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.


Anonymous Jehan said...

What a wonderfully incisive analysis of the Indian mind-set. I agree with a lot of the points you make in this entry, but I sometimes wonder why "ABCD's" have the need to distance themselves from FOBs. I think it's because FOBs are looked down on as being slow to adapt to the American lifestyle. America is a land of conformity: if you don't fit in, we're unwilling to accept you. I don't feel that India is like that (neither are most Asian countries, for that matter). Indeed, I think that in a land that is so densely populated, you almost have to distinguish yourself from the crowd to get ahead. Therefore, Indians are more likely to accept you in their social circle than an American would be to take in a foreigner.

Also, I think that most Indians admire America on some level (this could be totally wrong, but it's the impression I got when I was there), whereas it's not necessarily true that Indians living in America respect India very much. I mean, they left India for a reason, right?

3:15 AM  
Blogger Rishi said...

"Wonderfully incisive" - that's a new one, and I think I like it :). I also agree with your points, Jehan - perhaps the tone of my entry was colored by the conversation I had with those particular Indian students.

Beyond even Asia, I've noticed that most other countries I've been to have been more welcoming to foreigners than the U.S. (except France, of course, cause we can't all woo older French women like you can). A part of that may be admiration, but in light of the U.S.' recent foreign policy...idiosyncrasies...I somehow feel that it's more these countries' ingrained senses of hospitality than a particular liking for America.

A mutual admiration does exist between Indians living in India and those living in America, but unfortunately it is too often hidden by our desire to separate from the other.

10:00 AM  
Anonymous Mansi said...

A few years ago, I understood that the "FOBs" I chose not to associate with as a teenager are no different than my father and mother were when they first moved to the United States. Ever since, I treat those who have just moved from India with a different type of hospitality.

With the boys who lived five in a one bedroom apartment in my building, it worked wonders. They never thought that an ABCD would speak Gujarati, stay true to the Jain religion, or be so helpful. They all had the perceptions you shared in your blog entry. I think befriending them helped all of us understand each other better.

2:05 AM  
Blogger Where 2 Next? said...

Hey Rishi!! Great blog...I see that you've come across the perpetual "identity crisis" we all face whether you are a FOB or ABCD. To add my own two cents..being a pseudo FOB myself, in college, my friends and I actually hung out with a group of FOBs..I think the problem comes when either side is insecure of their place and/or judgemental (like those Mumbaites)..otherwise, for the most part..we have much more in common than not and I think it's not as segregated as 5-10 years ago. Anyway, great thoughts, great Bidada pics, and I also had a lovely pleasant bout of "loose motions" (you know everyone here has ZERO qualms about telling someone they hardly know, how they just had loose motions..granted now, I've just posted it on the web, but it's pretty funny)...regardless, you can bet Tarak and I ain't eating no freakin' pav bhaji or chikki after ODing on it in Bidada. Take care and keep up the blogs :)

4:32 PM  
Blogger Rishi said...

Mansi, that's wonderful you were able to have that realization and help out the five flatmates. I believe this year, Artwallah is getting together a bunch of stories about our parents' generation and how they lived when they first came to America - much of it might be the same as those five guys are experiencing, except without the hospitality of an ABCD to fall back on!

Sharvari, thanks for letting all my family and friends in on your loose motions :). You know, reading your comment, I was reminded of that parody by Penn Masala - "Show Me the Meaning of Being Desi." Have you heard it? It asks whether the meaning is to be FOB or ABCD, and makes fun of boy bands at the same time. Pure brilliance!

11:11 PM  
Anonymous harris said...

wonderful post and blog. very informative. i like it. thanks for sharing with us.

12:49 PM  

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