Toxic culture is universal

- August 22, 2020
| By : Anand Vardhan |

The tendency to identify ‘toxic families’ and locate them in a region is rooted in the hostility with which group-identity-obsessed commentariat views the strong glue of family  “Baap mar gelan anhariya mein, aau beta ke naam powerhouse.” This one-liner, which translates to “father died in darkness, but the son is called powerhouse”, is a punchline […]

The tendency to identify ‘toxic families’ and locate them in a region is rooted in the hostility with which group-identity-obsessed commentariat views the strong glue of family 

“Baap mar gelan anhariya mein, aau beta ke naam powerhouse.”

This one-liner, which translates to “father died in darkness, but the son is called powerhouse”, is a punchline in street conversations in Bihar. It may add to the grouse, if not envy, that group-identity polemics exhibit against the enduring appeal of family or even individual. Yet, far more than a filthy abuse, this one-liner is the sharpest attack on someone’s failure as a man.

The metaphoric use of light in this line seems more scathing when contrasted with a popular sohar, a song expressing the hopes that the birth of a child brings to even poor households. The song, which has claims of Bhojpuri and Awadhi on its origins and is often sung at the time of childbirth in Bihar and eastern Uttar Pradesh, goes:

“Jug jug jiyasu lallanwa bhawanwa ke bhaag jaagal ho,
Lalna laal hoyihein kulwa ke deepak, manwa mein aash laagal ho.”

Live long, O son! Your birth brings fortune to the house,
You’ll be the lamp of the clan, a hope rises in the heart.

The song was last year used in a social campaign by the personal grooming brand Gillette. It plays gently through a campaign film inspired by the true story of two sisters who took to running their father’s barber shop at Banwari Tola in eastern Uttar Pradesh after he suffered a stroke. Towards the end, the lyrics are altered slightly, with babuniya, or daughter, replacing lallanwa. “Jug jug jiya tu babuniya,” it goes. ”Live long, O daughter!”

This story of challenging gender stereotypes and answering the call of duty to family, presented with the flavour of a folk song, served to blend continuity with change. In some ways, it was imbued with the spirit of what Edmund Burke would have endorsed as “change in order to conserve”.

Whether it’s lallanwa or babuniya, the value placed on the sense of duty is as much a way of life as it’s a higher, and probably more useful, emotion. The mocking invocation of ”the burden of being Shravan Kumar” as a metaphor, as in this piece in the Print, can’t explain the glue that holds firm familial bonds. If his legend were interpreted differently as stressing one’s duty to care for the elderly – or, more specifically, parents – Shravan Kumar could be rebranded as an exemplary figure. Indeed, the metaphor of Shravan Kumar was recently used in regional pop to applaud a daughter who rescued her father from an excruciating situation caused by the lockdown.

The pejorative use of the legend of Shravan Kumar is one of the many problematic assumptions that the Print piece makes while commenting on the actor Sushant Singh Rajput’s death. Since the assumptions are about a matter that is still under investigation or the actor’s family and friends, considering their merit would be speculative. Moreover, the article makes generalisations about Bihari families, particularly those from the middle class.

To begin with, can the high achievers, the powerful and the famous make for good examples to study the dynamics of persuasion and dissuasion in the families of any region? While the families of the powerful or the famous may have middle-class, or even humbler, origins, it’s doubtful that they can influence the choices of the pride of the house the way other families can. So, using them as examples is unlikely to yield insightful analysis.

It isn’t hard to see that achievers of professional success or power are better placed to be the exception rather than the example of negotiating social imperatives, including within a family. Consider this: what’s common between Bihari politicians Ram Vilas Paswan, Sushil Modi, Shahnawaz Hussain, and Pappu Yadav?

Modi, Bihar’s deputy chief minister, is married to a Christian from Mumbai; Ram Vilas Paswan, Lok Janshakti Party leader and union minister, divorced his first wife about 40 years ago to marry a Punjabi woman; Shahnawaz Hussain of the BJP has a Hindu wife; and Pappu Yadav of the Jan Adhikar Party is married to a Sikh. Similarly, Syed Saba Karim, the Bihar-born cricketer who played for India before an eye injury cut short his career, is married to a Hindu. All their wives were once their girlfriends, some of them even “big city girlfriends”..

One did not hear their families vilifying the women from a different region, religion or caste that these people were in relationship with, and eventually married. Clearly, with their power, professional success, or fame, they had outgrown their immediate social setting, making them unlikely to be susceptible to any familial pressure, real or imagined, on their life choices.

By any measure, and especially in a provincial city such as Patna, Rajput was a successful man at 34. So, no matter what the leaks trickling out from the investigation into his death imply, one should be skeptical of claims that his family intruded deeply in his personal life decisions.

So, far from being relevant to the lives of extraordinarily successful men from middle-class families, the observations made in the Print article should be examined in the light of ordinary lives. That would be an exercise not very different from examining the experience of middle-class men elsewhere in the country, particularly in the Hindi heartland.

Allowing for differences in the experiences of individuals, it is in decision-making about the ordinary, especially regarding outright failures, that family intervention is more probable and its scope a bit wide. And, far from the assumption of the “Shravan Kumar effect” at work in such meddling, the response is often driven by a sense of moral guilt. That’s what grips young men when they fail in career aspirations or fall short of their family’s hopes for them. One may, for instance, look at the guilt-driven response of a young man to his family when he fails at realising the most cherished goal of Bihari youth – a career in civil services. When you lose the prime years of your life to a failed pursuit, you regret failing as a son, and even as a brother. Two years ago, reviewing a novel set in Patna about a young man who had failed in all his attempts at the IAS exam, I wrote:

“In Bihar’s winner-takes-it-all society, an IAS-failure is under moral pressure to compensate for his wasted 20s by agreeing to do the next doable thing for the family. That means taking a route defined by the family, usually marrying someone of family’s choice. Agreeing to such alliances is a form of social work, the untold story about failed young men in India, especially in Bihar.”

In a region where arranged marriages are the rule rather than the exception, this cannot be the prime reason for the persistence of the system. However, it indicates that rather than blind obedience to family, the elbow room for non-conformity is often restricted by the regret of belied hopes.

In its critique, the Print piece berates Bihari families for marrying only within their own castes and communities. While this can be said about most parts of India, an emerging response to it in Bihar needs to be acknowledged. This response has an organic impetus, without which the push to marry across castes and communities could become as contrived as the rigid insularity of endogamy, a point-proving exercise mostly.

There’s, in fact, an interesting factor that is proving to be the organic impetus which sociologists would definitely like to study. It’s an unintended consequence of the preference for government job-holding groom in the marriage scene. High demand for government servants in matrimonial alliances has meant that a rising number of Bihari young men working in the private sector are left with few good matches within their own communities. This has compelled those working in the private sector to look beyond arranged marriages, which usually means looking beyond one’s community and region.

A study of this phenomenon is likely to throw up significant numbers, though young men are less likely to admit the less romantic reasons for giving up the idea of arranged marriage. Scholars wanting to study the Bihari middle class would do well to take this factor into account in their understanding of matrimonial choices.

Another assumption is rooted in the stereotype of the non-resident Bihari having a “big city girlfriend”, as portrayed in pop culture such as Chetan Bhagat’s Half Girlfriend or Mohit Suri’s eponymous Bollywood film, or earlier in Manish Tiwary’s Dil Dosti Etc. The formulaic ways in which the romantic encounters of young Bihari men on university campuses of big cities are shown, caricatured rather, often ignore an important reality.

A large section of Bihari students cannot relate their time in the big city with such portrayals. Consider the lives of young men from Bihar preparing for various competitive exams in Delhi. Most of them spend their 20s as recluses, toiling with the kind of rigour and abstinence that doesn’t leave much scope for luck with romantic or sensual encounters. Their time spent in the big city is a period of prosaic uneventfulness – an unexciting series of non-events. But that’s not the fodder for spicy stereotypes.

Finally, the tendency to identify toxic families and locate them in a region – which may well be a mixture of individual experiences – is actually a subtext for something else. For the group identity-based stream of liberal opinion, the strong glue of family has long been an irritant, and hence, a target. The “shared realm of mutual loyalty”, as Roger Scruton put it, in a small social unit such as the family runs counter to the hostility with which group-identities view society.

Families, including in Bihar, however, thrive for more than one reason. The primary one isn’t hard to explain. “Most people find happiness, even appreciation, only in a family or a portion of a family. In the world outside they are nothing, they are treated as nothing. And they treat the world that surrounds their home merely as a place where they forage for food,” observes the novelist and journalist Manu Joseph. “In fact, most people derive the conviction that they are virtuous purely from how they are at home, how they love their own.”

Recently, when the coronavirus lockdown triggered a migration of workers from big cities to small towns and villages, the sociologist Dipankar Gupta observed that more than economic security, the movement back home was driven by the need to be with family. “When faced with an imminent threat to life, the tug of home and family is much stronger for the industrial worker than the industrial glue that comes with an industrial occupation,” Gupta wrote in the Hindu. “When urban workers rush to their rural homes, it is because they fear a death where nobody prays for them more than a life where nobody prays for them.”

In many ways, then, lallanwa and babuniya will continue to seek meaning in their sense of duty to family as they rebrand Shravan Kumar for their times. That doesn’t mean a diminution of anyone else. In essence, they are largely in sync with what the German philosopher Novalis was getting at when he answered his own question: “Where are we really going? Always home.”

That’s a modest destination, although quite ambitious.