Sunday, January 11, 2009

India III: Land of the Free


I'm sitting in the living room of my Gujarati host, thoroughly enjoying the kind hospitality he's offered to a complete stranger.

Host: Would you like some more Chai?
M: Oh, no thanks. It was great, but I've had plenty. Thank you.
H: But really, it's no problem at all . . .

And it wasn't. One quick nod in the direction of his wife and a couple of words in Gujarati (or was it Hindi?) was all it took. My host's mom went back in the kitchen and brewed up another pot of — truly delicious, no exaggeration here — Masala Chai. (I'm not much of a caffeinator, but I think I'm addicted to Mom's Masala Chai. Have to figure out how to get the right ingredients and make the stuff back home).

It seems like a great, traditional family life. Host works seven days a week while Wife and Mom stay at home every day and cook every meal, scrub every pot, and clean every room. I got to experience that home life for just a couple of days and it was delightful. Wife and Mom got up early every morning and made us Chai and breakfast; then they went shopping for fresh ingredients for the delicious dinner they cooked at night. Mom would be personally offended if you only had three servings, and so I ate until near-bursting. Host, as you might imagine, appeared to be struggling a bit with the "diet" he claimed to be on. I'd come home from sightseeing and watch some cricket with Host's dad, who seemed to live a life of complete leisure at this point and liked practicing English with his guest.

Host was married (by arrangement, of course) at 21; he's had the same career for ~25 years. As far as I can tell both parties seem happy with the, er, "arrangement" and I make no judgment on the process. Hell, it might have saved me a lot of trouble over the past 15 years if my parents had given me a bride at 21 instead of a sweater and a fancy dinner. And this was definitely par for the course in these parts. I talked to as many locals as I could on train rides and such, and by my accounts every one of them had their marriage arranged. And, like Host, they had all been working seven days a week in the same profession their whole adult lives. I had one memorable discussion with a pyschiatrist and a civil engineer in a sleeper class (no AC) cabin on a train from Bera to Abu Road.

Psychiatrist: So you're traveling on your own? Isn't it lonely?
M: Yeah, traveling alone. And it's not lonely. You meet people on the trains and in hostels. It's lots of fun. You meet more people this way.
P: In India we always travel with our families. Today I'm just coming back from a public hospital where I work once a week for extra money. We don't have time to travel alone. In India, if you leave your job to go travel it won't be there for you when you get back. We dream of traveling to other countries, but we can't afford it.
Engineer: In India we don't have personal freedom like in America. We have our job and we work every day. We don't travel around by ourselves. We live for our children and for our parents. We don't have choices in whom we marry, but we like it this way. Americans live for themselves, not their families.

Perhaps slightly exaggerating the state of affairs in America . . .

P: I had an arranged marriage at 22. Are you married?
M: No I'm still single.
P: How old are you?
M: 36.

I wish I had photographed the look of shock on my companions' faces.

E: Why aren't you married?!
P: He doesn't need to marry. He gets all the benefits of marriage without the costs. [laughter]

Well, not all the benefits. I have to figure out how to make my own Masala Chai.

P: How many girlfriends have you had? [girlish giggle]
M: Uh . . . more than one . . .
P: Ha. Political answer. In India, we like our lives, but we dream of promiscuity — of having lots of girlfriends.

Yeah, me too. I haven't had a date* worth the time in months . . .

P: Will you get married?
M: Yeah, sure, when I find the right girl.
P: Ha. In India everyone gets married at 21, 22. People don't even think if they can afford to raise a family. But everyone has to get married.
E: Are you worried about getting a job when you graduate?
M: No. The market's not great right now, but there are still more jobs than graduates in my field.
E: But unemployment is huge in America! Much worse than in India, I think.

A quick look out the window seemed to tell a different story about employment in the Indian countryside . . .

This was the Indian middle class. (OK, sure, just a tiny slice of it upon which I'm basing my whole assessment). Apparently genuinely happy with their lives, but working all the time just to get their families by. No girlfriends, but an arranged marriage at an early (by my reckoning) age. Happy with India, but a desperate longing on their faces when talking about traveling to other countries. Happy with their marriages, but clearly wondering what it would be like to have had a girlfriend or two at some point in their lives. Content with the direction their lives went, but by their own admission they never really had much say in choosing that path.

India was a free country as far as the government was concerned. No one was restricting their movement or speech. And clearly the government wasn't restricting how many children they had (attempts at forced sterilization in the 1970s aside). But family life and culture (and let's face it, relative lack of wealth) had certainly put a clamp down on individual freedom.

Hey, maybe choice is overrated. Who cares if you get to pick your path as long as the path turns out OK?

(I do . . .)

*For the record that was not a date. And it certainly didn't lead to any promiscuity. But yes, it was worth the time. Wait, is everyone else reading this? Sorry about that . . .
First off, it cracks me up that you ended a post about marriage and freedom with "I do." Second: I dunno — sometimes I think I'd feel a lot freer if my parents lived in our house. They could look after the kids now and then, and I'd get out a lot more.

But you make some good points about freedom. There are all sorts of pressures and compulsions out there that make us less free — and they don't all come from government. I think some of the New Deal theorists made this point back in the day. We're fortunate in America that we (most of us, anyway) are in a position to care about freedom from government — for a lot of people, that's an abstraction and a luxury you don't have time for if you're living in grinding poverty. The state doesn't own you; your boss does.

Economic and social pressures don't carry the same weight as the whim of a sovereign state backed by a monopoly of force: in theory you can always tell your boss or your husband to take a hike. But as a practical matter, sometimes the consequences of asserting these freedoms are as severe and painful as facing the state and its guns. Try telling the Afghan woman the law says she can step out of her burqa into a pair of jeans.

It's a shame that so often we (broadly, meaning everyone) fight hard and win battles that confer a slice of freedom, only to find that there's some other Trope of Authority — God, family, the Man, Dr. Phil, the Invisible Hand — telling us what to do or say. To me it all reduces to two truths — you can call 'em laws if you want:

(1) No one can ever be completely free.
(2) The fact that we all have to live together on a big round rock with a scarcity of resources means there's an outer limit to the total amount of freedom we have to parse out.


Unknown said...

How can you call a country free where you can't eat beef and at least one of you is forced to live with inlaws. I don't care how good the tea is, I will stick with my oversweeted, heavily creamed American style chai milkshake from Starbucks before I succumb to such torture.

Mithridates said...

Yeah, but you can relieve yourself on the side of just about any road at any time, so they've got that on us. And the tea is REALLY good. And I'll trade away beef if I can get delicious Butter Chicken for a dollar (OK, no I won't). But can you ride an elephant down the street in America? No? Then are you really free?

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