Friday, November 25, 2011
Thursday, November 3, 2011
Wednesday, November 2, 2011
Arko Datta/ReutersA car and two bullock carts make their way through traffic in Mumbai.
The Hindi movie on my “return to India” flight on Dec. 13th, 2006 was “Swades” (literally: “My country,” a story about a patriotic NASA engineer who returns to India to help improve his homeland).
The idea that you can fix India’s problems by adding more people to it — even smart people — is highly suspect. No, I wasn’t going back to fix things; I was leaving the U.S. to go back to Shri Thomas Friedman’s India: an India that offered global companies, continental food, international schools and domestic help; an India that offered freedom from outsourcing and George W. Bush.
I was excited about moving to India and I thought I had the right expectations—after being away for eleven years (I grew up in Mumbai), I was prepared for India to feel less like home and more like the flight’s “Indian vegetarian meal”: visually familiar but viscerally alien.
Our move was a success by any metric. My wife and I are software professionals, and our careers flourished at an Indian rate of growth (R.I.P., “Hindu rate of growth”). Our daughter attended a preschool in Bangalore whose quality matched any in the Bay Area. Our three-bedroom flat in Defence Colony, Indiranagar, was so comfortable and so American-friendly that my friends called it the Green Zone.
And yet, two years and nine months after our move to India, on one of our regular evening jogs along our impossibly leafy street, my wife and I found ourselves discussing not whether we should return to the U.S., but when.
A month later, we were back in California.
Anyone who’s written about India has at some point claimed that there are two or at most three Indias, whether “airplane India” or “scooter India” or “bullock cart India.” Maybe they stop at three because it is difficult for the reader to imagine more.
Early on, all the metaphors rang true. I’d see bullock-cart India beg from scooter India while scooter India was getting honked at by airplane India.
But then the metaphors started to fade and the daily grind set in. I stopped noticing India’s newness, oldness and juxtapositioned-ness. Within weeks, I had joined the honking swarm driving in Bangalore. I knew a guy who could repair anything from my daughter’s talking Barney to our Bose Wave radio. I could sweet-talk an auto-rickshaw driver into not fleecing me (even though I was Kannada-challenged). Everything felt familiar, normal, unremarkable, as it should be; I was in India.
That’s when it started going wrong.
Three months after our return, after a friend told me that his two children were sick with amoebiasis — he thought they got it from their maid — my wife and I designated a separate set of dinnerware for our maids. It’s more hygienic.
Within six months, I’d brusquely refused my driver an emergency loan of 500 rupees ($10) to attend his grandmother’s funeral. I’d learned my lesson after our previous driver scammed me into paying for his son’s broken leg (as it turned out, he had no son). It only encourages them to ask for more; besides, they’re all liars.
Near the first anniversary of our return, I had my first road-rage incident: I verbally abused a hawker who was blocking the road. I’m not going to let bullock-cart India make my daughter late for her school admission test.
The hawker glared but scampered away, the road cleared, and, as I walked back to my car, I saw something new and disturbing in my driver’s eyes: respect. I don’t know how my daughter felt because I couldn’t look her in the eye.
Was this even a real problem? Make your peace; it is how it is.At the end of a long phone call to my mother in Pune, she said, “Don’t think so much. Just work hard and you can get whatever you want.”
But I never doubted what I could get; I hated what I was becoming.
I struggled, I regressed, I improved, I tried learning from others — except so many seemed (to me, not to them) worse off: an offensive Sardar joke here (even the kids laughed), a not-so-subtle inquiry about my caste (I’m still furious with myself for answering), tips on how to keep our maid “in her place” — it just didn’t stop. Et tu, airplane India?
And so it goes.
In any breakup, there is this moment when a person who was a part of you just an instant ago becomes a surrealistically familiar stranger. After that moment, inertia and denial can only delay the inevitable.
On my last night in Bangalore I drank an egregious amount of my favorite takeout Chinese hot-and-sour vegetable soup, and I cried; I knew this second goodbye was final. When I first left India in 1996, I left for the U.S. When I left India in 2009, I left India.
Why do I feel better in the U.S.? Maybe it’s not because I’m at home here, but because I’m an alien. Perhaps three thousand years of history have made us Indians a little too familiar with one another for our own good. We’ve perfected Malcolm Gladwell’s “blink” — the reflexive, addictive and tragically accurate placement of other Indians into bullock carts, scooters, airplanes and who knows what else. These issues exist in all countries, but in India, I could see the bigotry in high fidelity and hear the stereotypes in surround-sound — partly because it is worse in India, mostly because I am Indian.
India’s wealth and lifestyle disparity is still impossibly great; I probably spent more on pizza than on my maid. She knew this too, because she was often the one who handed the pizza delivery guy his money. Everyone in India has to deal with this, but I coped in the worst possible way: by dehumanizing her and other people like her, ever so slightly, ever so subtly — chronic amoebiasis of the soul.
Though my return to India failed, I came back feeling more optimistic than ever about India’s long-term success. India is regaining her leadership position — the position she held ever since humans were civilized, a position she lost only because of a few uncivilized humans (at least give us back our Koh-i-noor!). I know India will rule the future. It’s just that I’ve realized — I’ve resigned myself to the fact — that I won’t be a part of that future.
I’m glad I went back to India, and I’m glad to be back in the U.S. Life has come full circle but the center has shifted. I didn’t go to India to find home, but I did find it; I now know where I belong. As Laozi might have said, sometimes the journey of a single step starts with a thousand miles in the opposite direction.
(There was no Hindi movie on the flight back to the U.S. Or maybe I didn’t check.)
Sumedh Mungee lives in the United States.
Tuesday, November 1, 2011
Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906)
We Wear the Mask
WE wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,—
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
And mouth with myriad subtleties.
Why should the world be over-wise,
In counting all our tears and sighs?
Nay, let them only see us, while
We wear the mask.
We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries
To thee from tortured souls arise.
We sing, but oh the clay is vile
Beneath our feet, and long the mile;
But let the world dream otherwise,
We wear the mask!