Earlier this year, the Maharashtra government decided to allow homeopaths to prescribe so-called allopathic medicines. This caused alarm in medical circles, and now the decision itself has run into some trouble. But most people said it was all unnecessary fuss. After all, ours is a country where you can get your ears candled and your wisdom tooth extracted while you wait for a bus. And every family seems to have an uncle who can prescribe antibiotics. Why cheat the homeopaths out of their God-given right to dispense unqualified medical advice?
Personally, I think this is a natural extension of the great Indian tradition of giving free and unsolicited advice. The origins of this tradition are lost in the mists of time, but it is based upon the ancient Vedic principle that every fellow Indian is an expert on your life.
The advice-giver practices his craft in that most hallowed arena, the Indian wedding. He or she occupies the centre stage there, while minor events involving the bride and groom go on in the background.
The stereotype of the advice-giver is that of a middle-aged uncle or aunty, but, believe me, it could be anyone. I once had a six-year-old boy run up to me at a wedding in Madras and remark on the fact that I wasn’t wearing bangles. “Girls should never be with bare arms,” he said sanctimoniously and ungrammatically, before stuffing his face with a laddoo about half his size.
True masters of free advice are rarely so hasty and graceless.
Firstly, they take care in selecting their targets. Most amateurs seize upon the obviously weak. Let’s say you are a bit tired or ill when you are at a family wedding. You will immediately be diagnosed in public by a bevy of well-dressed but decidedly amateur advice-givers. Too much stress, one will say. No, it must be all this western food, will go another. Solutions like ginger-tea, Crocin, Tiger balm and astrology will be offered. If you seem unresponsive at this point, the situation will slowly start to escalate. When someone suggests a magnetotherapist who can reverse your life’s polarity by taping magnets to your fingers, it is time to make a quick escape. But it doesn’t end there. You may, for instance, stagger to get some coffee. The woman at the counter will take one look at you and advise you to tie onions to your feet at night, to soak up the virus. A casual eavesdropper will say that onions are all very well, but what about the stink, and should we ask the cook? The cook will suggest hanging lemons around the house to overcome the stink of the onions. Or freezing the onions. An alert grandmother will hear this and start pooh-poohing freezing. The coffee queue behind you will slowly devolve into a low-level riot concerning modern cooking methods.
Like I said, this is an amateur’s game.
A true master will come to you when you appear to be happy and content. They believe they have an obligation to correct such a bad attitude. Firstly, they will ascertain where you are in the life-cycle of the Indian adult species, and whether you are deviating from the norm. Any deviation is a weakness. If you’re in your 20s and unmarried, your professional and marital market value will be analysed. If you’re married without children, childbirth is an easy topic. If you already have a child, a second one of a different gender will be suggested. And if you already have two, well, then the conversation can branch out in many interesting ways. All this will be couched in clever dialogue, designed to trap you into confessing that you are a failure in life and that you really need help from the master.
I was recently accosted by one such master at a family function. On finding out that I don’t have children, the old man set his bait carefully.
“Oh, in that case, you must be a successful manager,” he said.
I stupidly confessed that I only did a bit of writing. He raised his eyebrows.
“Writer, eh? My daughter-in-law just published her third book. What’s yours about?” By then I had come to my senses.
So I did what any self-respecting Indian would do. “Uncle”, I said, “I just noticed you look a bit ill. Is everything Ok? Do you need tea? Coffee? The number of my magnetotherapist?”