You drive out of your residential area and wait to be on the main road. Nobody slows or stops to give you way. After quite a while you lose your cool and recklessly hit the road.

You hear the brakes screeching but motorists aren’t surprised. It’s routine. This is how you get your right of way. You drive on and see men and women, young and aged, anxious to cross the road. Nobody cares to stop for them. And you too don’t stop fearing that if you do so, some other speeding vehicle from behind would crush the pedestrians under its wheels. They expect the pedestrians to cross the road at their own risk. On reaching the traffic signal, you find traffic gone haywire; all against all. Three lanes turned into five. A motorcyclist brushes past you dragging your side mirror with him. You can’t do anything. Sandwiched between an SUV and motorcycle-rickshaw, you hear the rickshaw in a desperate bid to screech out of the lane scratches your door. You can’t get out of the car. You squirm in your seat. You scream obscenities while trying to note the registration number of the rickshaw but it has no registration plate. In the registers of excise and taxation department and traffic police it simply doesn’t exist. You see a uniformed traffic police officer on the other side of the road at a safe distance from the fume emitting mess enjoying his fag. This is our culture but panjandrums and culture Czars ruling the roost put a replica of Harappa oxcart on display in a sanitised and controlled space and call it culture. Is culture a ritual celebration of what is dead and gone?

Men sit around ramshackle tables which have a thick veneer of grease and slime along an open sewer. Dust particles and smoke clouds fly over their heads in the air. Cracked edges of glasses have deposits of dirt. A passerby stops and takes a half-filled glass from the table, empties it in a jiffy and puts it down with a bang. He needs no permission to do so and offers no thanks. No one is surprised; neither the men around the table nor the intruder. It’s taken as a matter of routine. Food arrives in a tray that hasn’t been washed for ages. No one thinks of filtering the pollutants out of water that fills the jug. The waiter usually doesn’t wash his hands after defecating in a washroom covered with faeces. The food or whatever is offered in the name of food is grossly overcooked. Generous use of red chilies makes it highly explosive. This is our culture but panjandrums and culture Czars put fresh ‘Saag’ dish and soft roti made of maize on display in a sanitised and controlled space and call it culture. Is culture a ritual celebration of what is rare?

When people organise an event, event of any kind, they bend over backward to invite someone powerful as a chief guest/guest of honour to grace the occasion. Such a guest is invariably a corrupt person known for his/her financial corruption or moral turpitude or for both. The most tainted one is the most honourable. The people believe that if such a person not only survives but also thrives, it means that power and money regardless of how you get it, can condone all your sins, financial and moral. Financial, political and social clout of the corrupt make them role models in a society that takes success as the sole measure of human achievement. Consequently they grow too big for a clout round the ear in public life. They inexorably reshape our norms and values. So in a way the corrupt and the people are alike in some of their beliefs: the successful however corrupt they may be are the leading lights of our society that will usher in a new dawn for us. The corrupt try to “serve God and mammon” and the flock tries to serve them in the hope of getting some crumbs from their high table. This is our culture but panjandrums and culture Czars put pictures of Sufi poets and saints, real and imaginary, on display in a sanitised space and call it culture. Is culture a ritual celebration of exotica and esoteric practices? Examples of culture as practices dead and gone can be quoted ad nauseam. The question is do we have to define our culture merely in reference to the past? The past is past. No doubt we stand erect on our past but it’s a submerged element in our collective life. What we inherit from the past is heritage which is part of culture but it’s by no means the sum total of culture. A large part of it is tangible in the shape of buildings, handicrafts and objects. Traditions gifted by the past become albatross around the culture’s neck if accepted and followed uncritically as is the case in our part of the world.

Culture isn’t something decorative removed from our immediate life. Culture in simple words is how we live. Our way of living defines our culture. Our current practices largely make us what we are. Our real or living culture is rooted in what we are i.e. our actual life. But our actual life is marked by conflicts and contradictions, sufferings and miseries due to our skewed social structures which panjandrums and culture Czars aren’t pushed about. The current life is not hunky-dory. It has goodies for a few, not for all. And these few hold power but are found grossly derelict in their duty to improve the living conditions for all which are well-springs of culture. To compensate for their criminal negligence they dish out the so-called Sufi teachings of peace and harmony and decorative artifacts for the consumption of conditioned public mind.

One can never have a developed culture worth the name without improving the concrete conditions of life. That’s a long haul. Hence the short cut: cut the ribbon to officially start the celebrations of a fixed culture day surrounded by culture vultures. — soofi01@hotmail.com

Published in Dawn, March 8th, 2021

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