India or USA?

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.

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I am well aware that I might end up taking the “easier” choice, just because it is easy!

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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.

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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.

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  1. #1 by SK on July 8, 2010 - 10:07 pm

    Interesting views on the then and the now.
    I think to each his own in a broad sense.

  2. #2 by Sanket on October 15, 2010 - 4:42 pm

    I read this piece – in response to your comment on my own article about the US. I now see where you are coming from and I understand you for wanting to be part of the change. As for me, my choice was made for me by the terrorist attacks of Nov 08 and Obama’s election in the same period. And while I have never second guessed my choice, I am acutely aware of the sacrifices it carries.

    America has had a steady influx of Indians, people who – after settling here decided what traditions to keep and what not. As you rightly point out it is very easy now to find a community where you might have daily satsangs and prayers etc. I have personally hosted on stage an annual Diwali for two years at my university and more and more it is possible to indulge in ‘Indianness’ than ever before. And yet, for me – the US in a way and Indian Americans or Indians in America – will never quite be able to capture the true essence of Indian culture.

    I of course differ in my opinion as to what counts as culture. Growing up in Mumbai – we never really had a whole lot of time for traditions – and modified things to what suited the railway timetable. I think what makes India truly unique and different is the way people are connected to each other back home.

    The streets are crowded and you often prefer to walk short distances or share a rickshaw with other people. In any number of activities of your day to day life, you contact with people, your dependence upon people and your interactions with them constitute a majority of how your day turns out to be. In the US by contrast, I can wake up 7 am – go for a run – no one will bother disturbing me while I am jogging – its uncourteous to do so – I shower, I sit in my car and take breakfast to go – again – the conversation is limited to $5.43 pls – would you like a receipt ? Any inquiries about what your name is – or how your kids are doing will be met by a honk from the car behind – you work – yes now you interact – but its professional – you come back and you hang out with friends.

    I have thought about it – the missing piece. And I believe what makes India’s culture is its warmth. When you put a billion people in the area and in densities that we have in India – you need to develop a liking and a tolerance for strangers. You also need a majority of them to hold their cool and go about their business. You will also inherently depend upon each other a lot more. Social norms will be strongly formed and although unspoken will be clearly defined. Contrast that with a developed country – where the individual is the center of the attention – there is no thought to whats good for the community – the only mantra is whats good for me – ever wondered why theres so few public busses in the US ? its because you can have a car of your own – be more comfortable and you have roads that can make it enjoyable.

    The cost however is that you are now isolated. In your own glass bubble – where you now pick and choose what people to let in – whats ok for them to speak – how much can they involve themselves in our lives. And while giving you privacy – they deprive you of the warmth that I speak of.

    I’ll shut up now because the comment is in itself an article – and leave you with this incident –

    When I visited India for the first time since coming to the US, it was after 2 1/2 years. Upon my arrival the local dhobhi lady – an old woman of 65 charging 10 cents to iron a shirt – stopped by to visit our building – she was collection everybody’s clothes for the day – they were all in one pile – because she by now knew which clothes belonged to which family – as she dropped off my family’s previous load – she told my mother that she had taken noticed my dad’s shirt pocket was torn at a point and had stitched it – and asked my mom to keep an eye on it. Upon realizing that chote babu – yeah thats me – was home – she exclaimed with joy – demanded me to stand in front of her – and gave me a through and un approving look over – bohot patla ho gaya – she pronounced. And then as I touched her feet and collected my blessings – she also conceded through moist eyes – bohot bada bhi ho gaya – tumhara kapda free babu – and so it came to be that for as long as I was home – she would not charge anything to iron my clothes – it was 10 cents a shirt! When converted, it wasnt even a dollars worth – so I tried to imagine what this lady’s profit would be – and yet here she was with her golden hearted generosity – commanding me not to pay and ironing my shirts ever so gently.

    I think about her all the time when I reflect upon my decision to stay back. And I am reminded – that celebrate what customs you will – but we will never be able to have the soul of our culture in America. Never!

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