Sunday, October 26, 2008

Why Not: Living With Indians (Draft)

The following is a draft of an article that will be appearing on the IIT website, written for my pleasure and the pleasure of others...I'm a guest writer. I also wrote a more focused piece for the IIT newsletter drawn from some of this on why people go or go back to India entitled Going (Back) to India that will be appearing in the Singapore Alumni issue in November. Look out for it! Please feel free to add your comments...they are really appreciated.

Why Not: Living with Indians


Ham Honge Kamiyab

“I mean what sort of message does this send the global community? We’ll be a laughing stock. They’ll only be let go in smaller batches later on… It’s all about politics. Only in India.”

Having just wolfed down a meal in a local Bangladeshi canteen, I stood on a street corner in Singapore’s Little India as two friends of mine loosened their ties and discussed the recent re-hire of Jet Airways employees. And then there was the Nano fiasco.

“Well, at least they’ve found somewhere in Pune, and they did come out quite strongly about the situation in West Bengal.” I added hopefully.

The conversation moved onto other things. All of us are professionals, with jobs, but do we want to manage another business? There’s an opportunity kicking around. Why not! And then inevitably, a note of homesickness enters: “Sometimes I just want to pack it in and go back to India, yaar.”

“Anyway, the jalebis here aren’t very good...too thick”

I’m going to preface this and remind or tell you right now that I’m a Videshi. Yes. A firengi, a non-Indian, and armed only with a limited batch of insights and experiences in what I have seen to be, and know to be a hugely diverse country which few are fortunate to truly know and understand. Personally I’m as lost as anybody else, if not more so.

For a variety of reasons I have a lot of Indian friends with all kinds of backgrounds, though mainly urban. I have an Indian boyfriend, I studied a bit of Hindi and Urdu, I love Bollywood, and I look pretty good in a salwaar qameez, but in the end, I am half Scandinavian, half Italian, and brought up in the UK. At a distinct disadvantage then, to write about India. But somebody asked me to, and so that’s what I’m going to do. I guess they thought it would be interesting. In the end this is just a collection of things that I have learned from and about my Indian friends then, in the past couple of years, and subject to all the usual caveats and fine print.

“I’m not Political”

The first time I went to India was for business, and I ended up getting far more than I had bargained for. In the middle of an MA in Chinese Literature and Arts I spent a summer interning for a regional bank and was posted to Mumbai for just four days. That four days was at the end of July 2005 and because of the terrible floods, they turned into a fortnight.

Caught in those floods I spent a lot of time reading Indian newspapers, both local and national, and bearing witness to the extremely well written and rapier sharp critique of politicians in the area for their failure to prevent loss of life. Everyone seemed to have an opinion. A rhetorical and well-reasoned opinion, and I began a consequent love affair with Indian editorials. So as I started to have more Indian colleagues and friends, the fact that people, especially young Indians, described themselves as non-political was strange to me.

I have cases in point. Firstly, Orkut. Yes, I know it’s hardly a measure of the feelings of the intellectuals of the nation, but it is popular, popular amongst Indians, and popular amongst young Indians in particular. The most common answer for political affiliation on Orkut is “I’m not Political”, and it is markedly different from the kind of thing you’ll see on other social networking sites like Facebook or Myspace where political figures have pages and fan clubs. The thing is, there’s a dissonance here between what’s written and what’s experienced. The vast majority of people that I have interacted with who claim to be “apolitical” on Orkut have extremely strong opinions on local politics at the very least, if not national or international politics. Why is this, I wondered?

Needing a guinea pig, I argued it out with my boyfriend after he had completed a particularly heavy tirade on Raj Thakeray and other local political figures.

“Why do you say that you are not political” I asked, “when it’s clear that you are? You obviously really care about this.”

The response I got was that there’s basically a conflation between being political and being affiliated with a party among young Indians, and especially since a lot of what goes on with party politics is split along ethnic or religious lines, if you want to avoid fist-fights it’s best to stay out of it. Jaane Bhi do Yaaron all over again.

But as Indian cinematic and artistic representations so clearly illustrate there is a tension between saying “Leave it alone, pal” for the good of saving your own skin and acting heroically in the spirit of the fathers of the nation and in participation within the world’s largest democracy despite the odds, even if it means being locked up or hurt. In popular culture one need only hold up the popularity of a firebrand film like Rang de Basanti against the wise council (and funny bits) of Jaane bhi do.

And then of course, political leanings when exposed out of the Indian context are all relative. I was naturally surprised when a very good friend of mine, a moderate, fun-loving Muslim from Kerala out-ed himself to me as a “conservative”. Things didn’t add up in my head at all. I asked him a few questions about religion in school, gay and women’s rights, fiscal and foreign policy to ascertain the depth of my misunderstanding, and discovered that he was probably among the most liberal of my Indian friends. I confronted him with this, and asked how he could call himself conservative. “Well, I’m not Communist,” he said. Kerala is, of course run predominantly by Communists. Lesson in political relativism learned, and the stability of labels suitably downgraded, we went on to discuss the American Occupation of Iraq.

Love, Hate and SRK on the Global Stage

Love and marriage are hugely important parts of any culture, and especially so in Asia. And it strikes me that among modern Asian countries this is especially so in India. Running concurrently in Indian society you have conservatism, eroticism, backlashes, varying degrees of misogyny and feminism. I’m not going to get onto the gender issue, dowries or the sex-education bugaboo because we’ll be here all day. It’s nasty, it’s serious and it deserves its own article. I’ll save that for another time. I’m also not going to jump on the bollywood bandwagon and talk about the crore rupee wedding industry, the glamour and tradition, and the culture of romance in modern Indian life either. Instead I want to talk about something much more glitzy and yet much more mundane: shaadi.com.

One of my best friends, an educated, feisty and independent woman can be found searching for a husband for her sister-in-law on shaadi.com, despite the fact that she herself had a love marriage. And this isn’t casual surfing either. It’s targeted. It’s traditional. Caste, family, education and complexion are all considered. I point out that Shaadi.com is racist. “I can’t get on Shaadi.com”, I say. She shrugs. She herself never thought she would be engaged in such a thing, nor that she would want to stay at home and take care of her new baby for the past year and a half, nor that she would spend so much time out of her day bitching about her colleagues who were predominantly “females” when she did go back to work. She never thought she would find herself doing all these things when not 3 years ago she was to be found in the shortest of short skirts on the back of her DJ husband’s bike. She has become a victim of what we call “householder syndrome”. We theorise that at about the same time as she started lactating all the traditional vedic instruction that she received growing up congealed somewhere in her brain, and despite her continuing predeliction for the bottle-rocket, and an absolute determination to avoid gaining the Indian “marriage-belly” that can verge on the impression of permanent pregnancy, she’s become about 50% more conservative. So it seems that shaadi.com, that high-tech Indian cyber yenta won’t be going anywhere soon.

Meanwhile, in pursuit of my own romance, technology can only be described as my nemesis: India may well be hurtling towards economic advancement but even in Mumbai internet and especially mobile phone networks are so poor that my tender heart-to-heart with my boyfriend in Borivali ends up cut off at “Namaste”. Whether this is part of a shaadi.com style plot to prevent inter-racial marriage or not is anyone’s guess.

“Indians are the most prejudiced people in the world. If there’s no one else to hate, we’ll start hating each other”. From love to hate. The preceding was announced by a US educated Mumbaikar friend after a drunken discussion on Asian politics, and drunk or not, few will deny it. When the green, white and saffron are unfurled, every Indian may be your brother, but when it comes down to it, it’s not just the Raj Thakeray’s of the world who will carve up a neighbourhood by language or shades of brown. Hell, even Shaadi.com does that.

One of the things that unites a people like no other however, and this is true of all diasporas I think, is missing home. There was an article in Times of India some time back about the relationship between NRIs in the US and their home country, which, it concluded, was composed of an ever-fluctuating sentimental parabola of complaint and homesickeness driven by a rich web of factors. Some of these were purely selfish (availability of domestic help and fresh paneer etc.), some more complex and profound. As another friend of mine, musician Angaraag Papon Mahanta says:

“Wherever I go…India pulls me back…I love the human, crazy freedom nature of this land. ”

What we’re talking about I guess, is cultural, the deeply felt pull of Sanskriti, which I don’t want to flatten into a box-sized trope a la Swades, but nevertheless a homesickness that transcends the cultural divisions that typically divide Indian communities, and which I think everyone can see and feel to be real, even among those who have chosen to live and work abroad, and especially in a time of opportunity. What is actually missed may vary, of course. The interesting thing is that, certainly from an outsider’s perspective, this holds true even for those whose families are predominantly settled abroad, and even in the case of those raised in another country: with the expansion of Singaporean businesses into India and vice versa it has been surprising to hear some of my Singaporean Indian friends talking about “going back”.

In some ways this becomes akin to the way that the Chinese diaspora, the “huaren” or “huaqiao” understand their relationship to both “Chinese-ness” and the mainland, despite the fact that in the Chinese case this is often a discussion complicated by the political past and infused with racial rhetoric.

For all the unifying power of homesickness however, the Rajasthanis in Singapore will still mutter under their breath about the Tamils, the Bangladeshis will wonder about the Assamese and I will stand in the corner and stay out of it.

If we are going to talk about love and hate, marriage and class war, then we have to talk about the drama King, Shah Rukh Khan. With a furrowed brow as distinctive and iconic as Elvis’ curled lip, and status to match, it’s not surprising that SRK inspires strong feelings. He’s ubiquitous. A brand. But is he a brand that we like?

Singapore certainly seems to like him: his image in cardboard was stuck up outside of Mustafa’s for weeks in advance of the Zee carnival during which the King himself graced us with his presence. Which, considering last year’s showing at Zee, just goes to show how far the NRI community has come in organizing itself in Singapore over the past year. In fact when rumours initially circulated that “a Khan” was going to be coming to Zee, I and many of my friends dismissed SRK out of hand…”He wouldn’t come to Singapore just for that” we all agreed. We resigned ourselves to Salmaan (sorry Salmaan fans). And then proceeded to nearly wet ourselves when we learned he was turning up. Speaking for myself, the Fair & Handsome bit aside, I am a fan, not quite a screaming groupie of a fan, I’d be more likely to faint in front of Aamir Khan, but a fan nevertheless. And yes, I realize that to many of my more intellectual Indian friends this is all a bit passé. All I can say in response to that is that everyone needs a guilty pleasure, and since I get little to no joy from the US or UK top 40 and Hollywood films are usually a “miss” with me, Bollywood seems to fill in the craving for cultural empty calories that others can’t reach, and besides, SRK is an ur-phenomena to be sure. Like any public figure he seems to inspire a spectrum of emotions, from desire to hatred, but one thing can be said for certain: he’s everywhere. Like God, except that role is already taken by Amitabh Bhachan.

KBC?

And in the words of SRK, and in the light of the credit crunch’s economic impact on India, we might ask: “Kaun banega crorepati?”

As the Sensex does a less than graceful swan dive this week, the answer might seem to be that apart from those people who already are, “koii bhi nahi”. And the fear that the multinationals who lined up to get into Dalal St. are heading back the way they came is solidifying, certainly. But as I think about why people go to India for business at all, foreigners or Indians, it becomes pretty clear that those reasons will more than likely stand over time, and that therefore this story isn’t quite over.

What reasons am I referring to? Up until recently, India was being touted in the international business press as a sort of new frontier for foreign investors. A fast developing economy, with inexpensive labour and significant natural resources…but is that all there is to it? I would say no. Let me preface and say that I am not an economist, but I suggest that there is a link between the reasons that foreigners (whether from other Asian countries or Western countries) go to India and the reasons that multinationals jumped on that particular AI flight: looking for a radical outside, that is, something “out of the box.” When people want to see things from a different perspective, when they want a different solution, whether that’s a “life solution” or a “business solution”, for better or worse, they look to India. It’s a kind of ideological outsourcing, something like Esquire writer A.J. Jacobs’ experiments with outsourcing his life to a team in Bangalore.

This is surely simplistic, and very often ignores the complexities and foment that brings those ideas to the fore, but it nevertheless seems to be true. What will happen and how people, tourists and business people alike, will view the situation if we ever live in a global society that is truly alive to the day-to-day realities of life in many Asian countries including India, is anybody’s guess, but for the moment India exists conceptually it would seem on the knife-edge of possibility and risk, but also as an ideological space.

Let’s connect this back to Angaraag’s reasons for return, and the search for the perfect Jalebi here for a minute. While most Indians I know think that the foreign preoccupation with India as a “Land of Colour” is misguided, visitors, NRIs and traveled resident Indians alike seem to agree that there is an alternative logic at play in India, if not several. This is a place where buckle makers in the slums of Dharavi can sell to Walmart, a man’s life savings in bonds can be eaten by termites while in a bank safe deposit box, and Dalits may actually pay for the opportunity to clean out sewers in goldsmiths’ arcades because they make a mint on the gold shavings they pan out, especially with the price of gold going up. This alternative view is clearly not dependent upon some sort of belief in the country as a land of ghee and honey.

Dalal St. has, at the best of times been the story of global markets, global confidence, and local tug. Confidence however is evidently extremely fragile in world markets in general and especially in India where the rumour that “we could truly be a superpower” was just beginning to be believed.

However, I suggest that for better or worse, the symbolic power of India, as simplistic as it may be, as inaccurate as it may be, does have a sort of un-planned-for reality behind it and will not disappear. And because of that, on the economic front there is reason for hope. I know that as soon as an opportunity turns up, there will be Indian friends of mine who whether they have jobs or not, will leap into the void, and in the most unexpected manner, screaming “why not!” all the way.

I’m just fortunate enough to have a ringside seat.

2 comments:

nimit said...

great post! loved it! and as somebody pointed out about indians - " we are like that only " ....great one.

hash said...

you have understood about India more than enough a half scandavian ,half italian lady should know :-)