Monday 10 December 2007

India — La Vie en Masse

I could be getting this all wrong, and please help if I am, but... India is a crowd. From school assemblies for 2,000 to heaving streets and village roads, you see people everywhere at pretty much all times of day and night. Life is lived on the pavement. Sheer size leads to paradox — For example, Muslims are a small minority in this largest Muslim nation on earth. One training specialist points out that 8 people meeting actually have 56 interrelationships. Now pile a billion people into the room, and imagine the subtlety and complexity that results.

It's embarrassing to be helped in the shops by a helper. The Western Bourgeois response is to do it all yourself and “be helpful.” But actually this may not be as helpful as you think. People are amazingly tolerant of Western Cultural Imperialism and won’t hold it against you, but when you reject help offered, you are potentially rejecting the person in role and making them look like a klutz. Of course if you accepted all offers of help, you would go mad and end up broke. This calls for sensitivity and graciousness all round. Everyone is someone, but not quite what they seem to Western eyes.

In a crowded and complex society you relate personally to others in a million ways, and develop finely tuned social antennae. Dress is an important signal for others’ social antennae, not an expression of ego and taste, as in the West. Declassé clothes are foolish and insulting. It's a long way from the top of the pile to the bottom, and social placing matters, caste or family. The more the system becomes attenuated, the less well it works so that, for example, family arranged marriages work less well the more distributed the family becomes. As Indian cities develop they grow new kinds of abject poverty and bourgeois wealth, but most people still feel a higher level of attachment and belonging than in the West. Hospitality matters, along with curiosity (but not too much) and respect. The Indian politics of everything are almost infinitely refined and complex. India’s the most socially and technically ingenious place on earth, and most things get done in the end, but not in quite the way they would in Surbiton.

Back in the UK, crowds look less crowded, and public spaces look empty — people finding designer ways of not relating to each other, aloofness, families that don’t speak to each other. Most Indians, most of the time, have far less opportunity or inclination, to be self-centred or egotistical. Brits tend to be awkward and stand-offish about anything corporate — it's amazing we manage to do Church at all, really. We think this is a crowded island, but it feels as crowded or spacious as our capacity or inability to manage social space makes it for us. This, perhaps, lies somewhere near the root of our awkwardness about diversity and multicultural living. Well there’s a hypothesis, anyway...

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