Wednesday, February 22, 2006

The Rain is Gone

I can see clearly. India has regaled me with two great gifts, unique presents that possess the power to unwrap all the rest. Vision and Perspective. The first came to me like a scene from a sci-fi flick, with me lying draped on a strange bed with green and red lights flashing, beams of energy speedily vaporizing my body's tissue (this is more commonly known as LASIK, and thanks to this wonderful procedure, my vision is now better than a newborn baby's. For anyone concerned about the fact that I chose to have elective ophthalmic surgery done in a developing country, don't worry - I did my homework, and am convinced that I received as good or better treatment in Mumbai than I would have in the U.S., for less than one-third the cost.) The second gift came to me slowly, strolling softly over weeks and months, occasionally leaping into epiphanies, stalling on self-debate, and resuming with imagined resolutions. Two great changes, one astonishingly fast, the other unhurried, the former temptingly symbolic of the latter.

The picture you see on the left is me, no doubt, but an earlier version. This was me on September 1, 2005, sitting in a terminal at LAX, waiting to board a plane that would take me away from my home for the next 5 and ½ months. At that moment, antsy with anticipation, I suddenly thought to take a “before” picture of myself, so that I could compare it to what I would look like at the end of my journey. What you see on the right is me in India - an amalgam of cultures, a blending of identities, a self-analytical work in progress, and someone who's at heart a bit ridiculous. So, the question must be asked…who am I now?

Experience, especially that which arises from leaving one’s routine, will change a person. During this trip, I challenged my routine, replaced it, destroyed it, picked up the pieces and rearranged them into funny shapes. I believe the resulting alterations in my personality and worldview may not even be fully apparent at the current time, but that they will manifest themselves subtly in my attitude and my decisions over years to come – so that like the minor movements of a raindrop sliding down a car window, my life’s course will be altered by a thousand seemingly unimportant occurrences, each affected by an ever-changing perspective.

From this vantage point, I can only guess at the significance of the present moment. I can also attempt to gather my thoughts, for both current closure and future reminder. The following, then, is a list of some of the lessons I've learned in India. There is nothing esoteric or exceptional about them - you could likely find as much wisdom in a series of Hallmark cards - but the crucial difference lies in the fact that they were written by personal experience and introspection, rather than gleaned from a receptacle-bound greeting. This is my renewed perspective, a few plain old lessons of daily life of which we seem to always need reminders, and I present them here not to preach them to anyone else, but as a sermon to my future (forgetful) self.

1. Lose the tension.
Don't succumb to the desperation of daily life. Remember that the smallest of tasks can bring tension if you let it, but even the most demanding of tasks can bring pleasure if you allow yourself a healthy sense of detachment. Very few things in the world depend upon you, but one of them is your happiness.

2. Don't ask, "What am I going to get out of this?"
While prioritizing one's activities is a necessity, devaluing activities that do not have obvious gain can be terribly detrimental. When you begin to prioritize based on preconceived notions of utility, you sideswipe serendipity and miss out on life. Asking "what am I going to get out of this?" may make you more efficient, but it makes you less experienced, and fosters discontent with the inherent unpredictability of your world.

3. Be where you are.
Daydreaming is a fun playground for stifled creativity, but in excess, it can significantly diminish one's enjoyment of reality. Those around you deserve your full attention, and you deserve to fully experience what is happening at any given moment. (This one is really important for me, because I'm a hopeless daydreamer - I can be caught daydreaming in the middle of conversations, even when I'm the one speaking.)

4. No one should be hurt because you have been hurt in the past.
Pain has a way of reviving itself. Too often we hurt others because we are unconsciously reliving our past pain, and using it to lash out in subtle or obvious ways. When you feel anger towards someone, take a moment to step back and ensure that you are not becoming an instrument of the hurt in your past.

5. Understand insecurity.
We all have some degree of insecurity, and it is responsible for much of our unhappiness. But it is not all bad. While it may cause us to act foolishly or to miss out on life's opportunities, it can also foster positive things such as creativity, humility, and compassion. Resist controlling it through denial or suppression, because that is an invitation for it to manifest itself in more insidious ways. Insecurity is like a fire - enlightening if controlled, consuming if given free reign.

6. Allow for your continuing self-creation.
Do not become attached to perceived images of yourself - this will hold you back. Allow yourself to reinvent and explore the different aspects of your persona; periodically eject yourself from your comfort zone in order to bring such challenges to the forefront.

7. Make a positive impact.
It doesn't matter how you do it. You don't need to take on the world. Some people prefer to make change with their hands, others with their minds - don't judge your own methods according to preconceptions of what is good or expected of a compassionate person. Do what makes you feel alive, and your positive impact will be felt much more strongly.

8. Spend time with yourself.
Some of your alone time should be spent on introspection, some without goal-directed thought, and some without thought at all.

9. Stay optimistic.
Don't concern yourself with whether the glass is half full or half empty. There's something in the glass, and you should take a sip. While you are enjoying your beverage, optimism is a wonderful state of mind to have, because it makes the flavor better, regardless of actual events.

10. Keep perspective.
There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy, and none of them are stopping you from being happy today.

These lessons I will carry with me as I return to the U.S., to my usual life, to routine and responsibility. I've known enough study-abroad expatriates to understand that it is difficult to keep a hold on the romanticized lessons of a travel experience once you hit the mind-erasing speed of Western civilization. The past can drown if the current is stronger, but I will do my best to keep it alive.

And with this, my blog comes to an end. I may create a new blog for my domestic adventures, but I doubt I will have time to write regularly during my medical rotations. For those of you who have grown accustomed to keeping in touch with me through passive reading, this will perhaps push you to pick up the phone and give me a call (Ha! I hereby force you to actively communicate!) For those readers whom I've never met or seldom had contact with, please drop me a comment or an email so that perhaps we can change that. Also check for updates on my picture gallery (, email, password blogpics) fairly soon.

Today I feel blessed. To have received such gifts, to have a family that has allowed me to wander aimlessly against traditional Indian judgment, to have been given a chance to renew myself at a young age. Today I sunk my teeth one last time into masala corn on Juhu beach, savored one final kesar-pista soymilk, and dusted off my U.S. passport. India is woven deeper into my fabric than ever before, and I will miss it dearly, especially the loving presence of my grandparents. But I am revitalized, and excited to see my family and friends back home. This has been an unforgettable, incredible journey...bye for now, and thanks for keeping me cyber-company along the way.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Raj and Mita's Wedding

These are the days of diamond promises and ceremonial collections. One by one, my lifelong friends are finding life companions, and rediscovering meanings, redefining boundaries, redeeming romance. I’m recuperating from all the weddings. Most of them haven’t even happened, but the sheer anticipation spins my senses.

Raj, someone I grew up watching cartoons with and smacking with childhood pillows, turned 27 two days ago and turned into a husband the very next morning. I watched it happen. He still seems like the kid I always knew, except the smile got bigger and goofier, and there’s a subtle transition to maturity lurking beneath the boyishness. Happiness and Responsibility meet in his eyes, strange bedfellows, now linked by nuptial vows.

We sat up in a hotel room the night before the wedding, eating cookies and discussing shifting priorities. The past several days had whizzed by with festivities, a blur of dance, fireworks, food, and family, and suddenly the long-awaited moment was close. Gautam had surprised us by arriving on a flight from the U.S., and with his marriage to Anjali only months away, he (like Raj) carried the unmistakable air of a man ready for change.

Morning came, more brilliant than a diamond’s reflection, and kept its promise. Raj slowly trotted on horseback toward his chosen life. Gautam and I danced in front, helping lead the wedding procession to where Mita’s family awaited her groom. They greeted us in lavish style, by showering us with rose petals from the tops of painted elephants and shooting ceremonial rifle blanks into the air. We escorted the soon-to-be-wed into their golden gazebo, and busied ourselves with photographs and smiles while they made solemnly, sacredly sweet their bond.

And I looked on as Happiness and Responsibility joined hands, a beautiful couple, young and vibrant. Wise old Maturity blessed them with its ages and wrinkles. Perhaps they noticed. Perhaps their eyes were too enchanted by rediscovery. When my head smacked the pillow that night, my eyes took a dazzled rest, and I wondered if cartoons were enough anymore.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Whitewashing the Wood Fence

As an American citizen in India, I’ve been the recipient of many proud speeches from local relatives and friends, all loosely based on the same theme – India’s fast pace of change. Like baby photos from a first-time parent’s pocket, the topic inevitably emerges. In spite of any troubles India has as a developing nation, its citizens revere it, and do not hesitate to display this devotion to those from abroad. They talk about its progress, its rich history of both cultural tradition and technological innovation, and its rapid scramble up the global ladder. They watch with glazed-happy eyes as modernity marks up the landscape and foreign investors take new interest. The improving standard of life in major cities means the decades-long brain drain is beginning to reverse, for once-exported software engineers are now increasingly likely to remain in their mother country.

While it is true that modernization and globalization are India’s newest crops, the soil continues to grow its harvest of centuries. As my uncle put it, westernization is “a thin veneer” – one need not look very deep to see that India’s core has not changed. In other words: Tom Sawyer may have his way with the whitewash, but he isn’t touching the wood inside.

In Ahmedabad, I recently attended a festival where Chief Minister Narendra Modi gave a stirring speech on the modernization of “Vibrant Gujarat.” Video clips in the background showed off the new multiplex movie theaters, street lights, and coffee shops. In Mumbai, modern youth enjoy the glitz of Bollywood, stay out late with the disco nightlife, and wear polo shirts and jeans instead of kurtas. In developed areas, most street signs and advertisements are in English, regardless of the local language.

But in these cities, the old village (gam) has not been banished. It’s simply been ignored. It continues to breathe, in spite of industrial smoke. My grandparents hire a driver named Valoobhai, and his gam is right off of one of Ahmedabad’s busiest streets. In fact, if you simply drove by at the speed of modern life, you would never notice the small dirt road leading into the dilapidated network of village housing. If you stared at the billboards where Shahrukh Khan smiles at you with his mobile phone, you might not notice the half-naked children defecating on the same grounds where they run and play. But Valoobhai took me to his home, explained the ways of his gam, and convinced me that globalization is not as global as we think.

He got engaged, to a girl he’d never met, at the age of 20 (days) and married at the age of 15 (years). Since ceremonies are expensive, when the eldest child in a family gets married, the rest are married off as well, age notwithstanding. (A two-year old in his family recently tied the knot, though unable to tie his shoes…actually, scratch that, I’m not sure if he even has shoes.) Post-marriage, the husband and wife are kept separated until well after puberty, and only allowed to see one another in the presence of a male from the bride’s family. When a child is desired, they are left alone for increasing periods of time, but still cannot live together. Valoobhai did not live in the same house with his wife until their child reached the age of two. He and his wife are not allowed to speak each other’s names aloud, but instead use their son’s name when addressing one another. (After some questioning, he told me his wife’s name, but said that if anyone in the village were to hear our conversation, he would be shamed.) The logic of all this? When asked, Valoobhai answers with a smile that says, “that’s the way it’s always been.”

Down the street from him, in modern India, arranged marriage has taken a new form dubbed “assisted marriage,” in which couples are merely introduced by their parents as wise suggestions rather than tied to one another without being consulted. Is the new generation rebelling against the old ways? If you read the Times of India, you might be led to believe that India’s youth are bold and experimental, even (dare I say it?) free with themselves. In what is known as “Page 3 Culture,” the newspaper consistently produces articles glamorizing teenage parties and sex life, just one page turn away from the morning comics. As if broadcasting to the world (and to its own children) that Indians are not prudes.

But when I talk to the youth themselves, I don’t hear the cries of rebellion. In ripening twenty-something year olds, I see fruit that won’t fall far from the tree. I remember one conversation I had with a homeopathy student from Mumbai, who spoke matter-of-factly about the fact that she’ll be arranged to be married soon. I searched her face for the slightest hint of angst, but it was nowhere to be found. Happy acceptance smiled back in its stead. She’s not the only one – many youth I’ve spoken to don’t even desire to play the dating game, because they feel that studies and other associated parent-valued priorities must come first. Even the disco-going crowd is aware of the limits of modernization. On the plane to Ahmedabad from Bangalore, I sat next to two girls from Delhi who bragged about the capital city’s nightlife – according to them, Delhi’s clubs are bumping every night until 3 am. Then I asked what would happen if I walked into one of these clubs and tried to strike up conversation with a girl. Their faces instantly grew grave – “Oh no, you couldn’t do that.” What would happen? “Her cousins would beat you, yah.”

Indians are willing to defend their traditional values. So what’s with the whitewash? What’s with the jeans and imported imagery? A complex psychology is in play. It came out one day when I was having lunch with several students from Mumbai. One of them asked me, “do you have Indian food in America?” I dropped my puri and stared at her, incredulous. I asked her to explain what Indian youth think of their NRI (Non-Resident Indian) counterparts in the U.S. She said, “frankly, the opinion is not so good.” Over the next twenty minutes, it became apparent that Indians born in the motherland harbor several misconceptions about Indians born in America (“American-Born Confused Desis,” or ABCDs, as they like to call us.) Gradually, the following views emerged: they think we never eat Indian food, eat meat even if we say we’re vegetarian, do not speak any Indian languages, cut all contact with our parents at the age of 18, and have “less feelings” than people in India. In short, that we’re merely the hypocritical spawn of clashing cultures. Byproducts of jacked-up karma.

And yet, from all appearances, they want to be like us. They have a fascination with American culture that can border on the ridiculous. And I’ve begun to regard this phenomenon as analogous to the way early 20th-century white culture in the U.S. viewed black culture at the time. As tempting, endlessly compelling, something to imitate but never to speak of highly. Put simply: Imitation + Denigration = New ownership of desired culture without sacrifice of identity. We want what you have, but in order to remain ourselves, we must put you down. Indian version: We’ll wear Tommy Hilfiger and eat at McDonald’s because it was our idea, not because we like you.

Which is not to say that we in the U.S. don’t perform the same cultural acrobatics. American-born desis are also victims of the global identity crisis, and we ridicule Indian-born immigrants to no end. “FOBs,” (Fresh Off the Boat) we call them. We imitate their accents and mannerisms. We exclude them in crowds. And yet, we desperately want to identify with India, and want everyone else in America to speak of us in the same breath as the exotic lands of the east. We create South Asian clubs on college campuses, dance to Hindi film songs, and tattoo “om” on our shoulders. We try to identify with two lifestyles at once, because each country creeps into the other, and to be honest, sometimes we don’t quite know who we are.

To be fair to Indian-born desis: they are much more welcoming of visitors from the U.S. than we are of them. They may secretly feel that we are Not Really Indian, but it doesn’t stop them from being friendly to us, inviting us to their parties, sitting down to lunch with us though we are strangers. When was the last time I invited a FOB to a friend’s party, or took time to eat lunch with one just because he looked lost? I’m ashamed at the truth – I never have. However, the youth here have consistently extended those courtesies to me.

It is a part of their traditional value system. Guests are to be revered, to be honored and accepted into one’s home. It is one of the many pieces of evidence that though India may be changing rapidly, it is still the land of aged culture. It is, indeed, a land of contradictions (then again, maybe not) and multiple identities. Arundhati Roy observed, “India lives in several centuries at the same time.” From what I’ve seen, I have to agree. Take any phenomenon in the world, any religion or language or technology, and chances are, someone’s doing it in India. Yet even with such multilayered and evolving fabric, the country retains an ancient charm. The roots are exceptionally deep, and the wood will not so easily give up its hue. So paintbrushes aside…what will keep me coming back to India for the rest of my life is not what can be changed, but what will always remain the same.