We don't often take the opportunity to look closely at the minutiae of our lives and think about their worth, but when we do, what do we see? What's the value of a glass of water to drink, or a roof over your head? How much is great scenery worth? What about a lifelong friendship?
Over the past week or so, as my three-year stint in India draws to a close, I've been thinking a lot about these small things and what they all mean in the context of my life and experiences; what they add up to. I've been particularly dwelling on how this country has helped me develop as a person. It's not an unusual thing for a foreigner to say “India changed my life”, or “Visiting India taught me so much”, and both of these statements certainly apply to me. Still, my existential side wants to give me credit for the experiences I've gotten myself through and the understanding I've gained.
So where's the line of control? How do I separate what India has taught me from what I've concurrently learned? Is there even a separation?
Despite what I sometimes fool myself into believing, I haven't learned an awful lot about India or being Indian, particularly given the vast, nigh impossible proposition of understanding the entire nation and its many people. I've learned a little about Kerala and a lot about the respective communities of the tourist town Varkala and the new commercial class of workers at Thiruvananthapuram's Technopark, but in none of these matters Malayalee could I profess to being an expert.
What I have learned about is the existence of a world wider and more varied than that which I knew previously, with the numerous spectra of human experience that world encompasses – and virtually all its possibilities are present within India's borders. It's a place where things like a roof over your head and a glass of clean water can be interpreted differently by people on the same street, let alone between South Mumbai and rural Uttar Pradesh. Joan Robinson, Amartya Sen's teacher at Cambridge, said “whatever you can rightly say about India, the opposite is also true”; almost everything that humans do and have done exists somewhere in the country.
When I first entered India back in 2008, I became deeply engrossed in Paul Bowles' novel 'The Sheltering Sky'. Bowles' haunting tale of fever in the desert seemed to mirror my own tripped-out feeling, staying as I was in the beaten-up Hotel Vivek in Delhi's filthy PaharGanj, sweating like crazy and feeling particularly untethered, but what really stuck with me were a couple of sentences early on in the book:
“... another important difference between tourist and traveler is that the former accepts his own civilization without question; not so the traveler, who compares it with the others, and rejects those elements he finds not to his liking.”
More than anything else, I've learned the value of living like Bowles' 'traveler'. If you approach each new civilisation and every person you meet with an open mind, never holding your own belief system to be correct or even complete, amazing things can happen. You can feel welcome in places you might never have dreamed of even visiting. You can gain insights into the lives of other people whose human experience is so very different from yours – and yet, there are always similarities, common points of reference both superficial and deeply embedded in our genetic code. You can forge friendships that you can confidently say will be lifelong.
India, Kerala and the people I have known here may not have directly taught me how to be open-minded, but they have given me a perfect testing ground for Bowles' values of travelling. Living in a place like India, which throws challenges at you almost constantly, forces you into learning experiences that you often won't ever have seen coming until you're right in the middle of them. You either adapt and survive, or you fall by the wayside. The longer you stay, the more you cannot help but change – learning how to speak Indian English, or how to scold a stray autorickshaw driver, or how to behave when you're invited into a traditional family's home.
An important point to note is that every outsider who lives here is likely to receive a different set of lessons, where the subtle differences from person to person lie in how they respond to what they experience. I have friends whose India lessons have meant they've become angrier and quicker to judge, and in such a way that they feel they've grown as individuals and understood more about the world. Others roundly reject their previous cultural experiences and effectively reinvent themselves as people. These are extremes; most visitors lie somewhere in-between.
The ultimate lesson is that you learn what you're willing to learn, when you're willing to learn it. Looking back over the experiences I've had in India – too many to count, some so dark they make me flinch, others so brilliant I cherish them often – I'm grateful for every last minute. India, and Indians, have allowed me to be here and to grow and learn alongside them, and from them. There is the possibility that I might have learned the exact same lessons in another country, but the sheer scope of India lays it all out in front of you.
For me at least, that's the great appeal of India. Here's life, it says. Now go and live yours.