Changing the Face of Modern India

A scene from the U.S. or India? Globalization finds many Indians struggling with identity. (Photo: Northwest Asian Weekly)

A scene from the U.S. or India? Globalization finds many Indians struggling with identity. (Photo: Northwest Asian Weekly)

In 1957 Tapan Sinha directed the movie “Kabuliwala”, based on a novel by Rabindranath Tagore chronicling the story of a fruit-seller who left Kabul and came to Calcutta in search of a better livelihood. Fast forward a few decades, and many people in India would relate to Sanjay Dutt’s role as Vicky Kapoor in the 1986 Bollywood film “Naam”, in which he portrayed a fiery, ambitious young man who wanted to leave India for Dubai in order to become rich.

If the 70s and 80s were the generations of blue-collared workers making it big in the Middle East, the late 80s and 90s marked the age of the managers and engineers who took a bigger leap and came to the United States–the land of opportunity–in search of a better career and lifestyle. During the 90s, the number of people of Indian origin in the U.S. more than doubled. Many such immigrants made it big in the fields of science and technology, while others set up entrepreneurial ventures predominantly in the Silicon Valley. Their relatives and friends in the subcontinent were often envious of their huge homes, big cars and fat paychecks. But since the turn of the century, a different picture has started to emerge.

The economic growth experienced by South Asia over the last ten years has been well documented. By now you’ve probably heard of the 8 percent yearly economic growth, the newly rich urban youth, the rise of the middle class and all other terms that have come to be associated with the subcontinent. It wasn’t too long ago when owning a Maruti 800 or even a Bajaj Chetak was seen as a major accomplishment in India. If you owned a color TV, you could safely assume that most of your neighbors who were not as lucky would be a regular presence in your living room to watch prime time news and soap operas.

If you were an immigrant who moved to the U.S. (or any other developed country), you were probably asked questions from your friends and family back home like: How does it feel to drive that BMW? What do you do with the hundreds of channels you get on cable? Are there really no potholes on the roads in America?

While the potholes on the subcontinental roads haven’t quite gone away in 2012, it is no longer a surprise to see that BMW 3 Series parked in your neighbor’s garage or switching between multiple Hollywood movies on a flat screen TV in your living room.  And the tales of economic growth and prosperity are just a fragment of India’s larger story–the social changes that this growth has ushered in with it are just as fascinating.

Economic growth has ushered in a new, almost unrecognizable, Indian society. (Photo: Ramesh Gandhi)

I left India in mid-2006 after finishing college in search of an engineering research career. With the dearth of research opportunities in India and the vastly superior opportunities in the U.S., I decided to pursue graduate studies here. Since then I try to visit my home in India about once a year, and every time I go back I notice mind-boggling changes.

Not only has the economic growth brought about a sharp increase in the cost of living, but the easy accesibility of the internet and various social media networks have led to a “Westernization” of the urban Indian society. It’s now common for my cousins in India to eat nachos and cheese when we go out to watch a movie while I, sometimes unsuccessfully, look for a samosa or two. I discovered single-malt scotch at about the same time as people in India did–except that we did it in opposite corners of the world. As someone new to the U.S., it was normal for me to convert US dollars to Indian rupees and often remark how expensive things seem when compared to their cost in India. These days, you would probably comment on–especially for food and beverages–how costly things seem in India when compared to the U.S.

I left India when the country was just embarking on the massive changes it has since gone through and, as with everything else in life, you tend to appreciate some changes more than others. For as long as I can remember, sex has been a taboo subject in Indian culture, and people never discussed it in public. To go from there to having a national public radio talk show dedicated to relationship issues, where people are not afraid to talk about their sexuality, was a revolution that took me aback, albeit in a good way.

Times change, societies change, and cultures adapt. And now I ask myself: Where do I belong in this new India? Does the India I grew up in still exist, or have we become an amalgamation of all that is good and bad about rapid globalization? What does it mean to be “Indian” in this decade and beyond? Will I ever adjust to these changes if and when I move back to what I still consider my real home? Or have I become a part of a new breed, that of the Indian Born Confused Desis?

These are questions that probably time will provide an answer to. In the meantime, I am quite happy to rediscover my “home” everytime I go back to the motherland.

Sahil M. Bansal is a contributing writer at Divanee.com.