Returning to India

By Vinod Kumar

These are my experiences and observations on life in India and on Indians. Although there are many generalizations in there I confess these are nothing more than my subjective accumulated experience. I am not attempting to form a theory or explanation for the behavior and culture of Indians. All the tentative theories I formed as the months passed only painted a negative view of India and made it harder for me to live here. So I have learnt the art of not forming an opinion on India and Indians. Living here is more important than having an opinion about living here. So these observations are just that – observations. There may be some commentary and musings on them but definitely not a coherent theory about India.

I returned to India with plenty of ideas about mind management – mindfulness practices that help in calming the mind. It worked well for me in transitioning from a 15 year stay in Singapore to the United Kingdom and in settling down in Leeds for 2 years. I had come to have a certain degree of conviction in these practices and my abilities to keep them up.  Then the move to India came.

I landed in Mumbai on 1 July 2013. The first thing I noticed in India is the general roughness of the populace. After the default politeness that characterizes society in Leeds (UK) India’s chaos and elbowing were very palpable. The second noticeable characteristic was the noise levels in India, even from the indoor crowds. It was louder than UK or Singapore. Was there a link between the noise levels in India and the rudeness of Indians? I was with my wife and mother-in-law who knew Mumbai well. For the most part I had no problems during the short 10 day stay in Mumbai. I was given a son-in-law treatment and I began to feel I could handle India easily.

I came to Bangalore on 12th July 2013 by train in a 3-tier AC coach. I was wary of what to expect during a 24-hour train journey. Although I was growing in confidence I still wasn’t smug about the struggles of life in India. As the train left Mumbai a family horde with some questionable seat reservations boarded the compartment. One of them sat next to me and some climbed onto my berth. With my berth taken I had to sit and sleep during the afternoon.  My tendency to keep quiet while my right was trampled upon was part of the reason for my silence. I convinced myself that I was a good soul and that I was doing a great deed here bearing with the needs of the family. The seating area felt crowded with all these people sitting in there. I wondered what it would have been like in the non-AC compartments. Does a ticket mean anything in India? Are rights, even if paid for, respected here?

The family got off after a few stations and the compartment was relatively comfortable. I did get a smile and thank you from the patriarch of the family. I felt that he acknowledged the sacrifice I made. As the journey continued I got introduced to the co-passenger opposite me – a middle aged man who was from the army. I thought he would make good company; after all, he was an educated professional. But I was dismayed when he turned off the air conditioner in the compartment, yelled at the service boy, and kept the lights on late into the night, as if the seating area meant for everyone belonged to him. He brushed aside my remonstrations. He was a bully! Bastard! Education had only made him an educated bully. Are Indians generally insensitive to the rights and needs of others around them?

I reached Bangalore angry but used my mind management practices to calm down. My father, who came to the train station to receive me, took me home and I settled into the environment where I grew up. My family is not an emotionally expressive family. They don’t display ecstatic joy when their son returns to them after years. They act with general calmness as if I was away only for a day. I always remain unfulfilled by this lack of expression. Would it hurt to take a minute to simply smile and experience the joy?

In my parent’s house at Bangalore I tried to make myself useful. I observed the activities of my parents and volunteered to chip in where I could. My mother, who believes that the kitchen is only for women, carefully kept me out of any kitchen work. I still managed to find a few activities where I could help daily. The challenge here was that my retired father and homemaker mother needed the schedule of activities to survive the passage of time and feel that their existence mattered and that their life had a purpose, even if that purpose was only to look after the house they had built, i.e. surviving. They had difficulty letting go of these activities to me and adopting new routines. I don’t know if age does this to everyone. They would find fault with the quality of my work from the moment I began doing it to cut me off from it. I put up with these charades and managed to carve out some activities for myself in the house.

My wife joined me in Bangalore a few weeks later and the real drama began. My mother expected her to naturally know what needs to be done in the house and take the initiative to get them done. But my wife was never trained in household chores. She was willing to be trained but she was clear that it wasn’t her primary area of interest. She was a career woman and I wanted her to be that way. So she would hang around the kitchen waiting for instructions from my mother on what needed to be done and my mother would wait for her to do what needed to be done without being told. This led to awkward long hours for my wife who skulked around the kitchen doing nothing. My mother is not easy to communicate with. So negotiating with her to change her expectations is out of the question. My father was a whole lot better. He had his rigidities but they were never material to our existence. He firmly believed in the intuitions that arose from experience. While I think experience may add great wisdom it can also add and solidify intuitions that could depart from a changing reality. Experience can and often does lead to closed-minded convictions.

I began applying for jobs against advertisements that appeared in the newspaper. I used my network to get my CV into the HR departments of large corporations. I was given ample advice to lie in my CV and interviews. I was told this is fairly common in India and that it would be difficult for me to land a job if I didn’t lie. Is honesty a rarity in India?

I landed a job as a salesman at a small company called Indian Institute of Hardware Technology (IIHT). I began my job at the office where my place was on any available chair. The office had cockroaches and lizards. The people who interviewed me and assured me that I would be given all the help and assistance showed up to work once a week. Do Indians ever keep their word? Does it matter to them to make their words and actions meet? Or do Indians interact with each other with the awareness that there is no such thing as integrity?

I was given a SIM card and told to google for reception desk numbers of companies and call up to sell the services of IIHT. That is all I was given in terms of training. I began tele-calling, after two graduate degrees and a post-graduate diploma in law. As the days progressed the place was refurbished and I was relieved to get an air-conditioned cubicle. The interviewers came in on Saturdays and did little more than projecting their status about on everyone. They had no clear idea of the prices for their services, they had no resources to deliver what they were claiming to sell and they repeatedly yelled at everyone. One by one the employees started to quit the company. They failed to provide an appointment letter despite my repeated requests. Are all Indians so fraudulent, exploitative and status conscious?

On the second pay day my cheque was withheld. I quit the following day. Farce negotiations and uncalled for delays followed where intimidation was used to get me to give up my claims for unpaid salaries. I have registered a case against IIHT. Are all Indians such fraudulent bastards?

I was given another job the day I quit IIHT through a relative of someone I knew at IIHT. It was at Safex Solutions as a salesman, selling biometric solutions. Again during the interview I was told I would be trained well. I got low-balled on my salary. Nonetheless I decided to join Safex. At my new workplace I spent most of my first month just idling at my desk. There was no formal training programme. The director of sales did take me around for client meetings. I observed him and wondered how he managed to get any sales at all. His communication skills – grammar, diction, listening – were all atrocious. He constantly cut clients off in between. He spoke loudly. His English writing was full of grammatical errors. And he thought that taking notes during these meetings was funny. I found his quotations non-standard, but he insisted that they were standard. Like my father he had a very high opinion of his 12 years experience in the field. Why can’t Indians see that experience can also lead to inappropriate rigidities? He was impossible to have a conversation with. In fact the 2 training sessions he had at the office were painful. He didn’t get my style of participation where I would not hesitate to venture guesses as answers for the questions he raised and I found his teaching style disruptive and laborious. He was too defensive for any kind of connection. He seemed to struggle with the fact that I was his age and therefore deserved some respect and the fact that he didn’t know how to talk respectfully to a subordinate. His subordinates were petrified of him and again were at a loss on how to deal with him. I wonder how Indians actually work with such horrendous bosses? Have I become too soft? Yelling would be construed as harassment in UK and US. In India it was everyday affair. Employers did not treat their subordinates as employees but as servants.

My colleagues at Safex were on an average 8 years younger than me. I found it amusing that they always had lunch together. One of them even said that the food would not digest if he ate alone. I found that warm but strange, as if I knew that feeling sometime in the distant past. I always have lunch on my own. I valued the quiet time. As a passing mention I found it strangely warm to see my elders still have connections with their school friends and their extended family. The ‘best friend’ concept is still alive in India. I don’t quite get that. I keep changing in my opinions and attitude and that changes my perception of the quality of my past and present friendships. Various life stages also change the issues that matter. What was best in the past now seems below average.

Coming back to my colleagues, their conversations revolved around teasing one another about crushes. I felt old among them. My colleagues had no sense of planning and prioritizing their work with task lists. Their conversation style matched my sales director’s – their listening skills were atrocious. They barely allowed the other person to complete a sentence. Was it an Indian thing to yell at each other and resolve issues? Have Indians forgotten the art of conversation? Does the conduct of our MPs in parliament – all the hectoring – reflect what is on the ground among the masses?

My colleagues are all from small-town India, not urban India. What I like about them is that they are non-competitive and share openly, not just their food but their knowledge and skills. I look around me and see a lot of immaturity. But I also see a lot of hearty people who are very willing to help if they are spoken to kindly. I value that and often feel like perhaps this is where I belong.

If I may nit-pick I also find the accent of Indians hard to follow. I have learnt to slow down my speech and choose my words properly and pay attention to diction. Indians are too fast for me. I have to explicitly tell them to slow down in their speech.

I travelled using the public transport for the first 4 months. I was impressed with the frequency of the buses. Bangalore has an excellent bus network covering all corners of the city. I never waited for more than 15 minutes for a bus no matter where I went. But the conduct of people in the buses was another story. One still had to elbow the next person to board the bus or disembark. Only the young could afford such physical stress. The buses were no place for the old, handicapped and feeble. The metro is under construction and many roads are dug up and left in poor condition due to the mismanagement of the construction projects.

I bought a motorbike in the fifth month of my stay here. Riding in Bangalore is both organized and chaotic. There are working traffic signals and most of the motorists respect the rules. But there is no lane driving.  It is not uncommon for road users to turn right from the left lane or turn left from the right lane or make a U-turn where it is not permitted blocking traffic for more than a kilometer during peak hours. I find many inconsiderate road users. Indian motorists have no concept of ‘checking the blind spot’ or the ‘right of way’. The honking often gets to my nerves. I tried advising a driver about his honking and he rudely told me to get lost. Do Indians have a high fallibility quotient, where they think they can do no wrong and can never be in need of advice?

There are plenty of potholes on the road. The Bangalore City Corporation aims to fill them before the end of February 2014. I do find the roads getting better by the day but I am skeptical whether all potholes are indeed going to get filled.

Before I purchased my motorbike I got my 4-wheeler driving license. I managed to do this without paying a bribe directly or indirectly through agents. But it was not without its frustrations. The Road Transport Office had changed its application system and confusion reigned. There was also a communication gap – Indians use the word “cover” to mean, among others, an envelope. I had forgotten that and that alone resulted in some confusion which was comical in retrospect. The driving test was bizarre. The tester did not accompany me. He instead watched me drive for 50 metres and continued on with his work. When I went along the track that he had pointed out and came back he told me that the license would be posted to my house. I dared to ask him by how many days would I get the license and got a brusque reply that he was not the postman to tell me that. Is polite communication dead in India?

Even a simple purchase of a cup of coffee can be a struggle in India. Nobody stands in a queue and nobody even acknowledges an informal queue.

The rise of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) is encouraging a lot of first time voters to get a voter ID and stand in the queue to vote. Many had so far not bothered to do so because of the choices they had – the corrupt Congress or the equally corrupt and communal BJP or some regional party with a parochial mindset. The Aam Aadmi has buoyed the hopes of the young voters. The older voters – my father and his friends – are not so easily swayed. They see it as a passing phenomenon. I was partly carried away too till I paid attention to the points my father was raising. The AAP, although noble minded, still lacks administrative expertise. They have some novel ideas with the aim of making the government work more closely with the people but these ideas seem unworkable as of now and even seems like a populist stunt. The Delhi durbar is one such instance of an idea that was not very well thought out. I also find the vigilantism of the Law Minister of Delhi (Somnath Bharti) highly objectionable. I think the AAP indeed lacks administrative expertise in governance but I believe their integrity will show them the ropes of the trade very quickly. Such events provide some relief in the life of Indians in the form of intellectual debate. The newspapers, particularly the national dailies, are a pleasure to read. The editorials give the illusion of India being a unified country. But other news stories make me wonder whether India can even be called one nation. I live in a country where a woman can become a Chief Minister of a state and where another woman can be handed down a punishment by her village elders to be gang raped by 13 men for loving a man outside her community.

After more than 6 months in India I have learnt to enjoy the good in India, even if they come a little infrequently, and keep the irritations of life in India in the background of my consciousness. Stepping out of the house is a battle in itself and it keeps me alert. The interaction with family members, even if not optimal, keeps me engaged. Bangalore weather in the second half of the year has been pleasant. The fact that there are no motorbike parking charges in most places is a relief. The food in India is definitely a delight. The struggles prevent me from analyzing matters too deeply. I feel alive in the battle here! I feel the need to keep fit and firm before stepping out of the house. My brother and sister-in-law who are currently in India after a few years stay in the US find the same issues with India like I did. But I realized that I have made progress in adjusting to this country. I no longer feel the irritation of living in India like the way my brother does. I don’t think this is a conscious process. Consciously I still feel highly negative about India. But subconsciously time and the effect of Indian society on me are indeed doing their job.

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  • CT Maloney
    Posted at 11:25h, 26 January Reply

    Interesting, and thanks. It is said that in general foreigners either like India for its differences and relationships, or right away dislike it- not much middle ground. Coming especially from that staid English society is probably different than coming from the US where behavior is not quite so “refined.” Generally the southern states are more pleasant than the north where rowdiness is more accepted, partly because the expectations of gender difference is more. I am an American having lived decades in South India and I never felt afraid, threatened, or really badly treated, One learns to accept the differences and appreciate the humanness unique to Indian social relations.

  • akb
    Posted at 22:48h, 26 January Reply

    Unfortunately those who have left their homeland for greener pastures abroad forget their past lives spent at home and after they return to their homelands they try to compare conditions prevailing at home with those abroad ( in developed countries). Basically this is a wrong expectation and it is due to this state of ‘disbelief’ and ‘modern enlightenment syndrome’ that they are seldom able to adjust back to conditions at home.
    there are good things in every homeland and one must not despair over and cuss it just because conditions at home did not meet his expectations, He must realize the difficulties faced by those who are living and surviving there not only because they do not want to change but societal, economic and political conditions do not allow them to change. One must never judge an entire elephant only by his tail.

  • Vikram
    Posted at 06:19h, 27 January Reply

    I am a bit surprised that you looked for a job from the ground up in India. This is not the practice most NRIs follow, the preferred option is to transfer to an Indian branch from a company abroad and take things from there.

    Honestly, Indian metro cities are a difficult place to live in. The general level of trust is quite low, and the somewhat weak economy is unable to meet the material expectations of the general populace.

  • Vinod
    Posted at 12:46h, 27 January Reply

    True Vikram. The MNC I worked for had only a small marketing branch in India while I had worked for their IT department. They didn’t have a career for me there.

    I hope you are right about trust levels in urban India and metro India. I too like to believe that the cynicisms and me-first attitude of Indians is related to the economic condition of the location they are in and not something intrinsic to their nature.

  • Vinod
    Posted at 04:04h, 28 January Reply

    akb, on the flip side, Indians who have remained in India have become blissfully unaware of the non-existent social mobility, feudal mindset and degradation of basic courtesies and empathy in their society thanks to the corrosive patriotism imbued in Indians at an early stage of their lives.

  • Vinod
    Posted at 06:14h, 28 January Reply

    One of my daily experiences in India has been the sad experience of witnessing any conversation with modest complexity turn into a blame game. Indians are too defensive to have a level headed conversation. It may have something to do with the struggle for survival here where everyone has a lot of personal stake involved in every matter that even remotely concerns them.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 17:13h, 28 January

      Vinod: The observation regarding the inability to deal with complexity is very pertinent. I am not sure to what extent it has to do with the struggle for survival. Europe in the 17th Century must have had similar survival stresses but the level of intellectual debate was exceptionally high. The names of those engaged in those conversations are still remembered with awe and they must have had a sizable audience because it was those ideas that propelled the great social transformations of those times.

      My feeling is that because everyone now studies technology and accounting where every question has only one correct answer the ability to deal with ambiguity and complexity has withered. How many people are exposed to philosophy or logic or even history in school or college? The excessive job-market orientation has taken its toll on civic life and the quality of our conversations.

      Right or wrong, this was one premise underlying the design of this blog. It is articulated in a little more detail here:

    • Indian
      Posted at 10:50h, 31 January

      SouthAsian, Vinod:

      The fact is very simple. India has not come to terms with its encounter with two Semitic religions as yet – Islam in the form of the Muslim invasions and Christianity in the form of the European imperialism.

      I don’t think India knows quite what has hit it yet. At some level, Indian civilisation is still absorbing and digesting the two Semitic imperialisms. In fact, one can say that Indian civilisation is suffering indigestion. 1947 was like one, long, incomplete vomit.

      One cannot overestimate the incomprehension with which a pagan, heathen culture like India would have dealt with the proselytising, believing cultures of Islam and Christianity.

      Many of India’s problems can be traced to the fact that it a pagan, heathen culture forced to conduct itself in a modern, Christianised world.

      The complex conversations we speak of are possible only amongst a confident, matured culture using its own language and intellectual categories to communicate with itself. India and Indians have been rendered hysterical by a thousand years of foreign intellectual and political dominance. What do you expect?

      I don’t know what language you are hoping to have these conversations in but I am guessing it is English. Indians can’t speak English (notwithstanding Arundhati Roy and Vikram Seth whose Indianness is a cosmetic garb which they use to hawk their wares in the West). I have seen the pall of incomprehension that descends over Indians’ eyes when I start speaking English. They don’t like it when I use complex sentences or express unconventional ideas. “Debate” in India is a farce.

      Anyway, Europeans put too much emphasis on talking. I don’t think our traditions were like this. We didn’t go around asking questions like “What is the meaning of life?” (which seems to the Christian cornerstone of all modern European philosophy).

      If you want to understand how our traditions approached the probems of life, read S.N. Balagangadhara ( The only thing I would say is, whatever the power of those traditions, they have completely failed to comprehend Semitics, and until we do so, India will continue to be adrift in this strange, modern world that we call home.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 16:57h, 05 February

      Indian: I find this comment quite puzzling. Why couldn’t a “pagan, heathen culture like India” (whatever that means) deal with Christianity? A pagan, heathen culture like that of Rome dealt with it and went on to be one of the great civilizations. Was Indian culture so weak that it is still reeling in incomprehension and hysteria? Are you saying that Indian culture was not a “confident mature” one and that it was unable to comprehend anything outside of itself? Something seems drastically wrong with this formulation unless I have misunderstood it completely.

      The conversations can be carried on in any language – the new web technology allows for that. But I don’t think that one has to speak English like the English to have useful conversations. There are many countries where people have even less familiarity with English but individuals belonging to them can converse quite adequately in the language.

      Finally, I would be very surprised if Indians never asked the question “What is the meaning of life?” Perhaps they asked it in some other way. If not, they must have asked some other questions? I would be curious to know what they were.

    • Anil Kala
      Posted at 06:28h, 29 January

      Not just people, Indian government too is extra sensitive to such matters. Look at its response to Devyani Khobragade episode. I mean no one acknowledged that a crime was committed by a diplomat instead the entire focus was on treatment meted out to the lady from entirely Indian perspective. The media was as hysterical as the government. It was very difficult to hear a single sane voice.

      As to Indian’s habit of elbowing and jostling it may be result of too little available for too many.Think bout roads, restaurants,quality schools, public transport, railways, housing nothing is readily available. Point is under similar circumstances wouldn’t folks from West too resort to elbowing?

  • Indian
    Posted at 00:25h, 31 January Reply

    An honest article. I felt much the same returning to India a year ago. Formal structures such as the modern office, roads, public services, public transport, explicit inter-personal communication are weak here.

    Whereas informal social structures such as the family, friendships and the general level of social coercion and organisation remain strong even as they are being gradually eroded and destoyed by modernity.

    I have also noticed that Indians don’t like to speak much. They don’t like conversation. Communication is implicit rather than explicit. Everything is done through nods, gestures and mumblings. This is of course the more natural method of human commnication and one that I grew up with. I felt shocked when I had to go to the West and make everything clear-cut, speak audibly and make eye contact.

    Even famous Indian writers in English like Pankaj Mishra and Manu Joseph speak quite poorly.

    Making eye contact is a dangerous thing in India. Eye-contact is something that validates another human being. It gives him respect and endows him with humanity. When I went to the West I realised that one has to speak to a sweeper with the same amount of courtesy as one would to a teacher or a doctor. I always felt uncomfortable about this but I mimicked the behaviour anyway as I had to survive.

    One cannot do this in India. In my first few months I started interacting with chaukidars, drivers and other members of the urban proletariat with the same amount of gusto as I would with any other human being. They viewed this as weak behaviour and started taking advantage of me. They would aggressively demand money from me and started being quite rude to me.

    It was some months before I realised that I can’t be “polite” to them. I needn’t make eye contact with them and recognise their subjectivity. They have to be treated as Nirad Chaudhuri once put it, as “human fauna”. Once I started treated them like shit, they responded accordingly and stopped behaving aggressively towards me.

    The lesson to be drawn from all this is that the West and Western categories of behaviour such as “humanity” or “politeness” and “rudeness” cannot be used to understand India. It is a different world. The “polite/rude” dichotomy doesn’t exist here. It is impossible to be rude in India because there is no concept of politeness. One cannot exist without the other. There is only hierarchy. Homo Hierarchicus as Louis Dumont put it. It is either dominate or be dominated.

    • Vikram
      Posted at 13:23h, 31 January

      “In my first few months I started interacting with chaukidars, drivers and other members of the urban proletariat with the same amount of gusto as I would with any other human being.”

      I have had the exact opposite experience. In my months of interacting with watchmen, drivers and maids, every single one of them has communicated back after an initial period of awkardness. The watchmen have told me about the lack of schools for their kids and crushing bank loans in their villages. The drivers have told me about caste tensions in their villages, their efforts to become a better Bhojpuri singer, their impressions about America, their memories of their children in their village. Our maid told me how she always alternates between ‘haath’ and ‘kamal’ in the elections, her obsession with sending her grandson to ‘bahargaon’ and her daughter getting shot by police for resisting eviction.

      I am not saying everyone will have such an experience, and I might just have been very lucky. The only time anyone came to insubordination was when one of the drivers was not heeding orders to stop speeding, and he was eventually told that he will be charged all the traffic fines and car repairs costs from his salary. He stopped after that.

      For what its worth, I would also like to add that among all my relatives in India, the most successful ones (career, family and money wise) have been the soft spoken, outgoing and polite ones.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 18:01h, 08 February

      Vikram: I believe your experience is the more representative one. You have to find the way to connect with people. On the second point, I have noticed that the more successful you are, the more polite you can afford to be in which case it is interpreted as a positive and admirable trait. What it takes to succeed in the first place, especially if you are not born to privilege, is another matter. I get the sense that it is becoming increasingly difficult for the straightforward types to break through – people just walk over them.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 14:58h, 31 January

      Indian: I am surprised by the remark that “The “polite/rude” dichotomy doesn’t exist here. It is impossible to be rude in India because there is no concept of politeness.” The culture of Lucknow at one time was conspicuous precisely because of its excessive politeness. There is also the culture of deference (which has its negatives, of course) – students are much more deferential to teachers than in the West. So, it is not a case of non-existence. Rather, a case of what happened?

      Also, there definitely is hierarchy but so was the case throughout feudal Europe. You are not saying that hierarchy in India is immutable?

    • Indian
      Posted at 22:56h, 31 January

      SouthAsian: Lucknawi politeness was premised on the non-existence of the masses. It was a politeness among aristocrats in an aristocratic culture. They were polite to themselves never to the masses. It would never have occured to either party to behave politely towards one another. The aristocrats may have functioned with an idea of a noblesse-oblige but that is a different matter.

      With modernity, a different ethic comes in. Every single human being, regardless of station is encouraged to demand something for himself, to function as an individual. “Equal rights, equal say”, so on. It is in this chaotic hierarchy that politeness dissapears. This chaos effects relations between man and woman, high and low, parent and child.

      I als want to make clear where I stand. I am not against hierarchy as a principle. I like hierarchy. It’s just that in India the hierarchy is chaotic, unsure of itself and not grounded in an aristocratic principle.

      I would shudder to think that India would one day become a shadow-image of the West, thoughtlessly egalitarian and committeed to equality.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 02:32h, 01 February

      Indian: Professor Dipankar Gupta is a contributor to The South Asian Idea. I would like you to read his interview at the recent Jaipur Literary Festival. It is on the subject of our conversation and will enrich the discussion:

  • Vinod
    Posted at 05:31h, 31 January Reply

    Indian..I shudder to think whether I too will become Homo Hierarchichus in a few more months. I have been here for 7 months now.

    • Indian
      Posted at 07:54h, 31 January

      Haha! Dude, we were born Homo Hierarchus. Nothing helped me realise that more than my stint in the West. In fact, it was in the West that I realised how different I was, how I thought and felt different from the whites. The only problem was that I was there long enough that I started behaving like them. Certainly not good preparation for those who want to return to India and make a life here.

      A friend of mine made an interesting observation recently. He said “Indians do not understand equality”. It’s not that they have a studied intellectual case against egalitarianism. It’s just that they do not understand it. They do not understand a relationship of equality. This is why I find Indian NGOs so hillarious. They are always talking about “rights”, “equality” and “democracy”. The funny thing is these NGOwallahs themselves don’t know what these things are and the deep Christian underpinnings of these seemingly harmless and goody-goody concepts.

      I cannot imagine a people more flummoxed by equality and democracy, yet these are the very people who instituted universal suffrage at the time of independence! What funny situations colonialism has bred!

      It is my never-to-be-realised project to translate the intuitions of Indian culture or hierachical culture into a modern, Western idiom so that Westerns stop forcing themselves on us and Indians can understand themselves better.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 09:36h, 01 February

      Indian: I am not on the same wavelength here. We might have been born Homo Hierarchus but we don’t have to remain so. After all, we are also born naked but are endowed with clothes soon after. As it is, this is a debatable proposition. It can be argued that we are not born Homo Hierarchus – all hierarchies are man-made and are also undermined and overturned by human beings. Slave and feudal societies are largely gone and patriarchy is weakening in many parts of the world.

      Being different is not the same as being in a hierarchy – no one in Silicon Valley feels he/she should/can be below or above another for reasons of color or religion. As you mentioned in your first comment you have to speak to a janitor as a social equal.

      Rights, equality, and democracy do not have deep Christian underpinnings. If they did, one would not have seen the biggest slave empire and feudal society in the land of pious Christians. The urge for fairness and equality is much more widespread. All rights have been won through immense struggles as evidenced in the battles for civil and gender equality.

      It is quite true that India got political equality before social equality, contrary to Europe. This is at the bottom of many of the paradoxes of democracy in the country – a point repeatedly made on this blog. It is not that no one was aware of this – Dr. Ambedkar articulated the contradiction and warned of its implications right at the outset.

      On the subject of slavery, the following is worth reading:,0#

      “The first volume, The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture (1966), offered a penetrating analysis of thinking about slavery from ancient times to the late eighteenth century. It posed an obvious but previously neglected question: Why did it take so long for a belief in slavery’s inherent immorality to emerge? In one form or another, slavery has existed since the dawn of civilization. Slaves, to be sure, have always known that slavery is wrong. But Davis’s concern was with the rise of a humanitarian sensibility among those who did not suffer under the institution. Slavery was long accepted as an imperfect part of a necessarily imperfect social system, one example among many of social hierarchies on which public order was thought to depend. Anti-slavery, as a coherent body of thought, emerged only in the eighteenth century, due to a revolution in moral perceptions. Central to this process were evangelical religion and Enlightenment thought, both of which placed a new emphasis on every person’s inherent dignity and natural rights and on the possibility of perfecting society.”

  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 16:50h, 31 January Reply

    Vinod: I received this comment on your account from an Indian abroad. It was sent to the email address of the weblog:

    “It is pretty accurate. With such variations and extremes… the most polite people and the rudest people, most beautiful women and the ugliest, the lowest IQ’s and the highest, the most honest and the most corrupt, the most spiritual and the worst alcoholics… India is unpredictable and full of good as well bad experiences. Normal responses are not the norm. Your state of mind depends on whether you give more weight to the positive or get weighed down by the negatives. This is where spirituality helps.”

    • Vinod
      Posted at 03:41h, 04 February

      True, SouthAsian. I still resort to my spirituality – “mind management techniques” to keep going in India.

    • Vinod
      Posted at 04:33h, 04 February

      India feels like a country where the base has no systems, just people and the eccentricities that each individual brings with them. Here is where most of the interaction happens. One can make the best of it only if one is good at reading people well and learning languages quickly. There are not too many culturally imposed ideas of appropriate behaviour. Each individual has had a crazy past and has shaped his behaviour in certain ways. At this level life remains highly unpredictable in India which, on your good day, can make stepping out of the house feel like an adventure.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 13:43h, 04 February

      Vinod: That has its pluses and minuses. For example, in England you will rarely have a cricketer walk off the street and find himself in the national team – talent would work its way up through schools, academies, counties, etc. At the same time, anyone who has talent will likely get a chance to develop it. In India, there will be the great untutored discovery but one has no idea how many potential stars will never be in the right place at the right time and wither away unnoticed.

      Complexity theory provides a good perspective on this: At one extreme is the confusion of chaos; at the other the stagnation of order – the exciting things take place at the boundaries of chaos and order. Its that creative mix we should be striving for.

  • Indian
    Posted at 05:34h, 06 February Reply

    SouthAsian: This is in response to your comments 1 ( and 2 (

    I feel we have reached the end of our engagement. There is a point I always hit with well-meaning Westernised liberals that I cannot cross. They are interested in what I have to say but it’s always “this far and no further”. I seem to encounter almost a certain incomprehension. For example, when I call India a pagan, heathen culture, you say “whatever that means”. I am surprised by this. It’s almost like you never read “The Heathen in his Blindness”. That is the fundamental point of the book. India is a pagan, heathen culture and it reacted with incomprehension to the Abrahamics.

    Indian culture had begun reacting to Muslims in the extra-military sphere but you must remember, Islam’s presence in India was founded on military force. Yes, Hindus, one the whole were weaker militarily. That obviously also affected their civilisational response. For a wonderful account of this, read the latest post by Manasa Taramgini (

    You say, “Finally, I would be very surprised if Indians never asked the question “What is the meaning of life?” Perhaps they asked it in some other way. If not, they must have asked some other questions? I would be curious to know what they were.”

    Again, I am very suprised by this. The essence or definition of religion is that it views “the cosmos as an explanatorily intelligible entity”. No pagan tradition does this. This too is the fundamental contribution of Balu’s research programme. Religion takes as its ground the entire world and the “meaning” of human life. Pagans do not have a perspectival relationship with the world. They only have a relaitonship with parts of the world. They do not search for “truth”. Hence, they would not ask such a question.

    Finally, I do not think Rome emerged triumphant from its encounter with Christianity. I admit, my knowledge of the history of Rome is weak. But from what I understand, its greatness preceded its encounter with Christianity. Even the great Edward Gibbon, a de-Christianised Christian blames Christianity for the fall of the Roman Empire in his “The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire”, in Volume II which I am yet to peruse.

    In fact, the corruption of Rome by Christianity is the story told in the first chapters of “The Heathen…”. That is how the book begins and anchors itself. The questions you ask me can be much better answered by a perusal of Balu’s literature and research programme. It is time you re-familiarised yourself with his work.

    The destruction of heathens by Christianity is also outlined by Manasa Taramgini here (

    In the end, I would like to say that I have enjoyed interacting with you and perusing this blog. But, I do not think there can be a satisfactory conclusion to our debate because we think differently.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 16:06h, 07 February

      Indian: Balu is always asking what certain terms mean. For example, he repeatedly asks what the term ‘religion’ means. In the same spirit, I was making the point that the term ‘pagan’ can mean different things to different people. Just to indicate that I was not being frivolous, you can read the following:

      Also, we can only have a discussion if we disagree and think differently but are genuinely interested in moving towards a better understanding, if not complete agreement. If we only talk to those who agree with us, we would be moving towards a cult and that is of very little intellectual interest.

      We can make progress if our disagreements are restricted to the arguments and facts while judgments about personalities of the participants are avoided. The use of ‘Westernized liberal’ as a put-down is not helpful to terminate a discussion especially because the vast majority of participants in discussions are westernized to some extent.

      I very much appreciate you comments on the blog and your contributions to the discussions and I hope you will continue to add value with your insights.

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