I grew up coming to India, almost every year ranging to every couple of years. And each time I came, it seemed consistent. We would stay at my Nani (grandmothers) house and visit a slew of relative every night for a couple weeks. Daytime was filled with shopping trips to various parts of Mumbai known for certain things: Santacruz for jewelry and clothes, Ghatkopar for kitchen stuff. As I grew older, things changed a bit. We were introduced to shopping malls where we were able to do some one stop shopping. And super markets such as Big Bazaar came about. Once in a while when we got lucky enough to stay long enough or mom got tired (rarely), we would go to a movie to eat at a McDonalds or even go sightseeing (rarely). Most of my experiences were in an upper-middle class bubble.
After almost 2 years, I had the chance to go to India earlier this year and I felt like my bubble was popped (a bit more). I thought I’d capture some rough thoughts here.
Justice. In the states, we talk about justice for people, but going to India you see the biggest divide. The poorest person in the states is still richer than the upper lower-class person in India. I had a (non-resident, non-Indian) friend say that when they went to India, the people in their group had an existential crisis every other day. They were eating at fancy 5-star restaurants but then the people right outside were malnourished and didn’t have public restrooms to use. As an ethical individual, you almost have to create a vacuum in your head of your world and live in it.
Cleanliness. I have always wondered how India could become a more “orderly” country. The Swachh Bharat Abhiyan (SBA) or Clean India Mission was a nation-wide campaign from 2014 to 2019 to clean up the streets, roads and infrastructure of cities, towns, and rural areas. Despite this campaign, there is so much disarray. From the dirt to the bugs due to the tropical climate, organizing and cleaning seem difficult. The senses are constantly accosted with a mix of pollution, sweat, and the sweetness of whatever is being cooked at a food stall nearby. This past trip was really difficult for me health wise as I was coughing and sneezing the whole time due to the climate and pollution.
Population. The chaos of so many people in a packed space changes the mentality of how people treat one another. There is no value for human life in India because there is so much of it (same with craft because people are replaceable). Speaking to a college friend about how the British Raj created a social hierarchy, she mentioned that even if the British Raj didn’t come about, the caste system functioned as the social hierarchy. Due to the sheer number of people, unintentionally or intentionally, hierarchy becomes a part of the culture (whether that’s based on where you were born, your socioeconomic status, or what a conquistador says you are). Similarly, our development of stereotypes in modern-day society is due to our survival instincts as cavemen. We needed to be able to know whether someone was friend or foe.
Diversity. Honestly, until I got a chance to go to Jaipur and Amritsar this year, I didn’t quite realize the sheer diversity of this country. With 27 states, it’s incredible that 1.35 billion people fit onto the same piece of land that is 2.4 times smaller than Australia. The cuisine and languages have an incredible range, especially with Adivasis. And Indians (born and raised in India) have traveled around India to even experience that diversity! For example, there is an ongoing battle for Hindi to be declared as the national language but only 26% of the population considers it its mother tongue! Outside of the “Hindi Belt”, there aren’t enough speakers! There’s also an odd universality of the battle with Adivasis being recognized as the indigenous people (similar to Australia with aboriginal people, the US with native Americans).
No white guilt. From standards of Western beauty (being fair) to the concepts of good and evil, Indians have embraced / been brainwashed by British / Western ideals for so long. While there is a nod to mythology (whether through religious or secular means), the inherent culture before the British Raj seems not to be celebrated. Mughals are made to be the antagonists in many stories, while historical texts show that Muslims and Hindus actually lived in harmony. No one really wonders what would have happened if the British didn’t rule (but we make speculative fiction if Hitler had won).
Social mobility. As a half-generation child, I have recently spent my time thinking about the maturity curve of a culture when they move to a certain place. A friend surmised it as such: 1st gen (immigrants) are the blue-collar workers, 2nd gen are doctors, lawyers, and pursue the practical careers because it was a struggle for their parents, and 3rd gen are the artists and follow their dreams. However, that social mobility ladder feels so much harder to climb in India. It is difficult no matter where you go (and I think there is a Western misconception here that if you work hard enough, you can get anywhere).
I’ve also made some silly / oxymoronic observations (no culture is without its quirks!):
- There is “gussam gussi” (pushing and shoving) for autos to get from point A to B and for people to get at the head of a queue, but everyone will yield to a cow.
- Indians just need a reason to dance. Just turn on music and it will happen.
- The amount of reuse of things in India is incredible. Necessity if truly the motion of invention. There’s even a term for it: Jugaad.
- Food is at the center of the culture. Aunties will try to sneak food into airports (regardless of how much oil is sloshing around in the packaging).
- No sense of personal boundaries exists in India because there are so many people, but if a couple decides to kiss in public, everyone is scandalized.
- Phones don’t have the same pull elsewhere in the world because we are still dealing with the basic needs being fulfilled. However, we are considered the IT professionals of the world.
And for all the quirks that make India what it is, there is a fierce sense of patriotism that emanates from so many citizens (and non-residents with heritage from India). Being able to see that at the Wagah Border in Amritsar was truly a once-in-a-lifetime event. I’ve never quite been able to wrap my mind around patriotism, but definitely feels like a defining characteristic when talking about India.