It’s always the little things. The little things that you notice. The little things that seem to irk you. Sometimes you start to lose your identity. Who are you? Why are you? Where are you?
India, and in particular Indians are not supposed to seem foreign to me. I look Indian, I have an Indian passport and I was born and raised in the country for over 2 decades. I grew up amongst Indian friends. I have participated in a variety of Indian festivals. I have bathed in the culture of temples, mosques, churches, and even Synagogues. But when I return to India, surprisingly, all this seems to dissipate. Almost as if, these ways of being Indian never really happened. It never really resonated with my sense and sensibilities.
The hope being, inevitably, that time will soothe some of these surface irritations and quite weirdly culture shocks on both sides of the planet. What seems to be enduring is a wordless revulsion. Something that is very deep and inarticulable. The sight of what seems to be a wastage of some tremendous potential amongst the plethora of humans that call India their home. This was a great civilization of the world, once amongst the wealthiest and powerful of nations. And yet only after moving out and mingling with other people who have imbibed themselves with their own unique culture, was I beginning to grasp the sheer gravity of the situation. So many are trapped in their boxes. The school children with brains crammed full of notes, fearful of voicing an opinion in front of their parents. The elders whose doctrines about marriage and other life activities that never seems to budge. The women, to whom few listen, no matter what wisdom were in their words. All this irrespective of how the world seemed to change around them. History is heavy, culture reigns supreme, the old go unquestioned.
In my impressionistic and very opinionated view, India seems to be a land of replicated lives. Where most people grow up to be exactly like their parents. Cracking the same jokes, bearing the same prejudices, and pursuing vocations not too far afield. India seems to function on seemingly low expectations and almost otherworldly powers of acceptance and adjustments. Most television channels seems to beam the same over-acted sitcoms, that anybody else with broader choices would probably never watch. But yet, people seem to accept it. The poverty, the children with malnutrition induced puffed-out bellies and matted hair on the streets, begging for anything that would come their way. These kids possess a similar skin color and facial features as me, and yet the sheer disdain that they are treated with is bloodcurdling. Yet, society, be it the rich folk or the poor themselves seem to accept this existence. Women seem to accept the normalcy of being told their skin is too dark, that their weight should be increased or decreased, that they should marry this man or that. People with vegetarian parents, seemed to accept that they too must be vegetarian.
History was heavy. Culture reigned supreme. Religion seemed to be the clock that made it all tick. The country that gathered in my mind over the years was contradictory and complex and yet so simple. It seems kind and decent, generous and sacrificial, repressed and narrow, wretched and hopeless, a land short on dynamism and initiative, long on caution, niggling judgement, subservience, and fear. This was a land where people rarely come into their own as they do here in the United States.
But this is a country I love and adore. It is a country that has given me everything. The people might be questionable, the superstitions rearing its ugly head in the disguise of culture and religion is borderline disgraceful. But it is due to the love that I have for my country, that I feel this urge to tell what I have to. The country, slowly yet steadily, is rising in the global marketplace. The world’s cheapest car is now a symbol of what India has to offer. It is trying to tell a story as to how the country is undergoing significant changes within. The old constraints are still not lifted. The bureaucracy, the corruption, the tax codes, the labor laws, the poverty, the potholed roads. All of these are burdens that the average Indian citizen has to endure. But in earlier times, this would have considered as an excuse to make shoddy products.
The Tata Nano is a symbol of how India is adapting to these constraints, these unique hardships, and created something that is now considered a technological marvel. Given the condition of Indian roads, which resembles the surface of the moon more than it does the earth, the suspensions had to be made better. Given the average income levels, the manufacturing costs had to be constrained. Given all these adversities, the Nano, which now symbolizes the new India, is really a lesson in bravado. It’s not that India’s core concept has changed. This is a new style of hopeful defiance.
The deepest change I wish to observe in India, and I am beginning to see clear signs of these, is not what the factories are building or what the software programmers are coding. It should be in the mind of the people. How they conceived their possibilities. They should not have to leave the country to pursue their personal revolutions. Children of a lower caste are hoisting themselves up, one degree at a time. More women are becoming breadwinners. The younger generation would find their sense of privacy restored with the advent of cell phones. It would also give a sense of individual identity. Couples should start ending marriages, no what matter what society thinks. The reverse is also true. People should marry who they love, no matter what society labels you as. Servants, whose predecessors were also servants, must take the first step in providing education to their children, so that they do not end up in servitude. Vegetarians could and should embrace meat, and meat eaters could and should embrace vegetarianism. Not due to the caste and faith, but due to taste and trend. What should decline is the tendency to serenely accept life as it is.
Newspapers and books are writing in reams about how India is changing and the pace of growth. It is fast becoming a planet changing model of democracy, pluralism and growth. But the truth is a little more subtle and sober. Our economy is growing, but not as fast as it can. Poverty is being abolished slowly and steadily, yet not fast enough to make a sizeable dent amongst the general populace. The flexing of military muscle overseas, seems sporadic and aimless. But one thing the people don’t lack is the ability to dream.
The dream to own their own house, a refrigerator, a microwave, a washing machine. The dream to break caste barriers. The dream to marry for love, all the complicated family considerations be damned. The dream to become rich. The dream to finally live life comfortably. The Indian revolution has to come from within. As was once said in a famous Indian movie, no country is great. It is up to the citizens to make it great. Let the fabric of Indianness not diminish, but let it unravel in the force of these dreams. India is a great country, it can be made greater.