A quasi facetious remark by an acquaintance at a “function” organized by a friend after his return from the Hajj, stares and the giggles that my sartorial tastes elicit, suggest that we, Kashmiris, have a paradoxical relationship with our culture and cultural accoutrements thereof. Let me come to the remark first: at the “function”, I was wearing a Karakul hat and a pheran (the loose woolen gown worn by Kashmiris during winter which if stitched with elan and carried well can be an elegant outfit). This acquaintance said, with a wicked smile crisscrossing his face, “Oho: what’s with the pheran and the two and half feet karakul and that too worn with a tilt?”. This was a remark laced with sarcasm and facetiousness. I did not react and called it a pass. But, the saga set me thinking: why did the Karakul hat, admittedly an import but absorbed by our culture and society as its “own” and the pheran indelibly our own cultural product induce sarcasm, giggles and even laughter?
I may point out here that I am not a cultural particularist: I enjoy and savor most cultures and I am respectful toward cultural mores and values but I like and even adore my culture (up to a point). On a given day, I might wear a Karakul and a Western jacket and denims, on another a pakol and the pheran and, on some another day, I might wear the Western hat and the pheran and so on (If I may flatter myself, I am told each combination suits and looks good on me). My somewhat amorphous immersion in cultures and their appreciation probably accrues from my wanderings around more than half the world. My varied and variegated exposures to the world enabled to gain a perspective on my self, my religion, culture, and the world, at large. I would like to think that I am a “rooted cosmopolitan Muslim” with an expansive and a confident world view.
Can, the question is, be the same be said about most of my fellow Kashmiris?
No is the sad answer. We seem to be suffering from a collective inferiority complex which appears to be reflected in our relationship with our culture, its accoutrements like dress, and, of course language. Consider the pheran first. An outfit which is not only defined by grace but also has practical import given the harsh winters in Kashmir and which is our “essential” cultural product is relegated to the margins. People do not wear the pheran on formal occasions, to work or at parties and so on. If and when someone does wear this outfit to work or a place other than home, this choice is derided my most, if not all. Or, consider the Karakul. It is a graceful hat but the association that people make with it is that of and with age. That is, it can and should be only worn by the elderly.
This is not all.
We have a very weird relationship with our language, Kashmiri. Whilst many people in the age cohort of 30’s to 50’s speak the language , but below this age threshold, very few prefer to do so. This tendency is more pronounced amongst our womenfolk. The tragedy is that our children do not speak Kashmiri anymore. They are taught and spoken to in Urdu.
Added up, all this can perhaps only mean that we either have a cultural inferiority complex or a very convoluted or even warped relationship with our selves. Culture, and its accoutrements like dress, and language have an indelible relationship with the collective self of a given society. If you dislike an extension of your cultural self like your dress, for example, or more importantly, language, this might mean that , at some fundamental level, you do not like your self. (Of, course, this assertion is inferential and the conclusion arrived at might not be definitive).
But, if the self loathing theory holds then something is seriously wrong somewhere. I will not go into the causes of our inferiority complex but I will offer a tentative solution.
Kashmir, being Kashmir, is a small, self enclosed, land locked place where the horizons of thought and life are inherently bounded. We do not have comparators to assess and contrast ourselves with. As a result, we can only turn inward and against each other and given the absence of countervailing forces, people and ideas, our inward turn makes us dislike what we have and cherish and appreciate others(usually outsiders). The delineation of the reasons of our inferiority complex is just a theory; there can be more factors and themes at play.
The question is: can it be reversed? Can a healthy sense of self, defined by confidence, sobriety and gravitas emerge from the detritus of our selves?
Perhaps is the answer. But, for this to happen, we must travel, get exposed to different cultures and places of the world. If we do, with an open mind, we might return with fresh perspectives on ourselves and culture only to discover that gold lay in our backyards, and not at some distant shores!
—The author can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org