Wednesday, March 5, 2014

What I don't like about living in India

The other day some friends and I were talking about where we would like to live afterwards when we became adults. In all of us, there was a marked preference for the West. None of us seemed to strongly want to spend our lives in India. We felt sad thinking that we would have to leave behind our families if we settled abroad, but mostly we felt this sacrifice would be worth it. Afterwards when I was thinking back on our conversation, I started thinking about the reasons behind our preference for the West. I realized it had a lot to do with the many things that we did not like about living in our own country that we thought could be avoided or maybe corrected if we lived in the West. I started listing some of the things that bothers me about living in this country, and the list became surprisingly long.

One of the things that I dislike most is the dirtiness of my surroundings. People seem to have a pathological dislike towards cleanliness. By common consensus, our roads are treated like huge dustbins. There are heaps of rubble and dug out holes all over the place. Rubbish is thrown out just about anywhere. Even where garbage bins and vats are available, people seem to prefer throwing waste just outside the bins. It is as if they enjoy the sight of piles of rubbish with flies hovering over them. Then comes the odour problem. So many places here have a perpetual stink of rotten food and excreta and all sorts of dirty things. Have people just stopped bothering about these problems? Evidently teaching environmental studies in schools and colleges is having very little effect on actual practices of most people.

Speaking of which, I must talk about another related and rather disgusting aspect of living here. So many people have surprisingly little concern about basic hygiene, both personal and public. They smell like tigers and are completely oblivious to the acute discomfort they cause to other people around them. Anybody who has visited an Indian market or travelled in a packed bus during summer would know exactly what I mean. Given the kind of climate of our country, I realize some problems are unavoidable. But surely a lot of it can be resolved if people were just a little more concerned citizens? I mean, how much can a bottle of deodorant or mouth freshener cost? And why is it so important to relieve oneself on roadsides? Women don’t do it, so nobody can claim that it cannot be helped. Spitting and blowing one’s nose in the open is quite rampant. Why, some don’t even know that they should cover their mouths while sneezing or coughing! This just shows the kind of families most people belong to, where such essential lessons are not taught at all.

There is another important aspect that many Indian families give very little attention to, and that is good manners. Most people are not taught that staring at someone is rude, that one should not interrupt people or shout down other people’s views while holding a conversation. During my father’s admissions, I often notice that the children do not even know that they have to look at a person who is trying to talk to them; that it is positively uncouth to keep looking around the place when they are being addressed. It is obvious that our society does not believe that these are important values. Parents would rather spend all their time and energy goading their children into memorizing physics and chemistry than teach them to become polite and well-mannered human beings. In fact, Indians are so used to rude behaviour, they sometimes feel that people from other cultures who have been taught these lessons of good behaviour are actually being hypocritical. I remember someone who had just gone abroad telling me that he didn’t like how the Westerners kept saying “nice to meet you” and “please” and “thanks” at the drop of a hat, because apparently “they did not really mean what they said”! Evidently this person preferred the rough and rude behaviour that is the common norm in our country, because it is not “hypocritical”.

People are not taught about public consciousness. Most people are either oblivious or unfazed about how their actions can affect others around them. This is precisely the reason why we have so much honking on our roads and blaring megaphones announcing all sorts of unimportant information. This is why people shout into their phones while carrying on a telephone conversation. Some, especially young people cannot imagine enjoying themselves without creating a huge ruckus wherever they go. Being in close proximity to a party is every peace lover’s nightmare. There is also the kind of people who go about picking fights with just about anybody. They are another category of imbeciles, in my opinion, who survive only to destroy other people’s peace of mind and spoil a good day. Oh, I wish we could be rid of such disturbing elements; our society would be much the better without them.  

Now that I think about it, our society does instill some rather twisted values in its children. The most common example of this would be the assertion that elders are always right. From the beginning, children are told to respect their elders and obey them, just because they happen to have been born before us. In fact, questioning the actions of someone older than you is seen as a grave misdeed. It is presumed that just because a person is aged he will automatically be much wiser and more responsible than a younger person. This is a very erroneous presumption. As my father says, a fool when he grows old becomes an old fool. Teaching children to blindly follow everything that elders say might be beneficial for the elders’ ego, but it mars the ability of young people to judge and decide for themselves. The same goes for touching somebody’s feet. Children are forced to touch the feet of all older relatives to show them respect, irrespective of what the children truly feel about these grown-ups. In this way, the question of having to earn one’s respect disappears, and grown-ups can behave as they like, without having to worry about how their actions might make youngsters feel about them, because after all tradition will force the young people to bend down and touch their feet no matter what kind of persons they are.

As a woman myself, I have to say that being a woman in India has its added problems. The common attitude of people is that one cannot do certain things just because one is a woman. Even today, people do not think it necessary to treat a woman as an equal. One of my pet peeves in this regard is something that is very common in our everyday lives. People stare. They do it no matter what you are wearing, though I concede the stares grow more lecherous if you are not covered enough. But that does not mean you will be exempted from gapes if you are wearing baggy clothes that cover almost everything but your face. The same goes for being harassed on the road. It does not always have to be overt molestation. Sometimes it is something as simple as choosing to sit beside a woman even though there are other empty seats in the bus, and then trying to climb into her lap! It may be that I have grown overly sensitive with time, but this is one of my greatest complaints about having to live where I do. In fact, if it hadn’t been for some of the good and wonderful men that I have met, I might have become one of those firebrand feminists who are convinced that men can be nothing but pigs. Believe me; the roads are overflowing with that sort of creatures.

Another thing that irks me is how insensitive people can be. Parents openly and often undeservedly criticize their children in front of anybody who cares to listen. People talk about others’ disabilities, sometimes in front of the concerned person, without sparing a thought about how the person in question may feel. Also there is the problem of over-familiarity. People I barely know come up and start talking to me like old friends. Some start offering completely unasked for advice and suggestions about everything from careers to good shopping centres. Some even start sharing intimate personal details and expect you to do the same! In all the three hundred and fifty years that the British stayed in India, why could they not inculcate in us the glorious habit of being stiff upper-lipped?

I could probably go on for a long time, and add dozens of other things to this list. For example, people’s lack of appreciation for natural beauty and preference for concrete malls and posh buildings at the cost of razing down green belts, or the lack of the spirit of live and let live, and how people love to interfere in other people’s business. Or even how the habit of reading is neither appreciated nor cultivated. In fact, some households actively try to dissuade their children from indulging in such ‘wasteful’ hobbies. But enough negatives for now.

There will be things that I will miss about my country if I were ever to leave it for any length of time. I will miss the various delectable cuisines and fascinatingly varied cultural practices that abound our land. I will miss the beauty of the tropical cyclones when they hit full force in the middle of April. I will miss Bollywood movies, some of them at least. I will miss the sound of shehnai drifting in from a faraway wedding on a dark lonely night. I will miss the sight of clothes being hung out to dry (I know, I am strange!). I will miss the sounds of the many different languages spoken here. I will miss many little things, I cannot deny that. However, it will be evident to anybody who reads this carefully that the reasons against staying back here, given a choice to do otherwise are so much stronger. I only wish it were not so. I wish I could truly say with all my heart, I am proud of my country and there’s no other place in this world where I rather would be.


Sriranjani said...


True there are so many things about our country which is wrong and which we hate. These problems are I think grounded in this country's nature. It is sad how nothing can be done about it. We can't stop those men from urinating on our garage walls unless we put up those tiles which have the pictures of the Gods and Goddesses.

About Staring, though I strongly believe that men stare at those women (well at least more at those women) who come out on the streets half naked, but then again, even I have got stares, and you know how I dress. But may be they stare at me because I always look half mad, and may be you get the stares because of your wonderful height, which is so very rare. I am not very sure though.

Yes I know the cons are greater than the pros, when it comes to talking about leaving the country. But if it comes to a personal choice, I would like to tolerate and look past the stares and the filthy people on the streets. I know we have to deal with them when we come out on the street, but then, If I leave the country, I would miss the good things as well no? Where would I get the Phuchka? the chicken roll? the raw mango pickle. The home made one. I would also miss the broken English speaking mass and the smell of spring and the rains and the clothes drying(yes I love that sight too. So homely no?), and Durgapur and home...

Having said everything, I wish you all the luck with your dreams.

Take care,
Sriranjani Di.

Rajdeep said...

Dear Pupu,

Well written and I agree with most of what you have written after having lived for sometime in one of the cleanest countries on this planet. Although I miss my country, including clothes hung out to dry, I also like living here.
I would like to discuss two things about your article if you don't mind.
1. Eye contact is a very western concept. There are many Asian cultures that avoid eye contact while speaking. This is rapidly changing due to western influence. Although I don't mind encouraging people to make eye contact while speaking, I do not believe that one necessarily needs to make eye contact to show one is interested. The point is to listen carefully when someone speaks and I'm sure that is what you want to say.
2. Also, I found your argument regarding touching feet weak. Going by what you said about politeness, it is just another way of doing the same. So if you can accept that saying sweet nothings when you don't really mean them is ok, then by the same logic touching feet is also ok. People of many cultures bow. In their culture, it is the ultimate form of respect. But when someone bows in greeting, it definitely does not have a very deep meaning. Again, this culture of showing deferrence to elders, sometimes even if they are a day older, is there in many Asian countries and not just India. In fact, it is not as strict in India as in other countries. So probably you need to find a stronger reason. In my opinion, it is a matter of personal choice. My point does not in any way deny the main line of your argument. Respect must be shown to only those who you think deserve your respect. But touching someones feet could be interpreted as a polite form of greeting someone rather than showing deep respect. Like bowing, it is upto the person whether it is just a form of greeting or genuine respect shown. What do you think?

Urbi Chatterjee said...

Dear Rajdeep da,

Personally, I feel that eye-contact is quite important while conversing because it is the most effective way of conveying your interest and attention to the other person. I find it irritating when I talk to someone whose eyes are roaming all over the place, because it makes me feel that I am boring the other person. Though of course, if someone continuously stares at you when you are talking it can get quite unnerving, so I agree with you to some extent about this. I think what is most important is to let the other person know through your behaviour that you are paying attention.

About touching people's feet though, I stand by what I wrote. See, from what I have noticed, touching feet is not seen as just a form of polite greeting here; it is more like acknowledging the elders' superiority and your own subservience. It is also related to asking for someone's blessings. In my opinion, such a gesture should be reserved for only those whom one truly and deeply respects. Also, if one touches the feet of every elder one comes across, then this gesture will not hold any special significance when one does it out of true reverence for someone. When it comes to a polite greeting, even folding one's hands in a namaste can be enough. And in any case most people just shake hands or nod a 'hello' nowadays, which is frankly fine by me. But here I suppose it is people's personal preferences that matter.


Tanmoy said...

Dear Pupu

Thank you for writing this post. When I was your age, I had similar feelings too. However, despite that I never wanted to leave India because the thought of living far away from my parents did not excite me. Hence, I did not make any attempt to leave the country. However, as I stepped into the professional world, my feelings about India’s negativities grew stronger. Honestly, even if I understood the dirt, smell, pollution etc. I could never reconcile with the tremendous lack of respect on eachother, quite common in India.
I still recall couple of incidents at St. Xavier’s School, where a few teachers literally insulted the kids (with their sarcastic comments) for making trivial mistakes. Trust me, as kids I did not realise they were insulting comments (as you say, we took elders for granted) but I am sure it hurt my self-esteem somewhere that time. I did not even tell my parents about those incidents. Now when I look back it hurts me more because my little boy will one day go to school as well. Of course, I don’t want anyone to say something to him that will hurt his self-esteem. Worse, he realises that after 20 years. In the professional world in India, such hurtful things happen all the time.
Again, I did not try to leave the country but coincidentally it happened with me and here I am in the one of the most beautiful countries in the world – New Zealand.
Here, we miss our parents a lot. I miss various aspects of being in India too, such as attending the occasional social gatherings. Since, we don’t have many friends here and more importantly we don’t have a maid etc. we are fairly busy out here as well. Having said that, when we get outside on the streets of NZ, on the buses, in the shops, in the government offices, in the courts, in workplaces, even while interacting with cops on the streets – we feel respected as human beings. When we are only people crossing a relatively big main road, all the cars, buses and trucks respect the traffic signals and allow us to cross the road in peace. This makes me feel very good and respected. You have to see to believe this. Two grown-ups and one toddler crossing a big crossing and nearly four buses and 20 cars on four sides waiting for them to cross!
Whilst, we miss our parents terribly especially as they are not that well and are getting older, I always debate with myself should I give all these up and go to a city where I know for sure I will be shouted at by all and sundry, unless I shout back?

Best wishes

Debarshi_Saha said...

Dear Urbi,

Warm regards.You have crafted a very well thought out and nice blog post again indeed! One fact stands out among all others- respect for the human identity in the West, which is in rapid decline in India. It is so unfortunate to witness this fact, that the country that once stressed humanity and universal brotherhood among all, is the one least respecting it now. The West offers an able person his/her chance, his/her individual identity, without being lost in a confusion of society. This is what I feel. But, think for one moment, how Sir did and still does everything with that lion heart of his in a land, where teachers aren't held in respect at all! It is because of our parents, that we have been privileged to embark to the West. I am no one to advise you, since even you give it all away in the last line of yours, where you reveal your love for your roots. Maybe, it is indeed better to live in the West, on many counts- but, maybe try also to make a difference to our country when we can, or if we wish to. Without youngsters like us, trying to carry on the baton that Sir and some others will leave for us- India will always keep on losing its finest minds to the West. The West teaches you how to work, and to fall in love with your passion, be good at it- maybe the East offers us a torn canvas, to paint it back finer than it ever was? The Japanese believe in 'Kintsugi'- repairing with powdered gold. Maybe its our chance to mold back our country with gold- so that someday, we do not further feel the need to leave our families behind, in search of a lonely pinnacle?

With very best wishes,

Ankita Sarkar said...

"...if it hadn’t been for some of the good and wonderful men that I have met, I might have become one of those firebrand feminists who are convinced that men can be nothing but pigs..."

So true. It is difficult not to despise men in general given the way a vast majority of them act on the streets. Recently three girls from our school were followed around Junction Mall by three boys who kept making lewd comments towards them, and stopped only when they notified the police outside the mall gate. Isn't it ironic that the mall is supposed to represent the city's development? I think they were lucky that at least the police were helpful; odds favour the opposite.
How can one expect to check 'brain-drain' with a social environment that anyone with half a brain would want to escape?

ChetnaKing said...

Hi Urbi,

I'm addressing you by your "good name", Pupu at this stage would sound "over-familiar"? Just pulling your leg a bit. :)

You sound very much like your father's daughter. Having said that, I would tend to agree with you on every point you raised. Including not willing to undertake a "pranam" at the drop of a hat (except for white-haired grannies and grand-dad types, it's worth it if it brings a smile on their lips).

Unfortunately for us, we're stuck in Delhi which I guess competes for the pole position among world's rudest cities. Good to read your blog, came across the link in your father's blog, which again I found as a link on one of his student's blog!

Chetna, my wife, read a review of the recent release "Queen" and the author (Santosh Desai in TOI) starts by saying "If you are a young woman living in India, leave." She says to you "Do it."

God bless you,
Chetna & Kingsuk
(My brief intro- I was in the same class with Suvro, Nilanjan and many other "maharathis" of Xavier's Dgp.)