Published in First City, March 2011

What is the difference between one culture and another? Every culture looks at the world differently and so has different notions of righteousness and propriety and aesthetics (what in India is called Satyam, Shivam and Sundaram). These are transmitted very overtly through stories and less overtly through symbols and rituals. The onus of transmitting them has been with the grandmother. Or at least that is what we assume.

But things have changed in the 20th century. Suddenly the grandmother can be outsourced – to books and radio and cinema and television and Internet. A hundred years ago few had access to books and fewer still could read. But today, stories are everywhere – even in newspapers and advertisements, shaping our notions of Satyam, Shivam and Sundaram. So who transmits values to our children today? How? And more importantly, what are the values we want to transmit?

Today’s grandmother would have been born in post-independence India in all probability. She would be around 60 years old today. She would have been raised in a land that celebrated socialism, frugality and Gandhian simplicity. In her youth, as she raised her children, she would experienced the horrific Emergency, the shattering of post-independence dream, the hollow cries to remove poverty, the draconian License Raj that spawned smugglers of the Bollywood screen. She would have envied her cousins who had moved to England and America for a better life. Her children would have been told to study hard so that they can get good jobs either in the Government or as accountants, engineers and doctors, or better still, emigrate. And then the Liberalization would have come, suddenly wealth and Internet and mobile phones would appear everywhere. Her children don’t have to leave India to live a comfortable life. It is possible here in India and now she is the object of her cousins’ envy.

Today she sits at home, watches television soap operas, reads scam-drenched newspapers, pulp novels, and condescends (because now it is a choice not an obligation, just like the daughter-in-law’s career) to take care of the grandchildren or at least watch over the maid hired to take care of them, while her children are hard at work. She would now be part of her children’s double income, one kid family unlike the single income two-kid family she raised. What stories will she tell her grandchildren? What values will she instill in them?

Will she tell them simplicity and discipline is good, influenced by the socialism era? Or will she tell them wealth and indulgence is good, influenced by the liberalization era? Will her good-old-days be the stories of Balraj Sahani, the upright farmer of the 50s or of Amitabh Bachchan of the 70s, the angry young man, or the stories of Shah Rukh Khan of the 90s, who is rich and brash and romantic? Each story will present a different value system and none will prepare the child for the future that is as yet unknown. What if she chooses to outsource storytelling to television? What if ‘traditional’ Indian values end up what the 20th century Ekta Kapur serials were all about – gaudy rituals without meaning, masking dark human manipulations?

People often mistake values for prescriptions. “Honesty is the best policy” is not a value; it is a prescription. Everybody lies, sometime, depending on the context. Values are about figuring out why honesty is important and why sometimes we succumb to dishonesty. Values are not a set of rules or regulations, they are not a code of conduct, they are the reason why that rule or regulation or code of conduct exists. Often the grandmother cannot articulate it. It has been articulated for it by the story that the culture considers sacred. Thus narration of ‘sacred’ stories is critical for value transmission and not stories per se, a fact that is often forgotten.

Stories are of two types – one set of stories are limited by history and geography, while another set have no such limitations. Ancient Indian sages called the former Smriti, born of human memory and the former as Shruti, that which was heard (by meditating and reflective sages). The former contains values that are subject to the events and impressions of that period. The latter contains values that are believed to have come from a source that is non-human hence timeless and universal; these tend to be classified as religious.

A non-religious story may seem non-religious, but they are rooted in religious values. The notion of rebirth will be distinctly absent in cultures that believe in one life. That the Jatakas speak of the past life of the Buddha means that Buddhism values rebirth. That European Fairy Tales always speak of ‘happily ever after’ means that Europe was influenced by the notion of Heaven found in the Bible.

A grandmother has a choice. She can tell stories influenced by her own memories, by history taught in schools, by stories she has read in novels or seen in Bollywood or teleserials. Or she can tell stories that have always been told as part of culture. The mythological narratives – the story of Shiva and Ram and Krishna and Durga. Or narratives from the Bible or Koran or Jatakas.

Then comes the political problem. Are these not religious stories? Can culture be separated from religion? Can there be Indian values separate from Hindu or Sikh or Muslim values? Are there human values? The ugly truth is – there are no universal values.

Values are a human construction not a natural phenomenon. In nature, there are no values. What matters is survival at any cost. The idea of values is a product of human imagination. We imagine a world where might is not right, where even the meek have rights. From this imagination comes values hence culture. And because different people around the world have different imaginations, there are different values and hence different cultures.

When people seek storytelling grandmoms who will pass on values, what people are actually seeking is not ‘values’ but ‘identity’. We fear our children are looking at the world very differently. They are imagining life very differently. We fear they are drifting into another subjective reality constructed by the media and the Facebook and Twitter and Cartoon Network. We feel helpless before such massive forces. Amongst expat populations, displaced from native lands, this has led to the rise of radicalism and fanaticism. The fierce cries here are about identity. What we forget is identity is not natural, it is cultural, and cultures change over space and time. We want it to be fixed. But we fail because values change over time. What was okay then may not be okay today. Thus the storytelling grandmom has to keep reinventing herself, from generation to generation, and hope that the values she passes on to the grandchildren will sustain them through at least one more generation.