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Modern Indian Society

At once a stable society, comfortably couched in time-worn traditions, and a chaotic crucible of new ideas, modern India is distinguished by diversity and united by patriotism.

There are countless issues that divide the country, including socioeconomic factors such as caste and access to basic needs and education; regional variations like the dozens of official languages and various different cuisines; religious differences that divide communities and often create distinct neighborhoods; and the deep gender inequality that transcends even the division between urban and rural populations. And yet there are many factors uniting the country. Even in terms of language, English and Hindi are common to most of urbanized India, at least at a basic level. And although major urban areas have been joined by roads (no matter the quality of these roads), the democratizing power of the Indian rail system is not to be underestimated. A shared history of colonialism, active media, a sprawling government bureaucracy, and an engaged political body help create a cohesive Indian society. And, of course, there is the fact that Indian people are, by and large, incredibly warm and welcoming.

Astrology

Modern India may be known for technology, but this doesn't negate the prevalence of superstitious tradition, and many Indians won't make decisions about business, love, or family without consulting the heavens or the cards. Marriages, if not made in heaven, should at least be consecrated on an auspicious date—on days deemed extra-auspicious for weddings, huge numbers of concurrent ceremonies occur.

Urban versus Rural Society

Possibly the biggest difference in India is one that tourists rarely experience: the division between rural and urban life. India's cities are fueled by labor and resources from India's villages—the majority of the country's population still subsists on an agrarian lifestyle and economy—yet city and small-town life is worlds apart from the fields and dirt roads of the rest of India. While in the cities, access to electricity is frustrated by unannounced cuts and load-shedding, only about half of rural Indian households have any access to power at all. Education and potable water are also often elusive commodities outside of India's cities and towns. Idyllic glimpses of rural life are visible from the road or train—yellow-blossomed mustard fields in north India, coconut plantations along the coast, tractors loaded impossibly high with bales of cotton or other goods—but the realities of rural life are something a traveler will rarely get the chance to see. Interestingly, socioeconomic divisions of caste or occupation—though certainly still present—are less stark in rural areas than in urban ones.

Rich, Middle Class, Poor

India's cities are microcosms and melting pots. A small, privileged elite drives (or is chauffeured) between the air-conditioned high-rises of south Mumbai, the gated colonies of south Delhi, the exclusive resorts of Goa, and similar areas. The denizens of this privileged group frequent five-star restaurants, luxury boutiques, and private clubs. But this is just a tiny segment of society.

A large and rapidly growing middle class fuels urban economy, powering the country's information-technology hubs. More professionalized and better educated than their parents, members of the urban middle class also feed a mushrooming consumer-goods-and-services sector. Spending money is proof of success, and lavish weddings replete with yards of brocade, miles of fairy lights, tons of gold jewelry, and bushels of fresh-cut flowers are not uncommon. Coffee shops and fast-food outlets cater to and are staffed by members of middle-class society.

In stark contrast to the rich and the middle-class, India's populated areas are also home to millions of urban poor—from migrants who set up house in tarpaulin shelters while employed in construction and infrastructure projects to low-income families living in slum colonies characterized by open sewers. Many urban migrants live a double life—catering to the wealthy and middle class so they can send money to their families back in the village. Besides domestic help, low-income jobs include a wide range of workers—including porters, cycle-rickshaw drivers, salesmen of cheap goods, and more.

Gender Roles

Across all walks of life, women and men lead very different, often divergent, lives. While women work the fields and provide manual labor on construction sites right alongside men, these are roles born out of economic necessity. Middle-class and even elite women have less occasion to work outside of the home; although wealthier families may educate daughters as much as sons, the focus for women is squarely on marriage and raising children. Cutting across economic distinctions is a preference for boys—in some states female infanticide is still a serious problem, and it is illegal for doctors to disclose the sex of fetuses. Some villages have such a shortage of marriageable women that they have had to bring in brides from other regions of India—a practice that rubs against the older tradition of marrying within one's caste and culture.

Marriage

Arranged marriages take place all across Indian society. Although the government prohibits child marriage, betrothals and weddings at a very young age still do take place in more remote areas. These days, however, the culture of dating also thrives in India's big cities. Couples can be seen everywhere in Delhi and Mumbai, flaunting their sexual freedom on the dance floors of clubs, sharing coffee and moony looks across a café table, or surreptitiously canoodling under a tree in a public park—often the most convenient meeting ground for poorer youngsters from more conservative families. Online dating is less of a casual affair than in the west, and dating sites are used predominately by middle-class families looking to set up marriages.

Caste

Marriage classifieds (listings of eligible men and women, living in India or abroad, searchable by caste, religion, profession, and education, etc.) are only one of the many societal phenomena in which caste figures prominently. Caste in India can be as innocuous as a shared community history, signified by a particular last name, or as insidious as a derogatory slur. Although technically abolished, in practical terms caste identity still plays an important role in modern Indian society, particularly in politics. There is raging debate—akin to but far more polarizing than the American debate over affirmative action—over quotas for historically disadvantaged castes in government jobs or school admissions, for example, that plays out on the political stage both nationally and locally.

Politics

India's parliamentary democracy is rife with corruption and strange liaisons, and the average Indian is either actively cynical or openly engaged with politics—and sometimes both. A multiparty system means that there are significant blocs of special-interest parties besides the dominant Congress Party and BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party). Unfortunately, some of these parties mine religion to garner support, which can have the result of turning whole communities against each other.

Religion

Religion plays a large part in modern Indian society, and worship is an important component: people often pray regularly in temples, mosques, gurdwaras, and churches, but may also have family shrines at home, composed of icons, portraits, and statues. Ritual fasting is a regular occurrence in many religions, whether weekly for some very pious Hindus or yearly during Ramadan for devout Muslims. Religious conventions can often bleed into cultural ones, influencing diet, neighborhood, occupation, and clothing choice.

Clothing

Clothing in modern Indian society is a signifier of many things—gender, region, wealth, and profession—in addition to occasionally indicating religion. In general, men usually wear trousers or jeans with shirts or T-shirts. In south India and in rural areas, native forms of dress—long pieces of cloth called lungis or dhotis—are wrapped around the waist and legs, but loose-fitting pajama-type outfits are more common. These are topped with an undershirt, called a banyan, and perhaps a tunic or kurta. Headgear can also be an indicator of religion or region. Rajasthani men are known for their bright, coiled turbans (and grandiose mustaches), Sikh men sweep their long hair into streamlined turbans, and Muslim men usually wear skull caps when praying. Poorer or rural women of all religions tend to cover their heads with thin scarves, and urban Muslim women may keep their heads covered and wear body-covering robes as well. Traditional wear for women includes the more typically north Indian tunic or shirt, called a kurta or kameez. This is paired with loose pants, or salwar, gathered at the ankle. Skirts (lehengas) with blouses (cholis) are also popular, particularly as wedding wear. Saris, yards of cloth that can be tied many different ways around a petticoat and blouse, are worn all over India and come in many regionally and seasonally specific textiles and patterns. Urban women are quite comfortable in jeans and other Western wear, though exposing too much leg or cleavage in public is frowned upon (Mumbai and Goa are slightly more relaxed in this regard).

Updated: 03-2013

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