MUMBAI, India 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.
It was wrong, yet easy, to feel that we did India a favor by coming home. We packed our suitcases with things they couldn’t get for themselves: Jif peanut butter, Hellmann’s mayonnaise, Gap khakis. These imports sketched a subtle hierarchy in which they were the wanting relatives and we their benefactors.
My cousins in India would sometimes ask if I was Indian or American. I saw that their self-esteem depended on my answer. “American,” I would say, because it was the truth, and because I felt that to say otherwise would be to accept a lower berth in the world.
What it meant to be American was to be free to invent yourself, to belong to a family and a society in which destiny was believed to be human-made.
I looked around in India and saw everyone in their boxes, not coming fully into their own, replicating lives lived before. If only they came to America, I told myself, so-and-so would be a millionaire entrepreneur; so-and-so would be as confident in her opinions as her husband; so-and-sos’ marriage would be more like my parents’, with verve and swing-dancing lessons and bedtime crossword puzzles; so-and-so would study history and literature, not just bankable practicalities.
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.
Indians from languorous villages to pulsating cities were making difficult new choices to die other than where they were born, to pursue vocations not their father’s, to live lives imagined within their own skulls. And it was addictive, this improbable rush of hope.
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.
Grabbing hold of their destinies, these Indians became the unlikely cousins of my own immigrant parents in America: restless, ambitious, with dreams vivid only to themselves. But my parents had sought to beat the odds in a bad system, to be statistical flukes that got away.
What has changed since they left is a systemic lifting of the odds for those who stay. It is a milestone in any nation’s life when leaving becomes a choice, not a necessity.
My parents watch me from their perch outside Washington, D.C., and marvel at history’s sense of irony: a son who ended up inventing himself in the country they left, who has written of the self-inventing swagger of a rising generation of Indians, in a country where “self” was once a vulgar word.
At times, my mother wonders if they should have remained, should have waited for their own country’s revolution instead of crashing another’s. And as I leave India now I can only wonder how history would have turned out if the ocean of change had come a generation earlier.
Because it came between their generation and mine, the premise of our family story has been pulled out from beneath us. We are American citizens now, my family, and proudly so. But we must face that we are Americans because of a choice prompted by truths that history has undone. They were true at the choice’s making; in India, I saw their truth boil slowly away.
They don’t crave our mayonnaise and khakis anymore. They no longer angrily berate America, because they are too busy building their own country. Indian accents are now cooler than British ones. No one asks if I feel Indian or American. How delicious to see that unconcern. How fortunate to live in a land you needn’t leave to become your fullest possible self.
And how wondrous, in this time of revolutions, to have had my own here.
I grew up in America defining myself by the soil under my feet, not by the blood in my veins. The soil I shared with everyone else; the blood made me unbearably different. Before I loved India, I loathed it. But that feeling seems now like a relic from a buried past.
I leave now on the journey’s next stretch, with sadness and with joy, humbled by India, grateful to have been at the revolution and to have known the revolutions within.Show