First Impressions

As a kickoff to this new website, I’m sharing some material from my first stay in India (June 2008 – December 2010). Read below my musings on life as a foreigner in a foreign land, written when I was still bright-eyed, bushy-tailed and flushed with cash from the U.S. State Department (thank you, William Fulbright!).

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Originally emailed to friends and family on July 18, 2008

I am three weeks into my nine-month stint as a Fulbright scholar at the University of Pune. My project is entitled “The Philosophical Roots of Indian Environmentalism.” I’m not quite sure what that means yet, but my research will likely entail reading about Indian religions (there is little secular Indian philosophy; instead there is Hindu philosophy and Buddhist philosophy and Jain philosophy), interviewing with activists and professors, and working with environmental NGOs.

Although I entertained grand ideas of coming here and living like an Indian, I am quickly realizing the futility of this endeavor. First, the heterogeneity of Pune is overwhelming. The Fulbright orientation packet notes, “Visitors who wish to live ‘in the Indian manner’ may find it difficult to decide just what that ‘manner’ is, even in a particular region.” Compounding this difficulty, Westerners (myself reluctantly included) bring highly stereotyped visions of “the Indian manner,” imagining a land of sages and spices only to find a land of blue jeans and TVs. That hasn’t stopped me from doing yoga and cooking fiery foods, even as my Indian counterparts work out in a gym and chow down at Papa Johns.

I am starting to get a handle on the bewildering array of acronyms and abbreviations used here. (Typical newspaper headline: “State to import Rs 67 cr aircraft for CM, VIPs.”) I am living in a 2 BHK (bedroom-hall-kitchen) flat with Ted, another Fulbright scholar, a 46-year-old Sanskritist who has been in a funk the past few days because of a particularly difficult passage in the text he is translating. Absent-minded, as intellectuals can be, Ted once locked me inside the flat (don’t ask how), and yesterday he left the stovetop burner on for hours, but for the most part we get along quite well. We swap stories and jokingly engage in pop-sociology theorizing about the Indian way of life.

Things here come in bursts. Bursts of frigid-cold air-conditioned air from stores trying to impress the customer. Bursts of thick, choking smoke from trucks. Bursts of noise from the horns of cars, trucks, motorcycles, and autorickshaws: not signs of anger, but rather a way of marking position on the chaotic, clogged roads. Bursts of intense smell: fresh cilantro if you’re lucky, human excrement if you’re not.

It is easy (and amusing) to notice the small cultural differences: when cars reverse here, instead of beeping (like trucks in the US), they play loud MIDI-quality songs, often Christmas-themed, an odd choice for a predominantly Hindu nation; the Lays potato chips here come in flavors like “Masala Munch,” and (more disturbingly) the Coca-Cola drinks, including bottled water, come with alarmingly high pesticide contents; liquids like milk and oil are sold in plastic bags; a bottle of imported soy sauce costs over five dollars, yet a heaping lunch at the university canteen costs fifty cents.

It is harder to describe the larger differences, the enormous gulf that exists between my background and this culture. So much goes on that I don’t understand, so many symbols and markers I can’t comprehend. I take refuge in the small differences that at least allow some basis of comparison.

Many of my experiences have fit into the stereotype of India as a rapidly developing IT powerhouse still beholden to ancient traditions, a land of staggering wealth and gritty poverty. Yes, sacred cows do roam freely on the streets, even as businessmen in their air-conditioned cars shout into their mobile phones. Yes, temples abound, as do internet cafes. Yes, I do live next to a luxury apartment complex, which offers “eco-friendly living” and a meditation hall, and which borders a desperately poor neighborhood marked by clotheslines, goats and cricket bats. (I also live with a small army of ants, and next to a small army station, but that’s beside the point).

As a random white dude in a city where Westerners are scarce, I get stared at a lot, but recently I drew gazes for an altogether different reason: I own an Apple computer. India is a PC-dominated market, and the university tech guys, who were helping me set up wifi, looked at the small white machine with curiosity bordering on awe. One even stroked it appreciatively. While sitting in the office of the Head Tech Guy on my second visit (nothing in India gets done on the first visit), I had ample time to soak in a quintessential Indian scene. Head Tech Guy tapped away furiously on my computer. The room was sparsely furnished: desk, PC, wireless router, and filing cabinet, all bathed in fluorescent light. Twice, Head Tech Guy stopped his tapping to answer his mobile phone, which had an alarming number of buttons and features. (Alarming to me, anyway; my first mobile phone was more or less forced on me when I arrived here due to the insistence of the Fulbright office and the demands of setting up a flat.) The office had a large window. Outside, a dirt path cut through the monsoon-green shrubs. Ambling along the path was an old man in a Nehru cap, pushing along a cart brimming with vegetables. Cows grazed in the field. An autorickshaw sped by. Goats skirted around huge tubes left over from a construction project. Banyan trees and power lines competed for dominance of the skies.

It is easy to see this scene as a metaphor for Indian life: the urban and the rural, the modern and the traditional existing easily side-by-side. Indeed, many visitors to India seem content to observe such scenes and spin them into elaborate theories about the nature of development and globalization. Nothing sells a theory like a good anecdote (think: Thomas Friedman).

But theories thus elaborated are too facile. It’s fun to indulge in off-the-cuff theorizing (as Ted and I frequently do), but it’s dangerous to take these theories too far. As foreigners, we have a glimpse into the Indian way of life, or – more accurately – we have a glimpse in to some of the many Indian ways of life. But even Ted, on his third visit to India, throws up his hands when it comes to really understanding what’s going on here.

It would be amusing, if it weren’t so dismaying, the way the impressions of one-time visitors are taken as fact by the reading public in the States. Andy, a friend who is currently living in Bombay, told me the tale of an American reporter who had been sent to Bombay to do some sort of cultural story. The reporter met one of Andy’s friends, who took him to various bars and restaurants. Andy’s friend had no idea the guy was a reporter until he read the article the guy wrote, which was full of errors, including a completely fabricated celebrity sighting. More seriously, a recently New York Times profile of industrialist Mukesh Ambani was fairly glowing, especially with reference to Ambani’s father, who built up the family business. “They portray the father as this real rags-to-riches, honest-hard-work-pays-off guy, but everyone in India knows he was ruthless and built the business by twisting arms,” scoffed Andy.

In my short time here, I’ve already seen signs that things are not so simple as they seem at first glance. With so much raving about the success of the Indian economy, especially the IT sector, I wasn’t surprised to find several IT companies based in Pune. I was surprised, though, by the bitter reaction they elicited from a young professor at the university.

“I’m lucky,” he said. “I have a good job. I get paid all right. But with these new IT firms here, prices are going up, up, up. Even I have a hard time affording things. And for those people that don’t have the job security… These are hard times.”

Similarly, even though there is a growing environmental consciousness here (the newspaper is rife with stories about protected forests and battles to save lakes), there is already an anti-green backlash. The same professor, clearly a dispeller of illusions, said to me, “Oh, you want to be an environmentalist? You just have to say, ‘Don’t do this, don’t do that. Don’t drive that car, don’t put that there, don’t use that.'” Sadly, the stereotype of the nagging environmentalist is not a solely Western phenomenon.

Presumably, my research will continue to offer up more nuggets like this, and I look forward to sharing them in similarly long-winded fashion. Please do get in touch and let me know how you’re doing. Or come visit.

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One response to “First Impressions

  1. What a start… Not really often I would read such a long one in one time, but the flow is so mastered that I didn’t feel nothing tiring/boring going on. I feel i’m gonna learn a lot with you, brother…

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