Tuesday, November 18, 2008

The Strangeness of India

It's been two months since my last post, again.....My life has been hijacked over the last few months by the process of getting into medical school, and I finally feel like I'm reaching solid ground again.

Hopefully, I'll actually start posting again, though I wonder if anyone is still reading this, after such a prolonged hiatus.

As for what I'm up to, I'm still working for the Center for Microfinance/Poverty Action Lab here in Hyderabad, in South India. Med school will start in July or August, depending on which school I go to, and I may end up anywhere from Cleveland (ugh...) to NYC.

But enough personal details, I regard this blog as a chance to offer novel insights to friends/family/the occasional stranger (I know this only because I get random comments on occasion), so to begin today's topic: The Strangeness of India.

Visitors to India, regardless of whether they like or dislike the country, are struck by the incredible strangeness, a sense of almost extraterrestrial displacement they experience when in India. They come with different compunctions; some come on infantile quests to experience "the spirituality of India," and leave as confusedly agnostic as when they arrived, others arrive to enjoy its vast cultural fares, it's cuisine, arts and monuments, and still more arrive with myriad reasons (save the world, find oneself, etc.). But all, I believe, are struck by a deep sense of mystery, as if staring into an impenetrable bank of fog, attempting to deduce the outline of the opposite shore, and its shrouded secrets. Many leave never to return again, simply shrugging their shoulders at its perplexity.

It's been almost a year that I've been here, and returning as an Indian-American makes for an interesting experience. I had my own well-formed and half-baked reasons for coming back. Largely, I wanted to save the world (hah!), and experience working life in a foreign country (more realistic). I've returned to India so many times over the last 23 years, I've cumulatively spent ~5 years of my life here, albeit in stuttering fragments. In all of that time, this vast, beautiful country has remained largely a mystery to me, in spite of its familiarity. I knew the roads of Hyderabad, the intersections that cascade down from the modern, luxury homes of Banjara Hills, eventually coursing into the sea of traffic around Charminar, a monument at the heart of the medieval Old City. I understood the need to bow and offer my salaam to elders, grasping at my mother's behest, the systems of etiquette and respect governing Muslim society in Hyderabad. I spoke enough Urdu to grasp the intricate swearing of young boys laboring in mechanic shops, who utter phrases so eloquently obscene, they might qualify as lurid poets of sorts.

And yet, for all my familiarity, I hardly understood this country. More remarkably, I did not even realize how little I understood of it, a phenomenon I have observed among many non-resident Indians, children of immigrants who may return to the country of their origin, but comprehend little of it, regardless of their fluency in local languages and comfort in getting around. Indeed, they demonstrate a wholesale lack of curiosity, taking for granted India, and the connections they enjoy to it (thereby, I think falling into the category of people who simply shrug their shoulders at how weird India is). I cannot blame them.

Though I did not hate India for the first 6 months after I moved back here, I certainly did not love it. It is a challenging place, and it's easy to get distracted by the nuisance of minutiae. Traffic, pollution, heat, so much of life here can be an assault on the senses.

However, after starting my job in microfinance, I have slowly warmed to India. The job is fairly interesting, and being occupied professionally contributes a considerable deal to my enjoyment of the country. However, it's more than that. Returning to the US for medical school interviews was great, seeing my dad, being reunited with all friends, and enjoying the big and small things that I missed about life in America. I loved being back in the States, which is why I have been perplexed that I am so content with my life in India.

Slowly though, comprehension has assembled itself among my thoughts. I'm not even going to try to summarize India, I can hardly think of a more idiotic exercise. In fact, I'm going to opt for a complete cop-out, and call this country a moving target. No one alive today, Indian or otherwise, fully understands India, and no one ever will. Think of it in terms of sheer cultural mass and inertia. There are more than a billion Indians today. They live in 28 states, speak an absurd number of languages, belong to myriad religions, eat foods unrecognizable to one another, comprise different socio-economic groups, and so on. On top of it all, all of these sub-cultures, sub-strata, etc. are dynamic, evolving, devolving, rising, falling, exploding, imploding, you get the idea.

In short, no one is ever going to have a f-ing clue what this country is about, and anyone, especially an Indian who professes to get India, is full of sh-t. In my humble (and opinionated) opinion that is.

So why do I like it here so much? It's like a circus. And therein lies the beauty. And I don't mean it's a circus in the physical sense, because of the poor infrastructure, and the creative adaptations people employ. Visitors describe the traffic, the crowds, etc as circus-like. I'd say that's a skin-deep assessment that might characterize any developing country. For me, India is like a circus because of the fantastically eccentric characters that people this bizarre nation. From my relatives, who firmly believe I won't get in to Mount Sinai medical school "because of the Jews," to my scheming office boy who is constantly inventing new ways of making money of his hapless employer (i.e. me), to the endless retinue of auto drivers, invariably shady fellows with filthy vocabularies, terrifying hygiene, and a sniffer dog-like ability to help me find marijuana. To engage with this cast is to experience India, to understand that you'll never understand, to realize how undeniably exotic the world-view of its citizens might be in relation to your own, and thus, how unrelatable.

To top it all off, if you have a pulse, it is impossible to remain a passive observer here. You can't go through life asleep in India; it'll bite you in the *ss before you make it five steps. Hence, even a disinterested participant is forced to learn.

In the recent few years of my life, I have actively sought out human experience, and people who possess trajectories of existence radically different from mine, sought them out as an entomologist might amass a diverse collection of butterflies. I suppose it's my way of understanding the possibilities of human experience. In this sense, India is a repository of wealth. It is a kaleidoscope of paradigm, in which people with radically different world-views regularly rub shoulders with one another. Though this may be held true of any country, I think the absurd range of differences in outlook characterize that which makes India so strange. And as I approach the completion of a year here, it is a slowly growing comprehension of these outlooks, rendered possible by improvements in my language, and cultural adaptation, that are making my time in India so delightful.

As I gain familiarity with this country, it appears no less strange; indeed, collectively, it appears stranger, and yet its individuals more comprehensible, making for an utterly exotic, yet personable, warm country.

Therein lies the charm.


Lily Walking said...


Kib said...

It is only through travels abroad that I have come to comprehend the craziness of my country. To travel, is to reflect on your own culture - and what a culture it is. As weird as it is grand. Some ugly, some breathtakingly ancient and beautiful. Infinite offshoots forever changing and intertwining to form unlimited patters.

Every time I travel to distant lands, I return in awestruck wonder to my own.