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My rediscovery of India

Despite the rather lofty post title, don’t expect anything radical here, it’s just some random notes from my recent journey to India. I was there for five weeks. Its seems so long, doesn’t it? Well, it had been over two years since I set foot in the country that issued me my passport and I thought I deserved a break after a long eventful year.

Maybe because two years is a long time, but it seems to me that this is the first time I could actually have an outsiders’ perspective on India. I found myself referring to “back home” many a time, and curiously enough, I was referring to my apartment in Amsterdam – strange when I am sitting at a place where I grew up and the place I referred to as home hadn’t even known me for more than a year. I have written many times about the concept of home, so let me leave that contradiction aside for the moment and focus on things that struck me during my trip.

There is optimism everywhere. From the fishmonger whom you can call on his cellphone to check whether he would be by your house in time for you to cook fish for lunch, to the financial advisor who can’t stop ranting about how the 8% GDP growth will make your mutual funds returns soar, everyone seems to be upbeat and ready to go somewhere. There is energy in the air.

Yet, there is also sadness and melancholy and fear everywhere I look. Maybe its just me, and the vulnerability that I feel in a country where I don’t feel like I am in control over my own life, but in the short time I was there, I heard many stories, most of them true ones, of horror and desolation – ranging from the murder of a young boy by his friends, all of them students at the college right behind my house, to the woman who drowned herself and her children after brutally killing her husband, to the never ending tales of corruption, to the soap operas on TV which can’t seem to have an episode devoid to melancholy and yet has everyone glued to them – they never stop coming. As soon as one thinks it can’t get any worse, there’s another one. Its amazing how these are mere snippets in conversation, which weave glibly between the soaring house prices and the execution of Saddam Hussein to the US presidential elections, and everyone just gets along with their life, as if they are everyday occurrences, which they probably are.

Talking about Saddam Hussein, things change so fast here, and if you take a moment to react, you had better have a plan B. No matter that Mr.Hussein was executed in a country far far away and perhaps a vast majority of the local population couldn’t care less, but we had to have what is fashionably called a hartaal – essentially, a shutdown of all shops and traffic. We were out of town, and had planned to head home at around 3pm. At 12:30, we get the news that you can’t be driving on the roads at 3pm. And we had a journey of about 2 hours to make. So what do you do – grab your lunch and run to the car! NOW! Yes, indeed that’s what we did. What follows is hold-on-to-your-dear-life kinda driving that barely manages to get us home in time. And every time we are stopped on the road by goons who had decided to start the hartaal earlier, there is a huge lump of fear in my heart. Whatever for, it makes me wonder. Why, I ask you, do I feel irrational fear in my own country? In a country which proclaims that I am as free as a bird, why would I think twice before walking the streets alone after 9pm? In a country where I blend in with everyone else, where I look like everyone else, where I speak like everyone else, why do I still find myself saying a silent prayer for safe return, every time I or someone dear steps out of the house? Because, for the many things that happen in India, there is no rationality, there is no logic, there is no real reason. And perhaps that’s why there are temples at every street corner and superstitions for pretty much every thing.

The one billion in India can be divided into two – those who help and who are to be helped. If it had been said that no man is an island, in India, it has to be changed to every man is a banyan tree whose roots are entwined with those of the next one and supports a teeming amount of parasitic plants on itself. If someone does well here, he is expected to be there for everyone else. By the same note, you can choose to be a complete loafer and there will be some guardian angel to pick you out of the dirt. The social conscience that makes everyone help each other makes up for the need for any welfare schemes. Yet, I am well aware that my observation doesn’t sit well with the growing distance between the rich and poor. Could it be that sometimes, a conscience just isn’t enough. Or perhaps the above mentioned phenomenon happens only in the communist friendly state of Kerala, where the wealth distribution is not so distorted. Helping thy neighbor is so inbuilt into the lives of everyone, it becomes more of a right of the helped one and less of a favor from the one who is helping.

Money rules here. If you have got enough of it, you get your stuff done. You are more likely to return home safely. You are more likely not to be stopped by cops on the street. You are more likely to jump the queue at your hospital list. Speaking of which, there are just so many hospitals here. A small town with about 300,000 people boasts of five multi-specialty hospitals. Surely, that is excessive. Given that insurance is still such a rarity, why do people run to the doctor for every small little thing? Or are there more sick people here than everywhere else?

Perhaps I went home with lots of expectations – after all, every thing I read about India in popular press seemed to indicate that the country has become radically different. Glowing success stories had been thrown at me from all possible sources. But the truth, at least as I saw it, is that though many things have changed, we are still light years away from becoming what we should be – A nation where I would feel safe. A land where all is fair and just. A country where people are more happy than sad. A place where my whole heart would scream, without a semblance of doubt, I am glad I am home.

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high;
Where knowledge is free;
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow
domestic walls;
Where words come out from the depth of truth;
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection;
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the
dreary desert sand of dead habit;
Where the mind is led forward by thee into ever-widening thought
and action–
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.

— Rabindranath Tagore

Posted in India, Travel on January 27, 2007

30 Responses

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  1. Ravi Rao says

    That was a refreshingly well written post and largely mirrors my sentiments. I guess you basically put my thoughts in words! Thanks! :)

    [I came in via’s link]

  2. Chandra says

    Typical outsider view!!! Not in touch with reality on the ground. What were you expecting? India will look and feel like Amsterdam?

    – 6 years back I had to stand in a line in State Bank of Mysore in the worst possible conditions to do any bank transactions. I do most of it online now

    – 6 years back as a graduate I had no hope. Today If I am reasonably talented I can find a job that pays me anything between 8 to 15000

    – 6 years back I could not imagine driving from Kolkata to Chennai, today I can and have done it on roads where my average speed was 100 KPH

    – 6 years back it would cost me Rs 16 to make an outgoing STD call to another location. Today it costs me Rs 1

    – In 6 years, India’s trade exports have increased 3 times whereas it had increased 1.5 times in the previous 6 years

    – Overall poverty came down from 36% to anywhere between 22% to 28% (1991 to 2006) despite an increase in population by 180 M

    – Average population increases have reduced from a peak of 20 M to 15 M annually and expected to come down further

    There are so many good things happening and one needs to look at that. There are many bad things happening too and we need to fix that. Working out of Amsterdam will definitely not help!!!

  3. sri says

    All I can say is *yawn* :)

    There are far too many discoveries and rediscoveries written by cubicle warriors sitting in Europe or US.

    Once upon a time, even I used to write such “analytical”, “vantage-pointish” gibberish, sitting far away in phoren. Now, whenever I feel the urge to write about -er- India, I go and lock myself somewhere until the feeling goes away. :)

    Hope you can break out of the NRI bubble soon enough and join us up here and contribute to building the nation. Get well soon!

  4. Surya says

    Thanks, Ravi.

    Chandra: I appreciate your point of view. And all the statistics you are throwing at me, and many more similar ones were what I had been hearing for a long time.

    I don’t disagree mine is an outsider’s view, which I believe I made quite clear within the post itself. But I disagree thats its not a reality from the ground. You talk about driving from Kolkatta to Chennai, how about talking about India that is not just the metros. You talk about stats, I talk about what I observed, first hand, and on the ground.

    All I am saying is, “though many things have changed, we are still light years away from becoming what we should be”. Maybe the stats are not the only way to look at a country as big and diverse as India. And maybe its ok to have listen patiently to an outsider’s view.And maybe its OK to admit that theres still a long way to go.

    As for your last note on “Working out of Amsterdam will definitely not help!!!”, I had addressed that sentiment in a previous post.

  5. Surya says

    I write travel notes wherever I go, India or otherwise – and if that makes you yawn, I could point you to the close tab/window option, or wish you a good night’s sleep.

    Too bad they kicked you out of phoren. May be it was all the sleeping.

  6. Sig11 says

    Why is it that whenever any NRI tries to raise a disturbing issue about Indian society, he is accused of being a snob and not being in “touch with reality on the ground”, when the truth is, everything that is said is true. Maybe not the full picture but still a relevant partial picture.

    Can anyone seriously say that anything mentioned in this post is not true? I fo r one don’t know why a whole city in Kerala should be forced to grind to a halt, at the mercy of some anti-social elements, just because Mr. Hussein was sent to the gallows.

  7. witnwisdumb says

    *Mirrors SIG11’s sentiment*

    Chandra and Sri display this very peculiar syndrome I have witnessed in oh so many people around here, which I can only describe as a completely misplaced and totally mistaken sense of ‘patriotism’. Anybody who voices anything about India that’s even remotely critical or negative, is attacked as some sort of traitor.

    I know what things look like from an outsider’s perspective. But having lived here for a couple of years now, I have come to the realization that it’s best not to voice the observations that come of having that perspective. At best, people just think you’re whining. At worst… well, you already know that.

  8. GreatDesiNRI says

    Well Surya is right … we all know that.
    As much as there is potential for India to be the greatest country because of the billions of great Indian common men and women …. it is almost guranteed that India will fail because of its corrupt politicians.

    Why couldn’t Surya drive back home without fear? Why is LAW ENFORCEMENT a non existent term. Why are thos 100KMPH roads that someone mentioned are so poorly engineered? Why corruption is so much everywhere that even a begger cannot think of begging without paying the policaman?

    Until Big businesses arm twists the goverment to change their attitutde and enforce law and order India will be as Surya said rightly “Light years Away from what she can be”.

    Also to those very desi pseudo patriots…by putting comments you are not contributing to nation building in any way. What exactly you are doing that makes you think you are contributing positively to nation At least we NRI earn and send money home on which you suckers live. Without business coming from outside India what you had to show for yourself eh? Also I have a doubt that most of you came to USA during the dot com and had to go back after the bust .. and still whatever company you are working for is surviving on business from usa and europe. So stop talking about nation building…everyone is a leech and there is no free meal. What exactly great nation building activity you have done eh?

  9. GreatDesiNRI says

    BTW I did not mean that all of you are suckers but then also all of us living here are not.

    I can bet 99.375% of NRI’s will like to return to India as soon as it is like United States of America ..without the white and black americans …..

    HA HA HA HA HA…dont take yourself so seriously mera desi bhaiyo and bahenos..

  10. Utham says

    I view Surya’s points in a different perspective. It’s about how much forward India can be today. Urban Planning, Transportation Infrastructure, Discplined driving, Sensibility of ones’ country, etc etc etc.
    As people who live outside India, we understand that it doesnt help by just cribbing as an NRI. But we are equally pained by the fact that, Why are Indians used to the way of daily life which is considered highly improper elsewhere in developed world?
    – Though communication costs have come down drastically, are you sure that the quality and customer service is on par with the devleloped world?? E.g., does a 512Kbps internet connection have a speed of atleast 100kbps?
    – Though u can drive between Cities with ease, what about driving within the city??

    When Lok Paritran was formed, everyone of us hailed it. Soon after the elections, it disintegrated and now there’s no news of it. So how does the point that educated folks should venture into politics hold good?

    If everyone does their duty and their’s alone with utmost sincerity, it solves all the problems.. or even better, there wouldnt be any problems.

  11. Deepa Krishnan says

    For me, a historical view always puts things into broader perspective and I stop ranting :)

    I look at it like this: we used to be among the world’s largest and most prosperous economies, until the 18th century. We had a difficult 300 years under the British when there was systematic looting and destruction of the very fabric of the economy. Now things are changing again. In the years after independence, we have made some progress. There is still a long way to go.

    History is a set of cycles. We’re seeing the cycle play itself out, and the curve is definitely rising. Which is not to say that all the ills are gone. But the foundations for prosperity are starting to be laid.

  12. Riot says

    Very thoughtful post. It is very important that we ask these questions. Btw…your reply to Sri was priceless :)

    You probably already know about The Save Kerala Initiative.

  13. Tina says

    A note on Poverty. If those millions of cow’s were ‘used’ instead of worshiped too,(slaughtered, meat & milk sold/eaten), India would probably be much richer! There would be less poverty and kids on streets will not be left hungry.

  14. Swapna says

    Well said.

    I remember feeling most of what you’ve written about on my trip to India – especially the part about referring to U.S as home… :)

  15. curiouscat says

    Surya, Just wanted to say that was a well written post. I am worrying about going back home myself and now am hoping and praying that I dont end up feeling like you :)!

  16. Puneet .S says

    Nice post. I really like your honesty in asking the questions our desi statistics men and our patriotic bretheren are not asking. We ARE woefully behind everyone else in terms of human development, education, and basic infrastructure. focusing on the few good things will not make these inadequacies go away.

    but we all fail to see- India will NEVER be like Amsterdam, and Amsterdam will never be like India. Not to imply that you were being naive in comparing apples and oranges, but the fact is, that most of us seek to homogenise the world, making it feel all the same, no matter if you’re in Delhi or Brussels or Washington D.C…

    One of the few things i really hate about the U.S is how you could drive into any town, and you would encounter the same sort of atmosphere in the streets. the same malls, the same stores, similar houses, even the same language! Let us not drive India towards that boring state of things.

    By the way, one year, even six years is too short a time to give the country…change takes time, and in India, it will take especially long. When will we realise that the vision of India we all seek will only come long after we are dead, and our children and grandchildren will be able to live the sort of life we had in foreign lands, in India.

  17. Surya says

    Thanks much, for the comments, always nice to hear different points of view.

  18. 30in2005 says

    Every time I go back to India (and I think all my posts on these trips have indicated) I feel like a country hick going to a big town for the first time. Things change so fast and the mix of things is so vibrant that my lazy mind takes forever to re-adjust itself to all the progress and yet all that juxtaposed against all the problems. Loved you post BTW!

  19. Simi says

    So who will gave new face to india at accelerated pace…

    Govt , NRI,…….. OR

    I WILL…Many I WILL’s Scattered around the country to make WE WILL…

    Let Ashoka chakra move faster…

    May be it is impossible for those who think, but possible for those who beleive..

    Life is no brief candle to me. It is a sort of splendid torch, which I’ve got to hold up for the moment and I have to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations. [Bernard Shaw]

  20. Jill says

    If yu have any idea of changing India,change the attitude of the people.Thats the main obstacle for growth in vast land of opportunities.Instead of forcing the students to settle a white collar jobs,make aware of the vast chance of agricultural prospects and Tourism ..Especially in kerala,gifts of nature is NRIs,make up yur mind to invest in agriculture,resorts,ayurveda,hotels,spa centres….

  21. Dileep Balakrishnan says

    Don’t come to India again untill it becomes the India in your dreams. You will be better off with what you have and where you are now. Leave India and poor Indians to face their destiny.

  22. Sig11 says

    Dileep, do you mean to suggest that if I dare to question the state of certain aspect of Indian society, I am no longer an Indian?

    When will it be OK to question the false notion of patriotism that seem to cloud every discussion of this nature?

  23. AmericanDesi says

    Apparently no one has the right to say whether one has to return to India or not. It’s purely a matter of personal choice. I don’t hear these kinds of

    arguments among the immigrants from other countries. When they want to go, they go and when they want to stay they stay. Life is short and it’s all

    about making one’s dreams and wishes come true. If one is happy with what he/she is doing, so be it.

    To all those statistics tigers, what did you do for the country? There are around 2 crore NRI’s around the world. Do you think they are the only

    guardian angels of India. What up with the 1.2 billion population? Are they just used to project India as the world’s largest democracy? Come on guys,

    there’s a huge man power lying unutilized. Don’t be nosy with the NRI’s who are atleast contributing to the country’s economy by sending money back

    when a sizable population back home is killing their time with cricket, movies/music/fashion copied from west, lousy TV serials, gossiping, laziness,

    hypocrisy and hero worships (in other words the false heroes of the country).

    Before you post any hate blog to me on the above mentioned items, just ask this question to yourself. Am i doing any of these? If you say “yes”, i

    appreciate your honesty. If you say “no”, i am sure that you are lying. Even i am guilty of doing these sometime or other.

    This is a selfish world. The westerners are selfish by outsourcing jobs to 3rd world countries to save big bucks and we are selfish by willing to do

    anything to earn big bucks. It’s a vicious cycle that goes on and on.

    To all the NRI’s I say this. If you stay back in a foreign country just to earn big bucks, don’t feel guilty about it. Stay as long as you like and earn

    as much as you can. Later when you feel that you have earned enough or feel home sick, then return home and live the life you want. But don’t kid

    yourself that you are gonna contribute to India by returning back.

    As a matter of fact, a returning NRI can contribute to the country only by starting a business in India and generating employment. If he just returns

    back to the country and works with a company, what difference is he gonna make? When I went through the articles posted by the returned NRI’s I found

    that most of them fall under the second category. Ironically, they indirectly encourage others also to follow the same path.

    You should always know what you want in life and go for it, so that you don’t have any regrets later.

  24. indian says

    I feel the biggest change in india is that now, indians are proud of their country and what it is capable of (instead of cribbing about its fallacies). Finally, we may be able to shed our inferiority complex from the 60s-80s!

    As far as NRI’s coming back, each person has to decide on his/her own merit. A usual NRI is ambitious and willing to sacrifice proximity to family, for a better career or more opportunities. If India provides similar opportunities, they may go back to india, but don’t hold your breadth. Its not easy to rediscover india (with your baggage) if you have been out for a long time! …maybe surya could vouch for that.

  25. simi says help the project..

  26. ignomus says

    May be it will never become an Amsterdam, but it sure will be india.. it has many negatives, but it still will be india..

    In the blog u have given malayalam tele serial as depressing,heheh; ya it sure is and needs patience to go through one.. it drives me nuts when my aunts see all those stuffs.

  27. abhinai says

    I had to join this healthy debate, once i visited this page. Surya, your sentiments are so true and enlighting. I left India 4 months back to pursue my higher studies in UK and many times i used to plan my future career as being an NRI and also about the guilt of not able to serve my country if that happens. but yours and other guyz comments have made my mind really clear of what to do once i complete my course. I am actually preparing a report for my college project on “life of NRIs” and i think i have got quite a info from here :)

    thanks all specially surya

  28. AB says

    Seriously, if you went to India expecting India to be like Amsterdam, I would say you are just plain silly. Now, now I am a great admirer of the liberal values of the Dutch, but to me at least, Holland is more or less like a corpse. Yes, Holland is way way safer than any Indian city, but then why would there be trouble in a dead country? Holland has lost its life force as a nation and now Moslems are picking at the corpse of Holland like vultures. In 10 years, Amsterdam will be one of the most disgusting cities in the world. Holland is dying, its mostly dead already. There is no science, no technology, no original thought coming out of there. There is absolutely zero interest on anyone’s part in Holland. Whenever you notice something in Holland, think of my dead body analogy and you’ll see I am right.

  29. AB says

    And seriously dude… wtf??? 2 years in Holland? in Holland? What were you doing? I can never handle Europe more than 3 months at a time…. their laziness, lack of spirit always gets to me.

Continuing the Discussion

  1. Visiting home … | DesiPundit linked to this post on December 28, 2008

    […] of Silent Eloquence on her recent visit home: The one billion in India can be divided into two – those who who help and who are to be helped. If […]

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