First published on Aug 01, 2003
Just a few days ago, I got yet another letter confusing me with Dinesh D’Souza. Dinesh, if you don’t know, is the boy from Bombay’s suburb of Bandra, who is now a star among conservatives in the U.S. A stint in the Reagan White House and several widely discussed books (Illiberal Education, The End of Racism) will do that. “I saw you on CNN last night,” said this angry correspondent, “and this morning here’s your article with completely opposite opinions! Can’t you at least be consistent, you moron?”
Insult and mistaken identity aside, the letter, and the Iraq war that generated such strong pro- and anti-U.S. views, reminded me of something else Dinesh once wrote for The Times of India. “To Be In America,” he called it, a love song to living in the States.
He wrote with feeling of how in the U.S., life can break out of “traditional confines” and you have the chance to write “the script of your own life.”
The freedoms that country holds dear, he told us residents of India, give “lustre to virtue,” and allow everyone their own shot at that famous “pursuit of happiness.” That famous American Dream, of course.
Now, a game of my-country-better-than-yours is one that interests me not even slightly. So, while I wanted to respond, I wasn’t going to compose my own similar love song, only to India. But I’ve long wished that somebody would prick the bubble that says, to too many Indians, that simply being in America showers all kinds of goodies on you. For all of that country’s undoubted virtues, and I am an unabashed admirer of many, it is profoundly mistaken to believe that your life can find gorgeous new shape solely, or even largely, by turning up there.
I tasted that American pie too, for 10 years. It remains one of my eternal regrets that during my time at Brown University, I did not sample course offerings outside my computer science degree. But there, and through my working years in the States, I did find time and opportunity for interests ranging from bird-watching to Spanish, books to garage sales, political activism to tennis. And, from time to time, for my software career.
In every sense, in those 10 years, I felt entirely in control of my life, my destiny. Dinesh applauds America’s capacity to offer you just that feeling. Yet, I mention my interests not to reiterate Dinesh’s point, but to say this: even though I had a full life there, I am infinitely more fulfilled here in India. The second-best decision I ever made was to return to India in 1992. Not because India is a land of milk and honey, or of opportunity falling off gulmohur trees, or even of lustrous virtue. On the contrary, this is an often-perverse country to live in. But stimulating as the U.S. is, to me it has seemed, since my return, that those very perversities make India the world’s most interesting, stimulating country.
And I still feel in control of my life.
The point is that you make your life. Because it’s not just your surroundings that decide how you live, but also your own outlook on living.
For example: Dinesh confessed that had he stayed in India, he might have lived his “entire existence within a five-mile radius” of where he was born. He might have married someone of his “identical religious and socio-economic background.” He might have ended up with “a whole set of opinions that could be predicted in advance.”
Yet, are such things a feature of India? Because you don’t have to do them. But far more important, so what? By itself, a radius need not be a black mark on your report card. Your spouse’s background, even identical, need not be another. And if merely being in the U.S. decides for you that you can have unpredictable opinions, it strikes me that you haven’t grasped a fundamental lesson: we must all form our own opinions, and then whether they are predictable matters little.
Perhaps unconsciously, such thoughts shape my life in Bombay. I live very far from where I was born, but close enough to where I grew up. In any case, I travel often, and taste all that this enormous country offers. Some would say I have a “mixed” marriage, others would disagree; she and I, we don’t care either way, because we share values and interests, and that, not our backgrounds, matters.
In a sense, Dinesh is saying that in India, as opposed to the U.S., your destiny is given to you. Made for you. But surely, your destiny is given only if you take it. Wherever you are. If you choose instead to make it yourself, to shape it as you want, that too can happen wherever you are.
Like Dinesh, I am now a writer. I made that conscious career change away from software in India. For a writer, this is a country like no other, with an inexhaustible supply of stories to be learned and told. Who is the man who sprawls on the corner, indistinguishable from the dog that also sprawls there? What makes middle-aged Indians form Laughter Clubs and gather to guffaw in unison every morning? Why are there women near Mahim station who get water from the drops that leak from the drain on a nearby building? What’s with the roadside cobbler near Metro cinema who once styled himself “India ka High Hitler”?
If you so much as have your eyes open, sights and experiences like these are everywhere: harrowing, funny, odd, whatever. In an odd nutshell, that’s India. This enormous experiment in modern nationhood that would mould a country out of diversity unknown anywhere. This gigantic attempt to give disparate people common cause: after all, what binds together the fellow from Tripura and me?
This experiment, this India—it stutters and stumbles; by my count its failures outnumber its successes; it is crammed with frustrations, perversities and miseries; it is sullied by the world’s most venal ministers and supremos. Yet, in spite of all that, because of all that, it is endlessly intriguing, a goldmine of opportunity, experience, and life.
I’ve been back in India for over a decade, and each day I am more sure: I would never live anywhere else. Now that is certainly my own choosing.
A computer scientist by training, Dilip D’Souza now writes for his supper in Bombay. His main interests are social and political issues in India.