Saturday, November 12, 2011

Confront that surrealistically familiar stranger...

In an article written a few weeks back, Mr Sumedh Mungee wrote a piece on why he left India (again). His article received a fair bit of attention on blogs and the Interwebs. The article had over 400 comments on the NY Times site. Each of these comments had several "Recommends" too. Many of the comments spoke, sadly, to a "Good riddance, please do not come back" theme.

The reaction to a frank and honest article was along expected lines. 

But I was struck by Mr Mungee's conclusion: 
"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." 
It is easy to dismiss that sentiment, like several of the respondents have, and say that it is Mr Mungee's loss and India's gain! That would be lazy. That would be egregious. 

I would like to request, instead, that Mr Mungee considers a return to India in the near future. 

After making several trips over the last 4 years or so, we decided to relocate to India last year. It wasn't an easy decision. There were many unknowns. However, we were clear about one thing. Just one thing. We were clear that we would come back with our eyes completely open and with clearly set/accepted/understood expectations. Expectations of others. Expectations of ourselves too.

At the time of writing this, we have now been in India for 18 months. It has been a crazy ride. It has been thoroughly confusing at times. It has been deflating and unrewarding at times. The paradoxes are too many to list although a healthy dose of humour helps (see this and this for examples).

But then "eyes open" and "clear expectations" are weasel words. 

What exactly do these mean?


Mr Mungee gives the impression in his introductory comments that he left USA to return to India not to "fix India's problems"

There is an implicitly hidden neat assumption in there that (a) there are indeed problems, (b) that these need "fixing", and (c) these are easily fixed by returning NRIs. 

Yes. It is entirely likely that there are problems that may be fixed (only) by returning NRIs.

But let us ignore that for a minute. Mr Mungee says that he wanted to leave the USA 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."

So it is clear that Mr Mungee did not want to come to India, but to an India that Shri (how nice) Thomas Friedman sketched for him. He did not wish to return to Manmohan Singh's India or Abdul Kalam's India or to the India that he would discover for himself. He wanted to return to an imagery and expectation of an India that had been conveniently -- and perhaps even erroneously -- sketched for him by Shriman Friedman.

And how did the lovely Sarvadhikari Shriman Thomas Friedman arrive at his sketch of India? As Sarah Leonard (@srl2126) noted on Twitter with a tinge of sarcasm, "Tom Friedman visits a country of 1 billion people this week, immerses himself in the great sea of humanity, meeting CEO after CEO after CEO."

And therein, potentially, lies Mr Mungee's own first problem that he might wish to spend some time fixing before embarking on fixing India's myriad problems. Mr Mungee probably built for himself an image of an India that was drawn for him by Shri Thomas Friendman. He wanted to return to Shriman Friedman's India and not the real India. They are different. 

Shriman Friendman's India is a bustling, thriving, lively crush of humanity that cannot crush India's confident march out of poverty, because there are cellphone towers, engineering schools and biotechnology schools at every street corner. It has billboards that advertise physics degrees, for heaven's sake!

It is a nice picture. It is a romantic picture. It is not a clear picture. Indeed, it may even be a wrong picture. But all of that is moot. The real issue here is that there is no Friedman's India. There isn't even a Kalam's India or a Chetan Bhagat's India or Nehru's India. 

India is what you make it out to be. India is what you experience it to be. India is.

And that is what I would use as my argument in attempting to convince Mr Mungee to return to India. Do not come back to Friedman's India or an India that needs fixing. 

We came back to India, instead, because we needed fixing.

And that is precisely where this "expectation setting" begins. This does not ignore the existence of India's many problems nor does it talk to the possibility (however remote) that we might contribute to alleviating these problems. That may well be the case. However, that is not the reason we returned. We returned because we needed fixing and India provided us with an opportunity to do so!


Mr Mungee does state in the initial few paragraphs that he came prepared to experience an India that was "visually familiar but viscerally alien".

That is, once again, off the mark in my view. India can not be about either familiarity or instinct. It is about experience. And it talks to individual, personal experience.

Mr Mungee's expectations of his experience were wrong, in my view. He proceeded to set up home in upper middle-class, suburban Bengaluru. His daughter went to the best schools. Even his home was "American-friendly".

A friend of mine once went to Kenya for a holiday, stayed in an upmarket hotel and did not step outside the block that the Hotel was immersed in because it felt "so much like downtown Sydney"! Much like her, Mr Mungee may have missed the point too. I am not suggesting that Mr Mungee ought to have lived in the gullies and by-lanes of Suddhaguntapalya. But the fact that he aimed a re-creation of an American (or America-like) experience in India suggests to me that he did not work hard enough to create a personal experience for himself that was distinct, special and very possible -- India offers that to everyone that wants a personalized experience.

Much like my friend from Sydney who wanted to see and recreate downtown-Sydney in the very different and far-away Kenya, Mr Mungee gives me the impression that he wanted to carve out his own downtown-US-city experience. Which is fine. But such an expectation should come with a statutory warning: "Expect to be disappointed. Repeated and bullish insistence on this expectation is likely to lead to extreme depression and/or severe disappointment."

And this is precisely where this "expectation setting" continues. If I insist on recreating my little pocket of America or Australia inside the carefully constructed cocoon of my existence in India, I will have missed the opportunity of being confronted and assaulted by myself.


Many people have tried to classify and categorize India. Neatly. They have mostly failed. Few people have succeeded. 

One legend that understood India for what she is, and, more importantly, did not attempt to change it, was the late Yehudi Menuhin, the legendary violinist. He says in his autobiography, "Unfinished Journey" (an excerpt found here) that he recognized early on in his interactions with India and her music that Indians rely predominantly on the individual spirit and an entrepreneurial mindset. Indians prefer that to a systems-organisation-mindset. In his autobiography, Yehudi Menuhin also says that a symphony orchestra type organisation for Indian classical music would just not work because each musician would want to express themselves differently, the way they thought was right or necessary
"Just because the Indian would unite himself with the infinite rather than with his neighbour, so his music assists the venture. Its purpose is to refine one's soul and discipline one's body, to make one sensitive to the infinite within one, to unite one's breath with the breath of space, one's vibrations with the vibrations of the cosmos. Outside the family, the Indian's concern does not easily fasten on the group. Europe's genius, on the other hand, has been to form individuals into communities, each accepting loss of freedom in the interests of the whole. Hence collective worship, hence armies and industries and parliamentary democracy, and hence chorales in which each voice has a certain independence but is nonetheless severely constrained by other voices."
One read of the above and you know why neat compartmentalization of India is impossible. So, attempts to classify India into neat compartments or buckets invariably fail. There aren't 1.2 billion buckets in the world, leave alone identifying labels for each of these 1.2 billion buckets!

Yet, Mr Mungee talks to three (yes, three) neat buckets to classify India: "airplane India", "scooter India" and "bullock-cart India".

Neat. But what about buckets like "scooter India but with iPhone in hand" or "bullock cart India but with the most modern LED TV in the thatched roof home" or "airplane company India" or "a few airplane companies and steel companies but still dependent on (and work with) bullock cart India", or the "airplane India but I will still not purchase the latest A. R. Rahman album, instead preferring to download the pirated copy" or the "autorikshaw driver India but will insist on either purchasing Dork 2 or not reading it at all". 

Each of these India's are unique, distinct and different. And there are more. Many more.

India cannot be classified neatly. And most attempts to do so have fallen flat.

At best I might marvel at how "scooter India" can fix "my Bose speakers" while, simultaneously chiding "tricycle India" for running over the feet of people who walk to some unknown destination on non-existent pavements.

To even begin to understand India in the manner of bibliosoph or a cataloger is, in my view, exercise in utter futility. It is complex system that does not attract bibliognosts readily. It is a multi-dimensional, complex, nonlinear, dynamical system with utterly unpredictable behaviour. We expect completely deterministic results. What we get instead is confusion to the chronicler/observer. Welcome to an anarchic chaos trapped inside a complex and seemingly orderly democracy. We are dealing with a complex chaotic system.

To try and find neat/precise solutions in such chaotic dynamical systems is a somewhat specious and nugatory exercise. And that is what chroniclers like Mr Mungee have tried to do. They try and find closed form descriptions by defining it as a problem that is in need of a solution! 

A more compelling and persuasive approach would be to ask if there is a steady state in such systems and how we might approach such a steady state which is even partially describable!

However, we did not come to classify (or even understand) India. We came, instead, because we needed to classify and understand ourselves


So Mr Mugee arrived with an expectation of seeing Shriman Friedman's India and immediately carried out a task of cataloging that a senior librarian would have been proud of.

Immediately after that, he saw himself become more and more Indian and he hated himself for it. And that is where his problems really commenced. And this is where we begin to address the "eyes open" weasel word. 

Mr Mungee started to hate himself for designating separate dinnerware for his maid and for his family, because his children were down with amoebiasis! He was advised that it may have arisen from his maid's lack of hygiene. The maid who probably cooked his clean food and cleaned his house of unwanted bacterial elements was sadly responsible for introducing these unwanted elements into the body of his family. Ironic. But that is not the point. The point is that Mr Mungee designated separate plates and hated himself for it.

Like all his workmates and friends, Mr Mungee's cycle of distrust in his driver drove him to despair. 

Mr Mungee was locked in a road-rage incident against a hawker who dared to block his car's path. How dare "bullock cart India" block the progress of "airplane India"?

Mr Mungee saw him being continually confronted by deception and with each such mendacious behaviour, he found himself sucked into a vortex of trust-deficit that afflicts much of Indian society. And he hated it.

These are very honest accounts of a journey that Mr Mungee did not like. His was a compelling battle against who he was becoming! For him what he was becoming was a constant affray on his senses. And he was losing. Constantly.

He took the only action he could, to rebel against the "surrealistically familiar stranger" inside him. He quit to escape from inertia and denial.

This is really the crux of the decision in my view. Factors like "appropriate expectation setting" and "cataloging librarians" are useful but not critical in any journey like the one Mr Mungee undertook. What is of greatest importance is the battle within. 

And this is the battle that one faces in India. And provided one does not lapse into either inertia or denial, the resulting lesson is one that India is most capable of teaching.

We made the decision to move back to India because it presented us an opportunity to confront ourselves; it presented us a valuable opportunity to face our own worst enemies (ourselves). To accept defeat in such an exercise would be akin to the surrealistically familiar stranger in me mocking me for having won the battle against myself!

As I say in an earlier post, my life in Australia had become too regimented. Too planned. Incredibly structured. Too well-organised. There was an absence of anarchy in my life. There were few surprises to life. Moreover, my senses weren't attacked constantly. My principles weren't brought into question periodically. 

Here, it is. 

And when I see it alive, I know I am, myself, alive. I have made it define my existence. I constantly fight the "high-fidelity bigotry" where I can. I battle the "surround-sound-enabled stereotypes" when I see them. I also aim to battle the "chronic amoebiasis of the soul".

I am not going to provide examples here because these examples would serve to trivialize the exercise into one of bluster and self-aggrandizement. 

It is sufficient to say that we now have the opportunity to look at the surrealistically familiar stranger within ourselves and strive for sharper congruence and alignment. Again, we came back because we had to understand ourselves better


So my message to Mr Mungee is simple: 

Come back to India because you want to see Mr Mungee's India and not Shri Friedman's India. Come back to India not to solve her problems (and these exist, let us not deny them) but so that you may undertake a journey to solve your problems (and these exist too, let us not deny them). The process of you confronting and vanquishing that surrealistically familiar stranger may well lead to India's problems being solved too. If your process of discovery does not solve India's problems, you will have undertaken a journey and benefited from what India taught you. 

And India affords that to any honest explorer.

To give up and head back would be to give up on oneself, and that just cannot be acceptable.

-- Mohan (@mohank)