TWO incidents with me, one today, and the other years ago in Australia illustrate truths, to some extent, that might define the contemporary cultural world. Today’s incident first. The moment I stepped out of the interior of an uptown Srinagar café, a boy (or a young adult), one in a gaggle of boys and girls reflexively asked me for the bill. I was wearing a Shalwar Kameez. Startled, I politely told him I was not a waiter. He and his friend(s) apologized for the ‘confusion’. Now back to the past: when I was in my intense wandering stage in Australia, and when I’d go for the Friday prayers to the Mosque, after a conversation with me, white Australian converts would say, ‘ he’s like us’. (Now with respect to me, I would like to think that I am a bit of a hybrid who has imbibed reasonably well both elements of ‘reason’ and my cultural and even religious moorings and underpinnings- an enriching synthesis that allows me to negotiate different worlds).
But what explains today’s experience of mine and the Oz converts assessment of me?
If an insight can be culled from today’s experience, and from it(experience) can be abstracted the general tenor of cultural life among contemporary youth in the non- western world, it may be two-fold. One is that the West sets cultural (fashion, English as the lingua franca or a general way of being) standards across the world. The corollary here is that the young of non -western cultures against Western cultural standards suffer from an acute inferiority complex. Western standards- validated and reinforced by Instagram, Facebook etc- are the ones to follow or imitate for them and native ones bespeak and reflect something sub -par. What can be inferred from this? Some may state that this is Westernization or a modern outlook. But this would be an ironically superficial assessment? While the way one comports oneself, speaks and so on, and it might constitute a compliment for the culture that one is imitating, but abstracting an outlook from this would be wrong. Outlook and how one sees the world is a complex phenomenon that emanates from intellectual development, growth and nuance emanating from one’s given experience or ‘habitus’, among other things. Blue Denims- a western ‘thing’ – and wearing these cannot be a proxy for this. Outlook, of any kind or of any culture, is philosophical. Blue denims are ‘what everyone wears’ – or in other words superficial. The latter is a reflection of a sartorial code in a given context; it neither is determinative of behavior nor culture.
Now, let me turn to the Oz anecdote: Why would Oz converts think I was ‘like them’? One reason may have been the way I spoke- non accented , clearly enunciated English, unlike other immigrants. The other could have been my tentative and putative knowledge of their culture and to some extent western philosophy. They could, in other words, relate to me. But was I necessarily ‘like them’? No. I shared some similarities with them but I was not Australian in an organic sense. And, their premise in judging me to be like them was different, in the sense I was different from other immigrants.
Given these two anecdotes and experiences, what larger meaning(s) and conclusions can be drawn?
Is Westernization, broadly or narrowly defined, the ‘end game’ for non -Western cultures and societies? Can this be inferred from how people speak and dress? What would against the backdrop of conflicting ideas about culture, desire, ambition, outlook and so on authenticity mean? Would it be ‘pure’ Westernization or ‘pure ‘ nativism’?
As complex human beings are- a compendium of rationality and emotion- no definitive answer can be arrived at. But tentatively, it may be that a synthesis of either — reason, emotion, and culture- may be most prudent. This is not for purely or merely instrumental terms- career advancement, social or economic mobility, international experiences and so on- but for the general wellbeing of societies and cultures. Homogeneity where everyone eats burgers and Pizzas and drinks Coca Cola would be a boring, drab world. But I would dare say, there might not be anything wrong with drinking a Coca Cola while wearing a Shalwar Kameez (or whatever one’s cultural dress code might be) and reading Sartre or whatever one’s cultural, religious or literary texts are. From a larger canvas, there’s no such thing as pure authenticity, ‘pure’ hybridity’ or ‘pure’ fakeness. There is , in the human makeup elements of all. It’s then either pick and choose one’s preference (where the element of choice kicks in) or a deeper, profounder preference of who you want to be. Either is fine. But Caveat Emptor: Don’t judge anyone for who they are. I wear blue denims. These are great for maneuverability, flexibility and can, if worn well, even look stylish. But I wear the shalwar Kameez too- great in summer, flow beautifully and look graceful. Am I western for wearing Denims? Or am I Eastern for wearing Shalwar Kameez? Both and Neither.
- Views expressed in the article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the editorial stance of Kashmir Observer
Be Part of Quality Journalism
Quality journalism takes a lot of time, money and hard work to produce and despite all the hardships we still do it. Our reporters and editors are working overtime in Kashmir and beyond to cover what you care about, break big stories, and expose injustices that can change lives. Today more people are reading Kashmir Observer than ever, but only a handful are paying while advertising revenues are falling fast.