20/09/2015 1:07 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST

The Great Indian Nose

Identical rubber noses
Steve Lewis Stock via Getty Images
Identical rubber noses

The only thing all Indians have in common, without contradiction, is a particular sense of Indian dishonour.

Whether you are from a famished village or are an overfed city slicker who revels in breaking traffic rules, the common denominator is the importance of holding "the nose" high in society.

The Hindi language has an age-honoured idiom: naak kat gayi, which means "my nose got cut". Literally translated, of course. If your nose is cut in society, you might as well be dead. "Hai meri naak cut gayi (Oh woe, I have just had my nose cut)."

Many actions in our society lead to "nose cuts". Some common examples:

  • If your daughter marries "down" or elopes -- nose cut.
  • If your son doesn't get enough dowry from his bride -- nose cut.
  • If your husband loses his job to man from a "lower caste" -- nose cut.
  • If your friend buys a bigger car than you -- nose cut.

The great Indian nose, however, stays totally intact in the most astounding circumstances.

  • "Good Morning, Mrs X. So, your drunken son shot dead a model at a bar. He's so handsome."
  • "Namaste, Mr Y. I hear your wife burnt your daughter-in-law to death because her parents couldn't gift him a gold chain. Hope your son is fine."
  • "Well, hello, Mr and Mrs Z. Congratulations. You have taken your widowed sister-in-law to court so that she gives up her share in your Papa's family property. What does a widow need such a large home for anyway?"

All such noses remain intact and twitching. All these people probably still feature high on their neighbours' guest lists too, as there's no dishonour in any of this. This is India. This is also our "culture". Dowry deaths and wife beatings. Flimsy rights for widows. Honour killings, murders of liberals. Pay off the family of a sleeping pedestrian you just ran over, and continue to the party.

"Controlling 'cultural pollution' is the new version of preventing the "nose cut" and has become the pet project of our honourable Minister for Culture."

Controlling "cultural pollution" is the new version of preventing the "nose cut" and has become the pet project of our honourable Minister for Culture.

Sirji, don't you know it is impossible to define typical Indian culture?

I would like to remind him how diverse we are in such small but noteworthy ways.

In North India, certain communities bump off their ladies with abandon if these young women find the courage to break through the regressive societal format. In the same country, down south in Kerala, there is a matriarchal community where the woman's sexual actions cannot be challenged by the man. If he comes home to a pair of unfamiliar male slippers outside his boudoir, he dare not step in. Or threaten to slay for honour. His olfactory organ doesn't come into the picture here. There are other such contrasts that make us who we are.

Before India was colonised, we were a pretty emancipated lot. Women had strong opinions they were not killed for. A woman sometimes even had multiple husbands. Premarital sex was not an act of dishonour. Children out of wedlock were interpreted as immaculate conceptions but at least not hidden from society. No daughter became a "sister", just to snag a rich future husband. Women like Razia Sultan and Rani of Jhansi called the shots in war. And dressing provocatively was never out of the boundaries of "honour".

In fact, prudes were introduced to our culture through Victorian fashion victims. There was no shame in a woman celebrating her womanhood and cleavage before that. Our glorious temples and ancient sculptures still stand in testimony to this truth.

The act of cutting off the nose in Hindu mythology and our "culture" is considered a metaphor for good winning over evil. And evil was never considered to be progressive thought, knowledge and unconditional love.

If Indian culture be must protected against "pollutants", then the "polluters" must first be redefined.

Those who fail in the war against domestic abuse, female infanticide, honour killings and acid attacks, those who cannot govern with justice and equality, and definitely those who do not protect their women's safety must surely bring down their "noses" a notch or two. Or then run the risk of having them "cut off".

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