Today India celebrates 64 years of Independence from British rule. I left the subcontinent 27 years ago—hard to believe that I’ve been away for almost half of free India. This past weekend I met a friend from Bombay (Mumbai now) whom I hadn’t seen in 28 years. We had started together as rookies in an advertising agency and so spent several hours reminiscing about old times and old friends. She said she could see herself going back permanently but I demurred. My life is here now, with my children, and my entire family—my mother and 5 siblings—in Illinois and Ontario!
And yet I still feel some withdrawals, some feelings of guilt and nostalgia. There are times I miss the heat and press of my overcrowded Bombay, the vibrancy, chaos, and craziness—hanging on for dear life outside a suburban train in the monsoon on my way to school, knapsack on my back and the rain playing havoc on my unprotected body (it’s a wonder I’m alive); eating roadside snacks on street corners—skewered lamb, spicy chickpeas, masala veggies, and foods with names so exotic it would need a page to describe them (sweet, sour, and pungent at the same time); buying black market tickets to see the latest Hollywood movie the day it opened (now I wait for the DVD); closing bars all over the city, then missing the last train home and having to take a cab I could ill afford; making out in—oh, wait, my mother and kids read this!!
When I left I sometimes felt I had to apologize for India—for the poverty and stench, the corruption and crowds; for the unfulfilled Gandhian dream, the communal unrest and political turmoil. Over the years, however, a new perspective emerged, and not because India has enjoyed a recent period of 9 percent growth (that’s unimportant to me, because so many people there still live in poverty and only a tiny percentage goes to university—or even high school)! Besides, economic growth, as we now know, is a fleeting thing if the infrastructure of a sound education and health system is not in place.
No, over the years I watched India slowly turn its liabilities into strengths. Population explosions led to a burgeoning middle class and a service industry filled with street smart entrepreneurs and a labor force so vast it created work and profit for itself. I lived on a quiet, tree-lined side lane not five miles from the slum featured in Slumdog Millionaire—there, little kids (like the enterprising boys in the movie) scavenged the city for empty bottles which they cleaned, bottle tops which they hammered into sheets of metal, and anything else they could glean from a large, wasteful metropolis to turn a profit and find food and fun! These are tiny examples of a country on the move. Huge workforces became havens for anything that needed outsourcing.
Perhaps that’s what led to the economic growth—Indian IT influences on Google, IBM, and Microsoft, micro financing that began in a hundred villages and spread by example across the globe, and, perish the thought (because I’m an unabashed cultural snob), the popularity of Bollywood movies not only among the diaspora of far-flung Indians but everywhere people longed for colorful dances and songs to escape their drab lives of quiet desperation!
But my perspective changed largely because I changed—I became more accepting of things as they are, more willing to celebrate life as it is rather that force my narrow notions of how things should be upon lifestyles different from mine; I became an actor instead of a critic, and that has made all the difference. I know now that I did not leave India behind, but carried her in me.
It is hard to describe India to my friends, impossible to capture in words the diversity of life and the apparent pandemonium that actually masks a strange kind of order, a sort of melodic madness filled with peculiar sounds and smells, yet seems organized along a strangely familiar urban system. For almost anything I can say about India the opposite is also true. It’s a magnificent, frustrating, depressing, uplifting thing of beauty, full of unimaginable wealth and poverty, replete with paradoxes and contradictions, marching through the centuries to a set of tunes born in ancient cultures, bred upon aged mountains, and nourished by holy rivers.
So, today I can say with pride and a sense of belonging: Janamdin kii Badhaai, Bharat Mata–Happy Birthday, Mother India!