Monday, October 24, 2011

Re-leaving (or relieving) India!

Today, almost first thing in the morning I got an email with just one link (with an implied expectation- have your own opinion :)

Email was from a New York based friend, and link that of a blog post in their city newspaper (with an international reach ;) New York Times. The article was by Sumedh Mungee (lets call him SB for convenience) explaining why he left India-again. This sounds familiar!

Hundreds of involved comments, this sounds familiar too ... reminded me of another India-bashing article which attracted loads of comments (it even had some funny co-incidences in my life).

By late afternoon I got another email with links to Chetan Bhagat's response to the SB's article. Hmm...

Choosing to leave or live in a country is a very individual decision, supported or hindered by multiple intra-personal, interpersonal, as well as social/systemic factors. Though with post-globalisation-fluid-boundaries, a new highly-skilled migratory class has emerged and is swelling everyday.
With respect to India, discussions over brain-drain and songs like 'Chitthi aayi hai...' are old story. Although India related articles often attract heaps of comments from non-resident Indians (NRIs) betraying their continued strong preference/aversion for India, I am choosing not to focus on that group. I don't think it is required or even desirable for every NRI to return back to over-crowded, bursting-at-the-seams, metropolitan cities of India. Even if spread across a map, they can always share the spirit of 'one-world-one-family' (ancient Indian saying - vasudhaiv kutumbakam) beyond any cliched ideas about 'Desh'.
Those who happily return & never regret, are a class apart and I am not even discussing them here.

I'm more intrigued by a small proportion who return back to India with (apparent) hopes of 'till-death-do-us-apart', and then one day suddenly leave - again, with bitter taste in their own mouth, and thus I guess, bad-mouthing India in the popular media. I am tempted to look deeper and analyze further... I can't help it, its a professional habit!
So I will pick only SB's article and try to understand something about others too. I also hope at least one or more person reading this blogpost will think deeply before making similar choices in her/his life. So let us start...

(I don't know if it was sheer creative liberty, or really 'Swadesh' was being played in the flight to India. Truly a very interesting co-incidence due to its underlying contrast).

Motives behind the move

Victor Frankl, a psychotherapist and holocaust survivor would often mention what Friedrich Nietzsche's said, "He who has a Why to live for, can bear almost any How''. 
This 'why' is about having a deep meaning in life. However SB's primary motives were purely functional, a mix of personal preferences and professional reasons. He was going back to 'an India that offered global companies, continental food, international schools and domestic help; an India that offered freedom from outsourcing and George W. Bush'.
So he was clearly looking for an escape from one comfort zone, due to economic and political reasons, and expecting another. He was not looking for something uniquely Indian, there was no acceptance of the Indian reality and certainly there was no commitment to the place. Certainly it was a bad start! (Btw, Acceptance & Commitment Psychotherapy tries to help people deal with inevitable problems in life).

Relationship with India
Since SB has used the metaphor of a 'break-up', I am tempted to use a well known theory applicable to love relationships.

Honeymoon phase: This phase is 'the best', for sprinkling the fairy dust on everything and making it look good, feel good. Our author too had a good start. 'Our move was a success by any metric...'. Career, life style, children's education, all was well.
But the inevitable next phase always comes too soon ...
Reality dawns: This is 'the most important' phase of any relationship. Things which seemed neat, nice and pleasant earlier might shock you now with their ugly shadows. Most people are not ready for this dis-illusionment. Our author too could not digest the reality bite as he says ... 'But then the metaphors started to fade and the daily grind set in'...
Separation: In this phase there are only 3 options, separate, manage the differences, or grow. Separation without some kind of understanding leads to anger, while with it leads to deep sadness.
Much of SB's article indicates this transition from anger to sadness. Being fair to SB, he did try to navigate the local rules 'Within weeks, I had joined the honking swarm driving in Bangalore', but then 'That’s when it started going wrong'... and he 'hated what I was becoming'.

In such times the only real move towards sanity (or peace of mind) is 'serenity to accept what one cannot change, courage to change what one can and wisdom to know this difference'. Clearly serenity of acceptance was lacking from the start, and courage to be the change-agent was not in the agenda.
But it goes to SB's credit that he had wisdom to know the difference... he not only knew what he can change, but also did act upon it. Leave India-Again!

It is more interesting to notice the afterlogue, the reflection process ...
- SB shrugs off any suggestion of betrayal by mentioning he is not even at home in US.
- Indicates some sense of lingering belongingness, because, India hurts more.
- There are traces of guilt, almost like checking-in one's old parents in an old age home, because they have become too inconvenient.
- There is also a shame of letting oneself down 'Everyone in India has to deal with this, but I coped in the worst possible way: by dehumanizing her and other people like her, ever so slightly, ever so subtly — chronic amoebiasis of the soul'
- And an acceptance of something lacking within to contribute to the emerging India 'It’s just that I’ve realized — I’ve resigned myself to the fact — that I won’t be a part of that future'. He is too impatient for the outcome, he can't be bothered about the process of change.

American psychologist Barry Schwartz, in his book paradox of choice (2004) referred to what economist and historian Albert Hirschman wrote in his book 'Exit, Voice, and Loyalty' (1970). Hirschman theorized that when one is unhappy, people have two general classes of responses available- they can exit the situation, or they can protest and give voice to their concerns. In the marketplace, exit is the characteristic response to dissatisfaction and so we exit from restaurant, breakfast cereal, favorite vacation spot etc. 'One of the principal virtues of free-market choice is that it gives people the opportunity to express their displeasure by exit.
However social relations are different. We don’t dismiss lovers, friends, or communities, the way we dismiss restaurants, cereals, or vacation spots. Treating people in this way is unseemly at best and reprehensible at worst. Instead, we usually give voice to our displeasure, hoping to influence our lover, friend, or community. And even when these efforts fail, we feel bound to keep trying. Exit, or abandonment, is the response of last resort'.

In his book Barry Schwartz goes on to give many advices for chronically dissatisfied people (you can watch TED video here). Some of the ways to increase one's happiness applicable in this situation are: don't be a picker, satisfice more, make your decision non-reversible, practice attitude of gratitude, regret less, control expectations, learn to love constraints etc.

The sense of entitlement sans concern/ duty towards 'other', not only plays havoc in relationships, even if it is with one's country of origin or of current living, it also never brings any real happiness to oneself.
So my advice to SB would be, at least now, do not continue being an 'alien' in USA. Be there and belong there, commit yourself to its growth instead of living like an outsider, everywhere, forever.

And let one man's pain be others' gain. Those who nurture 'some day I will return' dream in an ambivalent manner, should remind themselves that living in any country including India has its own demands. Look within to find if there are basic value conflicts, between what you want and what a place has to offer. Then you will not have to grumble in public someday.
Finally, there might be some truth in what J.F. Kennedy said, 'Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country'. Those who had asked this question before landing back in India, usually do not regret that decision. For them it has been mostly a journey of fulfillment!

(Update: I noticed this blog post was featured on NYT, as well as on Mr. Mungee's website and a couple of other places)

Why this blog?

I often have long discussions with my friends over psycho-social issues, leading to this idea that we need to have a voice which will add psychological perspective to the discourses happening around various events especially in India.
But due to being busy and lazy both, we have not yet posted anything here :) Although I do blog elsewhere sometimes, and at other times jot down my thoughts on paper. So here we start ... (though I never thought it will be an issue like this)!