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Sunday, March 15, 2009

India's Reflection (12.1.08)

Sitting down at the Itmad-ud-daulah (near the Taj Mahal) on the serene left bank of the afternoon Yamuna River, praying at the ancient Kamakshi Amman temple (near Chennai), and feeling the top level of the Golden Temple during Guru Nanak's birthday at Amritsar in India's northern reaches, the sentiment and reaction I felt toward India and its daily scenes crystallized in my mind; my feelings were reinforced when I was blessed to see my great grandmother, now 104 years young, with all her energy and adorable personality. I recently visited India after eleven years. When I had last done so as a bratty, closed, ungrateful teenager, I returned with a cautionary tale of indigestion, mosquito attacks, and "third world" un-civilization. In fact, despite the gained maturity, when sitting at the gate in the Brussels airport awaiting my connecting flight to Delhi, I noticed that my bill of emotions included a slight apprehension. However, with perspective that enables one to be more receptive to life's beauty and gravitational pulls, as well as reason its challenges, I had a fundamental expectation that I would appreciate India more this time around. This was certainly the biggest understatement of my life.

Of course, it is natural to make comparisons to the life and place I grew up in, almost as a kind of base to reflect upon. The argument of whether America is "better" than India or whether India is "better" than America, as spun from questions I received when I was younger regarding my preference or amongst prideful Indian Americans today, is altogether futile, fruitless, and even divisive (also reflects on the altogether wasteful North India versus South India gulf). Two extreme views persist out there - one foggy, immature rearview image of depravity and another of a country that is completely "Westernized." Neither story is wholly correct and in my eyes, to be so naive as to overlook or neglect India's inequities for sake of pride or nationalism is as equal a sin as the ignorance amidst the "West" that denounces India for its problems. But I do not plan to make any such formal, dry examination now. My reflection is far more personal and genuine and makes me long, love, as well as feel connected to and enamored by India. I assure you that there is no embellishment, no melodrama here; nor is it that I was somehow not "sensitized" to India's lifescapes and landscapes. I am speaking not as an unknowing foreigner, but as an Indian American. I have taken care to ensure that I was not simply under the spell of the most delicious food and coffee I had ever tasted and unbridled hospitality (which initially can be overwhelming), but truly was feeling what I was feeling. India's stark contrast to the life I have seen is what stole my heart.

My trip to India was transformational for me in that, essentially, it hit the nail on the head. To clarify, over the past year I have more firmly grasped three realizations. The first is a chronic recognition of my fortune. Another is a deep generational understanding that every step I take is one that is not only built on the backs of my parents and grandparents, uncles and aunts, but is actually identical to, indistinguishable from the step that my great grandmother now takes everyday in Bangalore. The third is a spiritual appreciation that recognizes that contentment exudes from within rather than being dependent on external factors and that such contentment is maintained by living in the current moment rather than the often natural tendency to fester on the past or grow anxious about the future. While such sentiments are certainly nothing new, previously they were nomads in my mind, which drew on them fleetingly, and the feelings they elicited were of guilt and shallow motivation. Now they 1) have found a settled home and are a continual, universal part of my life and 2) summon a sense of chronic pride and clearer ambition. India provided me with solid affirmation of all of the above, tying all the loose strings and evaporating wayward doubts. I felt both humbled and emboldened.

It was not the cliche descriptives of India as a "land of contrasts" and colors and scenes of every walk of life across urban and rural street corners or played out comparisons to America's materialism that made the impact. While India's daily scenes continued to be immeasurably beautiful, this was just the veneer of beauty that did it for me. It was a triad of a pervasive selflessness, sharedness and its nobility, and devotion/faith at every turn that captivated me. It was not as if I had to look, it was inescapable. It was that all gifts and conversations came truly, solely, and wholly from the heart. When one person needed assistance, ten would run and insist on giving it. An outside observer could rightly describe traffic in Bangalore or Chennai as pure chaos, but after a little time within I had the faith to feel completely cradled even when a bus was seemingly hurtling towards me - I couldn't think of a better system, everything seemed just right.

As for comparisons, all are entirely relative. The relative stifling cynicism and sickening vanity that seems to permeate the life I observed in America boiled away in the Madras coffee I sipped every morning. My initial fascination evolved into a sense of belonging in which there were too many moments when I could not have imagined myself anywhere else in the Milky Way. Unlike America, with its awkward patchwork of unity and belonging, India offered something seamless - everything and everyone had a perfect place. In India, my father's aside of "look at what is there, not at what is not there" as he clicked photographs through the window of our moving van, my parents' anecdotes of childhood in what anyone now would consider rural poverty, my grandmother's stories of Hanuman's virtue and devotion to Rama all sprouted legs and took life, running wild in my mind. Having the chance to speak to students and visit a hostel (and its book bank), which two of my uncles funded and developed and named after my grandmother, designed solely for impoverished college students unable to afford residence and books, further underscored an education system and its associated value system (still not accessed by so many in India) that makes America look shameful and merely, as Kozol would put it, "artificially advantaged."

While I am in no position, and it would be completely baseless of me, to judge any one person's selflessness or sincerity or bring forth any such measures, I can speak to general observations. More than the culture or history, the family, friends, and strangers met, and daily life, in terms of India's incessant beauty of selfless, shared faith, America is merely a pale reflection. In relative terms, as overly blessed as I have been in America, it is as if America's genuineness is impulsive, contrived, reactionary, and bottled in preservatives. While life in America is three dimensional, India offers four; feelings of purpose and meaning were unabashedly exposed and came looking for me. Saying goodbye to India was all too difficult and it certainly felt as if I was saying goodbye to a new friend, one that I could always fall back on. In the background I saw my friend pulling millions up out of poverty, while the friend I grew up with has been pulling people back down. This new friend recently launched a mission to the moon, lines city street lights with solar panels, and sees daily street laborers without shoes canvassing local communities with mobile phone advertisements. He sees a Muslim build a Hindu temple.

India seems to be just the golden proportion of mystery and reassurance and while I have begun to grasp it's galaxy, it is still unfathomable to me. I yearn for a one way ticket back.