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.