Does Living in India Turn You Into a Bad Person?

Living in India definitely has its ups and downs — extreme ups and downs that it’s difficult to imagine unless you’ve gone through it yourself. I refer to it as the roller coaster. In some ways, living in India has been wonderful for me. It’s made me less of a control freak, and more easy going and adaptable. It’s taught me to develop boundaries with people, and be more assertive. It’s broadened my perspective on so many things, including life and spirituality. It’s opened me up to so many new experiences. In short, it’s added a new dimension to my personality.

However, sometimes, living in India has brought out horrible sides of me that I never knew I had. I’ve been so enraged that I’ve slapped an overly persistent beggar who wouldn’t stop touching me (and what’s more, I know I’m not the only one to have done that). I’ve shouted, and ranted so much out of frustration that I’ve hardly recognised myself. I forcefully grab other women and push them aside when getting on and off the ladies compartment of the Mumabi local train. I was so rough one day with a group of women who barged onto the train and blocked the exit, carelessly stopping me and others from disembarking, that I got called “paagal” (crazy).

My behaviour was indeed paagal compared to the well mannered person that I usually am.

The reason why I’m pondering the effects of living in India is because of this article I read, titled Why I Left India (Again). It’s written by an Indian guy who returned to India with his family, lived an extremely comfortable existence, but decided to move back to the US again within three years. Why? He didn’t like the person he was becoming in India.

He explains:

“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.”

Strangely enough, I can relate to everything he says, even the last paragraph. I’ve heard plenty of Sardar jokes, have had to deal with open inquisitiveness about my husband’s caste (usually in the form of a simple, yet totally unnecessary, inquiry as to what his last name is), and am grappling with how to make sure the maid comes regularly to clean the floors. I fear I’ve been too gentle with her, and she’s become lazy and demotivated.

The author of the article sums up his main problem with India as “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.”

And here is the conundrum: how to treat people in India? Back home, people act cordially to others. A professional will speak respectfully to a tradesman, a waiter, or any other person who does menial labour. It’s not the same in India. People will talk down to them. And in return, many of them are dishonest and opportunistic. The distribution of resources is so extreme and uneven, it prompts extreme behaviour.

Workers who are honest are often discussed like they’re treasures: Can you believe it, after so much searching, I’ve finally found a decent maid who’s reliable and works hard. Not like the other one who stole from me. Oh, you’re so lucky? Where did you get her? I can’t find anyone like that!

Many times, honest and hard working home help are shocked when their employers are kind and generous to them because they’re not used to it. There is a lack of middle ground where respectfulness and honesty are just everyday things that everyone comes to expect.

So, how have I dealt with it? I’m polite to everyone until they give me reason not to be. However, I’ve definitely become hardened towards the situations of others. It’s their karma, right? Yet, I still do my bit to help through social investing.

Some commendable Indians choose to stay in India because they want to help India change. It took me a year to accept India for the way she is, and stop struggling against her ways. So, the thought of trying to get India to change leaves me feeling completely overwhelmed. Besides, I’ve accepted that I can never become Indian, so I don’t feel obligated to bring about change.

My acceptance of India is no doubt one of the reasons why I’ve continued to stay here. India is a country with imperfections, just like every other country. Perhaps, the issue of the gaping chasms in society isn’t so overwhelming for me because I don’t live a lavish life here. If I was holed up in a home worth crores of rupees, with a bevy of staff to take care of me (and a spa bath instead of my wet bathroom), I might feel differently. Instead, I’m just another average member of society, right in the middle, with plenty of people above and below me.

Photo credit: Rishi S.