When I first told my mom that I was planning to get a master’s degree in Modern Indian History at Jawaharlal Nehru University in India, her eyes bulged out, and she said “NO. You are NOT going.”
When I told her I WAS going, and that I didn’t understand why she was so upset, she said “Meghna, India is like a 5th stage cancer patient. Do you know that there is zero law and order in India? We left there to come here, and now you want to go back.”
Several weeks later, before I had even shrugged off my jet lag, I was elbowing my way through registration at JNU as a foreign national student. Clerks and fellow students looked confused when they saw my brown face floating above my American passport.
“We want to go there to study, why have you come here?” they asked again and again.
Why Did I Leave?
Why did I leave a “law and order” society, tap water that I can drink without worrying about getting sick, freely available WiFi, and an academic system that is the envy of the world?
I think about these questions all the time as I’m adjusting to life in India as a part of an Indian institution, especially one as crazy as JNU. Every day is bewildering. Not only am I trying to understand how to do well in classes, but also how students and professors, students and students, men and women, adults and children, rich, middle class, and poor, relate to each other. I’m getting used to Indian weather, Indian food, even Indian-style toilets.
I’m dealing with all the identity crises of being not quite Indian and not quite American, brown on the outside and somewhat murkier on the inside. I’ve had many of my assumptions about Indian youth demolished (news flash to Desi American parents who tell their kids not to become “Americanized”: Indian kids drink, smoke weed, and have sex), and I am realizing the incredible privilege I have coming from an American educational system after watching Indian students who are far more brilliant than I am compete against each other for a miniscule number of seats.
Somewhere during this long period of displacement and adjustment India and her logic are seeping into me like oil on the label of a Paradise pickle jar.
Seeing Jugaad in Action
For example, I’ve become fascinated with a concept called “Jugaad,” which roughly means “getting by with what you’ve got.” When my cousin took me to Hauz Kauz Village, an edgy up-and-coming neighborhood in South Delhi, we parked our car in a jumble of other cars on the side of the road. We gave our keys to a “parking attendant” who pocketed them and ran to the next car. When we returned, I was alarmed to see that our car had been double, triple, quadruple parked. My cousin smiled at my confusion, and called the same “parking attendant.” He pulled out a huge ring of keys from around his neck, fingered it until he found ours and those of the cars behind us, and made way for us.In America, it’s sustainability, in India, it’s “jugaad.”While the government or a corporation could tear down the patch of trees next to the market or clear away the surrounding less profitable areas to build a proper parking lot, a few men have worked out an ingenious system to accommodate the upper middle class Indians and foreigners who flock to the Village within the existing space and with whatever resources they have available.
In America, it’s sustainability, in India, it’s “jugaad.”
Another instance of jugaad: many JNU students have to wait for weeks before getting hostel allotments, if they are lucky enough to be allotted one. The University houses packs students who are waiting four or five people to a room meant for two. However, the students use their informal networks to figure out where rooms are vacant because people are doing research, or staying with their significant other and so on. They stay in those rooms for free.
You could pay rs. 2000 per night in a Delhi hotel room as an American might, or you could rely on networks to find a place on campus to crash. Jugaad.
The Beauty of Meeting Perfect Strangers
People have a wonderful familiarity with even perfect strangers. The other day, I had a beautiful interaction with a bathroom attendant at one of the most exclusive clubs in Delhi.
When I went to wash my hands, a smiling lady my mother’s age handed me a towel with tongs. I smiled back at her, and apologized for not being able to tip her. She told me not to worry about it, and asked where I was from. When I told her I was from the United States and I had come here to study, she immediately dropped the towel on the counter and hugged me.
“Then you are like my own daughter! She is 21 years and she is also studying.”
We discussed how in India, unlike the United States, “har admi aur aurat maa baap jaise hai” (every man and woman is like a mother and father). She beamed and hugged me again, and wished me a lovely time in India.
Learning From and Engaging With India
Other Indian Americans I know come to India to work in NGOs that work for development of India and the alleviation of poverty. However, what is the “development” these NGOs are working towards? What kind of society would we like to see imprinted on India? What kind of logics do we carry with us in our zeal to combat poverty? What can we learn from the people we are rushing to save?The way we choose to engage with India has huge implications for both India and America.It is important that Indian Americans ask such questions because the way we choose to engage with India has huge implications for both India and America. As I saw in the United States while I was organizing to get our university to revoke Narendra Modi’s invitation to speak as a plenary speaker at a conference on India’s “development,” there is a dangerous ignorance on the part of most second generation Desi Americans about who Modi is and why his governing ideology is horrible for a democratic and secular India. From the narratives that are fed to us by some of our aunties and uncles, and even from some of our professors at our Universities, it is all too easy to see India through a hegemonic notion of culture, religion, and economic development.
The narratives are precisely why we should come here to listen the voices of diverse Indian communities and to submit ourselves to India’s logic. There is much to learn here about the possibilities for a more sustainable, democratic, and loving world.
The better response to the question of “Why do you want to go back?” is “If you can, why WOULDN’T you go back?”
Besides, as many Indians have told me, Indian toilets are far more hygienic than Western ones.
Meghna Chandra is a Desi American organizer and writer. She graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with a B.A. in urban studies. She loves traveling via Couch Surfing, reading radical science fiction, and becoming a part of communities wherever she goes.