I’m going to try to change things around here.
That’s just the way things are, what can I do?
If you are like most people, these two thoughts tug at you constantly while in India. One minute you are inspired to make a difference and change something for the better. The next, you give up because you realize nothing will ever change. Then you start to see things move in a positive direction. Then you are struck at how nothing has moved at all.
Two steps forward, two steps back.
At the office, you try to implement strict processes and timelines and yet they seem to inevitably break down and fizzle out over time.
You feel compelled to give some money to the child who comes up to your car, hoping to make a difference in her life, and then later find out she is a part of a gang which keeps her in poverty her entire life.
History is filled with people who have come to India with big dreams and huge change initiatives. It is also filled with clumps of hair and screams of those who are tasked with implementing them.
Here’s a very brief and over-simplified view of a few key moments in Indian history that might help.
Alexander the Great – At the age of 30, Alexander had already conquered all of Greece, Persia, Babylon, and most of the known world at the time. His last great dream was to extend his kingdom to what the Greeks considered “the end of the known world” which was northwest India. After having defeated incredibly powerful armies, Alexander’s own army mutinied somewhere near Punjab and refused to go any further. Alexander left an officer as a satrap there and soon died without having fully realized his dream of conquering the whole world.
Mughal Empire in India – The Mughals came into India in 1526 through Babur and held large influence in India until the mid 1700s. They were the complete rulers of the day. Along with establishing the first empire that spanned most of modern-day Indian and Pakistan, they brought in a new renaissance of architecture and mathematics that the native Indians accepted and used to their own advantage. However, one of the early aims of the Mughals and other Muslim rulers was to see large conversions to Islam. Try as they might, this was one thing that never happened on a mass scale. Indians held onto their own beliefs while still participating in the kingdom.
British Raj – In 1858, the rule of the British East India Company was transferred to the Crown of England and so began about 90 years of British rule in the subcontinent. But the British had been there much earlier, seeking trade and spices and finding a fortune to be made. Within a very short time, the British had conquered the largest parts of India and had subdued an entire subcontinent. The British tried their best to convert India into a true bureaucracy, making “modern men” out of Indians, and converting them to Christianity, but that never happened to a large extent. They remained who they were.
How does this relate to the fact that you are visiting the customs officer for the eighth time and trying to figure out if you have to/should give a bribe to the officer to get your stuff from the shipping container? How does it help you choose between the two thoughts we started with? What does India want from you?
To take a page from history, she wants your talent, your brilliance, your insight. She will take your money, your investments, your ideas, your questions and your doubts and will let them live and breathe and have space here. You can add to the richness of life in India and augment people’s lives in ways you never knew possible.
The only thing she doesn’t want is for you to try to change her. That’s where you will bust your head. In 3,000 years, there have been extremely few cases where an outsider “changed” India as a country, and it is unlikely you are going to be one of those stories. You can make her better and teach her new skills and help grow her understanding, but if a “culture change” is on your agenda, you are likely to live a short life here.
There is a time to give and a time to give in.
When you should give:
- When you are dealing with an Indian (individual), not in a crowd
- When you have a skill to teach like planning and pacing
- When you see a specific need you can address (like taking care of your maid’s cataract surgery)
- When you are working under an Indian’s authority and direction
- When you are participating in an existing movement stated by Indians like asking for a receipt for your “ticket” instead of paying a bribe
When you should give in:
- When you are dealing with India as a country
- When a stranger cuts the queue in front of you
- When someone cuts you off in traffic
- When you are with the masses
- When you feel the need to “start something new”, or “teach someone a lesson”.
This balance will be the key to your survival in India. Give and give in. Which one should you do today?
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Photo Credit: Antonio Tempesta [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons