I sat in a friend’s apartment discussing the logistics of apartment hunting, and a number of bizarre differences in the selection process came to light. In the West, usually the higher up in the building the apartment is, the more desirable and likely more expensive it is. These higher apartments usually offer a better view and hence more prestige. In Chennai, she told me, the ground floor is the more desirable and expensive. The reasoning? Firstly, it is very hot in Chennai for most of the year, so it is cooler towards the bottom of the building. Next, because things have a way of breaking down regularly, one can’t rely on the elevators to always be working, so being towards the bottom of the building means you are not faced with an arduous climb when that inevitably happens.
Privacy does not exist in India unless an extreme amount of money changes hands, and even then, you might be lucky. In Lesson 3 we discussed the collectivist nature of Indian culture, how your life is not your own, and the nation’s insatiable penchant for gossip. If you layer the high density population over those complete lack of personal boundaries, you start to see how there could be a nation where there is no chance of personal privacy ever.
In India, from the moment a baby pops their head out of their mother’s womb, the judgement starts. It begins with how fair or dark the baby is perceived to be. Of course their parents will fall in love regardless and likely think about it rather than verbalizing it, but inevitably there will be a grandmother, aunt, and/or family friend, on one or both sides of the family, who will make the proclamation on whether the shade, shape, and/or size of the baby measures up. This is something the parents and child will be told until they are no more, regardless of how the child’s features or skin colouring change as they grow up.
In the late 1990s I studied at University in Japan when the world was fascinated by Toyota’s low car defect rates compared to every other brand on the market. It was driving the proud American, car hungry consumer insane! Their efficiency and reliability was so inexplicable, intoxicating, and seemingly unobtainably magical, they termed it ‘X-Efficiency’ and people came from the world over to study this new manufacturing witchcraft. What does this have to do with India?
Surprisingly but most definitely, this innate gift of hospitality does not translate into a culture of customer service. At all. Something happens to the Indian the moment they step out of their front gate. All of that generosity and ‘mi casa sou casa’ mentality switches off, and in that instant, the instinct to screw over anyone and everything in their path moves into overdrive. The same person who just offered you (read pressured you into) your third plate of mangos and icecream while pouring you a glass of their finest brandy, will now be screaming at a poor street vendor to reduce the price of an item by the equivalent of a few cents. They will ruthlessly cut off other people in traffic and push people out of the way in queues. There is a very real understanding that life outside the home is every man for themselves, so take what you can from whoever is stupid enough to let you get away with it.
I suddenly noticed my heart racing and my breath getting away from me. I looked down at the page I was writing on, one of those things I would do to amuse myself while waiting, and it was filled with illegible scribbles, and not the fully formed words I was used to putting down. The hairs on my arms were standing at full right angles to my skin, and I thought I was most likely in a cold sweat as I was freezing to touch. Holy crap! I was having a panic attack! Me. Right now. I had a friend from high school who had them, which is the only reason I knew what was happening.
“There is something called Trump derangement syndrome, ‘TDS,’ Jevaan informed me. “That's the name they have given it in America. And they say it's a threat to democracy, but he was democratically elected, you have to accept it. The problem is you were not able to accept what the other person sees; the other person's perspective is not being digested. And if the person who doesn't have your perspective, has an opposite perspective, he is a bigot. So how can it be a danger to democracy if somebody has been democratic elected? So that's a problem. That's the way that people exaggerate it.”
Gautham is a very proud Trump supporter and a staunch conservative, although he is anti-guns and pro-choice. And like Trump, Gautham is not known to filter the thoughts flying through his brain before they come out of his mouth. You will not die wondering what Gautham thinks about things. Jeevan is another US citizen born in India who migrated to Chicago, Illinois in the 1990s to study, and has been back in India since 2001. Like Gautham, Jeevan is anti-gun and pro-choice, but unlike him, Jeevan was traditionally a lefty who was devastated when Trump became president. He has since changed his mind after deciding to try and understand why people voted for Trump, and his subsequent performance. He is keenly interested in politics and has researched and thought a lot about this.
“It wasn’t about the lying (about the size of the crowd), it was that he was so upset about it,” Dan explained. “Even then I could see that he was ignoring facts. I could see very clearly in that first event that this man was not in touch with reality, and I got really scared on Inauguration Day. Within a week of his inauguration I was thinking he was unstable. “Also, that was when I started to notice the other disturbing pattern, that his supporters will accept the most outrageous red herrings. They will take anything that they would never have accepted from another politician, for the most thin and ridiculous explanations for his behaviours. They will take those and latch onto them like they have believed in them their whole lives.
Sometimes life has a way of teaching us lessons we didn’t know we needed to be taught. There are a lot of ways it can do this: through our relationships with friends and family, through natural and unnatural disasters, and through our pursuit of professional fulfilment… For me, some of my biggest lessons have come from my body, which has sent me the gift of a chronic, ‘incurable’ condition to battle for well over half of my life.