Ah, India, the land of lists way before Western magazines. Listing qualities through comparisons is such an old cultural reflex that you wonder if old-style people, however well-meaning, fully realise how impolite it sounds today if they objectify women as of yore. True, we love ‘varnan’ (descriptions) of the gods praising their attributes and qualities and these are useful references for iconographers, artists and poets. Such verses work both as expressions of devotion and as files. Also, our bhashas have such ‘list-verses’ for nearly everything else, all rich in comparison. For instance, I’m sure almost everyone who’s been to school in India knows this list of attributes required in a student: ‘kak cheshta, bako dhyanam, shwan nidra, alp ahari, grih tyagi’ — ‘the persistence of a crow, the concentration of a crane and the alertness of a dog, a light eater who surrenders home comforts’.
Another famous list-verse exalts the ancient temple town of Kanchipuram, believed to be the only ‘mokshapuri’ (salvation city) south of the Vindhyas: ‘pushpeshu jati, purusheshu Vishnu, narishu Rambha, nagarishu Kanchi’, meaning, ‘as the parijat among flowers, Lord Vishnu among men and Rambha among women, is Kanchi the first among cities’. It doesn’t precisely spell it out for Rambha, but since we know she’s a celestial maiden, we’re culturally coded to infer ‘prettiest’ (Urvashi, Menaka and Tilottama, the apsaras who complete the Fab Four in Indralok are known for other accomplishments besides being dropdead gorgeous).
Then we skate like ‘Cinderella on Ice’ on traditional verses like this one, attributed to a 13th century Telugu work called ‘Niti Saara’ (I know it only by hearsay and would be glad to have a verified reference):’karyeshu dasi, karaneshu mantri, bhojeshu mata, shayaneshu Rambha, roopeshu Lakshmi, kshamayeshu pruthvi, shat dharmayukta kuladharma patni’. ‘Like a servant at chores, a minister in counsel, a mother at nurture; like Rambha in love, beautiful like Lakshmi, enduring like the earth: these six qualities define the proper wife’.
Many people in modern India have grown up with such verses and find them unacceptable today in some comparisons, if not all. It would truly be a pity if we lost the vigour and beauty of our bhashas through excessive political correctness. But since our mother tongues are very sophisticated in nuance and we are culturally coded to catch their resonances, it is, alas, unacceptably jarring to hear of a lady in public office described as ‘maal’, however complimentary the context.
— Renuka Narayanan writes on religion and culture