I don’t really know this 60-year-old very well any more.
I wasn’t alive for her first 20 or so years. And I haven’t been around for her last 20 or so years.
So, when I am asked—quite frequently—how it feels to be back home, I have to pause and search for words that say what I mean and mean what I want to say.
What I often end up saying is that it is ‘work-in-progress’ because, in many ways, it is as much about me as it is perhaps about India, which was definitely home once and ought to be home again.
The trouble is that intellectually, I can grasp that the time I have been away has perhaps been the most dramatic one-third of the maturing of this 60-year-old nation. And I am not just talking about the blossoming of entrepreneurial energy, the wholesale embracing of the pursuit of wealth and material happiness that dominates urban India, or the well-chronicled infrastructure woes and the real estate boom. I am also talking about that magical shift in India’s psyche, where large sections of population have moved, lockstep, into a “we can do it too” mode, much like what was visible in China in the late 1990s. Full-blown envy, of most things West, appears to have been replaced mostly by an active curiosity, and a belief that while we may be slower or different, we will now do it our way. And, guess what, here is the money to back up that thought.
But, it is my heart that makes it harder to accept this new 60-year-old.
After all, I did spend two decades growing up with her, so shouldn’t I also presume to know her, despite the long voluntary separation? Yet, like the all-too-familiar roads that I take in New Delhi, only to suddenly end up somewhere else, thanks to a new flyover that has sprung up and changed where the old road went, I am constantly surprised by what I see, hear and feel. And that is when this new India becomes quite complicated and baffling.
So, instead of pretending to have answers, I just accumulate questions that I largely keep to myself.
For instance, as we move from a closed society to an open one, I wonder about the strange juxtaposition of the most honest Prime Minister in India’s history overseeing what many say is the most corrupt cabinet in recent memory. I fret about a culture where being critical about how India goes about doing what it does is increasingly seen as being negative, even unpatriotic.
I also ask myself as to when we went from being able to pinpoint the dishonest among us to now being able to single out the honest. And, like the painted traffic lanes on our streets that nobody even makes a pretence of sticking to, I witness the daily blurring of lines between what is the right thing to do and what is merely accepted, as if this land of many hues has collectively decided that what was once black and white is now merely shades of grey.
In the daily hurry-up and wait rituals in front of rickety elevators that take us to our high-rise offices, I ask how such a vast and wise nation can create and accept self-inflicted bottlenecks of thought and action. After all, India can’t cross this river in two or three steps. I also note that a rising tide won’t lift leaky boats. So, I ask, shouldn’t our government focus on fixing the boats instead of constantly trying to control the tide? Now, as the brain drain group makes its way home, does it feel like a brain gain?
Then I remember what actually happened when I first tried to make her my home again.
After several futile days of looking at apartments, I was shown a very nice flat in Golf Links. The landlady was around and we both had a pleasant chat about my decision to move back to India after about two decades for work reasons. She asked about my family and I told her about my American wife and my daughters Leila, 5, and Zola, 2. In turn, she told me about many of her son’s friends returning from the US as life is more comfortable in India. It was all quite nice and friendly.
When the broker went back to make an offer—and it wasn’t an inexpensive place by any measure, and a company lease at that—she told him they would much rather hold out for a foreigner because I “wasn’t foreign enough” for them.
Typically, housing discrimination in many parts of the world that I have lived in often involved cases of landlords who didn’t want to rent to foreigners, say non-Americans, including Indians. And, here I am, back home, only to be told that I am too Indian for comfort.
Maybe that is the way this 60-year-old accepts me, a sea turtle returning to the shore.
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