Ayesha and her father are facing a clash of culture or what is popularly known as the  generation gap. At first, there appears nothing unusual about this case. We have all been at one or the other end of this gap- as children or as parents. Complaints about youth having lost respect for the values of their elders, dates back to Egyptian papyrus scrolls found from 2000 BC. Many differences in values between generations will be just normal attributes of age which repeat themselves for each successive pair of generations. Having said that, historical events (such as the Chinese Cultural Revolution) or discontinuous development of technology do lead to a difference, between generations, which is unique.

In this case too, there are two factors that make the differences between Ayesha and her father more than just the normal generation gap. First – ours is a society that is not evolving but leapfrogging into the 21st century. In the last few years, the pace of change in India has been more than in the last 50 years. Second – the call center provides a ‘virtual foreign’ environment for Ayesha where she ‘lives’ a life in an alien culture. Mr. Sharma sees his middle class cultural values disregarded and threatened by an alleged set of new values spawned by the American culture at Ayesha’s workplace.

Differences across cultural groups, be it social class, gender, generation, society or nation, manifest themselves in several ways. However, they can be best described as a combination of symbols, heroes, rituals and values with symbols representing the most superficial manifestations of culture, values the deepest and heroes and rituals in between. Barring values, the other three are visible to an outsider and are subsumed under the term – practices.

Manifestations of Culture

Symbols could be words in a language, dress, hairstyle, status symbols etc. New symbols are easily developed, old ones disappear and they can be copied from one culture to another. Ayesha’s adoption of American symbols is evident in her latest clothes, in her idolisation of Jimi Hendrix, and the Oreos and Coke loving Clare. How superficial symbols are to culture is clear from Ayesha’s mother colouring her hair and echoing L’Oreal’s tag line – ‘because I am worth it’.

Heroes are people alive or dead, real or imaginary who serve as models for behaviour in a society. DJ and his skill with the English language, Jimi Hendrix and Clare Hawthorne – the one who knows her mind and wears bright colours-  are all Ayesha’s icons or heroes. Her father laments the fact that she does not want to follow in his footsteps.

Rituals are socially essential activities – such as ways of greeting, social and religion ceremonies etcetra. From her American, 21st century viewpoint, Ayesha questions tradition and customs of the past like traditional marriage ceremonies and abstinence from meat during navratras.

Values are among the first things children learn implicitly and by age 10, most children have their basic values in place. Therefore, Ayesha’s values are very much in place at age 21.

Values are largely to do with evil vs. good, dirty vs. clean, ugly vs. beautiful and so on. In interpreting people’s values, it is important to distinguish between the desirable and desired – how people think the world ought to be and what is ethically right versus what people really want. Ayesha and Clare represent  the conflict between the desirable and the desired. Larger the gap between the desirable and the desired greater the tension in the system.

What is ethically right is to be good which is seen by Sharma as calvinism, sacrifice, slow and steady career growth, no expectations of fast returns and hard work. Ayesha sees this as an outdated value and her definition of being ‘good’ is working hard while enjoying herself, instant gratification, high expectations and fast returns. She has begun to share the practices – symbols, heroes and rituals- at the workplace with the people she works with. Values, however, as mentioned earlier are formed very early on in life at home and at school. As a society or a nation we share values which are formed in the early part of our lives and it is in an organization and at the workplace that we adopt practices. Mr. Sharma fails to distinguish between the two and therefore is getting anxious at the supposed abandoning of Indian values by Ayesha.

Interestingly, it is Ayesha’s sociologist sister who reminds her that every culture has its negatives. Unfortunately Ayesha can only see the negatives in her own and is totally mesmerised by the other. When people move to a new cultural environment, they go through distinct phases before they settle down or don’t. The first phase is euphoria when everything is different and beautiful. This is followed by a culture shock when everything has to be learnt from scratch and the individual feels helpless and distressed. (Already, there are days when Ayesha was miserable with all the attention and the accented English she heard long distance). Then follows acculturation when a person begins to get used to the environment and then either goes back to being negative or becomes neutral or goes native.

Mr. Sharma has discounted the fact that Ayesha is focussed and driven. She studies by day and works by night to earn money for her foreign post graduation. Her values are not something he needs to worry about. Instead he needs to encourage her dreams and her idealism. In societies that are in transition, the old are bewildered and want to stay with the familiar for the sake of security and comfort. It is the young who will take on the challenge of the change and the opportunities that emerge.