Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The ennui of blogs that bash India

I recently read a blog by a NRI (non resident Indian) living in the US bashing his homeland, India.

This particular blog has done the rounds of the Internet and Facebook, and sparked such debate that the New York Times, which originally published it, has been forced to do a story on the outraged responses to it. The blog can be found here

It is written by an NRI called Sumedh who first left India to live in the USA in 1996 and then returned 10 years later in 2006, seduced, he says, by a "Thomas Friedman India", presumably referring to the shiny urban India of call centres described in Friedman’s 2005 book, ‘The World is Flat’. Sumedh first moved to the US before ‘Shining India’ had emerged. Sitting in the US sipping a Starbucks, no doubt, he was clearly seduced by a new perception of India emerging as the next global superpower. He wanted to return to find that India, which in his view, was a more palatable version of the India he had left. He writes in his blog that he returned in 2006 prepared for an India that was “like the flight’s Indian vegetarian meal;  visually familiar but viscerally alien…an India that offered global companies, continental food, international schools and domestic help.”

Bollywood films by the likes of Karan Johar no doubt helped build up this image of a fun, modern, funky, shiny clean India and newspaper articles in American media about the India growth story probably precipitated his decision. Of course the shiny  India he had read about in the USA did exist – but only in five star hotels and urban centres – and another less successful, less organised but perhaps more endearing India was also still very much there, less reported on in the American media, one he had hoped had faded, but still very much in existence.

Two years and 10 months in to his stay in this New India, he decided he hated it, packed his bags and returned to the US and his blog is all about the reasons why he couldn’t stand New India. He blamed India for his inability to adapt to life there and not himself.

The blog was offensive to many people. One of his most maligning claims is that his stint in New India had made him inhuman and soulless; he claims it turned him into a smug person who, like all rich Indians (according to him), dehumanised the labour classes. He says he started to hate himself. He had “regressed,” he said. “I hated what I was becoming,” he wrote.

It is fallacious to think that a country can change you and make you become something else or a worse individual than you already were. It is a twisted logic. He became what he became because he chose to become that. Nothing stopped him becoming the next Mother Teresa, but he chose not to.

Here are some of the aspects of India which he said he hated in New India and were the reasons for his return to California in 2009:-

1)      The maid system. He said that by the end of his stay he “probably spent more on pizza than [his] maid.” This comment alone demonstrates his complete lack of understanding of how India works and how he was, in an Occidental imperial way, trying to impose his Western viewpoint on the way India works. Anyone who has an ounce of understanding of India, appreciates it is part of the East, not West, and has its own way of functioning. (Everyone knows for example that Mumbai has a fantastically organised, but seemingly complex way (to the Western eye), of delivering packed lunches known as tiffins to workers; everyone knows that the washing at Dhobi Ghat is done in a more efficient manner than dry cleaners in the West could imagine but to the Western judgmental eye it appears chaotic, even though it is in fact highly efficient.) There is no global law that states that every country has to function how the US does. You do not judge a maid’s pay in India on her wages alone. It is far more complex than that, as is most of what happens in India.

For starters, to my knowledge there is no law in India which regulates the wages domestic workers earn or sets a minimum wage. They are part of the so-called disorganised sector. Therefore most Indians pay maids the going rate, whatever that is, after inquiring about it. The maids themselves generally set this rate in an informal manner by demanding specific wages when you try to employ them.  No maid is forced to work for anyone and they refuse to work for you if you do not pay them what they want. But the compensation does not stop there. Everyone I know, gave their maid at least a month’s salary as a bonus at Diwali, with probably saris and sweets on top. Others gave bonuses at Christmas as well. Many Indian families I know regularly bought their maids clothes and always paid for their medical treatment. One Indian lady I know had to move to the US for a year and paid her maid an annual salary anyway even when she was in the US and the maid wasn’t even working for her - as a gesture of gratitude and loyalty.  It is standard practice to increase the maid’s salary every year and most families let them take a month off to visit their village in May and still pay them!

 I think it is extremely na├»ve of NRIs or expats to turn up in India, hear what the salary is, compare it to what a cleaner would get in the US or UK for the same hours and then brand it as slave labour. That is not how it works. In any case, there is a completely different cost of living in India compared to the US so you would not expect to pay a maid there the same wage. Yes, maids one day might join the organised sector of work, when minimum wages are set, but currently they are in the disorganised sector meaning they don’t pay income tax etc…The matter is not black and white and a maid’s pay cannot be compared to the price of a pizza. Yet, throughout his blog, Sumedh demonstrated a surprising Western superiority complex over the way India functions. He also referred to an incident when his friend’s children got amoebiasis (posh word for food poisoning) and he “thought” (note: did not even know) they got it from “the maid” so from that point onwards he and his wife “separated the dinnerware” the maid used. That is discrimination at the extreme! I don’t know any Indian employer of domestic staff who did that. My maid often used my cups and plates and I thought nothing of it. This writer is referring to what he did (that was discriminatory) and then inferring that all Indians do this. It is as absurd as an Indian moving to Britain and beating some men up outside a football match saying “ All Brits do this.”

2)      He said that at one point his driver asked him for a Rs 500 loan (£6) to attend his grandmother’s funeral and he “brusquely” refused implying that all rich Indians “refused” loans to their drivers as well. “It only encourages them to ask for more; besides, they’re all liars,” he wrote, expressing his personal view of drivers, suggesting that was how all rich Indian felt about their staff. Wrong!. All the Indians and expats I know who had drivers regularly lent them money when required and this was considered part and parcel of hiring the driver. The driver received far more than a salary alone, with medical costs etc thrown in and the drivers wages were within the scale of things in India, quite good. Most of my friends were beholden to their drivers, rather than the other way round, usually leaving parties early so their drivers could get home to their families, giving them time off regularly and paying for them to attend funerals. To refuse a loan for that is simply disgusting and if it was me, I would not even expect the money to be repaid and would just give it.

3)      He describes how he also had a road-rage incident:. “I verbally abused a hawker who was blocking the road. I’m not going to let bullock-cart India make my daughter late for her school admission test. The hawker glared but scampered away, the road cleared, and, as I walked back to my car, I saw something new and disturbing in my driver’s eyes: respect,” he wrote. The fact that his driver’s reaction to his violent outburst was mere surmise on his part, is bad enough. For all we know, the glint in his driver’s eye was anger towards him, not respect. But either way, to refer to a hawker as “bullock-cart India” is extreme discrimination and then to put his child’s school admission test above the right of the hawker to common courtesy says more about him than it does about India. I have seen road-rage incidents occasionally happen in the UK and in India but only by angry fired-up people. Not everyone engages in them. In India, I found most people to be impressively patient and it was patience that I learnt in India, rather than road-rage.

4)      He also wrote about his ability to perfect “reflexive, addictive and tragically accurate placement of other Indians into bullock carts, scooters, airplanes and who knows what else”, the issue of “caste” and getting tips on “keeping his maid in her place.” It was, in short, grotesque. I never “kept my maid in her place” and nor did any Indian I know. My maid became my best friend, we discussed my love life and she grew to adore my cats. When I left India I gave her everything in my flat for free. But that is not unique – it is what every Indian does. I know of Indian children that have grown to love their maids like members of their family. Yes, there is a class system in India, like there is in the UK. But it is nowhere near as inhuman as Sumedh made out. And if he had wanted to write about that and how socially mobile or not the Indian class system was, his blog just skimmed over the surface and barely touched on it. That indeed might have made an interesting read. I would happily rather read a piece on caste and the class system in India based on interviews with maids, drivers  and watchmen rather than the single view of an NRI with a Western mindset unable to integrate in India describing his ill-informed impression of the matter. The caste system is anyway almost a nebulous concept, talked about more in the West than it ever is in India. It has little relevance today as a) many Brahmins (once the highest caste) are now penniless and unemployed, like British aristocrats and b) many of the lower castes now benefit from positive discrimination in jobs and education.

I am sure I mixed with Indians of all castes and yet no one knew anyone’s caste, it was never discussed and it did not affect anyone’s promotion in the work place or entry to a club or anywhere. India is not that behind, thank you. The practice of untouchability in India was outlawed in 1950. It is, in my view, one of those subjects, like earthquakes and poverty that Westerners love to use when discussing India, to make themselves feel better.

Sumedh failed to say anything he liked about India or to show any deep insight into the workings of India, a massively diverse and complex country . All his blog did was prove how distant some NRIs are from their actual Indian roots, and how many of them have lost the connection completely and are now as native as the natives in the countries they have moved to.

A British NRI friend of mine was equally revolted by the NRI piece as me. “I could predict what we was going to write before I read it. This is the same old trite foreigners have been writing about India for the past 40 years and now the NRIs are doing it. I am an NRI and I love India and Britain. I am as happy having a chai at a chai stall as fine tea at the Taj or the Ritz. I can do both and enjoy both. I don’t understand what all the fuss is about,” he said. I met another NRI living in Germany the other day, a wise old man in his 80s. He said to me, "When you visit India you cannot go there expecting the same life as you have in England. You have to put all that aside and embrace India for what she has.” He was right. Similarly so does an Indian coming to Britain.

So, in my humble view, if you want to make comments on how awful another country is to live in, first survey a million residents living in it, then present the picture. Do not make sweeping statements based on your own single, subjective, non representative experience.