These days I find myself complaining quite often about insignificant matters. I complain if my commute to work takes 40 minutes instead of the usual 20. If the temperature outside stretches beyond my comfort zone just a wee bit, I moan. If my husband tosses and turns on our bed, I grumble. I complain if the waiter in a restaurant doesn’t heap attention on me, or if the food isn’t good, or if I see a tiny insect buzz around my table.
This attitude of mine validates my mother-in-law’s claim: I’ve distanced myself from my roots. In America, I have become a complainer. At least in expecting a very high quality of life, in expecting perfection, I’ve lost touch with how I used to live just a little over a decade ago.
Most of my early memories are about my adolescence. I lived in a medium-sized town called Kumbakonam in Tamil Nadu. Kumbakonam was famous for its temples, betel leaves, and its tasteful cuisine. It was a town where tradition trumped all else and technology was always tardy in its arrival.
There were not a lot of technological gizmos in Kumbakonam. Even the stove we used for heating bathwater was an open furnace fueled by wooden logs. There were no taps in the bathroom or the kitchen. We drew sweet, fragrant water from a deep well in the middle of the house and carried it in a bucket to wherever we needed the water.
The toilet had no taps either. (We didn’t use toilet paper to clean ourselves and so water was a necessity there.) It was a dank room, barely 6 feet by 4 feet. In its primitiveness, it could easily compete with a portable potty here: It had just a small hole in the ground, a languid yellow light dangling from the ceiling and a precariously hanging metal door that could barely be shut.
Going to the loo was a project: I had to draw water from the well, carry it in the bucket relegated for this sole purpose and set out on a three-minute walk to the backyard where the toilet was. Once inside the loo, I checked its interiors with not a small amount of circumspection: oft-times, a snake slumbered in its dark recesses, and it would be disastrous to be bitten by one with not a soul within earshot.
Snakes were not the only critters cohabiting our house. Scorpions dropped from the roof, frogs croaked all night in the atrium, roaches scurried around in the kitchen, rats reigned supreme in the old storage room that was redolent of antique wood.
And then there were the lice; thousands of them, apparently, in my wispy tresses. It is debatable if the lice lurked in my locks or if my locks grew amidst the lice. Several days a week, our maidservant seated me on the terrace on top of a creased Tamil newspaper and meticulously combed the insidious insects out of my scalp. As the lice poured down from my hair, like effusions from a mawkish person, she used a two-foot grinding stone to crush them to death.
Lice—like the absence of taps, a distant, primitive toilet in the backyard, heinous insects and reptiles raining from the roof—were just a fact of life in Kumbakonam. Another mere fact of life there: the sweltering heat. The sun literally squelched one like a juggernaut. There was no air conditioner, not even a fan, to beat the heat. Let me rephrase that: there was a fan—it was just not functioning well. It was heavy, and moved with torpor characteristic of a rotund person. Even at its highest speed, one could hardly feel its presence.
The sluggish fan was not a big deal most of the time, as the frequent, long power cuts made it pointless. Power cuts were something, I reckon, that our government used to test the mettle of its people. At the peak of summer, when sweat drenched us like a hot shower, two hours a day of power outage was not surprising.
However, despite all these little annoyances, frustrations, hardships and sub-optimal quality of life, I seldom complained in Kumbakonam. I never felt that I was entitled to a better life. I was at peace with what I had. Power cuts or critters or roads littered with potholes, I just took them for what they were and dealt with them.
Today, in America, water gushes out of the faucets in my kitchen and bathrooms. My hair is clean and free of parasites. Power cuts are rare. Roads, albeit frequently congested, are smooth as butter. With all these conveniences that make my life better—much, much better—one would think that I would rarely complain, that I would be content. One should think again.
America has made me driven and passionate. While I don’t remember ever demanding that we improve our living conditions in Kumbakonam, I kick and scream at the slightest scratch in my quality of life here. America has taught me to be more demanding, to strive for better, to expect perfection. She has also made me hanker incessantly. She has given me a convenient life, but she has also made necessities out of luxuries. I have become smarter, more innovative—like heck, I have—but I have also become a complainer.
Raji Rajagopalan is a software engineer who enjoys writing essays in her spare time. She lives near Seattle, Wash.