India: The Reality Of My Existence

Posted on July 25, 2012 in Specials

By Rahool Gadkari:

Culture, the oft intangible marker of our legacy, passed on from generation to generation and subject to a constant metamorphosis is what civilizations leave behind as their DNA marker. A TED talk by the Indian MP and former UN under secretary general – Shashi Tharoor in 2009 beautifully highlighted the concept of India’s “soft — power”, or in simpler terms, the ability of a nation to attract others by virtue of its culture and ideologies. Culture is the ultimate test of a flourishing civilization, and while the word ‘civilization’ might have, to a large extent, become archaic in this globalized world, I use it not as a means of pigeonholing India, but as an instrument referring to the watermark, that the India of today is leaving behind on the canvas of our lives. So, India’s success story also can, as Shashi Tharoor very eruditely pointed out, be judged in terms of the social structures, habits, institutions that it has created.

The Hindi idiom — “kuch pane ke liye pehla kuch khona padta hain” (in order to find something, first you need to lose something) comes to my mind when I think of my own evolved sense of nationality and belonging. I’ve spent the last two years studying in America, and I realized that despite considering myself a patriot, I had a lot more Indian left in me to discover. Being away from home is a novel feeling, very soon you start missing family, food, friends and country (in no particular order). So why do I go on and on about culture and India and Indians? Is it nostalgia? Perhaps a little, but yearning for family and home is universal, not specifically Indian. It is because I feel strongly that my Indian identity equipped me very well to handle life abroad. After all, Indians are essentially mongrels. We’ve been influenced by the Persians, Europeans, Arabs, South East Asians and of course with our rich and diverse country, regional influences have amalgamated to help enliven us and made India a cultural melting pot. I was pleasantly surprised one day, when while travelling by cab, by the ease with which I struck up a conversation with the Somalian cabbie. Guess what we talked about? Bollywood? No, that would be too easy – we spoke about Sonia Gandhi! In fact, curiosity and consequentially awareness of Indian culture is so high that a Brazilian friend of mine is more adept at quoting lines from Shahrukh Khan and Vidya Balan movies that some my more filmy Indian friends!

My Indian identity gave me a sense of belonging, bringing with it a sense of connectedness, which ironically in today’s hyper-connected world many people lack. You could be Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, Sikh or from the east, west, north, south of our country, once you’re out your identity as an Indian is firmly established. A friend of mine when approached by an evangelical Christian (in the hope of converting him to Christianity) on the streets of Minneapolis, startled the lady by launching into a discourse on the virtues of following the teachings of Bhagvad Gita! My point being that our upbringing helped my friend and I to develop the basic tolerance that allowed us to hold dialectic’s on topics as far ranging as the philosophy Bhagvad Gita, the virtues of dictatorship (a discussion I had with a person of Pakistani origin) to the importance of liberal arts education in today’s science crazed world.

Metropolitan cities abroad pride themselves on their multiculturalism and diversity, but my thoughts on this are succinctly summarized by English author Patrick French, who very beautifully writes in his new book — India, a Portrait (Allen Lane Books), “Integration is welcoming, it says, join us. Multiculturalism says, go to your ghetto”. India was as much a concept as a reality when thought of by its makers, and the concept was of inclusiveness, togetherness and integration. And, while things aren’t as Quixotic as Pandit Nehru and others had envisioned, I only hope that we don’t let escape from memory the reasons behind India.

I’ve often been asked what it is that I miss the most living abroad. My answer is, “I miss the conversations”. I have long believed that conversation is an art, a dying art at that. In the olden days, without the pervasive influence of television and to some extent even the internet (I mean let’s face it, how many of us are on facebook ‘just to stay connected’?) to distract us, the emphasis was on reading and connecting; connecting not in this superficial, Hi, I’d like to add you to my network way, but by actually talking to one another and forming some kind of bond. Indian culture in my opinion has an inherent warmth to it and in spite of their sometimes overly inquisitive nature (captured brilliantly by the Anurag Mathur’s protagonist Gopal (or Goh-paal if you’re American) in The Inscrutable Americans, who in a moment of self reflection says “Sometimes I wonder if India is nothing but an endless chain of housewives, each peeping into the other’s house”) many Indians have the gift of gab! The value of connecting with others, and not treating them as mere ‘contacts’ is in my opinion one of my most important takeaways from my Indian-ness. I fondly remember my grandfather on one of his evening walks. One particular day, he hadn’t come home on time, so being the youngest in the household I was tasked with finding out what happened by my worried grandmother and mother. Tracing my way along his usual route, I found him happily in conversation with the local peru-waali (guava seller). He’d planted himself on a rock, and was merrily chatting away! I miss those simple connections. India has a buzz about it; it might be the cacophony of the millions of vehicles plying it overly congested roads, or perhaps the chatter of millions like my grandfather — engaging in spontaneous chit-chat. It is a rare sight abroad (save a few ghettos) to feel the intensity of an Indian bazaar. I find the hustle-bustle, the sounds, sights (not the smells though!) invigourating! The words – ‘organized madness’ comes to mind when I think of India. Those of you who’ve seen (and been flummoxed) by how efficiently traffic flows at an intersection minus the traffic lights would undoubtedly agree with me.

Being back in India though evokes mixed feelings — I feel mentally recharged amidst the warmth of family and friends (even the heat has done its bit to help!), feel the enthusiasm that being one of the youngest populations in the world brings and of course, I cherish our food. All this while simultaneously feeling a little heartbroken at the rampant corruption, apathy towards the poor and the senseless aping of the west that I’ve seen amongst the young. Contrary to what you might have inferred so far, I love living in America, with its infinite freedoms, cultural awareness, professionalism and welcoming people. However, I hope to be able to make a difference and help uplift the average Indian. After all, what good is awareness unless put to some use? As opportunities back home open up for our society’s most educated, I can only imagine the sort of growth story India might witness. Having said that, countless challenges lie ahead and my essay by no means pointlessly extols the virtues of our culture, it only expresses the hope: that given 10, 000 years of world leadership, India in the years to come finds its rightful place at the top — economically and culturally.

[box bg=”#fdf78c” color=”#000″]About the author:

Rahool is an alumnus of the University of Minnesota- Twin cities and the Army Institute of Techology, Pune (University of Pune) with degrees in electrical engineering. He lives in Minneapolis and is about to start work with a semiconductor company.[/box]