Wednesday, November 30, 2005

The cultural barrier

Being a communications professional, I get opportunities to interact with a diverse group of
mediapersons. As an individual, one develops affinity for some and Rajendar is one of them.

He works for a Hindi daily known for its coverage of development issues and has considerable penetration
into rural Madhya Pradesh. I still vividly remember the day Rajendar walked into my office and we first met. That interaction resembled a typical official meeting; story angles were explored and details exchanged.

But Rajendar's inquisitiveness did not escape my notice. I was slightly unsure how the report would
come out but still provided him every relevant detail.

A few days later, a half-page story appeared in his newspaper. He had toiled on the idea and made it
big. I was impressed. It's been more than two years hence and gradually we became pals. He changed jobs, but our relationship blossomed. Today he is at the most challenging juncture of his existence, a time when one gets tested. Rajendar is a double masters in Hindi and journalism besides being a gold medallist in the
latter subject. He's trapped in a situation that reflects how difficult it is to change things, mindsets or
so-called cultural barriers.

It's easy for many of us to message around, advocate behavioural change but in real-life situations
it's people-to-people contact, their understanding of the context, their beliefs and relationship that play
a major role. It needs lot of hard work, patience and working out ways that are within communities' systems.

I'm picking up this issue as I see it in the lives of Rajendar and Rajini. They've known each other for
years and want to get married. But Rajendar belongs to a family that's conservative and believes in accepting dowry. At present his 'rate', if he gets wedded to a woman of his caste, is Rs 4 lakh, a Bolero and household furniture. Marrying outside one's caste is not allowed and if that union is without dowry it is strictly
forbidden! Unfortunately, Rajini - a development worker – is not from his caste though she too belongs to a certain upper caste. Both have strong affiliation to the development sector and have stood for issues.

Rajini's parents have agreed, while Rajendar, after using a lot of his skills, managed to make some impact
on his parents. But that's not enough as they need the consent of every adult in the family, which is simply
not possible. Rajendar's parents may have reluctantly agreed for their son's happiness but expressed inability to convince others. After the wedding, both would be out of the biradari meaning that they might not be allowed to participate in family rituals and functions.

As individuals they always have a choice to go ahead and marry but both don't prefer this way. They
want to wed with family consent. But if that happens they would become role models or change agents. It
will be for the first time someone from that area married out of caste and that too sans dowry. Some elders fear that it will open floodgates.

There's an equal chance that they may fail but may kindle a light of hope in someone else who may follow
their footsteps and eventually succeed. That's how change takes place, but it's not easy especially if
you are working against a mindset that's been followed for years and believed to be right.