The elephant in the room

I was talking to a young man yesterday and we got talking about tradition and modernity. He is a sensitive young man who has got a book of poetry published and his work is in the area of product design. I was telling him about the rootlessness that is at the heart of modernity and he said something like – We should be able to take the best from the West and East and weave together a good way of life for ourselves.

I countered this with the idea that probably all long-lasting social systems come with an invisible background context that allows them to function. In India this context may be that our traditional samaaj was/is based on eternal, sanaatan principles that are aligned with the way things ARE. What this means is that we cannot pick and choose from social systems to create something workable for us as individuals. That project in essence is not an individual project but a saamaajik project in which individuals either fit in or don’t.

My young friend told me that he was reading about the callous mistreatment of some captive elephants in India. His heart was moved by the story and he asked me if we should continue this type of practice just because it was ‘traditional’. He explained that this type of problem with traditional rituals was the reason he was thinking of using a mixed West+East approach.

He had not heard it before and I interrupted him with the Akbar-Birbal elephant story:

Once Akbar said that he was a powerful emperor who could fulfill any wish. Birbal said that he could prove this was not always possible and had Akbar’s young grandson summoned. Birbal told the little boy that Akbar would do whatever the boy wanted. The boy first wanted a golden Kurta with a big golden pocket. This was easily arranged. Then the boy wanted an elephant. Because of Akbar’s greatness this was also easily arranged. The boy next wanted the elephant inside the big pocket of his golden shirt.

I suggested to my young friend that when he talked about West+East he was perhaps asking what Akbar’s grandson wanted – An impossible fantasy. The elephant that suffers and moves the hearts of people is a problem, but I told my young friend that I thought that the big elephant in the room that he was missing was different. We are Indians with roots that go very deep who have been brainwashed/educated into trying to become pale copies of Westerners. I told my young friend that when he and I and many others like us are able to see this painful reality, we would have moved in the direction of becoming comfortable in our own skins. This would acknowledge and engage the big elephant in the room and the problems with the elephant on the road outside would then probably work itself out on its own.

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