India: A Study In Contradictions

7 Aug

“The more things change, the more they stay the same.”, said Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr, a nineteenth century French journalist and novelist.

I recently visited India after three years. The country has been changing rapidly in the last 5-6 years, but there are things that are still the same. Never have I seen the rich diversity of culture and ideas staying together as a cohesive entity though not without its share of issues. India has been a British colony until fairly recently (1947) and a socialist state until 1989 when the closed economy was partially opened. With more than a hundred spoken languages and an equally diverse culture, it’s a miracle everyone and everything coexist.

Incredible India

Poverty and affluence
The incomes are rising at an astonishing pace and so is the disposable income. Due to a high inflation rate around 7-8%, everything is getting crazy expensive. Capitalism, though not booming, is visible in the rapid growth of mall culture and the youths’ increasingly consumerist habits.

On the other hand, there are still millions of people living in abject poverty. There are kids not going to school and are forced to work to earn a living. The poverty has been going down, and per the work of Gates Foundation, the worldwide poverty will end by 2035.

Modernity and spirituality
The young people are getting modern by the day, both in their thinking and habits. They are eating out and drinking more, especially the women. They are spending a lot on physical amenities, and the fast food culture is growing. Though equal marriage rights is still a pipe dream,  gay people are coming out and there is a growing support for the LGBT community.

The number of people believing in god and going to the temples is still the same as before. On my visit to one of the most visited temples in southern India, it took us 8 hours in line. And people said, we were lucky it took only 8 hours.

Old and new habits
The old habits of throwing trash anywhere outdoors is rapidly changing. The perspective is changing, and especially in big cities, cleanliness has taken priority. However, the smaller cities or the extremely crowded cities are still very much the same.

Modern and traditional family values
A very small fraction of young people are living together, before marriage, which is considered as sinful in the society as anything. People are getting married with people from other castes, and their families are happily accepting it. More and more women are working instead of being homemakers with no ambition. More women are joining politics and government.

Family values are still intact. Extreme respect for elders in the family and love for everyone is the norm. Family comes first is the leading cry of the collectivist culture. The kids, whether in college or working, come to their parents’ home for every vacation.

Education trends
Until just a few years ago, everyone wanted to study engineering because it ensured a good job. Not anymore. Now kids are studying business, computers, economics, and science. I’m not sure how those degrees would lead to a job and a career, but at least they are doing something different.

The top-ranked engineering colleges, especially the IITs, are, however, still very much in high demand as always. The competition is extremely tough, and the kids are spending an extraordinary amount of time studying.

There are a lot of things that have not changed. There are a lot of things that are better than those in the US. A prime example is the fledgling democracy. Unlike in the US, where congressman get elected term after term, even if they don’t do any work, the Indian people are very unforgiving. They throw out the mightiest of politicians out of office.

Change is the only thing constant, but the more things change, the more they stay the same.

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