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Tradition does matter but some find it stifling

Upper and middle castes spend more on traditions but Dalits and women find them binding; prejudices are breaking down... Varghese K George, Charu Sudan Kasturi and Vikas Pathak write.

delhi Updated: Apr 24, 2013 09:28 IST
Varghese K George,Charu Sudan Kasturi,Vikas Pathak

An IT professional with Infosys in Bangalore, 26-year-old Rajeev Ranjan goes back to Bihar each November for Chhath Puja.

"That's non-negotiable for me," Ranjan, son of a roadside tea vendor in Bhagalpur, said, sipping tea outside the Infosys office in Bangalore's Electronic City. "I like the life in Bangalore. But my community is where my roots are."

An emerging Indian urban middle class may be increasingly tuned into global tastes in consumption and aspirations, but retains its traditions. Many in it HT talked to pray daily and also believe in astrology.

They seek modern education as a means to a better career, but are reluctant to allow modernity to disturb their private world of family, rituals, religion and custom. But their own experiences as migrants within India make them question the politics of pitting migrants against locals and social prejudices -- though they do not disappear entirely -- undergo change.

Devotees take a holy dip at Sangam on the occasion of Mauni Amawasya during Maha Kumbh in Allahabad. The emerging Indian middle class may be increasingly trained for global economy, but still retains its rituals and customs. Ajay Aggarwal/HT File

Indore-based Dinesh Patel, 36, a Gujjar, works in the automobile industry. He insists that we must cherish India's traditions and our "great past". Among Hindus, the pattern of celebrating "Indian tradition" appears closely related to their caste - while upper castes sit easily with traditions, backward castes who constitute a good proportion of the emerging middle class are using a portion of their new earnings on rituals and pilgrimages.

36-year-old Kavindra Bhardwaj, a Brahmin, teaches at Holkar College, Indore, and also practises astrology and is committed to a guru in nearby Maheshwar.

Tradition sometimes comes as an answer to the stress of career and life. When Delhi-based gymnasium instructor Sanjay Meena fractured his left wrist after weight training equipment accidentally fell on him, his job was on the line. The owner wasn't willing to wait for him to heal. His mother asked him to keep a Hanuman idol close to him. Meena believes it worked, as the gym owner changed his mind.

Born and schooled in Meerut, Rohini, 24, was fired from a public relations firm because her "English wasn't good". Not wanting to go back home for fear of being married, she found solace in god-man Asaram Bapu's sermons, trading one tradition for another.

Marriage remains a key institution for the middle class - the site of tradition and, ironically, also of its questioning for women like Rohini. Many young women across caste accept tradition only with qualifications, seeking freedom from family bonds. And here, the challenge comes from within the most intimate bastions of tradition: marriage and family.

Confident and talkative, Nivedita, 30, who works with an NGO in Patna asked our team: "Do you think I am arrogant?" She explained: "I lacked confidence five years back, but now I am high on confidence. People see this as arrogance."

Single at 30, Nivedita said she wouldn't be pressured into marriage. "I don't want my parents' life," Nivedita, a Rajput girl who doesn't use her surname, said.

Differences in the way men and women are treated, within a family, aren't fair, she said. "In our families, if the father comes home the daughter brings a glass of water. The son, however, keeps sitting," Nivedita added.

"I would complain to the police if my prospective husband asked for dowry," Mumbai-based researcher Pratibha Kamble, 26, said.

Does this pressure change men too? Yes, partly.

Pilgrims taking holy dip in Sangam waters on Mahashivratri Snan, in a Kumbh Mela area, in Allahabad. HT/Sheeraz Rizvi

Thirty-four-year-old Sameer Kumar, a banker from Patna, is against arranged marriages where the bride and groom don't know each other, as they leave women more vulnerable.

Prakash Gurav, a 26-year-old Mumbai accountant, believes women should have the freedom to dress as they want, and 21-year-old BPO worker Sharique Raza, in the same city, wouldn't mind marrying a woman earning more than him.

On the other hand, when it comes to marriage, even those who claim caste and religion do not matter for them can't think beyond it. Meena, himself from a Scheduled Tribe, is open to marrying anyone except a Muslim or Scheduled Caste girl.

Another challenge to tradition comes from a small, assertive section of the Dalit middle class. JNU graduate Sanjay Paswan, 30, who works for an NGO in Patna, sees tradition as the continuation of Dalit exclusion.

"Dalits cannot afford to be traditional, as that reminds us of our oppressed past," argued Dalit intellectual Chandrabhan Prasad. "I see my friends from upper castes getting nostalgic about their past, their orchards, their values. We can't afford this baggage."

Middle class migration has also led many to question parochial political rhetoric that hovers subliminally in many major cities.

"You can't say Indians should be allowed to live and work in the US, and then say Biharis or northeastern people shouldn't have that right within India," said Bangalore-based graphic designer Ranjan Thangjam Singh.

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First Published: Apr 23, 2013 23:46 IST