“You can go out with your friends, but no boys.”
“Why, ma? Those boys are my friends too.”
“You can’t take Humanities.”
“But why dad, when I’m good at it?”
“Don’t argue with your uncle.”
“But why? I don’t agree with him!”
“Because I said so.”
“Because no means no”
“Because you must respect your elders.”
End of discussion.
Every Indian kid has been there. We've all been told, some more than others, that we can’t do certain things only because our elders don’t approve, with no further reasoning provided. And that if we question or defy their wishes, we're not showing “respect”.
“Respect” – that oft-repeated, blindly accepted mother of all goddamn family values. It trumps logic and discussions, and replaces coherent arguments with good old-fashioned obedience.
Join an IIT coaching centre and become an engineer, even if you can’t spell trigonometry. If you refuse, you don’t respect your elders.
Touch your wife-beating uncle’s feet. Refuse, and you don’t respect your elders.
Apologise to your aunt for arguing with her about a sexist remark she made. Refuse, and you don’t respect your elders.
And then there are even bigger tricks. Consider, for example, arranged marriages.
How many of your friends, even the economically independent ones, have agreed to spend their lives with complete strangers instead of questioning their elders when they say, “humari family mein aisa hi hota hai”?
So many of us grow up believing that this is how it must be; that only “badtameez bachche” argue, question, and protest. The good, sanskaari kids? They do as they're told, with parentally approved demureness.
There's nothing wrong, per se, with parental approval. In fact, I easily believe that our families do want the best for us.
And when we listen to their threadbare risk-averse advice, it often works out just fine.
The problem, though, arises when things take an irrational and authoritarian route. When we can spot ideological cracks in the instructions and expectations and values passed on to us, and instead of flagging concerns or asking questions, we swallow them in a swig of quiet obedience.
The dictum of blind, unquestioning respect is almost despotic. It is, in fact, turning us into a society that kinda sucks.
No, I’m not exaggerating.
This widespread culture of unquestioning acceptance has a dulling effect on our ability to critically consider the world.
And critical thinking is important. It’s what once made an old dude give the finger to the most powerful organised religion in the world, by saying (I’m paraphrasing), “The Earth is fucking round and those hats are hideous.”
It’s that thing that trains us to think for ourselves, that helps us spot the holes in an argument, the flaws in a reasoning, and right from wrong.
Being raised in an environment that suppresses critical thinking and discourages questions prepares us for life as adults who aren't much different. It rears entire generations that are reluctant to challenge authority – this time, in the form of bosses, governments, religious leaders, and political parties.
Questioning authority, like all movements, hinges on starting small and starting at home. On recognising that, when we’re young and authority means the parent figure in front of us, it’s okay to ask them “why?”.
The alternative is a world where everyone has just taught themselves to walk the beaten path – right or wrong, fucked-up or not.
Unquestioning respect for elders is a flawed value system because it’s based on the notion that being older itself warrants respect – not wiser, kinder, smarter, or even successful. Just older.
The correlation between age and respect is arbitrary at best, dangerous at worst. Living longer and having more “experience” isn't enough to justify your entire world order. Age doesn’t guarantee wisdom, and it certainly doesn’t guarantee that what our parents and elders might assume is the “best” for us will indeed be so.
If anything, true wisdom would entail open-mindedness to a changing world and its changing rules. Genuine wisdom would push an "elder" to ask questions of their own biases and prejudices. To listen to young folks. To learn, constantly.
My mother’s parents had wanted the best for her. By their experience, "the best" meant getting her married right after finishing school. She rebelled, went to college, and got a job. It was “disrespectful”, yes, but it certainly worked out.
I didn’t have to fight to go to college, but I did have to fight to pursue the career I wanted. My parents, like most Indian middle-class parents, wanted a conventional job and life for me. And since I had studied law, this meant becoming a judge, a lawyer, or an IAS officer.
These were, they believed, the best choices for me. These jobs would bring me financial security, comfort, and prestige. The idea that I wanted to do something I’d enjoy, that I wanted to “chase a dream”, was a difficult one to bring them around to.
But I was lucky. I managed to not just challenge my parents, but also get through to them. And to their credit, they listened.
We aren’t always this lucky. Often, we fall in line with what’s expected of us. We censor our thoughts, words, and ambitions. We train ourselves to listen and obey, because after years of conditioning, our family’s approval seems indispensable. Any step taken without it feels like gross disrespect.
"Respect" for "family values" (and a taught aversion to questioning what either of those things means) is what's kept my aunt in a marriage where she's beaten regularly. It's what made my cousin surrender her ATM cards to her husband, never asserting her own right over her own income.
There are homes, even in 2017 and even in Mumbai and Delhi's most privilege-seeped and Ivy-degreed neighbourhoods, where women on their periods aren't allowed to eat at the dining table.
Ask for a place at your own fucking table, and you're disrespecting your elders.
There are marriages, still, in progressive liberal families, where despite both husband and wife working full-time jobs, the man gets to put his feet up every evening while the woman cooks for him and his parents.
Ask why you aren't getting a helping hand from the men and you're disrespecting your elders.
There are talented artists and musicians and writers all around the country, rotting in Jee coaching and IT departments and call centre cubicles instead of winning their Nobels and Grammys.
Insist on following your dreams and you're disrespecting your elders.
Once you've fallen prey to a system, it's easy to believe it's the only one that works. One day, we'll catch ourselves asking, “If I could do xyz for my parents, why can’t my children do the same for me?”
After all, our parents grew up with this conditioning as well, as did generations before them. And even a flawed concept, repeated long and often enough, can begin to sound like a good one.
It’s time we shook off the desi guilt that comes with wearing the clothes of our choice or choosing a career that we want or getting married whenever and to whomever we want.
Just because a decision doesn’t come with our family’s stamp of approval doesn’t strip it of its merits.
So “back-answering” when your bigoted uncle says something you don’t agree with isn’t wrong. If he isn't open to having his prejudices nitpicked, he doesn't have the "wisdom" he's claiming with age as its proxy.
Objecting to a sexist joke on your family WhatsApp groups isn’t disrespectful. (Frankly, someone needs to do it already.)
Remember K3G? The Raichand patriarch, classist as fuck and of the “keh diya na, bas keh diya” school of thought, banishes his older son. Everyone obeys his dumb decision and is fucking miserable until Laddoo realises that his dad is an idiot and decides to do something about it.
We could all learn a thing or two from Laddoo.
Contact Mitali Agrawal at Arundhati.Dahiyafirstname.lastname@example.org.
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