Independence and India

In reply to an innocent question of whether her parents were looking for a match for her, one of my friends had this very profound reply:

I’ve put all those plans on hold back home. I’ve lived for my parents all the way through undergrad and grad school. “Study well. Get a good job.” I’ve done all that. I want to live for myself for a little while now.

This got me thinking about the Indian way of life. You grow up, your parents urge you to study and get good grades. After that, get a good job. After that, get married. After that, have a child.

The crucial point is that what you want matters very little in the Indian masterplan to a happy life: make your parents happy, make your spouse happy, take care of your family, take care of your children.. It all revolves around the Family and very little around you.

I understand this is a very touchy topic, and I understand I am going to commit the cardinal sin of an NRI comparing life in India and the US, but my perspective is more of someone who has seen two cultures, rather than of someone trying to answer the question of which culture is the best (which is a pretty dumb question). So bear with me and keep the “Such an NRI” comments on hold for a while.

The culture in the US is highly, highly independent and individualistic. In fact, if I were to pick one word to represent the culture in the US, I would pick independence. Children are taught from childhood that they should be independent and able to stand on their own feet. Parents actively attempt to allow the children to grow as much as possible, and though several parents struggle with this, the intention is very clear: we are not going to be there for our children forever. This implies some understanding on the part of both the children and the parent. The child understands that the parents wont always be there to bail him/her out of their mistakes. The parents understand that they need to let go, that they cannot and should not attempt to help their child out all the time, and that there will be a time when their kids will leave home and live out on their own.

From undergrad onwards, you’re encouraged to find your dreams (be it something like becoming a painter, a chef, an accountant.. ) and follow them. The question of money is only an afterthought, second to finding what it is that you love in life, and supporting people is often not a factor at all. You need to somehow find some food and a roof over your head, but your responsibilities end there.

In the Indian Way of Life though, all too often and especially in middle class families, the first factor that must be considered is Money. Will there be enough money in the job? Will you be able to support your family? After this is considered, there is sometimes the thought that you might have to not end up hating it. Sometimes.

I find this immensely sad. I get the practical aspect of it completely: Middle class families don’t have a lot of money, and they can’t support their kids going off chasing dreams that could end up in the child not getting a job. There is the dual aspect of money and the social pressure to “not be a failure”: aka someone who doesn’t have a good job.

But to encourage kids to blindly take up “engineering” without any thought as to what they really like is very wrong. It is painful to imagine studying something you hate because it can guarantee you a job later on in life, and allow you to support your family. Add to this the contempt that arts and humanities have socially, and you have a culture that produces only engineers who hate engineering.

Which brings us back to the main theme: There are precious few times in an indian girl(or guy)’s life when she is herself: She is first her parent’s daughter, then her husband’s wife, then her children’s parent. There is this precious, precious gap between entering undergrad and getting married (sometimes this is only when she gets a job and moves to another city) when she is free to be her own person, free from the struggles to get good marks or get a good job.

I wish the Indian system would allow more time for people to be themselves: Don’t want to marry? Don’t want to have kids? Want to back-pack all over Europe for a year? Each of these decisions will evoke scandal from your parents and the galaxy of uncles and aunts that will descend on you to judge you.

You might ask: But why do you care? Who cares what anyone thinks? Sometimes it is the case that both the kids and parents are fine with their decision. But I’ve seen cases where people have been hesitant to take decisions, not because it will affect them directly, but because it will affect their parents and they don’t want to cause the social backlash against their parents.

This is not to say I don’t love the Indian system in certain aspects: I like how connected it makes us feel. I like the warmth it makes us feel. I like how it instantly brings purpose to your life. I have seen people in the US  who question what they are here for and why life is worth living. This never happens with Indians who have a family. And because it is so centered around other people, and not on yourself, it brings a measure of selflessness and humility to your personality. So its not all bad. And yet.. 🙂