Farewell to an India I Hardly Knew

The first thing I ever learned about India was that my parents had chosen to leave it.

The country was lost to us in America, where I was born. It had to be assembled in my mind, from the fragments of anecdotes and regular journeys east.

Now, six years after returning to the country my parents left, as I prepare to depart it myself, the mind goes back to the beginning, to my earliest pictures of it.

India, reflected from afar, was late-night phone calls with the news of death. It was calling back relatives who could not afford to call you. It was Hindu ceremonies with saffron and Kit Kat bars on a silver platter.

India, consumed on our visits back, was being fetched from the airport and cooked a meal even in the dead of night. It was sideways hugs that strove to avoid breast contact. It was the chauvinism of uncles who asked about my dreams and ignored my sister’s…

I moved to India six years ago in an effort to understand it on my own terms, to render mine what had until then only belonged to my parents.

India was changing when I arrived and has changed dramatically, viscerally, improbably in these 2,000 days: farms giving way to factories; ultra-cheap cars being built; companies buying out rivals abroad. But the greatest change I have witnessed is elsewhere. It is in the mind: Indians now know that they don’t have to leave, as my parents left, to have their personal revolutions.

It took me time to see. At first, my old lenses were still in place — India the frustrating, difficult country — and so I saw only the things I had ever seen.

But as I traveled the land, the data did not fit the framework. The children of the lower castes were hoisting themselves up one diploma and training program at a time. The women were becoming breadwinners through microcredit and decentralized manufacturing. The young people were finding in their cellphones a first zone of individual identity. The couples were ending marriages no matter what “society” thinks, then finding love again. The vegetarians were embracing meat and meat-eaters were turning vegetarian, defining themselves by taste and faith, not caste…

The shift is only just beginning. Most Indians still live impossibly grim lives. Trickle down, here more than most places, is slow. But it is a shift in psychologies, and you rarely meet an Indian untouched by it.

An enjoyable read. First-person narrative from one of the journalists who makes reading the International Herald Tribune a pleasure. Still.

The crowd at the NY Times are messing with the how and where of content online; but, that content is still great and useful reading. As is this piece.

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