I left India on Monday, stepping across the border into Nepal. I think my descriptions of India and my time there have been quite positive, and it's easy to see why - from the tropical, palm treed South to the deserts of Rajasthan, the mountainous North and everywhere in between, I saw and did some really great stuff that will stay with me as long as my memory lasts. Since my final days in India, I've been straining to summarize my thoughts of the place and its people, and that means taking the bad with the good.
Before I write another word, let me first say that above all else, I believe every person is their own. Wherever you are, there will be people who build castles in the sand, and people who will step on them; to accredit one behaviour or habit to an entire population is simply wrong, because there will always be those that live by the opposition. My friend Indra says that India in particular is a country of such oppositions - that for any true statement you can make of the country, it's people and their culture, the exact opposite will be equally as true. It's a wildly diverse place, with over 30 states and territories, and almost 500 spoken languages, an hour's drive in any direction will yield an entirely new experience and perspective of what India is.
That all said, my comments about India, (positive and negative alike) are based on my observations alone. Generalizations I share are the result of trends which I've witnessed first-hand, but by no means are they an absolute of the country, or more importantly, its people.
When India's population was last recorded in 2012, it was estimated to be 1.27 billion. That's something like 360 times the population of Canada, and in a much smaller space. Those numbers don't look like much on the screen of your computer monitor or smartphone, but it's a tangible feeling when you walk the streets of India. There are people everywhere, always. Perhaps it's just because population seems to be the greatest difference between India and my home country, (where it's in no way uncommon to find yourself alone on a city block - even in urban Toronto, the country's biggest, busiest city) but I find myself considering the colossal numbers as a central initiator behind a lot of Indian culture's norms and practices.
It's certainly a factor in the incompetence of the Indian government, which is commonly understood to be corrupt. There's a phrase you hear a lot there - "this is India". It's sort of like saying "it is what it is", an admission that things are ineffective or faulty, but hey, what can you do. The train's a few hours late? "This is India". Over 20% of parliament members have been formally accused of some crime? "This is India". The street cop publicly beat you with a baton before even sharing what you did wrong? "This is India". People understand that they're one of over a billion, and so they don't feel they can expect any help from above, or more tragically, from beside. Individuated attention seems like a perfect impossibility, and so the average person is ingrained with a "fend-for-yourself" mentality.
When the majority of a society begins to hold that mindset, things behave very differently than we're used to in the west. It's like being in a survival-mode that ebbs morality with urgency. Cutting in line, or forcing your way through traffic are ordinary ordeals, because "I need to get what I want, and somebody else will take it if I don't first". Social welfare and NGOs are practically unheard of, because there's just too many who need assistance -where would you start? People hold a conscious recognition that things aren't "fair", but a simultaneous complacency keeps any major reform from inciting.
I think of this as the dark side of karma. In the west, karma is a nice, almost ironic idea - I'll do something nice, rack up some credit with the universe, and good things will come my way. What about the flip side though? If you're born poor and have to struggle your whole life just to eat, while watching your neighbour in their air-conditioned home, that sure looks like the universe is sending you some bad vibes. To a true believer in karma, they believe this is their turn to pay penance for past deeds. They believe that in a past life, they produced some harm and now it's time to settle up with the great unknown. To live like this is to live without effort. They accept powerlessness and impotently wait for the world to change their circumstance. It's a difficult and frustrating thing to watch for someone from North America, home of the self-made-man.
There is some promise in the future though. At the time of my writing, India's national elections are underway, and the common thing everyone seems to be calling for is 'change' (Obama '09, anyone?) The Indian people are dissatisfied with being a country so torn between the developed and un-developed worlds, and there's talk in all the cities about the "new generation" of Indians; one less weighted by historical and religious tradition, motivated instead by ideas of global progress and human rights. It's clear to me, though, that the change being called for won't just come with a new political leader (Obama '09, anyone?), but in truth mandates an active effort from all citizens.
Nobody has ever put it better than old Mahatma - "be the change you wish to see in the world".