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A culture of dropping names

You must have noticed how peoples’ visiting cards and letterheads mention their academic degrees: MA, D Litt etc. and past achievements (ex-governor, ex-MP, IAS) down to lambardar, zaildar, writes Khushwant Singh.
None | By Khushwant Singh
UPDATED ON MAR 24, 2007 01:09 AM IST

You must have noticed how peoples’ visiting cards and letterheads mention their academic degrees: MA, D Litt etc. and past achievements (ex-governor, ex-Minister, ex-MP, IAS, IRS (retd) down to lambardar, zaildar. Such concern with status, past or present, obtains entirely in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. You will not come across it in Europe or America, not even in Japan where exchanging visiting cards is as common as shaking hands. Why?

I had never given it a thought till I read about it in The Indians: Portrait of a People by Sudhir and Katharina Kakar (Penguin Viking). There is lot more in this remarkably perceptive analysis of Indian character than status consciousness, e.g. persistence of communal tensions, double-speak, pretence of spirituality and what appears to others as a lot of humbug: in short what makes us Indians different from others in the world. I will come to them next week. Today I will restrict myself to what the Kakars have to say about our penchant to appear as people of some consequence, past or present.

Deeply ingrained in our psyche is consciousness of caste. In the case of enlightened people who reject the caste system as evil, it subtly translates itself into consciousness of social status. We Indians are the best examples of what Louis Dumont called homo hierarchus — humans conscious of hierarchy. Among ancient Hindus it was Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas, Shudras and other untouchables with many sub-divisions in each. Though much has changed with the times, it still determines our attitude towards others. It has contaminated all communities: Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Parsis. Muslims have ashraf (nobility), descendants of Arabs, Turks and Persians; at the base are Ajlaf, converts from Hinduism and the lowest are arzal. Muslim friends often quote Allama Iqbal’s lines to prove that Islam does not have any class distinctions: when comes the time of namaaz — ek hi saf mein khade ho gaye Mahmood aur Ayyaz — when comes the time for prayer, the Sultan (Mahmood) and the slave (Ayyaz) stand as equals side by side.

Unfortunately that equality ends after prayer time — as do momentary equalities at places of worship of other religions. Indian Christians have Brahmin Catholics. Sikhs have evolved their own caste system with Jats, who by pronouncement of the Lahore High Court are shudras — they are in fact on top of the Sikh caste hierarchy. Brahmins, kshatriyas (khatri), Aroras (vaishyas) are bhaapaas and come second. Mazhabis (dalits) are outcastes. Sikhs quote their scriptures to maintain they have no caste system, “Manas kee jaat san ek hee pehchaanbo — regard all mankind as the same caste,” said Guru Gobind Singh. However, all the 10 gurus married in the permitted khatri castes. Even Parsis have dubras, almost untouchables, because they are undertakers who deal with the dead to be disposed of in the Tower of Silence.
Consciousness of one’s importance is ingrained in our minds. Notice when a quarrel breaks out between two Indian strangers, one or the other is likely to say “Tu nahin jaanta mein kaun hoon —you don’t know who I am!”

I had a distant relative, a most amiable man who had retired from service. Whenever he rang up someone, his introductory sentence would be “Main Sardar Bahadur Falaana bol rahaa hoon, tu kaun hai?”

Massacre of trees

Delhi has a long history of general massacres of its inhabitants. But for the first time plans are afoot to carry out a large-scale massacre of its trees. It was Delhi’s pride that it had more trees per square acre than any other capital city of the world. That may soon get out-dated unless its citizens organise a chipko movement on a mass scale to thwart the evil intentions of vandals.

We have are own patron saint of trees, Pradip Krishen, who has done more to make us aware of our wealth of flora than anyone else. His adherents have compiled figures of trees marked for destruction in the very near future. The excuse for doing so is to widen roads to accommodate ever-increasing vehicular traffic and make it run smoothly. It is true that traffic jams have made life difficult for Dilliwalas. And we put almost another 100 cars every day on our roads. Our future is nightmarish.

The conflict is basically between motorised vehicles and trees that stand, they say. It is glibly assumed by our administrators that trees must make way for buses, cars, scooters, three-wheelers etc. They are wrong. Motorised vehicles emit gases which foul the atmosphere. They also affect our hearing and vision and cause lung problems. On the other hand, trees absorb noxious gases and purify the air. So the answer to the problem is not cutting down trees but cutting down motorised traffic.

It has proved successful in many cities round the globe. In large sections of many cities no buses or cars are allowed entry. On some days of the week cars are forbidden on public roads so that citizens can stroll about and children can play without fear of being run over. Provision is made for ambulances and fire brigades to ply freely in an emergency. The Delhi administration should first try to curb the multiplicity of cars — no family to have more than two — declare some areas of the city like Connaught Circus, Khan Market, South Extension Market etc as no-car zones; set apart at least one day a week when no vehicular traffic except those with special permits will be allowed on roads before doing the hatchet job of killing trees. They take many years to grow to their full stature.

Road to success

A young man left his village in Bihar and made his way in the Capital. Years later, by which time he was a well-known politician, he ran into a neighbour from his village. “Do the folks in my village still remember me, perhaps with a bit of pride?” he asked hopefully.

“Maybe,” said the former neighbour. “As a matter of fact, we had a sign-board put up in front of your old house.”

“Is that so?” exclaimed the politician.

“What does it say?” “It says 965 km to Delhi.”

(Contributed by Reeten Ganguly, Tezpur)

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