The cynical Indian ex-pat (or why I hate the superiority complex stricken…)

I am not sure if the title of this blog actually conveys this but I am angry!

On my way to Atlanta from Frankfurt, I chanced upon a Person of Indian Origin (PIO)(read US citizen who was born in India). He was in a controlled conversation coffee in hand, with the air hostess when I walked up. I wanted an I-94 form, the ‘holy document’ without which one couldn’t get into the US. If you left without surrendering it, you were in bigger trouble! But that has nothing to do with this blog. I asked for the form, she said I didn’t need it anymore, I didn’t believe her. She tried to convince me but decided to hunt for the form anyway. She was eventually proved right; the US has abandoned I-94.

The PIO stated its better to have the form filled out than argue with the immigration officer. And that started the ball rolling. I will spare the lumbering and focus on the issues. Here is what he told me.

His name was J. He was a hot-shot lawyer from a southern Indian city that moved to the US in 1984. He was one of the co-founders of a famous bookstore but walked out long before it became a chain. He currently worked with large corporations, state governments and the centre in mergers, acquisitions, and consultancy. He once ticked off a US immigration officer when he was asked why he was out of the country. His response was, “its none of your business.” If he was trying to impress me, I was at best mildly amused. The conversation then changed track. He sombrely asked me about the dismal state of the Indian economy and I instinctively asked, “compared to what, the US economy?” And he asked me if I was serious. I asked him what he based his assumption on and I opened a can of worms! I will leave the theatrics of the exchange out and will focus on the issues.

  1.  The Indian economy is in disarray – reason, big clients havent paid him!
  2. The Indian moral fiber is in tatters – it is so corrupted that corruption has become a way of life for Indians. The leadership is corrupt, the people accept corruption; kind of alluding to Indians having lost their conscience
  3. Indians are too materialistic – Hollywood is the greatest corrupter
  4. Sanatan Dharma of looking after the elderly is now gone – the elderly are now being neglected

I tried to give him a rational response to each one of these issues but I don’t think he was listening. I could be wrong but I sensed pseudo sadness in the voice coupled with “I know it all” glean in his eyes. This exchange though gave me food for thought. Here is what I see.

Indian economy in disarray: it’s possible politicians would have opposing views about this. I am sure rating agencies have their own opinion, industry has its own, media their own… you get the picture. My view is simplistic and more grounded. The average Indian today is more hopeful than he has ever been. The average westerner is more depressed than he ever has been. In the fiscal history of India diesel has been the ‘sacred cow’ that no one could, prod, move, let alone touch. And yet over the past six months a quiet decontrol has ensured prices have risen significantly. Petrol is de-controlled and more expensive than ever but all the world’s car makers think India is the place to be. The average Indian has the opportunity to study even if we continue to rue the fact that college seats haven’t really grown to match the population boom. I could go on and on. But another key area to compare is the situation in the West. I travel a lot and get to see things. I witness dwindling crowds in stores. I see dwindling air traffic. And most of all I see the sign ‘SALE’ a lot more often. There is another entity we quite easily forget – the Indian traveler. In a recent trip to Thailand, I was pleasantly surprised to see Indian tourists being the vast majority no matter where I went. In fact on a dinner cruise, an entire deck was laid out for the Indians. I felt like I was more in India than in Thailand. When I traveled as a student, to see an Indian face somewhere outside of India was rare. Today, not seeing an Indian is rare! I leave the pundits to decide if the economy is in disarray, I shall hold on to the belief that we are better than most.

India’s moral fiber is in tatters, corruption is now part of our soul: I am sure if one sat in the stratosphere and observed India, this view would be fairly accurate. It is true that a recent survey conducted across political parties and politicians stated that all politicians grew their wealth once they held a position of power. And this is at every level. But the other truth is also that we have more politicians (on corruption charges) in jail today, than ever before. It’s true our judicial system is cumbersome but we are still good. It is equally true that the average Indian doesn’t believe in the police. These are genuine problems we face. And yet there are the millions who stand up in hard times.

I will take a simple example. I have an automated water pump system that occasionally needs a fresh pair of eyes to look at it. I put in a call to the service centre and usually a person shows up in a day. The other day he came in to see the system of my 92-year-old neighbour who lives by herself. I was touched that the repair man answered the call in a few hours. I saw him toiling over the underwater tank, sweating profusely. I offered him Rs 100 as a tip. He refused to take it. He said he was doing his duty and would come every time I called but he wouldn’t take the money. He is in his mid 20s, commutes around the area on a simple bicycle. His salary can’t be much and his career graph not very impressive. And yet he holds on to his values.

I am also reminded of the scores of individuals who dedicate their life to beating the odds. I could give scores of examples but I will leave it to Shashi Vyas’s documentary to tell one part of the story. I will take a simpler route. There was a time when a simple degree in Arts or Commerce got one nowhere. If one were lucky and had a recommendation, one probably got the job of a clerk, or an accountant. One then toiled forever to move up the ranks. Attrition was unheard of. There was nothing known as HR in any company of any size. Today, a basic degree has options. A degree holder doesn’t need a recommendation and he is wooed like never before. The first step in the fight against corruption is education and that step, India has firmly taken. When I visit places away from the metros, I continue to see what I term ‘lorditius’; a form of behaviour in which a person believes he possesses superior powers to those that work for him. He is closer to the slave owners of yore or the more recent colonial powers that ruled Asia. But they are a declining species. As the servants son gets an education he breaks the cycle of servitude that for generations was the norm for his kin. And yes, we haven’t completely broken the cycle, just yet.

As a publisher I see many powerful people. And I don’t confuse them with the wealthy. These are senior bureaucrats, and parts of the government machinery that works in the shadows. I have seen them to be upright, diligent and strangely honest. And I mean that in the most honest sense of the word, honest. They have surprised me on many occasions. And I continue to be pleasantly surprised. India’s moral fiber has morphed and it continues to morph. But to typecast this process to reflect things going wrong, is plainly wrong.

Indians are now too materialistic, Hollywood has damaged it: There was more, the example of buying cell phones when you couldn’t afford them yack, yack, yack… So have we become materialistic? Lets rewind a bit. The India of yore was an India of wants with little to supplement the wants. We wanted milk, we wanted a phone connection and those who could afford it, wanted a car. When a baby was born you registered for an extra allowance of milk. When you wanted a phone you applied for it and waited between 3 and 15 years to get it! This is an India (thankfully) not many younger than me will be able to remember or recognise. I will take this a step further. When I was a teenager, to own a pair of Levi’s jeans was worth its weight in gold! You hardly had a decent option for a watch. And for sports shoes who can forget North Star. To own a Nike or a Reebok was more than possessing gold. There was a generation of Indians that grew up with hunger; a hunger to get something that was decent and functional. With due respect to Thomas Bata and the neighbourhood tailor, they just didn’t give us what we wanted. Today, an Indian in his early 20s has a job, even if it is one at a call centre. He has the option to buy a pair of Levi’s and he can afford to go to a decent place to eat, all on money that he earns. So what’s wrong with that? Should India retain its image of the scantily clad, frustrated youth of the 60s, 70s and 80s? And why should this image be retained and for whom? For the cynical ex-pat Indian, traveling in business class who can stand in a corner and state, INDIANS HAVE BECOME MATERIALISTIC! Please, forgive me if I throw up!

Indians are humans and humans have aspirations. It is only in the last 2 decades that we have learnt to buy milk when we want it, to get a phone connection on demand. And like a person who has been starved forever, forgive him if he overeats at a buffet!

The clincher on how much the person really knows was the example of “indulgent purchasing”. I must relate it the way it was stated. He (the PIO) was told that the young son of a cousin/colleague (I don’t remember, and who really cares) bought 2 Samsung mobile phones. And the father was proud that the son paid for it with his own credit card. The PIO was “disturbed” at such materialism. Did the father and son need the smart phone that cost INR 100,000 (together)? Did they understand the cost of paying via credit card and in instalments?  I had to stop him in mid-sentence. I told him that Samsung was running a scheme where the phones were cheaper (the combined cost must be around INR 50,000), when paid by a credit card you got 6 months INTEREST free to pay for them. And if he was a reasonable earner, what is wrong in giving his father and himself a new phone. The point I drove home was, first get your facts straight than stand on a pulpit to eulogize!

Sanatan Dharma is forgotten, the elderly are forgotten: I am sure in many parts of India, the elderly are forgotten. But before we jump to conclusions, let’s go back into history. Raja Ram Mohan Roy fought for the rights of widows, and abandoned women. That was long before Independence. Vridh Ashrams are a creation of Vedic times, not something that sprang up in the last 20 years. I could go on, but the point is, I don’t believe the number of elders being cared for has dropped or increased as a percentage. We were close to half the current population when we got independence. If the population has doubled, in real terms, it is safe to assume our problems in real terms have also grown. (doubled?). The percentage however, remains roughly the same. But is that entirely true? I see this issue in two clear and distinct parts. The first are the elderly who don’t have a next of kin in India and the second are the ones who do have next of kin but live alone.

The first category of people are elders who refused to go out of the country when the great resource drain of the 60s through 90s was in force. In those years a significant number of Indians migrated abroad for various reasons. The uneducated went abroad because they could earn more and send a lot more back to support their family (read, elders). The educated went abroad and many times got their parents there too. There is very little to discuss about this lot.

The second category is different. These are the elderly who have children in India but they are not cared for OR don’t live with their children. This lot has many reasons to complain, the most common one is, “my children are in their own world and don’t care about me.” I love this statement! “The children don’t care.” I wonder why the children don’t care? Are parents a burden that no one wants to carry? Is this issue really as simple as it is made out to be?

Many years ago, I saw a movie called ‘Baghban’ starring Amitabh Bachchan and Hema Malini and I was taken aback. The kids were so stereo typed. I was reminded of another movie in the 80s called ‘Avatar’ starring Rajesh Khanna and Shabana Azmi. There was very little to choose from these movies on themes but they came almost 3 decades apart! At the time, there was another movie ‘Teri Kasam’ starring Kumar Gaurav and Poonam Dhillon. It didn’t do much except that it had a theme where the son gives up his wife because she is rude to his mother. There were others but I don’t want to digress. The point is there are 2 sides to a coin and 2 sides to a story. I don’t believe that anywhere on this planet you will find a child who doesn’t want to take care of his parents. As a race, we are NOT genetically programmed to be this cold. I could go on and on but would like to take on the Sanatan Dharma argument.

It is easy to quote that in the Dharma the son is supposed to look after his parents. True. It is in the same Dharma (and I loosely quote this), “when the foot size of the son, grows to that of the father, he should be treated as an equal.” I am not completely sure any of the so-called followers of the rest of the Dharma follow this dictat. The truth is stranger than fiction.

If a young, bright, full of energy, youth-of-today goes up to an elder in the family with a question, he is usually asked to shut up. If he should come up with an idea, he “doesn’t know what he is talking about.” Out come the tales of “been there, done that” and it’s “not a good idea after all”. I know when I returned from the USA, my family called me the “Padha Likha Bewaqoof” (the educated idiot). I continue to use this title whenever I make a personal presentation like I did at the University of North Texas. The youth of today want to be heard. They want to express themselves and most of all they want to be respected. They have achieved whatever they have achieved after a lot of hard work. They would love to listen to tales of yore but it is difficult for them to connect with that era. My 9-year-old doesn’t understand the concept of television having one channel and working only limited hours. She has grown up to see it run 24 x 7. Should I blame her?

For very long I have heard this debate about the elderly being neglected. But many times the new born are being neglected at the cost of taking care of the elderly. A typical family wants to do things for their children – give them the best education, good clothes, and generally promote an all round growth. But do the elderly allow that? I have seen so many people comment on how things were different and how today’s parents over indulge. It really sickens me. Why can’t a parent bring up the child the way they want to? Why do grandparents insist on having a say?

It’s when this mental gap becomes unbearable that people take decisions to “get on with it.” And for once, I don’t blame them.

The PIO ended the conversation with two comments:

  1. Don’t get me wrong, I only gave up my Indian citizenship a few years ago. For many years I hung on to it.
  2. I hope you are right (said in a fatalistic tone with a pseudo philosophical, distant look)

I have nothing against anyone who chooses the country they wish to live in. Every individual has the right to make this choice. No one has the right to comment on their decision because it is impossible to fully understand the complexity of this decision. I know I was torn between returning to India and getting my green card in the US. It’s a different story that I chose not to get it and returned to India.

I don’t know if I am right. I can never know. But I hold on to a belief that the collective strength of the people of India will overcome this hurdle too. We are a nation of doers, the ones who know the value of what we have. It is true we have problems and very serious ones. But if we are to draw any solace, it is best to visit history. If we were to make a quick comparison with the USA here is what I see.

The USA has over 200 years of independence, we have a little over 60.

After Independence from the British, the forefathers of America were landlords and slave owners. It took a man like Abraham Lincoln to arrive to change things. He lost his life implementing it. It took a Martin Luther King Jr to ask for equality. And this was more than 150 years of the country being independent. Now compare India to this. We have achieved most of this in less than 60 years! It’s true corruption is an issue, leadership at the very top is in crisis. But look beyond that and look at the young of today. They want to do things and they want to be somebody. They DON’T want to be like their forefathers. And I see this in the eyes of the hundreds my job allows me to get to see.

And it is in them that I believe, we shall overcome

Before the cynical ex-pat wants to comment on the country he left behind, I suggest he get into the trenches to understand the problem.

We have our own set of problems, we don’t need to import yours…

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About Vivek Mehra

I am currently the MD & CEO of SAGE Publications India. But I wear many hats that make me the person I am. Between the (public) professional life and the very deep and private recesses of my brain lies a universe of thoughts, actions and beliefs. These have been shaped by events, people and perhaps Karma. It's this universe I seek to put in words. When everything else failed me professionally, it was the power of my words that not just resurrected a career but brought back life to life. It is with these words that I continue to make a difference with those whose karma connects mine. Sometimes it's direct and most times it's not. But the essence of who I am never changes and I remain a person searching for himself. Update: In 2014 I published my first book on Kindle. It was written in 1999 and it never saw the light of day. Reader input welcome... http://tinyurl.com/7shadesofgrey
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2 Responses to The cynical Indian ex-pat (or why I hate the superiority complex stricken…)

  1. Chet says:

    Wow… interesting take from 11/14A to this and your LInked-In profile…

    Like

  2. Reader says:

    Dear Sir, i have been reading your blog for quite some time. I truly agree with your views on the person you met and am little disappointed with the fact that such people have forgotten their roots.I had a similar experience while i was returning from London when an elderly Indian man displayed the same attitude towards India, and on the top of that he was happily visiting our country.

    Like

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