25 Jan 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.