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India Changed My Life

India Changed My Life

June 29, 2011

A reflection, at the end of three years in India, on what the country has given me.

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. 


  • Prateek
    02.07.11 10:54 AM
    It always feels nice to read such posts which comes from an art and beauty appreciator. All the best.
  • Krishnan
    02.07.11 06:40 AM
    Amazing Barnaby.

    You have recognized what India and Indians can offer to any visitor. You have revealed that living in India is an 'experience' which transforms a person in a positive sense if he can approach with an open, willing mind to accept things as they are.

    Good wishes
  • priya
    01.07.11 05:57 PM
    Hey Barnaby, hope you continue to write even if you are away from India...All the best, dude!
  • Shweta
    30.06.11 11:45 AM
    Very honest, true to the core. Liked reading it and hoping your connection with the country stays.
  • Anish
    30.06.11 07:17 AM
    Great stuff Barnaby! I had many similar experiences as an NRI who spent time in India. I learned a great deal from traveling and engaging with Indians of all walks of life - I really can't wait to get back to India, there's no place like it!
  • beena
    30.06.11 01:18 AM
    good luck and god bless, sayippu! :-)
  • katie
    29.06.11 10:20 PM
    this is so thoughtful. it's truly been a pleasure to read about your experiences and i look forward to hearing more. thank you for gracing us with your wisdom and talent.
  • Jaai
    29.06.11 09:49 PM
    This is beautiful!
  • Soni Somarajan
    Soni Somarajan
    29.06.11 08:35 PM
    Heya matey, there are no byes here, you will be back and au revoir describes it best. Take care, Barnes!
  • tys
    29.06.11 04:13 PM
    yeah! get back soon..u have a big mallu hug waiting for u pal...

    next time, we will meet, paint that prawn state red and then live to tell the story.. what say?
  • Barnaby Haszard Morris
    Barnaby Haszard Morris
    29.06.11 03:57 PM
    Thank you very much. Despite the obvious charms of New Zealand (particularly being near my family), I do intend to come back to India... at the earliest!
  • The NRI
    The NRI
    29.06.11 03:25 PM
    Barnaby, I was very touched reading this. It instigated my own trip down memory lane to the earliest days of The NRI. Believe it or not, on 15 July you will be celebrating your second anniversary. Here is the proof!

    As far as I am concerned you are part and parcel of The NRI, and have been integral to its great success. Over time you have had your critics, but you have never failed to engage and entertain our readers. You have been our most prolific contributor and your work has been amongst the most read.

    I would like to take this opportunity to offer my deepest gratitude for everything you have brought to The NRI in the last two years. In addition to consistently producing work of the highest standard, you have been a very reliable and loyal team member to boot. I could not have asked for any more.

    I need to reassure our dear readers that while you may be saying goodbye (or au revoir) to India, you will still be carrying on your good work at The NRI in your new ‘home’. All the best in New Zealand. I hope you are able to settle in easily and get to grips with the locals and their funny little ways:)

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