“The continent of self”- 18 September 2016.

Whenever we visited our maternal grandparents in the village in Punjab, my Mother would get busy with relatives and the community in the village and would sort of dump us three siblings in the custody of the hosts. We were loved and cared for by Uncles, Aunts and cousins. The enchanting fact was that my Mother would mingle with the village the whole day and we would see her only at bed time! Each member of the large community was loved, respected, valued as almost an integral part of the family. The doors were always open and food was served to all. Everyone knew everything as secrets were generally open. That was rural India fifty years ago! The self was expanded and connected to the larger community in a caring and kind way. People had rights over others- they owned the other in a happy embrace.

A senior woman of a huge housing scheme noticed a young girl of the same society indulging in what she defined as ‘indecent behaviour’. Considering it her duty and her right to caution the young girl, she gave her a piece of unsolicited advice. The young one instantly reacted, ‘I know what I am doing and it is none of your business, please do not tell me what to do next time’. The old woman was aghast and did not know how to control herself. She realized that the world was changing and was actually degenerating. This is the story of an urban area, where community holds no value. It’s the responsibility of the family to take care of their wards and the ‘unrelated’ community could only watch but not act as watch dogs any longer. That was urban centres forty years ago! The self got restricted to the family as it disconnected from the larger community and did not allow any ownership of ‘outsiders’.

Rupa married into a joint family out of her own fantasised choice and regretted it severely soon enough. She could not tolerate the ‘interference’ of the brothers of her husband and their wives- she could not understand why the mother and father-in-law had to be informed about all decisions and why she could not do as she pleased. She complained that she was educated and had a mind of her own and need not be advised about ‘personal’ matters. Her ‘freedom’ was at stake as she felt stifled, suffocated and tormented. She had to get out and take her husband away from the family. It was for his benefit she rationalised.

Anita did not like the closeness her Aunts had with her father. He was an only brother of his three sisters and hence an apple of their eyes. He liked sharing his problems and did not believe in keeping secrets from them. But his wife and his daughter Anita had issues of ‘secrecy’, ‘privacy’ and ‘trust’ with them. They would conflict over such matters frequently which made him lose contact with his siblings for the sake of peace. The nuclear family was taking over, cutting off the bonds with siblings and their families. That was twenty years ago! The self constricted itself further to the immediate family and threw away the extended family. The so called joint-family became dysfunctional and disjointed.

Aryan was a natural citizen of USA as he was born there. He had no long term exposure of life on Indian soil. His Indian parents however continued to love their land and their people. Aryan feels his parents are dominating, conservative and do not allow him certain choices that his peers follow. He fights with them on most daily issues. He has a password on his mobile and ipad. He locks his cupboard and does not like his mother to enter his room without knocking. His sense of privacy is total and he protects his turf like a tiger. He has locked out his parents too as he becomes an island of his own self. He wants a lot of space for himself, accepts his parents as providers but with no rights over him. The devilish law of ‘child rights’ and the police helpline number has circumscribed the self further into a separate continent where no one has rights over you, not even your parents! The isolation is complete!

Western philosophy emphasises autonomy of the individual whereas Eastern philosophies give significance to relations. The ‘Bhagvad Gita’ emphasises the supreme importance of interpersonal relations. The self cannot be seen in isolation from its social connections. But we seem to be gradually losing out to the western philosophy.  Autonomy of an individual is important for psychological growth and self actualization demands personal space, freedom of thought, action, focus on goals and a touch of narcissism. The obsession with this in the West has led to extreme self centred behaviour to the exclusion of social relations. This excessive focus on ‘individualization’ has destroyed the social fabric like never before. The self became paramount- a continent by itself. This process needs to be reversed to bring in mental health and harmony by reconnecting to the larger society by expanding and transcending the narrow self. Some parts of an English poem by John Donne came to mind….

“No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main…….
Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; 
It tolls for thee”.


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