The Indian Teenager The lives of Indian teenagers reflect the ethnic, linguistic, religious, and cultural diversity

of the country’s more than one billion people. Despite the liberalization of the Indian economy and society since the 1990s, traditional values still exert their binding influence over the majority of its people, including teenagers. The proliferation of satellite television channels in all the major languages of India, as well as in English, the widespread access to the Internet, and the increasing influence of Western culture – all these have unleashed forces that have come into conflict with India’s 5,000-year-old tradition, presenting peculiar and unique challenges to the Indian teenager. Attaining puberty (around the age of 13) marks the coming of age of Indian children and their entry into the teenage years. This event is celebrated in various ways in different regions of the country. Puberty rites are conducted for girls with elaborate rituals and feasts which may last up to 10 days. Upanayanam (the “sacred thread” ceremony) is conducted for boys who have come of age by the three Hindu upper castes (Brahmin, Kshatriya, and Vysya). Celebrations are also held for boys who attain puberty in some parts of the country, especially among high caste and upper class Hindus. Teenagers in India generally finish high school at the age of 16. Teenagers from middle- and upper-class families usually pursue some kind of higher education. They rarely enter the job market before obtaining a degree or diploma. All their financial needs, including pocket-money, are provided for by their parents, who sometimes support them even into adulthood. In lower-class families, however, many teenagers, especially boys, work part-time along with their studies, earning around 250 to 700 Indian rupees (US$ 6-16) per month. Teenagers from low-income families (many living in slums) most often drop out of school and work full time in menial jobs to support their families, generally earning around 1,200 to 2,500 Indian rupees (US$30-60) per month. The institution of family holds supreme importance in Indian society. It is through the family that the age-old traditions and culture of India is transmitted to children. Many Indian teenagers still live in traditional Hindu joint families where three generations live together and where teenagers constantly interact with parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts, and cousins. The joint family system has been in decline during the last few decades and a large number of teenagers are now members of nuclear families. Reverence for parents and other elders is the norm among Indian teenagers. Most of the decisions regarding their education and lifestyle are taken by parents or other elders. This is more so in the case of girls who are constantly supervised and controlled, while teenage boys are given relatively more freedom. The influence of religion and spirituality is very profound in Indian society and culture. The teenagers of India belong to various religions, such as Hinduism (majority religion), Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism (all four originated in India); Islam (second largest Muslim population after Indonesia), Christianity, Zoroastrianism, and even Judaism as well as animism. Despite the existence of a strong secular movement, most teenagers of India are relatively devout and they regularly flock to the various temples, mosques, churches, and many holy places, which can be found in every nook and corner of the country. Very few teenagers would think of going to the opening of a school term or attending an examination without offering their prayers and conducting some ritual at a place of religious worship. The belief in astrology and auspicious times is very strong among Indian teenagers. Recent times have seen many Hindu gurus and sannyasins (religious teachers and anchorites) catching the imagination of a large number of teenagers who have become their willing followers. The various protestant denominations of

India as well as the Charismatic movement in the Catholic Church have been able to wean many teenagers away from alcoholism, substance abuse, and unhealthy sexual activity. An increasing number of Muslim teenage boys attend madrassas (Islamic schools) where they sometimes fall under the influence of radical Islamic ideas. The economic resurgence of India since 1990 (India has been classified as a “transforming” economy instead of a “developing” economy by the US State Department) has wrought profound changes in the dynamics of teenage lifestyle. The increasing affluence of the middle- and upper-classes has provided Indian teenagers with various amenities including cell phones, satellite TV, access to the Internet, as well as motorbikes and scooters. Going to the movies with parents or friends is still the most important entertainment activity of teenagers in India, which is the largest film producer in the world. Indian movies, in various languages, hold great sway over the imagination of teenagers, many of them imitating movie stars (who have an iconic status) in matters of fashion and beauty. English movies have also become popular among teenagers, especially in urban areas. Watching satellite television, especially the plethora of music channels in various languages including English, has become a craze among teenagers in recent times. The ubiquitous cell phone, found among a large number of Indian teenagers, has redefined the leisure-time activity of boys and girls. ‘SMS-ing’ (instant messaging) friends, boyfriends, or girlfriends is the latest fad among teenagers. Affluent teenagers frequently hang out at places like Pubs, discos, and rock bars where they dance to Hindi film music or Western pop. Teenagers also hang out at shopping centers, multiplexes, pizza parlors, coffee pubs, Internet and video game parlors, as well as beaches, parks, and temples. In the rural areas, aside from the occasional movie, attending the numerous festivals and participating in folk dances are the favorite leisure-time activity among teenagers. Indian teenagers participate in various kinds of sports as well as watch them on television or at stadiums. Cricket is the most popular sport in India for teenagers as it is for adults. World-class cricketers like Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid have iconic status among Indian teenagers, rivaling the popularity of movie stars. Field hockey, basketball, volleyball, and track and field are some of the other sports popular among teenagers. Teenagers often take part in interschool and inter-collegiate sports competitions at the state and national levels. Indian society is still predominantly traditional and conservative, and dating and courtship among teenagers is frowned upon and discouraged. However, dating is becoming more common in metros and large cities. According to a survey, 35.5 percent of teenage boys and 15 percent of teenage girls in the cities went on dates regularly. Most of the dating takes place without the knowledge of parents or under the pretext of group socializing. Indian society strongly disapproves of pre-marital sex, except in the Northeast, where people have a tolerant attitude towards teenage sex. In most parts of the country, however, girls caught in sexual activity particularly face heavy stigma from parents and society at large. The advent of satellite television and the Internet has been a liberating factor for many Indian teenagers, making them bold enough to engage in sexual activity. The knowledge of teenagers regarding sex and its consequences is abysmally poor in India. Six of the 28 Indian states have initiated programs to impart sex education to teenagers. This has, however, come under heavy fire from conservative elements, which regard such initiatives as degrading and opposed to Indian culture and values. Despite the great strides made by the Indian economy and society in recent times, about 300 million Indians still live below the poverty line. Teenagers from such background sometimes face insuperable difficulties to their true fulfillment. Many

of them, especially from the lower castes, are exploited as forced, indentured laborers by feudalistic landlords. Many teenagers are also forced by circumstances to work in dangerous occupations, like the fireworks units of Sivakasi, in the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu. Teenage girls of lower castes belonging to less developed states are often sold into prostitution by their own parents. Many such girls have been rescued by social workers and the police from the brothels of Mumbai and other metropolitan cities. Teenagers from affluent backgrounds are also facing various obstacles to their smooth transition into adulthood. Alcoholism and substance abuse have been on the rise among middle- and upper-class teenagers. Many of them are introduced to substances like marijuana, hashish, and bhang (a cannabis variant) by their peers. Drugs popular in the West – like morphine, heroine, and cocaine – have also found acceptance among teenagers. Drug rehabilitation programs in India are still scanty and does not match the standard found in the US and Europe. The conflict between traditional sexual repression and the desire for sexual freedom (as in the West) has seen many teenagers falling into deviant behavior. India does not have a gun culture among teenagers as there is in the US. Therefore, incidences like the student violence in Columbine and other schools in the US do not happen here. However, there have been some instances of teenage boys stabbing girls who had resisted their sexual advances. Many teenagers have also been killed in the troubled state of Jammu & Kashmir, where Islamic terrorists have been using teenagers to carry and plant explosives. There has been an increasing trend of teenage suicides in India in recent times. According to a report in the New Scientist, South India now has the highest suicide rate in the world. The report also stated that teenage girls were more likely to commit suicide than boys. In the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, the suicide rate among teenage girls was 148 per 100,000, compared to 2.1 suicides per 100, 000 for the similar group in the UK. Academic failure was reportedly the major cause of teenage suicides. Despite the various problems they face, conditions have never been better for Indian teenagers. A large number of them are avidly pursuing their education and planning their careers in order to join the surging economic bandwagon. The number of people living below the poverty line has also been decreasing, releasing many teenagers from the throes of poverty and hardship. Many teenagers have also successfully resolved the dichotomy between traditional values and modern compulsions, steering a middle path.

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