The Golden Son - How We Adapt to Culture Change



Shilpi Somaya Gowda’s second novel is a puzzle – one that I almost chose not to solve.  In it, the perfect Indian son flies off to Dallas for medical residency leaving behind the village girl who is his true love.  It felt too perfect – too cute – and, frankly, too surfacy to stick with.  But, “I am not a quitter!” I told myself.  My paternal grandmother would read half a book and skip to the end.  After reading the last few pages she knew how the story turned out and she was satisfied.  If she had read this book that way, she would have missed the value that is there to be gleaned, though I think she would have had a nice light summer read and would have learned a little about the world, while also getting a nice plot twist (that I won’t reveal).

This book is plot driven- and the characters in it are painted from their actions – from the surface down.  Even when the thoughts are described, they are thoughts about actions or, when the thoughts are focused on an aspect of the self, they are focused on the self as an object – “I have to make this decision and these are the black and white choices I have to make;” not focused on the self as a less coherent but deeply divided or confused entity as in – “Boy, I think this is the direction I should take, but I have a nagging fear that this may bring terrible consequences, though I can’t quite put my finger on how.”  Initially, I found the black and white aspects of the plot, the characters, and the philosophy of living aggravating, but at some point I began to look at these elements developmentally.  A coming of age story is about someone coming to learn who he or she is and an integral part of such stories is that early on we don’t know ourselves from the inside out, but from the outside in.  We have built a structure – and somehow we need to deconstruct it to discover who we are.  I think, and here I am perilously close to being culturally insensitive, that is true of cultures as well as individuals.  And this book is, I think, about both a personal and a cultural awakening.  And it is, I think, the nature of such things that neither is complete.

One of my analysands remarked that he appreciated the process of psychoanalysis, but he wanted to be able to do what we do in real time – to be able to appreciate all that was happening in a given moment in that moment.  Unfortunately life is too complicated for us to be able to do that.  Too much is going on at any given moment to be able to understand it then.  And if this is true of day to day living, how much more true is it when something as complex as culture change starts to occur?

As a member of that last bit of the baby boom generation, I watched our last cultural awakening and engaged in my own adolescent awakening from beyond the crest of that wave.  I was 8 in the summer of love, and my romanticized vision of being a hippie – without the grit and the unsettledness of it – occurred in a suburban adolescent whose parents experienced him as being a rebel without a cause.  In this country, we are poised on the crest of or being immersed in what I believe to be the next great awakening.  I don’t know how to characterize it yet, but if the first was about calling into question authority figures as knowing all and having our best interests in mind (politically, the Watergate scandal characterizing that), the second may be about becoming cynical towards the possibility of achieving the greater good, and we may end up determining whether we are going to use our privileged position as a means of exploiting what is available to us further – it is every man and every nation for himself – or whether we will decide to live our own lives a little more quietly in order that we may all live better – which has, I think, been the stated (hippie influenced) socialist directive for some time – one that is in tension with the US basic mistrust of authorities taxing us, using our profits for their motives – whether they are the King of England or the President and Congress of the US.  Are we tired of heading away from every man is his own island or not?  We are deeply divided by this issue.

India’s culture certainly has an English overlay, but at least in the backwater agricultural town that our hero, Anil Patel, hails from, the culture is depicted as native – long predating English colonialism (though it does bear some resemblance to the circuit riding judges depicted in other stories of India).  In this Hindu part of the country there are very clearly determined cultural rules that are supposed to govern everything.  Anil is the eldest son of the wealthiest and most successful farming family in the area.  He is therefore slated to take over his father’s position of arbiter in disputes – something that takes place in the dining room of the big house – their home – at the gigantic dining room table with the big chairs.  So, while culture determines what should take place, there are cultural arbiters who determine how to apply things like justice, though it seems somewhat loosey goosey as there is no weight of law to support it.  The wisdom of the landowner, along with the wisdom of the astrologer and the aruvedic medical man is what the people in the area rely on when something doesn’t flow as the culture planned.

Freud famously maintained in Civilization and Its Discontents that culture inhibits us from the pleasure that we would otherwise achieve by killing whom we want and having sex with whoever we please.  A piece of this is true – we have animal brains and they need to be redirected and something is lost in that process – but I think while some imaginary pleasures are lost, we also become something different and gain much richer and more substantial pleasures (and also figure out how to get sexual and aggressive needs met, while also meeting other needs he hadn’t even considered, such as needs for affiliation and comfort).  In the current Wild West era of the internet, there are places where Freud seems prescient – there are wars about gender roles and sexuality where the restraint that is seen in social discourse has been stripped away and that has wandered into places where we never thought we would see it – President Trump frequently tweets his undigested and unsocialized thoughts. 

We have become the dominant species not because we are the strongest or the smartest, but because we are the most adaptable (this quote has been attributed by QuoteInvestigater.com not to Darwin but to an LSU business professor, Leon C. Megginson).   We, as individuals, adapt to our environment and, because we are social creatures, that means we adapt to our cultural environment.  As we do this, we also, in very tiny ways, impact that culture.  When a culture is in flux, it is the interplay between the individuals and the culture that shape that changes that occur in it.  This is as old as the Fiddler on the Roof’s referring to “Tradition” in a vain attempt to ward off the cultural changes that were impacting his experience of the world.  Trump may seem to have an oversized influence on the developing culture – and he certainly does – but we each hold a tiny corner of that fabric.

Indian culture, by the way, is treated as a supporting backdrop in this text – as if we should already know something about it or pick up what we need to know from context – it is not explained to us, not as much as the U.S. culture is.  So, there is a caste system that is mentioned, but not explained.  Some people are landowners and some work the land under the landowner’s guidance.  These workers – are they functionally slaves? – are paid but will never own land.  They do not, I don’t think, actually have a presence as real people – they are like the house elves in Harry Potter who only become a known entity because Hermione makes them one.  The role of women is also not explained, but acted out.  Leena, the girl next door, gets married off to a man the astrologer thinks is a good match.  Her family – she only has her father and mother – has to pay a huge (and illegal) dowry and then when she arrives at her new home, she is “treated like a servant.”  As if it would be OK to beat a servant the way that she is beaten, but not her, because she is of the same caste as the owners of the house?

The confusion that this engenders is actually quite minimal because, as is the case with various aspects of American Exceptionalism, it is not attended to – it is not conscious.  There is no awareness that mistreating servants would be problematic in India.  In the same way, we used to put slaves in a different category – they were famously only three fifths human – and more recently, we are continually blind to the conditions of the people who make the things that we consume – and the cost to the individuals who are displaced by the manufacturing going elsewhere – and the cost to our economy to have solid lower middle class jobs evaporate.  

I was brought up to believe that I was a member of the middle class – the upper middle class – whatever that meant.  What that meant was that my parents went to college – as had their parents – and I was always certain that I would go to college – and in fact to Graduate school.  What did lower middle class look like?  What did the working poor look like?

Because of the segregation of our nation (our schools are currently more race segregated than we were before Brown vs. Board of Education), I grew up with virtually no contact with members of the “other” middle class.  Our suburb housed professionals of a variety of sorts, people who owned their own businesses, college professors and other educators, and many people who worked in the insurance industry.  There was a great deal of light industry in the city adjoining our suburb, and I assume that most of the people who worked on the assembly lines of those industries lived near the plants in the city or in other suburbs.  The taxes in our suburb were high in order to support the schools, which were good and that was why my parents chose to live in the community when we moved there.  But this also (and some might believe intentionally) meant that the members of the lower middle class were as invisible to me as the lower castes in this novel are to the reader (btw, one of the subplots involves the question of how to reward a lower caste employee for the work that he has done across the course of his life – but the person never actually appears as a character – he is referred to by the other characters – as are the other lower caste workers).  So when something like the Trump phenomenon occurs, people like me read things like Hillbilly Elegy and The Worst Hard Time in order to get a sense of who these “invisible” people are who have voted for him.

Patel’s motives for leaving India are manifold.  First, he is embarrassed by the kind of medicine that he can practice in a third world country where the lack of technology interferes with the ability to properly practice the art.  He is also motivated by a personal wish to have a beautiful house overlooking a lake in a place like Dallas – his own house at home – the largest for miles around and one that is filled with hot and cold running servants is less desirable than a clean, modern well-built house in a city with paved streets.  He knows that he will always be an outsider in this new culture – something that is brought home by both subtle racism and racially motivated violence – but he increasingly feels like an outsider in his own culture.  He feels himself to be neither fish nor fowl, and, while he likes reconnecting with the mob scene at home, he finds that home to be provincial.

Meanwhile, Leena who is married off to the family who is treating her like a servant, perseveres as best she can, guided by the vision of herself as the dutiful daughter and wife, learning, as her parents did, to live with someone who has been chosen to her.  This blinds her to how badly she is being treated until she is almost murdered.  We can’t help thinking, as western readers that this would never have happened in our culture where people choose their spouses rather than having them chosen for them.  Moreover, women in our culture are not indentured in the ways that women in that culture are.

Is the book, then, making the case for the superiority of the western approach to life?  It may be – we could read this as Gowda’s attempt to justify her parents’ choice to remain in Canada rather than returning home – and her making a case for being better off here.  Certainly Anil’s father sees changes coming when he writes a letter to the next arbiter in the community encouraging him to take these elements into account.  Leena should not have been put in the situation that she was – nor should Patel have to choose to leave the people he loves to live the life that he chooses.  But Westernization has its costs.  Not all women in arranged marriages are subjugated the way that Leena is, her mother certainly was not – and the low divorce rates in India certainly are partially the result of the shame that accompanies leaving a marriage – no matter what the reason, but they also create family stability in ways that we should try to emulate.  So some women pay a high price for the choices that their parents make – but in our culture, the high divorce rate is costly – to the couple, but especially to the children.  There is simply tons of evidence that has been out there for a very long time that this is the case.

So I think it is more useful to think about this book as being less about a comparison between western and eastern cultures and the choices that people make and more about the necessary cultural decisions that we each must make when we live in an increasingly connected world.  We no longer have the choice to hew to tradition…  Tradition, like the Broadway and Hollywood musical tradition that it springs from, is something that is disappearing to be replaced by new traditions that are emerging at a faster and faster pace.  Hamilton is a musical – but also is a completely new form of art with new rhythms and rules and new, very personally determined ways of interpreting the received canon.

The human mind is remarkably plastic.  It can take on a huge variety of “programs”.  Culture is one of our most powerful means of programming the mind.  One of the challenges for psychoanalysts, and for social scientists generally, is to distinguish between what is essentially human and what is part of this person’s functioning because of his or her environment.  We have frequently erred, when working within one culture, at assuming that what we see is the result of human nature when part of what we are seeing is something that is broadly shared.  I remember a professor who had immersed himself as much as he could in ancient Greek culture commenting that he thought the Greeks were essentially different from us.  I was not quick witted enough to ask in what ways, but I was struck by his sense that there were profound differences.  I also remember a Japanese psychoanalyst at the Menninger Clinic, Tetsuro Takahashi, who proposed that Freud’s supposedly universal Oedipal configuration did not describe the familial configuration of the business class families in Japan with their consistently absent fathers.  Amae, a very close link between the child and the mother, was a much better description of the developmental arc there.  The western triangle of child, mother and father did not emerge, but this was not a pathology creating situation, as it might be seen in the west.

As we become more and more interconnected via the internet and various means of more and more accessible transportation, as more and more of us become members of a “class” – the computer literate and connected class – we will be creating a new culture with its own rules and its own impact on the functioning of the individual.  This is a tremendous opportunity to shape and understand a culture that will, by fits and starts, inevitably, assuming we don’t blow ourselves up, move towards a type of universal world on line culture.  This culture will seem alien to us – and what will guide us into cultural compliance will be the same things that have always acculturated us – stories – and a legal system of sorts with laws and consequences for those who operate outside of the established culture.  We will tell and retell (or post and repost) stories – we will create videos that explain to us the implicit rules of this new culture (there are funny videos about all kinds of things – like online meetings).  These videos and podcasts and blogs and tweets will serve the role that movies and books serve (and movies and books will continue to serve), to create narratives that drive our vision of how we as individuals fit into this the newly created culture and so we will build individual’s worlds as we are building collective ones that will interface in interesting and complex ways.

In this way, we are all Anil and Leena – living in a world where the old way of doing things will no longer work for us – and, as turns out to be the case for Anil and Leena, we will each have to choose how it is that we embrace a changing world in ways that are consistent with who it is that we are in the process of learning that we are.  And it is partly through the process of embracing that changing world that we discover both who we are and we are becoming.  I think the reason that this book, which is a good but seemingly light read, is as popular as it is has to do with the underlying themes that are sketched or hinted at but not as directly confronted as those themes are in such places as Master of None, the Netflix series starring Aziz Ansari, or in Thank You forBeing Late, the book by Thomas Friedman, which I have drawn from heavily as I have thought about Golden Son.



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