Reporting from Home

By Namit Arora | Oct 2006 | Comments

I'm a non-resident Indian (NRI). I left India in 1989 for a masters degree in the US. I then lived in N. California and W. Europe and had traveled to 50+ countries by late 2004, when I moved to India for two years to read, write, travel, and rediscover the country (I've since visited over 110 destinations in almost 20 states). I recently thought of recording my pros and cons of living in India again after 15 years in the West (if I had never left India I would surely see things quite differently). What doesn't appear below either didn't impinge enough on my consciousness (or I'm yet to identify it for this list), or it wasn't distinctive enough. (—Oct 2006)


The Cons:

  1. Sociocultural:

a.    Weak civic sense and egalitarian spirit (sense of hierarchy among the masses is strong)

b.    Pervasive corruption, weaker rule of law, legal system is painfully slow

c.    Soul-numbing sights of poverty, disease, and disparity (of money, education, class, etc.)

d.    Low public awareness of hygiene and sanitation (as in littering, quality of street food, handling calls of nature, etc.)

e.    Lesser freedom and opportunity for most returning NRI women, more social-familial pressures and restrictions, nosy relatives

f.    Cloying rituals, superstition, otherworldliness, magical mumbo-jumbo; a "country of uncritical faiths and unquestioned practices"

g.   Too many people, harder to escape crowds, poor queuing etiquette, too much noise (honks, loudspeakers, blaring music, etc.)

h.    Life is cheap - more random and accidental death, less ability to save or protect lives

i.     Frequent cruel treatment of domestic animals like donkeys, horses, cows, and stray dogs

j.    Poor social welfare: almost no social security or unemployment benefits, appalling public health system, weak labor laws that are eroding further under globalization (esp. in the SEZs), weak observance of laws on minimum wage, child labor, marriage age, etc.

k.   Pervasive prejudice of caste, class, religion, sex, and color; appearance is far more important than substance (such as style/brand of clothing and cars, job perks, fair complexion, etc.); scarce dignity of labor

l.    Greater middleclass social conservatism, prudishness, and sexual repression; rampant gender-based double standards; scorn for alternate lifestyles (gays, single moms, unmarried couples cohabitating, etc.)

m.  School and college education less holistic - the focus is on scores and tests rather than curiosity and independence of mind; almost every university's higher education program is low grade, few (if any) do research at the frontiers of human knowledge

n.   Almost no decent public libraries (all one finds is newspapers, mags, a few classics); precious few good bookstores. Readers, writers, and publishers are much less mature on average; fewer globally published English language books are accessible

o.   Work-culture is less evolved - more deference to age and rank, more bureaucracy in the public sector, more exploitation in the private sector, higher gender and class bias; lesser innovation

p.   Few non-South-Asian residents and related cultural presence (especially international cuisine, film, and music)

q.   Scarce foods: good bread, cheese, wine, stuffed olives, chocolate, ice-cream, strawberries, cherries, Chicago Pizza, sandwiches, margaritas, Thai food

  1. Environmental:

a.   Acute air, water, and noise pollution in urban areas. Poor trash and hazardous waste management

b.   Unsafe roads, unruly traffic, few sidewalks, night driving with high beams, accidents more common, getting a driving license is a joke

c.   Distressed ecosystem - shrinking forests, depleting ground water, polluted rivers, vanishing wildlife

d.   Extreme summer heat and dust; northern winters feel unduly cold in Indian homes

  1. Infrastructural:

a.   Widespread and chronic shortages of power and water

b.   Dubious quality of buildings, mediocre workmanship (even upper middleclass homes have frequent leaks, clogs, seepages, etc.)

c.   Rougher travel - few clean toilets, lots of hairy roads and unfit vehicles, pushy touts; poor road and medical emergency services


The Pros

  1. Sociocultural:

a.   Living without the insecurity, anxiety, and the inevitable cultural isolation of the third-world immigrant in the West

b.   Massive diversity (of religion, ritual, language, cuisine, custom, clothing, art, architecture, history, music, dance, etc.). The staggering human drama on the "street" (rites, mores, festivals, weddings, deaths, sufferings, joys, ablutions, trades, lifestyles, attire, etc.). A range of cultural strata coexists, perhaps like nowhere else in the world (from remote tribal to New Age, beatnik sadhus to Blackberry kids)

c.   A much wider political spectrum (from democratically elected commies to right wing Hindu nationalists)

d.   Diversity, syncreticism, and general anarchy provide a formidable bulwark against political and religious fundamentalism

e.   Independent travel in India ("the spinach of travel destinations") - a closer encounter with a more representative human condition, fostering a renewed sense of discovery and self-examination in the traveler

f.    No need to feel ashamed of living in a country where the majority chose a man like George Bush as their leader for a second term. The sweet satisfaction of not contributing thousands of tax dollars for his administration's crimes around the world

g.   No social security numbers (SSNs), no insidious databases built around them, no private information available on the Internet (sure, no SSNs have downsides too)

h.   Easier to chat up people and hear stories that move, amuse, instruct, and repel (often at once); greater native ease and comfort dealing with the locals, can understand and relate to more people's journeys in life

i.    The emerging cosmopolitan life and thought in the metros, esp. Delhi, Mumbai, and Bangalore

j.    A respite for most US-returned NRI women from excessively narrow ideals of physical beauty

k.   The kindness of strangers (offering tips and directions, accommodating an extra person, etc.)

l.    Fewer rules and general anarchy enable a greater sense of physical freedom in public spaces

m.  Lesser organized cruelty against animals (the kind in large mechanized abattoirs)

n.   Lesser violent crime and hard drugs; greater tolerance for soft drugs

o.   Less wasteful society, smaller ecological footprint per capita

p.   Proximity to aging parents (and a few likable relatives)

q.   People look like you; they pronounce your name right, which might appear in a store or street name, or on a billboard; you might even share it with a local god!

r.   Great mangoes and pomegranates, guavas, sitaphal, jamun, ganne ka ras, tamarind, coconuts, litchi, kulfi, chaat, rabdi, jalebi, kachodi, chaach, rasmalai, paan, festival foods

  1. Historical:

a.   Ancient and rich history, awesome ruins and monuments; the sense of being alive in an antique land associated with great names, events, as well as sublime philosophies and principles (e.g., Buddhism, Ahinsa, Satyagraha, etc.) that still shine through at times

b.   More varied fauna (esp. primates, elephants, and other large mammals, birds); greater natural diversity for its size (desert, rainforest, tropics, Himalayan heights, long coastline, beaches)

  1. Economic:

a.   Can live well at less than a third of US cost, with maid and cook; cheap labor makes many more services (e.g., home delivery) affordable

b.   Fresh produce in easy reach (easy to avoid processed, canned, frozen stuff); a wide variety of inexpensive foods cooked fresh each day

c.   Cheaper travel, decent hotels are relatively inexpensive; more civilized public transportation (esp. trains, CNG buses and taxis)


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