with condimental embellishments after a meal was a recommended practice of any conventional cuisine, simple or elaborate. Women's safety and happiness and sufficient foodstuff were considered reasonable indicators of society's welfare. Considering the fact that female characteristics and proclivities have evolved for the purpose of nurture and propagation, and also the natural priority of formal manifestation of any living body at the embryonic stage being that of a female, it seemed logical that any society's welfare too would be measured in terms of the perceptible wellness of females in its midst. Viewed as an extension of the unfolding of the material universe's processes, the cultural ritual that I was witness to, appeared to have adorned more pleasing colors. It was a gladdening feeling to see a practice celebrating the fair sex as they rightly ought to be. But that still did not qualify the practice of exchanging vermilion and betel leaf to be superior to a ritual from another culture.

I decided to share these insights with my friend who was both the father and escort of the young woman, encouraging him to deliberate on them and give his opinion. Former compulsions of gender segregation that had turned traditions with time, conveniently provided a niche within the house that was free from uncomfortable female interference. From our general experience, such thought-sharing were best indulged in under ideal conditions for proper logical deductions. This was a universal male viewpoint and hence completely justified from a conceptual basis that it was securely tethered upon. My friend even had a justification for this perspective. The fact that human embryos were formed to grow into female manifestations by default of which those that were to be male underwent relevant modifications a few weeks into their growth, seemed to have prepared a proto-cultural foundation for later behavior. Unmodified growth emphasized stability and status quo while modified growth spurred tendencies to analyze and understand new situations to deal with them.

The desired ambiance for serious discussions promoted the process successfully and my friend's concurrence nudged me to follow this line of thought on cultures and rituals further. The next coherent self-interrogative extension of the notion was that every thinking society would have a similar female-wellness based aspiration. The symbolic objects and their association with particular aspects of societal routines could, of course vary, being a function of environmental factors. So how does that make one culture better than another, we wondered, with ever-increasing conviction, together with the enjoyable deep inhalations of the pollutant-free immediate surroundings.

Leap of appreciation
Leap of appreciation

It was only instinctive to exhibit, endorse, and eulogize what was one's own, nudged by the need of ensuring survival in life's journey that was always overflowing with unavoidable contests at every turn. It was the definite sign of self-awareness. If the objective of claiming superiority over other cultures was only a display of one-upmanship in the competitive game of living, we supposed it was then an acceptable and necessary folly. But the actuality that survival was sometimes ensured through compromises, and in certain circumstances compromise was the only available option, it became necessary to overcome the inertia of familiarity and take a leap of appreciation to understand the nuances of other cultures with a focus on discovering underlying similarities. So wandered our thoughts in lazy lenience, now wafting on the inviting aroma of filter-coffee, now vicariously savoring the deliciousness of the warm victuals served with the steaming beverage.

Yet, we come across what appeared to be irreconcilable disparities between cultures in certain instances, forcing even a flow of logical thought to face insurmountable obstacles, even if directed by intentions of understanding and compromise. This pointed to extreme inflexibility of one or both the contending practices. It wasn't a lack of considerateness but an obstinate refusal to exercise it that seemed to become the impediment. How did this inflexibility and obstinacy come about? Was it inherent to the culture or did it change along its journey in time? The second possibility seemed more likely. When symbols lost their context due to changes in the environment, suppositions that dwelt on firm intent became superstitions fueled by fear; and fear was a commodity that was easily exploitable to gain quick benefits in a competitive arena. Though such utilization of available advantages certainly wasn't unfair, it defeated the endeavor for a compromise and led to unpleasant outcomes or apparently intractable stalemates. It was therefore imperative that, to ensure one's own chances of survival, a leap of appreciation was taken, whether or not the understanding so gained was ultimately used.

Ecstatic were we, my friend and I, with our unrestrained thought-trades. It had been a bit of a disappointing let down with the initial acceptance of the idea of womanhood being a true, complete, and natural visualization of existence and its processes. But the belief, whether misplaced or otherwise, that such logical analysis was the exclusive preserve of men and their smartness with such rigorous workouts, was certainly stimulating and reassuring. Everything was indeed neither fair nor unfair in love and war. It even applied to the small-time sub-cultural skirmish being enacted in a living-room niche in the midst of a friendly cultural exchange commemorating mutual well-being.

Though the first usage of the aphorism with the emphasis on the widespread applicability of fairness, was attributed to a poet from the sixteenth century, I am sure that individuals with a philosophical bent of mind across eras at many different points in the long history of the human race that is now estimated to be about three hundred thousand years old, would have thought about, realized and articulated similar deductions by gestures, spoken words, written opinions, or direct actions. War and love were precisely the two societal manifestations of the forces that drove all entities in the material world exhibiting their purposeful primary and alternative primary initiatives of preservation and propagation. It would stand to reason that if the material processes were controlled by definite and immutable laws of nature set in time, then so would their parallel projections in the societal arena. Fairness or its converse were only unavoidable but essentially irrelevant sentiments associated with an entity-centered viewpoint in a controlled and deliberate unfolding of events in the material world. Culture being the collective projection of a particular viewpoint, it too would sport the same traits as that of the idea of fairness, unavoidable but irrelevant in the larger scheme of things.

Feminine fury
Feminine fury

It was the pleasant and repose-seeking season of rains. A sudden gush of cool breeze carrying with it traces of moisture from a steady drizzle outside, appeared to have transported a whiff of the thought-flavors from either side of the supposedly sanctimonious and marked floor areas of gender divide to the other. There were inevitable and immediate repercussions. When a woman's wrath is kindled, the effects of the representative fire and brimstone is not long from being felt; with multiple women, the intensity of the effects too are manifold. The numerical strength on the other side of the divide having increased disproportionately with new un-escorted arrivals, we unprepared men tending to the harmless play of thoughts upon a fertile subject platform, were engulfed in the flames of perdition. "How can you equate our advanced culture to those of the heathen from foreign lands?" boomed a voice through the illusory shower of pungent brimstone. I recognized the voice to be that of the normally affable, amiable and urbane wife of my friend.

Our ideal niche vanished, our robust and sturdy thought-patterns went up in misty plumes, our analyses were in tatters. But we were no greenhorns when it came to facing such situations. We were men after all and our proto-culture, right from the fetal stage, had primed us to face such eventualities. The fact that we have lived to tell tales, signified that such sulfurous purgatories could be faced and withstood with minimal adverse aftermaths. It strengthened our belief that if a woman's wrath was indeed indicative of hell-fire, then Hades wouldn't be such a terrible place. Women needed men, and the feminine penchant for stability would ensure the latter's safety. Intrepid businessmen from the hospitality sector could even think in terms of including Hades as a possible winter-time destination in their itinerary for extreme adventure sports. There would certainly be some level of scalding, some amount of scorching, some trace of blanching upon those who dare to avail the offer. But it would surely present the most audacious bang for a well-earned buck, though the eerily exhilarating experience of standing up to unrestrained feminine fury would be very short-lived and harmless in composition.

Another strong eruption of womanly rage shook our niche from its foundations and then there was silence. As expected, the fire soon fizzled out, the flames quickly subsided, an invisible singe or two on our exposed body-parts remained to be the only adumbration of our inherent bravery. Transitory parity had been restored between the contending cultural visions. Yet another enactment of this eternal and unceasing play of one-upmanship between perspectives at the cultural, sub-cultural, and proto-cultural levels had concluded, and life went marching along as usual to destiny's regular beat.

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