This weekend, I had the opportunity to visit the relatives belonging to the American branch of our family tree. A cousin was getting poonal-ed. As I have already mentioned in this blog earlier, my patti had 5 brothers (mama-thatha for me) who had ridden the first generation of brain-drain and settled in America during the 1970’s. Now, their kids (my aunts and uncles), born and raised in America (better known in Indian circles as the ABCD) arranging the Poonal ceremony for their kid, who has never visited India.
It was a slap in the face of the Traditionalists in India, for here was a second generation American-Indian parent, transferring an Brahmin tradition to a third generation American Indian, while many of us, having been bought up in the so called “cradle” of such traditions are apathetic to them. For example, most of these relatives are still vegetarians (for religious reasons) while I, (although I try to avoid eating meat as much as possible) don’t mind eating it when the only other option is a salad or lettuce and tomato between two buns (My strategy to avoid meat is to pack my own lunch).
While driving back, it got me thinking about this question that many of us will have to answer in a few years time: Settling here in America or settling back in India?
There are just two choices: India or US. And as with many of these subjective questions, there is no universal correct answer. But here are my thoughts:
Among the two choices, I think that the choosing US was the harder choice for my mama-thatha’s while choosing India will be the harder choice for us.
Back in the 60’s, what we call as the “staunch orthodox” was normal, and it would have been awfully difficult for my mama-thatha’s to decide to settle in the US, into the completely different culture and way of life. Air travel was expensive and time consuming, meaning that settling down in the US would have to come at the expense of losing touch with family in India ( at that time, when postal service was erratic, telephones expensive and virtually non-existant in India and Internet still 20-30 years in the future). Also, the US, back then were still struggling to solve their own internal problems: Cold war, racial segregation, McCarthism etc, and was in general not as receptive to a new culture and new people as it is now. It would have been a a monumental decision to knowingly forsake the comfort of our own people, of our own culture to chase the “good” life. Economically India was stagnated at that time, with the “Hindu” growth rate of 2%, the babu culture in which talent and hard work were probably the least required attributes for some one to be successful. Chasing the “good” life in India was hardly an option to my mama-thathas (and many others in the “Brain-Drain” time), who had only their intelligence and hard work for sale. So, it came down to selecting between status-quo and the limited success of a career in 1960’s India or settling into a completely alien country and an even more alien culture, not much receptive to new people with the option of unlimited success. I believe the second choice to be the harder one to take.
Sunnyvale, CA is called Suryanagri. Arlington, TX is called Arlingapuram. Dallas, TX has a 24/7 Desi FM channel. Edison, NJ is so much in the news for having been taken over by Indians. US in 2010, is very much an extension of India. Air travel is cheap, takes 16 hours, much less than Delhi-Madras by train and call rates and internet have reduced the distance even further. You can live in the US, and yet stay connected with India more than ever before. Move into an Indian community, and I bet it will be easy to find an maami samooham having Bhajan congregations every evening. Economically and quality of life wise, India has drastically improved now. Although it may not be as comfortable and luxurious as living in the USA, a comparable lifestyle in India can be had. Talent can take you places, even in India now. But the most important reason to live and work in India now, is to be a part of the change, is to contribute, in whatever small way we can in developing our country. In being there, doing something, rather than being here, cribbing “Des ka kuch nahi hoga”. The chance to be a part of an increasingly political middle class, and the chance to have a say in shaping the path of our country. I am not saying that one has to go back to India and join a political party, but just living and working in India, we can be a part of the change, just by wanting to improve conditions just for our selfish goals.
The “good” life that was the reason for people to leave the country is no more a compelling reason. The easier choice is to sit cosily in an Indian neighborhood in America, drink beer while watching Football and crib that India cannot improve because of the culture in India. The harder choice will be to take a (rather big) pay cut, a small lifestyle change and move to work in India.
I am well aware that I might end up taking the “easier” choice, just because it is easy!
In my opinion, we have made a mess of our understanding of culture, tradition and religion. I believe that this mixed understanding is what is making our generation confused. Culture is something that has to evolve with time, and practices that made sense a century of two ago need not be practical today. For example, this whole business of Horoscope matching is a silly exercise in guess-work, but we still follow it.
That is what we are doing now, cutting, copying, pasting and reinterpreting and reinventing our cultural history, traditions etc.
I think there are two distinct point of views here. When the first wave of Indian immigrants came to the US (or Europe/ Australia), they have had the opportunity of distilling what they thought was important from their cultural/ traditional upbringing and mixed it up with the popular US culture here which has added a new flavour to our customs and traditions and has started the unique American-Indian culture of the US.
Back in India, people in our generation (or for that matter even in our parent’s generation) have started questioning various aspects of culture/tradition etc and are trying to forge a new set of rules, that is widely adaptable, with more and more people traveling west while still retaining, for want of a better word, the Indian-ness. The Americanized-Indian culture.
Both problems however, in my opinion are answering the same question: What to retain from what has been passed on to us, that is sensible in today’s world, and what is outdated, out-technologied, out-developed and out-thinked. The challenges though are unique. In America, it is about the will to resist being eaten by the American culture all together, while in India, the challenge is to form a consensus amongst the various people, ranging from the ultra conservative group who have a false sense of pride in declaring that “India has culture, which America/West does not have” to the ultra-modern wannabe’s who think aping the west is the coolest thing to do.
A few random thoughts:
- A black car in which the A.C does not work is a recipe for sweating out a few kilos on long drives. The inside of my car was a furnace, and the temperature outside was uncharacteristically in the mid-90’s.
- There are so many “firsts” and statues and art-muesuems in Philadelphia. I am neither a history or art-buff. I guess, such types will really enjoy Philadelphia.
- The poonal and meeting relatives were great, the evening at Janani’s parents house was also awesome. Aunty made up some awesome dishes and the conversation was fun. New Jersey is a continuous piece of civilization, and was fun driving through, after the long drive through the hardly inhabited Upstate New-York.