Just wondering… What do restrictions achieve?

I was about 9 when I first experienced the claustrophobia associated with restrictions. We had recently moved to Ahmedabad from Mumbai and were still in the process of settling down in a new city, getting to know our neighbours and expanding our social circle through contacts and extended family members already living in Ahmedabad. One such family we met were the Iyers, who were introduced to us by an uncle of mine.

One Saturday afternoon, the Iyers came visiting. I was listening to Vividh Bharati and singing along with the old Hindi film songs being played when they arrived. The collective looks of disapproval on the faces of the Iyers—Mr. Iyer, Mrs. Iyer and Two Miss Iyers—was enough to make me stop singing mid line.

Mrs. Iyer said, “Please turn off the radio. We do not listen to the corrupting influence of Hindi film music.” Even today, after so many years, I can still hear the stiff, cold voice ordering me to switch off the radio. This opening comment set the tone for the surreal visit that followed.

After, the initial “how nice it is to meet another Tamil family” and “which part of Tamil Nadu are you from” and other similar “pleasantries”, a lesson on the Iyer family’s restrictions philosophy of life began, which can be summarised in one sentence—Tamil culture is the best and anything detrimental to its growth was banned in their household.

Though I can’t remember the Iyer list of all things “detrimental to Tamil culture”, some of them can never be forgotten:

  • Hindi film music or for that matter any film music, even Tamil film music. Only Carnatic music, please
  • Western music, clothes, films, books, etc.
  • Communicating in any other language apart from Tamil. English was an exception, Mrs. Iyer clarified, as the greatness of Tamil culture had to be disseminated to a wider audience, which only English could achieve.
  • Having only Tamil speaking people as part of one’s social circle.
  • Wearing clothes that reflected the Tamil culture—saris and pavadais for the women and veshtis for the men. I must add here that the Iyers practised what they preached as they were dressed accordingly.
  • Marrying only within the community to ensure the culture was preserved.

Blah, blah, blah. It was very clear that the Iyer group presentation was to gauge if we were worthy of a social relationship or not. I don’t know how my parents were so civil and pleasant—they did not react at all and kept reiterating that chauvinism, restrictions or insularity would not help any culture to grow. The looks of disapproval on the Iyer family’s faces deepened with each response of my parents.

As they were leaving, Mrs. Iyer looked at me and told my mother spitefully, “Send your daughter to play with my daughters one of these days. We will teach her about her culture and heritage.”

We never met the Iyers again during the 2 years that we lived in Ahmedabad. But, over the years, I have met many more people like them or people who are products of such a restrictive upbringing.

One such person is a friend of mine who was brought up in the campus of a missionary hospital. She studied in a missionary school and then in a missionary college. When she stepped out of this environment to do her post-graduation in a secular, non-missionary environment, she actually went into a state of shock as all the indoctrination that had happened over the years came undone when she found out that the “other” people were not the what she had been led to believe. Sometimes, I feel that she has still not recovered.

Restrictions are pretty subjective—one person’s restrictions become another one’s claustrophobia. Certain restrictions like a particular type of diet, or on speeding, or swimming in dangerous waters, or limiting the number of visitors to a heritage site are for a valid reasons of health or safety or preservation. But restrictions that affect the soul like not listening to a particular type of music are actually counterproductive. It does not lead to growth or protection or preservation of any culture—rather, its stunts the growth and understanding of the same.

Speaking from my experience, my understanding and appreciation of the immediate world around me—culture, music, country, people, community—came from an unrestricted exposure to different types of people, books, music, cultures, etc. Along the way I also understood and appreciated no one culture, music or community is superior or better or inferior or worse than the others. You need all these different types to make our world go round.

So, then, why are there such restrictions? Just wondering…

8 thoughts on “Just wondering… What do restrictions achieve?

  1. You echo my thoughts exactly Sudha. I wonder when people will wake up to how such illogical restrictions are only debilitating and limiting, not constructive. There are so many more such closed minds in the world who later on end up being frogs in their own wells. While striking a balance is important and maintaining one’s own heritage sure is, learning from the world is essential for survival.
    A very well written post!

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  2. Good point, maam. If you ask me, these restrictions stem from insecurity. And you know it’s not limited to Tamils, there is a very high sense of regionalism across India. Why can’t we accept that all of us are after all Indians, and in the bigger picture, humans.

    It’s ok not to like a particular culture. But it’s another thing to chastise people who follow it. We always hate the French for hating English speaking people. And, we do the same ourselves.

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    1. Thanks for stopping by and commenting, Ankur. You are quite right when you say that this stems from insecurity and also that it is not restricted to a particular community. Based on my experience, I would say that we Indians are the worst when it comes to restrictions and when i have pointed it out to people, it is always defended as culture.

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  3. This is such a pertinent post Sudha. Trust you to come up with this topic and in a way that does not offend. Having lived in different continents and being part of a family which has members from different regions of India, i face this question very often and at times wonder what would be the best answer. The caste and language factor also becomes a big issue when families interact and sadly all the insecurities regarding the superiority and or relevance of customs come to the fore, albeit inadvertently at times.
    I wish this discussion is taken up more actively on more forums.
    Keep up the good work.

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    1. Thanks, Deepa. I feel very strongly about this issue and over the years have realised how strongly entrenched this superiority complex is. Many people do not realise that their attitudes are wrong !

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  4. Wonderful post Sudha, very well expressed. Just today, Dalai Lama shared this on twitter .. “The many factors which divide us are actually much more superficial than those we share.”
    This rings very true given that biologically, we share at lest half of our genes with even the microbes we so abhor. Language and cultural diversity is to be embraced and celebrated, why is it so difficult to embrace other humans?

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    1. Thank you, Vasantika. And thank you also for sharing the Dalai Lama’s thoughts on this. And how very beautifully and aptly put. I am always at a loss when people start talking of differences rather than similarities when they meet. And it always saddens and frustrates me when chauvinism, prejudices and negativity creeps in because of this focus on the differences. It is as if we are no longer human beings.

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