9 April 2012

Here and There

I am here, back at Perth – the same place where I spent close to 5 months last year. Past four years have been rewarding in the sense that I have been to more countries and flew more airline miles than I had ever thought I will. That, of course, doesn’t automatically translate into that elusive pot of gold called professional satisfaction. But yes, I got a chance to see places – some iconic, some not so iconic – I had only heard or read about, got a sneak peek at different cultures, met a varied set of people and had quite a few experiences – pleasant, unpleasant, funny, scary, hair-raising and some exhilarating. So, it’s a mixed bag. I, probably, have got enough material to start another travel blog (if not for anything but posterity) but again my complete lack of enterprise comes in the way.

An interesting and consistent thing about all these visits has been that I have always looked forward to going home. Not the ‘home’ in the literal sense (now even that has changed forever) but India, in general. I find this intriguing because most of my life I have hardly ever felt sense of belonging to a particular place, in its physical sense. I always told to myself that I belong nowhere and I (hopefully) belong everywhere. But my case is increasingly becoming that of grass is greener on the other side. When I come outside India, I long to go back after a couple of weeks and when I return to India, it takes only a couple of months and monotony of a routine life to set in, before I start itching to pack my bags and head-off again. It is a different story that traveling to same places repeatedly makes travel far less exciting than it should be.

Now, both the places have their pluses and minuses. After all these trips, I am pretty sure about one thing – I will never like to settle down outside India. Working for a couple of months (even years) is fine but relocating – lock, stock and barrel – is not. Apart from the conventional wisdom on this subject, I feel that I am a perennial misfit in any milieu outside India. It is not homesickness in the sense movies like Pardes portray – in this age of Facebook, Youtube and Skype, it has indeed become a small world. Across the globe, Indians have recreated their culture and in the process created a microcosm of India herself – cuisines, festivals, radio programs, talk shows, concerts, soap operas – wherever they have gone. So, there are no complaints on that front. But there’s something which I can’t put a finger on – some indefinable factor which tells me that I don’t belong here, this is not my place.

As for the question of belonging or not belonging, I personally believe that, wherever you live, it is important to assimilate into the society and culture around you. So, even if you have been living in the States for more than a decade but your only contact with non-Indians is at workplace and related spheres and your social time is spent exclusively around Indians (or at the maximum, South Asians), then you haven’t actually assimilated into the society. And by non-Indians I don’t refer to any particular race or ethnicity. I also increasingly feel that in order to truly assimilate, at the minimum, you need to undergo a certain part of your formal education – earlier in your life the better – in your adopted country. Just learning the rules of baseball and footy, without being a part of the accompanying culture will always make you feel out of place. GB makes a good point in this post. It is plainly and simply a case of emotional disconnect.

I also see that this non-assimilation is more prominent among Indians who went abroad post-1990s. The previous generation of immigrants from 60s onwards (that is about the time white collar immigration from socialist India started) has assimilated quite well – probably because they didn’t have a choice. When you are the only Indian living in a pre-dominantly white neighbourhood, chances are higher that you will join or invite your neighbours for an evening of barbecue. For the newbie immigrants these days, there is always the Indian association of the town – along with myriad regional groupings from Maharashtra Mandal to Bengali Cultural Association (Bongs have to have kaalchar with everything they do) – or Indian Mum’s groups or potluck dinners. Then, there are the festivals – from Ganesh Chaturthi to Navaratri to Durga Puja and of course, Diwali. The point is that there is no need for desis these days to go out of their comfort zones and experience the dominant culture of their adopted country. Another reason can be the appalling knowledge of desis these days about anything apart from Bollywood and cricket (a sport which the world outside the subcontinent doesn’t care about). With no or very little idea about history, culture & society of their adopted countries it is difficult to break ice with the natives.

The case with migrating to a country where English is not the native language like The Netherlands, Germany, Scandinavian countries is a little different. Engineers who went to work in automobile companies of Germany in the 50s and 60s not only learnt Deustch but probably spoke Deustch at home as well to ensure that their progeny have no issues in completely assimilating in the German society.

Another extreme was of that of many prominent Indians who went to the UK (the US was not such a fashionable destination at that time) in mid to late nineteenth and early twentieth century till the rise of Indian nationalism – more often than not to study law – and returned a pucca sahib – to the extent that vernacular languages were banished from their households and all native clothes were also probably thrown out of their wardrobe. Some examples which come to mind are Mr. Motilal Nehru and Dr. Krishna Dhan Ghose (father of Sri Aurobindo Ghose). Well, that was not assimilation but imitation.

OK. I guess any further digression will make this blog post sound like an analysis of immigration patterns of Indian Diaspora.

There are the conventional arguments in favour of living in the west in spite of India’s so-called rise and growth of an upwardly mobile middle class. In India’s context, there is that undeniable ‘quality of life’ aspect which ensures that even if you earn a million Indian rupees a year and stay cocooned in your air-conditioned sedan, you can’t escape the unruly traffic and woeful infrastructure. You can’t do much about that nonchalant co-passenger in AC Chair Car dropping peanut shells on the carriage floor. Not much except cursing, arguing and probably pontificating about basic civic sense. Your paying taxes regularly and honestly doesn’t give you respite from bribing all and sundry for getting something as basic and legitimate as a sewerage connection to your home. When something as straight forward as a train journey can get fatal either due to poorly maintained tracks or pathetic signaling equipments or acts of sabotage by rebel groups, when everyone gets paranoid about an unclaimed object in public place, you know that if people still love and smile, it is not because of the system but despite the system. It is this ‘quality of life’ aspect which is most responsible for turning NRIs into Non Returning Indians.

Of all aspects of life in developed countries, the one I love the most is the premium put on human life. They value the life of a human being – period. Concern for safety, comfort, general well-being all sprouts from this basic fact. I know this is because of less number of people, which simplifies many things and root-causes of many problems in a country like India are simply absent here, but there is some undeniable thing in the culture as well. From timed signals for pedestrians at all crossings to some sidewalks being as wide as the road itself to providing ergonomically designed chairs sometimes customized for individuals to evacuating an entire floor for some minor water leakage on the floor above (asbestos contamination was suspected in my office). The list goes on and on. Their whole culture towards safety is such that people from culture like ours will probably have to undergo a complete rewiring to understand that they are not paranoid but the precautions mean that loss of life or injury of even a single person is unacceptable. In India, we gamble on rules of probabilities and law of averages. Of course, these are not applicable if you happen to be high and mighty.

Another thing is you mostly play by rules because the deterrence is quite high. Naturally, this is a result of rule of law prevailing over everything else – no matter whose son or cousin you are. Here, if you are in trouble, cops will be your first port of call. In India, if you are in trouble, cops will be the last person whom you will turn to.

It also helps to have certain order and consistency in general scheme of things unlike back home where things change without any intimation to affected people which only lead to further confusion. Then, there is a certain degree of transparency. You more or less get what you pay for. You may pay 30 pounds for a 2 hour train journey between London and Birmingham (more than Rs. 1,000 by applying the PPP exchange rate – outrageous by Indian standards) but you can be assured of a neat and clean carriage, clean toilets and no TTEs demanding 50 bucks for chai paani even though your RAC ticket got confirmed by itself and he just has to give you the berth number.

For a person of my temperament, the biggest draw of all is well-run museums, libraries and community centers - most of them free to public (in the UK & Australia) and generously funded by state or local government. Visits to British Museum & Imperial War Museum in London were the high points of my 3 trips to the UK. Visiting these places fill you with both awe and sadness – awe at the breadth of collection, efforts which go into conservation and professionalism with which such places are run and sadness for the state of our museums and archives. One of my colleagues had commented on our visit to British Museum that these guys have stolen the best of the things from around the world and adorned their museums. I remarked to him that it may be a better idea to let the stealer have something which he appreciates and can preserve rather than its remaining with the owner who can only fritter away his heritage by sheer carelessness and apathy. It is a different matter that tough economic conditions are leading to budget cuts and it is anyone’s reckoning how many of these institutions can keep commercial imperatives at bay, in say a decade from now.

Another thing which I find enticing in the West, primarily the UK, has got probably to do something with that Englishness which is an inseparable part of being an Indian. And it didn’t help matters that the first time I set foot outside of India was in the country of our former masters – at this lovely place called Olton. Imagine your first brush, in the physical sense, with the world outside India is when you wake up from your jet-lagged stupor and walk into the twilight of British summer – not in the hustle-bustle of London or Birmingham or Manchester – but in a quaint, leafy suburb of houses with chimneys. All those images of English countryside, reinforced from reading Enid Blyton during days of yore, suddenly cease to be figments of imagination. Reality is much more beautiful than imagination and English countryside is indeed beautiful. Add to that the fact that the hotel (it was a family run affair with a British landlady who ran the place – to quote Geoffrey Moorehouse – the way generations of British landladies have across the length & breadth of The Empire) where I stayed had an old world charm – complete with an antique piano – and served that quintessential English breakfast of bacon, fried eggs, toast & marmalade and you know why I need my daily dose of Earl Gray tea. In short, those 3 months of that first visit, set in my mind certain experiences which I always associate with life outside India. These ideas are probably elitist but in my mind, they will be inseparable from all other aspects of living outside India – from earning in hard currency to walking on sidewalks without hawkers and squatters.

To be fair, developed countries have their own problems. To me, the most disdainful aspect of this society is the ways their elderly are left to fend for themselves, institutional support notwithstanding. Not that we have much to boast about on this front either. Another aspect is a certain nonchalance the people exhibit when it comes to using resources – whether it be taking avoidable colour printouts which will eventually go to the shredder or keeping the lights on in the shops and showrooms throughout the night or a solo driver in gas guzzling, high power cars.

There is appalling poverty and lot of ugliness even on this side of the world. They just keep them compartmentalized – as Greta explains so eloquently on this page. And yes, there are people who won’t hesitate to fleece you when they get a chance. A cabbie once put me in a shared cab, charged me 25 Euros from Brussels airport to my hotel, which was not more than 2 km – an experience not very different from what a newcomer often has with auto wallahs outside any Indian station.

So, what is that which makes me shudder at the thought of spending rest of my life here?

I talked above about my being a misfit and being an alien (in the sense visa applications really mean). There are the trivial things like absence of real kind of street food (vada pav at Birmingham’s Soho Road can never be a substitute for the same fare at any pavement stall of Bombay), not able to walk into a tapari to have a cup of real masala chai (not the pseudo ones packaged by Tetley or Twinning’s) in unclean glasses or better still, kulhars. I love to dry my clothes in natural sunlight on a line as against drying them in an electric dryer. Most important reason is probably the fact that I belong to that pampered middle class in India. Being used to all kinds of wallahs and helps – from domestic help to people ironing your clothes for a pittance – it can indeed be an educating experience to cook your own meals, do the dishes, vacuum carpets, do laundry, iron shirts and realize that the weekend is gone. In fact, this is one thing I like about this culture – not considering manual work as something lowly and being self-reliant. I agree that one is surrounded by gadgets but how many Indians – the way we are brought up – won’t hesitate to cut that overgrowth on the hedges of their garden themselves or wash their own cars every morning. No wonder that kids here grow with a certain kind of independence which enables them to backpack across half the world at an age when most of their counterparts in India have never in their lives cleaned their own toilets. As an aside, the joy of cooking out-of-ordinary stuff – from octopus to salmon - is something I discovered on my current trip. Similarly, indulging in activities like sky diving and scuba diving in India as a lay civilian is difficult, if not impossible. But then, if I like Earl Gray, I also love the milky tea back home.

While walking through the pathways that lay among the manicured gardens of King’s Park, I sometimes miss the crowd and cacophony of India, picking up a good bargain from a pavement stall. Back in Bangalore, when a rowdy motorcyclist driving on the pavement – to reach the next signal before it turns red – brushes past me, I am guilty of thinking that this country has gone to dogs and probably emigrating is not a bad idea. And so it goes on and I look forward to returning to that elusive place called ‘home’.

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