Google fb32x32 twitter linkedin feed-icon-32x32

Why Did I Come To India?

Why Did I Come To India?

November 16, 2011

What makes a foreigner from a developed western nation want to make India their new home?

Why does any foreigner come to India? Well, there are a few popular reasons. Let’s begin with why I didn’t come: I didn’t come for a job with a multinational company. I wasn’t offered a fantastic package with an air conditioned flat in a highrise apartment, a car or driver or a maid to cut my watermelon. The softness of that sort of life would have been nice, but not without its setbacks: a subject for another article. I didn’t come on a two week ‘internship’ for an NGO or to build a school or paint a school’s walls. I didn’t come to India for a spiritual journey. I was lost when I left Canada, but had no spiritual programs that I wanted to complete in India to resolve my lostness. I didn’t come to India to learn yoga, or Sanskrit, or meditation, or tanpura, or anything else aside from how to stomach a lot of sweet tea. In short: I came to India to be challenged, to witness a different way of life and to better understand my own experience in contrast. In a little greater detail, and because this article wouldn’t be much if it ended now, I initially came to volunteer. First a month in Kolkata in a Mother Teresa home for disabled kids; later, five months in Varanasi in a school and girls hostel. In Varanasi, I lived with a lovely Bihari family, ate dal rice roti subji with my hand and was home by 7 every night, completing the ‘local’ experience as much as a foreigner can. I also didn’t hold any grand illusions about changing the lives of children I was volunteering with: my intent in spending time with them was much more selfish and simple. I learned very quickly that these extremely disadvantaged children actually had a lot more to offer me than I had to offer them. Anyone who has volunteered or worked with kids who have grown up in difficult or uncertain circumstances will know that these kids have an otherwise rare amount of affection and trust to give. Why was I, who had been given every possible opportunity in life, more empty than kids who had built their lives from the charitable scraps other had thrown at them? I wanted to know how they did this, and so surrounded myself with them. I let the hostel girls, girls who had been abandoned on trains between cities or sold by their parents, comb and style and re-style my hair. I sat for hours with boys who had been dropped off in front of Mother Teresa homes as infants: kids who were nearly vegetables due to severe physical and mental disabilities, but had sparks in their eyes. Whatever I gave kids in hugs and alphabet songs, in baths and feedings, they would give me ten times in perspective and honesty. Honesty means a precious five year old daughter of a sex worker year grabbing your cheeks and saying ‘Didi, aap gudiya jaisi lagti hai’ (You look like a doll). Honesty means a twelve year old girl starting her menstrual cycle while you give her a bath: her full blown physical and mental disabilities have not affected her biological clock and her body is preparing for the possibility of pregnancy, a possibility that will never be realised because she will spend her life in care centres like this one. This honesty showed me plainly that the human spirit is stronger than the conditions to which it is sometimes subjected. I moved to Mumbai after these volunteer stints to carry out communications and resource mobilisation for an educational NGO called Atma, because I wanted to continue my exposure to the development sector and to people who are making the most of life against all odds. In Mumbai, it’s not unusual for a working mother to wake up at 4AM to wash clothes by hand, prepare breakfast and pack lunches for her husband and kids. She might then work from 9:30 to 5:30 in an office, come home to prepare dinner and help her kids with their studies before sleeping at 11PM. Others commute for up to five hours a day on trains and buses, coming from as far as Pune and Gujarat to work in Mumbai. When the lift stops working in a ten story building slum project building, even the elderly tenth floor residents have no choice but to walk the stairs for the month or so that it’ll take to fix. In contrast to the people at my work and the people who live in my building, my life has been extraordinarily easy and streamlined. I’ve taken advantage of every opportunity that’s been offered to me, and there have been many. The lives of those around me keep me aware of how holistically privileged I am. More than being educated, I’m empowered. More than having a good job, I have choices and can be proactive in solving problems, setting goals and arriving where I want to go. However… even despite being able to think critically and make decisions by myself, living in Mumbai is challenging because it’s not what I grew up in. Doing things like taking twenty hour train rides and finding a flat to rent are not as simple as they sound if you’re a single white woman in any Indian city. Even simple things like obtaining a sim card or mailing a package aren’t items on a long to-do list that could be done in a day: each is its own project which could take a whole day, or (probably) longer. I came to India for the challenge of figuring things out on my own. The struggles with the Visa In-Charge, the immigration authorities and the endless red tape and bureaucracy around trying to do ANYTHING as a foreigner in this country feel to me like a personal challenge: if I make it through, there must be something good on the other side. I made it through, and I was right. I came to Mumbai because this city is fascinating and rich and offers as much as one could take. Because anything challenging and difficult is healthy and good for growth. Because the expanse of experience available to me here eclipses the comfort and cleanliness of Canada, and for me, for now, that experience is worth more.

Photo credit
: Nicola Romagna


  • Raghu Barigeda
    Raghu Barigeda
    29.10.12 03:51 PM
    Learning from what Shri. Bronwyn McBride has expressed what I call Mother of comments and I experienced the truthfulness of comment and express my gratitude. India is a strange culture. Its a culture of values to abide to and at the same time there's weekness experienced by Indian society in practical terms, when it comes to abiding by values. This is a strange subject. But its true. Here how I explain from my experience. Western world has less tolerance as compared to India, This you can experience and see through naked eyes. But weakness of India is implelmentation process. When you hit the physic of person for betterment of human culture, you must resort to honesty, Social behaviour patterns which doesn't cause any anxeity who were and searching what's the human goal. Crimes, dishonesty and malfunction of Indian culture is same as of western world.But openness of expressing is very low of deeds/sins indian culture and Arab Culture as compared to western culture. So by this we can understand india as vibrant intellectual systems adotped by citizens not corporates and govt. systems. Now main clash is between these two Indian Systems ( Idealistic Indian culture & Hard Core Western practical Culture) and difficult to sustain Vs western culture. With internet information, look like , feel like, resemblence has increased and made easy. So Indian trying to behave as westerners and thus cultural equation of understanding is developing. But western soceity has to break the ice of Arab world to more openness and freedom inorder to awaken the cultural shift. Customs may be difirrent but when it comes to Human needs its simply common and same.

    Thanks Bronwyn McBride for instigating to write the Truth.

    Deep IndianFloating
  • S.R.Ayyangar
    12.12.11 12:17 PM
    ....Happiness & contentment reflects from your experience. That's why it is said 'Serving hands are better then the praying hand'.
  • Naveen
    12.12.11 11:02 AM
    Amazing article. Yes, India is an experience, and i am glad you are upto it. :)
  • Bronwyn
    01.12.11 05:18 PM
    @John Doe: thank you! I'm glad you liked it.

    @Gaurav: India's patriarchal society does pose a lot of challenges for women all over the country, whether they are native or foreign-born. Those challenges certainly help us to learn and grow, though, and I feel blessed for that. Thank you for reading!
  • gaurav
    30.11.11 08:57 AM

    It was great to read your reasons for coming to India and your take on why others do the same was interesting as well. It's appreciable that women who are not a native of the country, come here to be challenged.

    I don't know about other countries but India is a difficult place for a women to live due to its strong patriarchal society. And hats of to all the women that are doing well in their lives here.
  • John Doe
    John Doe
    29.11.11 04:55 PM
    Wow! That was jus awesumm!!! We really do think that you people come here to learn yoga or in dreams of helpin the poor!!! Nicely written! Enjoyed it!
  • Bronwyn
    25.11.11 02:54 PM
    @Scott M: Thank you for reading! Can't wait to see you guys.

    @KP: I'm glad to hear about your impression of me and my India experience from my blog. I would said that you are quite right: I appreciate living in India, and in Mumbai, because life is challenging for me here and forces me to think and learn and grow. That can only be a positive thing. You're also right that in contrast to the experiences of those around me, I live a very charmed life. That perspective is one of the most valuable things that Mumbai has given me.

    @Mithil: thank you so much! I hope you will follow me on the NRI as well as my personal blog. I really appreciate your words.
  • Mithil
    24.11.11 10:01 PM
    A solid and influential read. GO on m following you
  • KP
    24.11.11 07:00 PM

    I have visited your blog for the first time today and this is the first post that I have read. Hence, I am not sure if my conclusion about you will be correct or no. Apologies in advance if it is incorrect or if you feel bad.
    The impression I got from this post that you came to India so that you would have to work hard and make a lot of efforts in everyday life. Does that mean that India is fulfilling for you because it has everything you need but it makes you work real hard for everything? And this makes you appreciate the achievement as well as yourself?
  • Scott M
    Scott M
    24.11.11 12:12 PM
    I'm with Heike R. A great read, and you're doing great stuff. S
  • Bronwyn
    22.11.11 12:09 PM
    @Kirklops: I really empathize with that: being away from what you know will obviously teach you about that new place, but it will also more subtly teach you about yourself and the place that you come from, in contrast.
    Thank you for reading!
  • Kirklops
    22.11.11 01:57 AM
    "In short: I came to India to be challenged, to witness a different way of life and to better understand my own experience in contrast."

    Likewise, an outside perspective of our home is always nice to have in order to understand our own way of life better and then to strive to improve ourselves in whatever way possible. Nice post and thank you for writing it as well :)
  • Bronwyn
    20.11.11 11:22 PM
    @Lauren: thank you so much! I'm glad you could identify with some of my reflections. Yes, I'd love to meet you at the Marathon, here's hoping I am still standing at the end!

    @Shailesh: I came to Mumbai, and to Bandra specifically after spending long months in Varanasi and having glimpsed life in other smaller towns across the country: I'd say that Bandra in Mumbai is hands down the easiest place in India for expats (and especially single women!) to live... And that's why I'm here :)
  • Shailesh Pais
    Shailesh Pais
    20.11.11 05:33 PM
    Well Bronwyn,
    Chennai is a more challenging city as the culture is much more backward. Its very difficult for a single white woman to make friends. So one does get a bit isolated. Bombay in contrast has a lot more to offer. You can get many Western luxuries like food and drink if you look for it. And sexism here is much less.

    And Bandra is without doubt one of the best places in India to live in. :)
  • Lauren
    20.11.11 02:48 PM
    Great article-you really articulated well the experience, questioning and reflective thinking that takes place here. Your honesty is appreciated-hope to actually meet sometime. Probably at the Mumbai marathon!
  • Bronwyn
    17.11.11 10:27 AM
    @Observer: Thank you for your words. I really and honestly feel that I will never be able to give to India and give to the people here even a small piece of what they have given me: in trying, I only receive. Varanasi and Mumbai are places with a lot of struggle, but with an incredible generosity.

    @Joseph James: Thank you for your beautiful words, I am so happy that my experience was so meaningful for you. More is definitely less, especially in a place as stimulating and as desperate as Bombay. It's important to keep both feet on the ground as much as possible.

    @Heike: Thank you for reading! I miss you!
  • Heike r
    Heike r
    17.11.11 02:16 AM
    Great article Bronwyn! Your descriptions of simple life in Mumbai, for locals and non-locals alike are great, carry on with the challenge!
  • Heike r
    Heike r
    17.11.11 02:13 AM
    Great article Bronwyn! I'm inspired by your passion for life!
  • Joseph James
    Joseph James
    17.11.11 12:55 AM
    An eye opener. Your touching humility and disarming honesty are reflected in every word you have written.
    'The more you have, the less you really have; and the less you have, the more you actually have.' This is one of life's paradoxes. Thanks for driving the point home so forcefully through your beautifully written post.
  • Observer
    17.11.11 12:40 AM
    Since this blog post is a bit about honesty, let me be a honest and say that it made me feel a sense of worthlessness about my life. Being a person of Indian origin, I couldn't possibly imagine doing all that you're doing for society.

    But this is good, because this feeling of worthlessness is going to be a preamble for major change that is going to come about in my life.

    Thank you documenting your inspiring life.
  • Bronwyn
    16.11.11 11:14 PM
    Thanks to each of you for every insightful comment.

    @Radhika: I also volunteered with Mumbai Mobile Creches for some time, they are doing fantastic work. I can totally identify with how your experience with kids on construction sites and kids living in slums was likely one of the most valuable in your life. We often have a lot more to learn than we can teach!

    @Writerzblock: I am so happy and honoured that you were able to take so much from my piece and my experience! And hope you continue to read my writing.

    @Libertad: thank you! :)

    @Riccardo: I hear you, Mysore could be quiet. Mumbai is definitely fun. Maybe you could visit!

    @Mariellen: Canadian Indophile love right back at you! There will always be sorrow in the world, but if we allow it to make us heavy, how will we be able to move forward or to dance?

    @A Singh: some great points. It's true that countries like India and Nepal are full of corrupt and false NGOs: this makes it even more difficult for the earnest ones to access funding. I've also witnessed the many, many, many voluntourists who come to 'volunteer' but actually to solve something within themselves. I think it's fine to do that, but also to understand that by engaging in whatever voluntourism, you are helping yourself a lot more than others.
    Mumbai is indeed a city of huge contrasts: I know women who work as teachers in Dharavi (slum area) who earn Rs 3000 (60 dollars CAD) on a monthly basis. I also know expats whose electricity bills for their luxury apartments come to more than Rs 20,000. It is an incredible and unmatched spectrum of contrasts: a lot of food for thought.

    @Maddie: I agree: some of our troubles seem so small relatively. The relativity is key. I feel lucky to be constantly surrounded by people who face real challenges, which in turn reminds me how soft my life is in comparison.

    @Harry: I am definitely not without selfish motives, as I described in my reasons to volunteer... Still, I am glad you were inspired by my piece. Thank you!
    16.11.11 10:05 PM
    Dear Bronwyn
    After reading your article I have come to relise, that you are a great person. Every individual in this world only does things that benifits them and their family, and no body else, but the thing that you have done is extrodinary.

    Not many people would take time out of their cushy life and job, to do the things that you have done . My one thousand salam to you, because what you have done I can never do, even if given chance.
  • Maddie
    16.11.11 09:56 PM
    What a beautifully written piece.
    India with all its dirt, grime, pollution,corruption can still be dynamically beautiful and inspiring.
    I have not been in years and sometime I am disillusioend when I visit but I alwasy come back thankful for the life I have and grateful. I catch myself when I complain because the line @ the Cafe was too long or Traffic is horrendous. I know what the other of the world lives with and struggles and my whines seem so trivial.
  • A Singh
    A Singh
    16.11.11 09:55 PM
    Great post. You talk about honesty and I admire your honesty where you explain that your motives in volunteering were a bit selfish and you did not delude yourself in thinking that you would dramatically transform lives. I see too many naive, guilt ridden westerners travelling out to countries like India and Nepal thinking that they will do this. For people with specific skill sets working for some of the most reputable organsations, they may make a difference. Often though, they end up in 'charities' run not by well meaning philanthropists but hard nosed businessman making a profit. My friend in Nepal told me that many fall into this category. They were fooling the volunteers and ripping off the kids. Anyway, you do not need to leave home to do your bit. There are always options in your home country, like Big Brother / Sister in Canada, for example.

    Another point I would make is that it's not so strange for you to move from a western nation to Mumbai (I understand you also lived elsewhere). No doubt you are aware that there is another Mumbai where you can drink and party as hard as you would in downtown Toronto or Vancouver. My rich cousins in Mumbai lead a far more glamorous life than I do here in London! Mumbai is the commercial crown in a fast developing, modern and enriched India. I know a couple of NRIs that are looking to relocate to Mumbai to improve their career prospects.
  • Mariellen Ward
    Mariellen Ward
    16.11.11 09:49 PM
    Me, too, I can relate! You are someone who is embracing my favourite life philosophy: "Participate joyfully in the sorrows of the world." Joseph Campbell said it, not me.

    Love your writing Bronwyn!

    from a fellow Canadian Indophile
  • Riccardo
    16.11.11 08:28 PM
    I am living in India since 4 years.
    Before that I was coming regularly every year. I came with a strong pourpose after
    finishing my music education in Italy I decide to learn more about south indian music. At the end I have learned really a lot both on the musical side and also generally on life. We ll leave soon India cauz my wife doesn't like being here...not sure were we ll go next...for sure I ll bring with me a lot. What I can see here is that there is still a huge amount of people that can actually live with the essential...this is totally lost in europe and probably this is an important "skill". Bye the way I do not live in a big city I am in Mysore in Karnataka and actually is a bit too slow !!!! Hope I ll be able to convince my wife to move in Mumbai or Dheli...
    16.11.11 08:21 PM
    Great article!!!!!!!!!!!!
    And experience :-)

    Do never change and keep it up!!!
  • Writerzblock
    16.11.11 07:53 PM
    That was an incredibly moving article, Bronwyn. And this is a post that truly humbles the reader... God bless you for your strength, determination and the great work!
  • Radhika
    16.11.11 07:10 PM
    I'm not a foreigner, but for the past few years have been driven with a passion to teach kids, and have spent few stretches of time - with kids of different ages from different backgrounds...
    mobile creches - (construction workers kids) and akanksha - (teaching slum kids) including village kids in a village it Uttarkhand... and I can totally relate to the connection you feel with children. I have never experienced anything more rewarding than spending time connecting with young children.
  • Bronwyn
    16.11.11 07:06 PM
    @SmallSquirrel: I hear you. If all of a sudden I could do little errands at a Canadian pace, in India, I would be thrilled! When I am enjoying the convenience of Canada though, I miss being in Mumbai.

    @Melissa: glad you could identify with the article so much! I agree: why not? :)
  • Melissa
    16.11.11 06:22 PM
    Great read! Im from NY and Ive been in Mumbai for 2 years, and I must say I can completely relate.. total life changing experience. To this day many people still ask me "Why Mumbai" and I merely tell them" WHy Not" :)
  • Smallsquirrel
    16.11.11 05:00 PM
    Well my reasons for going to india were quite different from yours (I went for marriage), but my feelings are the same. You have written a lovely piece here, ame that makes me miss my life back in india now that I am back in the US. Well, ok, I mostly miss it. I do not look back fondly on any one simple chore taking days on end, as you so rightly mention. :)
  • Bronwyn
    16.11.11 03:05 PM
    @Max: you only get out what you put in :) thank you for reading and commenting!

    @Jason: thank you!
  • Jason li
    Jason li
    16.11.11 02:57 PM
    I think its a excellent article ...!! cheers !!
  • Max
    16.11.11 02:47 PM
    Well written, very insightful piece.

    I admire your initiative and determination!
  • Bronwyn
    16.11.11 02:03 PM
    @Sharell: thank you! I think we did have a similar start.

    @Sacha: thank you for your great comment. I think you hit the nail on the head saying that India teaches you 'tolerance and understanding' for the contrasting extremes of sheer wealth and desperate poverty.
  • Sacha Arora
    Sacha Arora
    16.11.11 12:18 PM
    India sure teaches a person many lessons, one of them being appreciation for the smallest basic things we take for granted in our western world. It also teaches you tolerance and understanding for a world that combines ultra luxury with all the primitives of world we thought only existed in history....
  • Sharell
    16.11.11 10:18 AM
    Fantastic article. I can TOTALLY relate, right from the start of your journey. :-)

Leave a comment