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Between Samaj & Samay?


The new found popularity of Karwa Chauth as a festival is quite revealing- not only is it a celebration that underlines the wife’s sacrifice for the husband’s long life, an idea one might have imagined would slowly lose currency as the power balance between the genders begins to shift, it has also moved beyond its cultural origins and has been embraced by a large number of women who come from parts of India where this was never part of traditional custom. It is clear that this popularity has much to do with representations in popular culture, with films Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge downwards playing a big role in promoting this festival. Of course, today’s Karwa Chauth is a far cry from the festival as it was celebrated in earlier times with accent being much more on the celebrations that follow the fast, rather than the fast itself.

The new version of the festival underlines an important change that we are seeing today- the re-negotiation between the two primary axes that influence the make-up of our society and determine the rate at which it changes. The idea of samaj, is the notion of society-in-practice, the intricate network of kinship ties, hierarchy, customs, rules both explicit and implicit that govern our everyday behaviour and guide us in what we can and cannot do, while samay, is the idea of time-out-there- a sense of what the world as a collective is permitting nowadays. The interaction between these two axes, between who we are, where we come from and what continues to give us a sense of identity and belonging and what the world outside is moving to, what is being found acceptable and what is no longer in vogue, helps define what we end up doing, and how much change we can absorb without feeling disoriented.

In earlier days, samaj called the shots and samay was the weak voice of the modern, invoked often but largely in order for it to be reviled; sentences beginning with ‘aajkal ke” (Today’s breed of) were almost always deprecatory in nature whether one was speaking of the youth, language, haircuts or daughter-in-laws. Samaj was our anchor; it gave us the certainty of knowing who we were, and marked our actions with a self-assurance that was validated not by external sources but by internal foreknowledge- we simply knew what was right and wrong and how things were meant to work. This certainty produced both comfort and frustration, as at one level, social adjustment was made easy while at another, those with individual desires that were deemed to be at odds with the wishes of samaj, were dealt with summarily.

Over the last few years, we are seeing an accelerated change in the relationship between these two forces. The idea of samay, that intangible sense of todayness, is becoming increasingly more influential than samaj, certainly in urban India. With media as the new sky that we all live under, the sense of samay has become a tangible and powerful presence in our daily lives. We are exposed to many ideas and influences simultaneously; tradition is no longer vertically arrayed in time, but is found increasingly horizontally stretched across space. We embrace the traditions of others- be it in terms of food, attire, festivals and icons, as ours more readily than ever before. We legitimise practices alien to our own cultural background because we get license to do so from the world around us, which has now taken up permanent residences in our homes thanks to media.

The signs of the power of these new sources of influence are everywhere. Increasingly, change in India is no longer a step-by-step linear process, but one which is both simultaneous and asymmetrical. New technologies have made progress accessible to everyone and as a result, we can see pockets of dramatic change co-exist with its more gradual forms. It is not unusual to come across, without any warning, a street youth in old Bhopal proudly showing off an ’emo’ haircut or a young girl in Karjan in Gujarat talking knowledgeably about the kind of beauticians required in Australia. We see new ambitions, new benchmarks to measure oneself against and new mirrors to strut in front of. TV Serials, talent shows, social media and mobile telephony are combining to create a new sense of possibilities and legitimising new modes of behaviour.

Of course, samay is not independent of samaj; it works to modify it rather than bypass it completely. Like the Karwa Chauth example, where a sense of samay has given new meaning to an old custom, the idea of today does not negate the past, but breathes into it new imperatives and shapes it in a way that is more productive in today’s context. Samay is not the opposite of samaj, and while on the face of it appears to be an adversarial force, in practice it often works as its ally by helping tradition stay relevant albeit in a more sanitised form.

And this is only the beginning. As the influence of the internet increases, it will affect both the speed and nature of change we will see. The digital world knits us together in a community of today; it multiplies now, converting it from a dot in time to a canvas of simultaneous possibilities, a network of people, events, ideas and connections. The timeline of our lives gets broken up into smaller moments and each moment begins to become more pronounced in its existence. The digital world connects fragments of now into a more integrated sense of today and locates us within its ambit. We are, more than ever, children of today, and are therefore recycling today into today, using samay as a reason for justifying what we do today

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