You are more Indian than you think, and so am I

A K Ramanujan wrote in 1989 that the questions, ‘Is there an Indian way of thinking?’ contains many questions in itself, depending on where the stress is placed. Here are the possible variations:

Is there an Indian way of thinking?
Is there an Indian way of thinking?
Is there an Indian way of thinking?
Is there an Indian way of thinking?

He said that the answers are just as various. Here are a few: There was an Indian way of thinking, there isn’t any more. OR There is no single Indian way of thinking, there are many traditions. OR Do Indians think at all? I find Ramanujan’s musings extremely interesting. A poet, educator and writer of eminence, he has summarized this quagmire as cleverly as it deserves to be handled.

Having traveled the world, worked with people from around the globe, read extensively and introspected a fair bit over the last few years, I have often wondered what is Indian-ness? My nationality was something that I always took for granted because it was just there. It was like the uselessness of debating over the value of clean air which was always there, till it asserted its importance by becoming almost extinct. When many factors got together to make me question the things I believed in, things I held sacrosanct, what I thought I was, then it became important – ‘it’ being where I came from, my context, my background, my nationality, my Indian-ness.

When in buses, I have found myself standing up to give my seat to an elderly person, I have often later wondered what values prompted that instinctive reaction. When passing by temples, mosques, churches and gurudwaras alike, I have bowed my head in respect, I have been surprised by the strength of my own secular upbringing. At lunch or dinner, when I have felt compelled to share my food with everybody around to the extent that there may be only a little left for me, I have sat down and laughed at my own cultural quirks and at the same time marveled at them too. All of these little soul-searching expeditions have brought me home to my own Indian-ness, and thankfully so.

I firmly believe that my Indian way of thinking is a unique contributor to my success and overall fulfilment as a person. The immediate example that comes to my mind in this regard is the deep sense of family that has been instilled in me. In India the family is the most important institution that has survived through the times immemorial. India, like most other less industrialized, traditional, eastern societies is a collectivist society that emphasizes family integrity, family loyalty, and family unity. The wonderful Indian family supports the aged; takes care of widows, never-married adults, and the incapacitated; and provides security and a sense of support and attachment that we most need.

My own gorgeous family!

It is this sense of family integrity and loyalty that has always stayed with me, no matter where I have been. When I went to Australia to study a few years ago, I was constantly faced with situations that were challenging and testing. I was not only able to tide over all challenging situations with the support of my family that stood by me like a rock, though far away, but I was able to help others in similar situations. There is this particular situation that comes to my mind, when I look back at that period now.

This is during my post-graduate studies. On the very first day of University, I saw a slightly timid looking girl. She was not sure whom to talk to, or what to do. A few times, she was approached by the kind student volunteers but there was a clear lack of communication I could observe. She was Indian and wore traditional clothes. She seemed intimidated by her surroundings and people around. After watching her for a few minutes I realized, she was not comfortable speaking in English. She seemed to mostly understand what people were saying, but was not able to respond fluently.

By this time, I had begun feeling as if she is a part of my family, almost like a sister. I could not control myself and felt that I had to help her. I walked up to her and smiled. As expected, she did not readily smile back. She was hesitant to trust people easily being in an entirely alien scenario. But just how we do not judge family members on their superficial qualities, but rather on the depth of our shared relationship, I had almost adopted that girl by then. I helped her with the orientation formalities, registration and all other requirements. By this time, she had begun trusting me a little and had warmed up too. Yet, we did not share information about each other.

Over the next few days, I continued to see her in the university. I discovered she had come as an undergraduate student in Mathematics and was living in a shared accommodation that an agent had found for her close to campus. Since I was a graduate student with a little more experience, both college-wise and life-wise, I helped with a few things at times. And so began our relationship.

I discovered that her name was Sharda and she belonged to a small town in Madhya Pradesh. She was excellent in her studies and so her principal had taken special interest in her studies. The principal had personally met Sharda’s father and encouraged him to enroll his daughter in a prestigious university abroad. Upon visits to educational consultancies that are not burgeoning all over the interiors of India, the father had learned that Australia has a good education system. And so through a mix of scholarship and loans, he had managed to send his daughter abroad.

Looking back, I agree that Sharda took a long time in accepting me as a confidante. Perhaps, being in the same situation now, I would not put so much effort at getting to know her and help her. But at that time, my inherent Indian value of care, family and community kicked in. In my place, a foreign student, even though wanting to help Sharda, would have taken her reserved nature as a sign to stay away. But, I can confidently say that after years of living in a joint family and believing in bonds more than anything else, I persisted. Like I guessed, I soon realized that Sharda was a wonderful kid who was extremely shy and afraid in a foreign land. The moment she realized that she could trust me, she flowered. She shared everything with me, settled down brilliantly and, I am very glad and proud to announce, topped the university in her subject! I see this as my personal win because that girl truly deserved it, and all she needed was a supportive community which I provided her without even realizing. She is doing her family and country proud today with the research into her subject, and am sure her work will help millions. If this wonderful victory was in any way due to my persistence and Indian values, there is nothing that makes me happier and more joyous! :)  

Before we left Australia, Sharda and I went to see the kangaroos and I took this adorable picture of her, all westernized in her off-shoulder top and red sunglasses! She had grown and changed a lot :)

Currently, she is a Doctoral student at a university in UK and every time we talk she tells me that it was the comfort and security that I gave to her, which made her feel at home in such new surroundings. She says that in me she found a mother, sister and a friend, all rolled into one. As she slowly learned the art of making friends and becoming independent, it was my persistence and not giving up on her that eventually gave her the much needed reassurance. She feels that if I had given up on her, because of her introversion and slight hostility, she would have always been in her shell and a very different person today. It was quite emotional and overwhelming when she said all this for the first time, but analyzing it objectively, I see what she means. My Indian ideologies and values make me place families, relationships and people over everything else. I have been taught, consciously and subconsciously, from the very beginning that family and friends come first, and then follow money or success or fame or anything else that we want to chase. Without even realizing, I have lived my life keeping these values at the core of everything I do and believe in; and I am so thankful that these values of family loyalty and family integrity have always kept me in good stead. Today Sharda calls me her bestie and closest confidante! Here is the picture she sent me on my birthday!

With the advent of urbanization and modernization, younger generations are turning away from the joint family form. This new family form encourages frequent visits; financial assistance; aid and support in childcare and household chores; and involvement and participation in life-cycle events such as births, marriages, deaths, and festival celebrations. The familial and kinship bonds are thus maintained and sustained. Even in the more modern and nuclear families in contemporary India, many functional extensions of the traditional joint family have been retained and the nuclear family is strongly embedded in the extended kinship matrix. Because of this, even now, when I live far away from home, my values have not changed and familiar and kinship bonds are ingrained in me deeply. In my last conversation with Sharda, I asked her the same question that I just mentioned above. I said, ‘I wonder if I would behave in the same way now with somebody, being a little more cynical and world-wary.’ She said, ‘Didi (she calls me ‘sister’ in Hindi), that is who you are. No matter how many years from now, no matter where you go, you will put the same effort to help somebody out, once you accept them as part of your family. And this is because you are inherently Indian!’ I just laughed. :)

That's Sharda in the center with her friends on a summer trip recently! :)


Renu said…
very true..we really try our best to help anybody..its not perfunctory..can I help u?
Canary said…
Thanks for the kindness :) Glad you liked the post!

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