Two sides of a coin
Nand V. Kumar
Aah, that first morning back after a long stay in India. The morning when first generation non-resident Indians like me experience more than ever before the loneliness of living away from loved ones in their native land. The morning when the sterile and clean air of my adopted country is more of a letdown than a pick-me-upper. The morning when I walk around my spacious but insulated house in America like a zombie in distress while thinking about my mother, siblings, nephew and cousins far away in time and distance. The morning when manicured comforts of the developed world somehow seem less appealing than the cluttered discomforts I left behind. The morning when I miss the tangible vibrancy of street noises versus the landscaped stillness of my pristine neighborhood. The morning when I want to hear the barking of street dogs and the shrill calls of homegrown peacocks. The morning when I am eager to trade my lonely bagel or oatmeal breakfast in America for hot dosa and filter coffee with my good friend in India.
Time to wake up and smell the roses again? Perhaps, perhaps not. In spiritual terms, there is nothing inherently good or bad about either of the two scenarios. As the proverbial philosopher would say, “it is what it is.” The peacocks and the stray dogs in India go about their lives with unconditional acceptance of their environment. They live blissfully wherever without the burden of judgment. Life is good in spite of the filth and the chaos. Come to think of it, what filth, what chaos, where? Nature dictates, so they accept. Only humans have issues of acceptance with things they see, hear and smell. While the more evolved among us are able to adapt easily regardless of where we are, the rest of of us are most happy only within our own comfort zones of cultivated cultural norms and behavior. Reality in the absolute sense of the term never shifts, only perception does. So we focus mostly not so much on reality but on our own perceptions of what we think reality is.
The reality about India today is that it is changing, transforming actually, into a fertile breeding ground for technology-driven ingenuity and innovation. Look beyond the staggering human population and you will see people as comfortable with smartphones, online apps and electronic gadgets as they are with overcrowded streets and street dogs, unclean air, chaotic conditions, and of course poverty. Instant gratification on demand might be the new perception of reality in India. Want to eat vegetable manchurian in the cool comfort of your living room instead of heading out to a restaurant in blazing hot weather? Need a package to be delivered to someone across town or just a few miles away? Everyday ordinary Indians now seem to have the answer for everything on their fingertips. In Chennai when I became nostalgic over sweetened badam (almond) milk from my childhood years, a cousin’s wife, bless her heart, did what might have been unthinkable not too long ago. A few quick clicks on her phone and voila, that badam milk I was craving for was promptly delivered to the doorstep. The tech-centricity of everyday life in India is not just alive, it is rocking. Imagine getting electronically flagged and stopped (as I was) by the Metro system for getting off at the wrong station, or withdrawing money from any ATM anytime anywhere without a service fee. Even personal banking has gone full digital with people transferring funds or investing in fixed deposits and mutual funds, or paying bills, all while commuting from one place to another.
Outside of technology, simpler pleasures from my visit come to mind as well. God bless those vegetable “ bandiwalas” (cart vendors) with whom I engaged every day and without whose ubiquitous presence daily life in India would be impossible. One minute or less to the nearest bandiwala. This means not driving two miles to a large grocery store just to pick up a few green chillies and tomatoes. In Chennai, my wife and I had the pleasure of watching sunrise on the Bay of Bengal while strolling on the iconic Beach Road in our chappals. We discovered the thrill of multiple peacock sightings at Durgam Cheruvu (secret lake) in the upscale Jubilee Hills area of Hyderabad. We savored mangoes — from Alphonso and Totapuri to Rasalu and Kesar — that are grown nowhere else on earth (arguably one has not lived if one has not tasted an Indian mango). My Toronto-based niece treated us to Indian Chinese lunch one day (mainstream English dictionaries may not acknowledge it but Indian Chinese is as real as American Italian or Chinese Korean). Almost on a whim (and perhaps for old times’ sake) my brother and I visited a temple from my teenage days, only to discover that it is now a sprawling religious landmark complete with supporting businesses and services catering to the needs of disciples. I played Sequence with my sister and her family on hot and lazy summer afternoons. I also spent many a late evening with my nephew and brother-in-law enjoying the country’s national pastime, Indian Premier League (IPL) cricket matches on television. I woke up at dawn almost every morning and brisk-walked several miles on uncluttered backroads in the company of an old college friend, several stray dogs and the occasional peacock. My personal favorite of course was time spent watching those impossibly loud and melodramatic Tamil serials with my 91-year old mother while giving her the companionship that I am unable to give remotely from across the Atlantic.
Having returned to America a few weeks ago I am now slowly working my way back into the mainstream. The memories of my visit to India keep flooding back into the present, especially of my mother and I sitting together and watching those Tamil serials. I know I will be with her again sooner or later, but for now I must get back to smelling the roses here in my adopted country…after all, it is springtime in America. Ever since I retired from work a few years ago, my wife and I have come to realize that living on our own terms without work compulsions have made our lives freer and fuller. We watch movies and read books, we take long walks and marvel over the bounties of nature. We travel to places that once seemed unreachable, and we bask in the comforting company of friends and family. And if somewhere along the way our thoughts have turned inward toward introspection and self-inquiry, well…that is not a bad thing either.
And yet, as we get older we continue to struggle to find balance between the two parallel universes in our lives. America and India may be thousands of miles apart physically and eons apart culturally but in essence both are part of the same reality we call Planet Earth. The Yin and the Yang of an ever-dynamic immigrant life experience. Everyday life in India is for the most part unconditioned and unscripted unlike the West, so the spontaneity of the moment is worth capturing or tolerating, depending on one’s point of view. As a spiritualist at heart I am learning to live as unconditionally as possible…without expectations or regret for missed opportunities.
On my last day in India, my walking buddy asked me if I would ever consider moving back, a question to which non-resident Indians who have lived away for a lifetime will find no easy answer. For many life elsewhere has moved on quite beyond India’s reach to accommodate ever-shifting perceptions of our needs. Still, the question haunts me constantly like a friendly ghost because existential happiness is not so much about individual needs and wants, it is about alignment with environment and culture, and making connections that help enhance the human life experience. I told my friend that I will keep an open mind in hopes that one day I might finally find meaning (and fulfillment) in the here and now…regardless of where I choose to live the rest of my life.
I am sure the street dogs and the peacocks in India will agree.