Kolkata, Sunday, 29th July 2012 [Editorial]
The Order of Things
Personal Relationships Must Be Equitable And Fair
By Martin Kämpchen
IT is careless to say that all people are equal, or should be equal. Obviously they are not. They differ regarding gender, age, character, talent and many other such constitutive characteristics. Apart from that they speak different languages, have grown up in different environments which give them various opportunities or disadvantages in conducting their lives. Equal they are, or should be, before the law as citizens of a democracy and before us as mature human beings. This entails that all human beings get an equal chance to develop their respective potential and lead a dignified life.
With the history of caste and class structure and feudalism, we in India have taken to this idea late and with hesitation. The educated middle class bemoans the fact that traditional India is loaded with hierarchy and that this tradition lingers on. Being modern obviously means, to educated persons, to cast away those shadows. And they point to the United States where the practice of egalitarianism is supposedly so far advanced.
It has been one of my major challenges to grapple with this issue. Here we have a fairly structured social system exactly because of its clear-cut hierarchy. One factor is seniority. The older person is always more respected and to be listened to than the younger. This gives importance to people with experience and maturity. But this also gives importance to people who are no longer in their prime and no longer give their best. The concept of seniority actually is derived from the family. Here the elder-most generation still has the final word in important decisions, although it may not actually run the family anymore. Older people continue to be integrated in family life and feel needed. This is so wholesome compared to the cruel marginalization of elder persons in many other countries.
In a family, there can be no democracy. Everybody is either older or younger, either closer to the core family or farther removed. Some years ago, twins were born in a family I know, a girl first and a few minutes later a boy. One should have thought that twins would be considered equals in the family. But no, the girl is addressed as didi and the boy as bhai on the strength of these few minutes. I then understood that equality just does not exist as a family concept.
It provides enormous mental comfort to persons “to know their place” in the family and by extension in society. It gives the warm feeling of security, of being sheltered. This allows them to grow, undisturbed by a need to aggressively and all too early shape their individuality. (Unfortunately, in urban life this security is being more and more squandered by the fiercely competitive educational system.) The drawback is that vital differences within a family which clearly overrule the considerations of age, cannot be honoured, especially the difference in education.
Here is an example: A smart and energetic boy from a poor South Bengal village, one of eight brothers, was able to progress with scholarships until his graduation. He soon got a government job. None of his brothers achieved nearly as much. So the entire family began to depend on him for the guidance of the younger children, for help in many emergencies. As a good son, he did his duty and lived very moderately himself. His elder brother’s wife gave birth almost every year. Our friend was worried; he knew that he would ultimately have to carry the burden of this fecundity. Why didn’t he give a stern warning to his brother or at least discuss the issue with him? He never did. “How can I speak about these matters to my dada!” he maintained and indeed, later he had to bear the consequences with many sacrifices. A hierarchy based on merit ~ here on the degree of education ~ could have changed the situation of the entire family.
In some Western countries, especially in the United States, there is the opposite trend to level down the differences in society. Students often talk to their professors like equals, using their first name. Children once grown up address their father and mother by their first name, as if they were friends, not parents.
There are other such examples. Here natural and grown hierarchies which support a person and enrich a relationship, are being ignored. A mother will remain a mother all our life and this should be gratefully respected. Those who have lost their mother early, can tell us about their deprivation.
I did not grow up with servants. My mother did all the household work and only kept a cleaning woman once a week. But in India I could not exist without regular help throughout the day. Daily household chores are too time-consuming as to allow me to dedicate myself to my writing and study. So there is a cook from a nearby village who also goes shopping, goes to the bank and post office and pays my bills. We are together since he was a teenager. In the meantime he got married, he has two daughters who will soon do their matriculation. I would never call Kamal my “servant”. He cooperates with me so I can concentrate on the work which he cannot do; I give importance to his work because I could not do it. I do not treat him as if he were replaceable. There is a symbiosis based on mutual respect. So when he prepares tea, he naturally makes a cup for himself also and has it sitting down with me. When I have guests, he naturally sits down and listens and, if he feels like it, participates in the discussion.
Some young men from the surrounding villages as well as guests from Kolkata see me every noon. I try my best to treat them with equal attention and give them the same dignity and even get them talking with each other. This is a challenge for both groups which is not always accepted and which does not always succeed. I consider my visiting time a laboratory for such inter-cultural and inter-group relationships. I have taken my lessons from Mahatma Gandhi and especially from Swami Vivekananda.
I agree that these explorations into human relationships are loaded with complications. The person doing “lower” work may exploit me; he may become conceited and unmanageable. True! However, my experience tells me that it basically depends on the character of the persons involved and on the kind of bonding which is made possible. One may also argue that it is easier for me to engage such experiments as my social status in this society is not fixed (and takes all kinds of shapes). Again, true! And yet I am convinced that unless we, as individuals, break away, more and more, from the rigid standards of traditional inter-personal behaviour, we cannot think, speak and feel as modern human beings and act out this identity in other areas of our life.
Equality is an ideal which needs strength of mind and courage (as so stridently demanded by Swami Vivekananda). I have been aghast to see European residents of India (businessmen, representatives of NGOs etc.) who I have witnessed as flaming democrats, treat their servants with haughty condescension making quite sure that they “know their place”. The result of a culture-clash, insecurity due to language differences? No, weakness of conviction is involved as well. Wherever we live we should constantly and consciously scrutinize and adjust our personal relationships to keep them equitable and fair and in consonance with our principles.
The writer is a German scholar based in Santiniketan since 1980. He has translated Sri Ramakrishna, Rabindranath Tagore and Swami Vivekananda