Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Go back to America then!

Five years ago I met a friend who described himself as a coconut: brown on the outside, white on the inside. He said it laughingly in a self deprecating way. Five years later I understand exactly what he meant... With one wrinkle: my love-hate relationship with India (which was low on love to begin with in the first place) is now primarily a hate-hate.

More on that in a minute... But first, let's address the thing I should've started this with.

I've been gone for the better part of 5 years without blogging. I mean yes, there's a few posts scattered here and there, a story or two churned out in the time since then... But that's not really the same thing as journaling.

Chronicling all the little ups and downs of my life has served as a wonderful reminder of how far I've come and how I've changed - sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse - but in either case, my blog has been my unwavering companion through thick and thin, my strong, silent confidante... my proverbial book and pen. Sometimes I've ranted, sometimes I've reflected, sometimes I've written seeking redemption, justice, acceptance, a kindred spirit out there in the ether... What-have-you's... And it's stood the test of (internet!) time, a stoic reminder of my own evolution over the years.

Why did I stop?

Lack of time, mostly. Increasing work and social life, too. I got busier, and I grew my circle of friends. I met a guy and we fell in love and we got married. I moved to America. My weekdays were filled with interesting problems to solve with interesting colleagues, and I filled my weekends with fun and laughter and brunches with good people and good food. It was catharsis of a different sort. In the process, my love for solitude slipped away with little fanfare. 

However, despite all the people and the work and the major life transitions, my need to vent, reflect, pontificate and occasionally wallow in self-pity, never quite went away.

Insidiously, over time Facebook became my poison of choice because 

1) It was convenient and built for sharing what's on your mind  
2) All my friends were on there (and a whole bunch of random folks I've met in corridors and hallways and parties)
3) I was on it the whole time anyway, plugged in by default through that appendage, my iPhone

Still, it was an insidious thing because Facebook was never really meant to be a safe haven for ranting. Sharing photos yes, cat videos yes, even the occasional article with commentary wrapped around it. But it is, by and large, your narrative, your face to the public at large, your best attempt at crafting a public persona that is at once authentic and relatable to the lowest-common-denominator of your 500-odd 'friends'. That and of course, the world's largest field study that we've silently opted into and signed away all our digital (and increasingly real-world) privacy for.

Surprisingly, in the US, I rarely felt the urge to express anything more controversial than was appropriate to a 500-member motley crew of friends, family and odds & ends. The occasional work-stress,the once in a while rants about US flights and airports, even the sporadic rant about an article I read or some injustice that's riled me up or comment from family, friend or foe that sent me straight off to the status bar.

But it wasn't all a Debbie Downer situation. I over-shared, yes, but it was mostly benign stuff about standing in lines, or over-paying for dresses, or a verbal barb at some aunt-once-removed-on-my-cousin's side who made an off-the-cuff remark about a social issue that's one of my hot-bottoms, all the while chewing peanuts with her mouth open (or some such other annoyance like wearing horizontal stripes that I'm sure I would've included in the post)

Since I've been back, all of that has changed.

People often complain about Indians; the middle class are a desensitized lot, they lack a civic sense, they live in a self-imposed bubble shuttling from air-conditioned car to carpeted room. These critics are mostly ex-Indians (coconuts! Haha :p) or non-Indians.

I think I know why the middle class is so desensitized: to worry endlessly about things you can't change or control, is a recipe for depression.

What things? Lack of consumer advocacy groups, pathetic legal and judicial system, corrupt or non-existent law enforcement agencies, openly corrupt, nepotistic and mercenary "oversight" committees, zero regard for public safety from matters ranging from 20x permitted dosages of pesticides in food (you think I'm making that number up? Google deformed babies and pesticides in India) to the level of air pollutants and how it affects a city-baby's lungs, hierarchical and authoritarian (and many times, downright unethical) work cultures, argumentative, oppressive patriarchal society, and a dog-eat-dog and brutish hivemind.

These structural inefficiencies and institutional failures percolate an Indian existence and affect you in a very real, very everyday way.

Well yes, you say, somewhat sheepishly and squirmy and growing defensive and emboldened by the minute.... we are a developing nation after all. Our judicial systems are slow, our consumer advocacy or public safety groups may be slow or unresponsive... But surely that's not the case everywhere! We have some instances that work. And besides, how does this affect me on an everyday basis anyway? Why am I ranting in the middle of the night, blogging at 3am after a 5 year hiatus, about those far-off things like big government and corruption... What does that have to do with the now and here? How does it affect me anyway? 

Systematic and institutional failures breed the petty (and not so petty) frustrations in everyday situations.

Take for example today: I should be getting a night's rest ahead of tomorrow's big day but instead I'm writhing in pain and agony, throwing up every 2 hours thanks to unhygienic preparation of restaurant food. Never mind this was a so-called reputable restaurant chain. Well why didn't I just eat in then! Sure, that's what I did the first few months, and I still had food poisoning every 3 days. Was it the spices? Was it the level of pesticides and toxins? Was it bacteria in the tap water? Who knows! As long as we as a society choose to turn a blind eye to the long-term consequences of our immediate actions, we are doomed to a wretched and willfully-ignorant existence. 

At any rate, all my stomach woes did was lead to a visit to my family's prescription-happy doctor, who often times will not deign to speak to me like an adult or a thinking person, to even walk through: 'here are the side effects, here's why we'd like to start you off on this dosage etc' because as a doctor he believes he's above reproach and how dare some peasant question his authority. I spent month after month of living on a cocktail of drugs everyday, because Indian doctors apparently missed the class in med school where they suggest you start the body off on lesser drugs before moving up to stronger antibiotics.

But no; many Indian doctors that I've seen believe they're God (even through the reality is that no American hospital would touch even them with a twelve-foot pole thanks to their blatant disregard for sound medical practice and inflated egos)

No that's not it... The central question is: Having seen so many patients (never mind that the Indian doctor has no way of knowing how successful his course of action has been vs another approach) hasn't he earned the fight to make blanket assumptions on your lifestyle, diet, habits etc and prescribe heavy duty drugs without checking with you first if his assumptions are valid? God help you for being so presumptuous to think you have rights over your own body. And if you react badly to his advice... What outrage! Who's the authority here, him or you? After all 99% of his cases (and he'll make up this statistic on the spot because he really has no data since neither a government mandate nor societal pressure requires it) have had no complaints.

And if it were the case that true medical malpractice or criminal negligence happened - like in the case of an unnecessary and traumatic surgery performed on my husband, under duress and coercion - what course of action have I? Good luck with our courts.  

And the nail in the coffin? The nosy, opinionated Indian who will show up everywhere from your neighbor's house to your local newspaper's 'readers comment' sections irate that you have gone against doctor-God. And now you will have to bear the ire of short-term focused "citizens" who will berate you for wasting your time on these "attention-seeking" tactics measures instead of something more productive (like procreating or cooking I suppose)

Which brings me to...

A jibe that a "friend" repeated in the first few days that I was back in India, alternating between allergies and stomach upsets and a cocktail of antibiotics everyday for the first 3 months of my coming back: Go back to America then!

Well, maybe I should.

But ask yourself this: friend and all the other internet trolls out there. Why then rail against us 'traitors' who've abandoned our homeland's ample bosom in search of cleaner, safer shores?

Yeah I thought so. So shut up. You can't have it both ways.

For Indians in India your options are two: 

1) Fight the good fight, with nerves of steel and a life dedicated to correcting all the minor injustices that stem from institutional failures. Many of you will not succeed. I would have said none of you, but theoretically it is possible so I will concede that. But persevere anyway, and suffer the thinly-veiled assaults of a disapproving and intrusive community that will think nothing of walking up to you on the street and berating you for dedicating you time to "all this stuff" while your wife silently toils making ends meet or your husband sits by his lonesome self at the kitchen table eating food that his wife neither prepared nor lovingly ladled into his sippy cup, or
2) Preserve yourself and your sanity by creating a protective bubble, shielded from the outrages of middle-class life. Move from air conditioned car to English-educated convent school or college to air-conditioned malls to beauty parlors to a beautiful home hidden behind a curtain of street garbage to a home-cooked meal and a battalion of servants and maids and cooks and drivers. You will suffer the self-righteous outrage of the educated ex-Indians for coasting on the backs of the servant class, for being complicit in your tacit self-imposed ignorance and unwillingness to change the status quo. But in the end, it is a small price to pay for your sanity... For finding your will to live, in a sea of hopelessness and ugliness.

There *is* a third option: quit India. 

And yes, your Indian-Indians and soon-to-be ex-brethren will wail about how you're done a disservice to your country, while they sit sipping from an glass of ice water humbly served by their maid, and waxing eloquent about what changes the country needs and what to do about all this brain drain tsk tsk.

But you wouldn't care would you? You're miles away and surrounded by positive people, and a positive energy, and a will to fix what's broken and question what can be improved. And a healthy regard for human life and for the dignity of labor. It's not all peaches and cream, but viewed from India, it's damn-well paradise.

And all it takes is the occasional bitching and moaning about standing in queues, and delayed flights, and snowstorms.

And all the ice water in the world, straight from a machine.

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