Who am I?

By Shashi Narasimhiah
Here is the scenario:

I was attending a private symposium on the role of Australia in global engineering and manufacturing industry. A very senior, well-read and well-travelled professional impeccably dressed in a dark suit, a red designer tie and shiny black shoes during the course of his presentation is trying to convince the audience on a point – actually he spends more than half his time on the stage making this point. The point is – a certain equipment being procured is “not Indian”. He further explains to the very informed and educated audience that the equipment is “only” being “assembled” in India under the “strict quality Standards” of a European “Global” conglomerate. He goes on to explain that the parts for the equipment have been manufactured at various European countries such as Germany, Italy, Spain etc and also adds that some parts from Australia too have gone into that equipment and repeats that the equipment is not “Indian” but is well and truly a “Global” equipment and he stresses yet again that in India it is “only” being assembled “under strict supervision”. I was one of the very few persons of Indian origin at the symposium, many were British, a few were Australian and even less were Asians – all of them sagely nodding and taking in this additional information and feeling satisfied that it is not bad after all – that something “Indian” is not being procured. This was the last presentation before lunch was served.

My own reaction to this episode came as a bit of a surprise to even myself!! First up – it was spontaneous, natural and voluntary.The very open, public and painstaking justification by the presenter that something that is being procured is not “Indian” and the satisfaction the listeners expressed had a profoundly  adverse effect on me. My response was a bit abrupt –I did not care to join the group for lunch, instead went out and ate something on my own. After lunch, however hard I tried, I could never get around to going back to attend the remainder of that symposium – although that presentation was over and the symposium  would have moved on to other fun topics of discussion. Why did I do that? What was the reason for this reaction from me? Long-time back, I was keen to leave India for Australia to make my life, I was instantly taken in by the glamour and comfort. Despite initial setbacks, I have lived and worked here a long time, I am an Australian Citizen for many years  and I do everything within my ability and powers to protect the Country’s prestige, culture, ethos and safety. I have made this my home. I love this place. Despite my very modest and mediocre abilities, despite many poor career and personal decisions I have made, this society has given me a life that I can’t complain about. On the other hand, I know for a fact that India is not known for greatest quality products and services, so if anyone has some concerns on procuring plant and equipment from India, well, one might argue that it is understandable. Despite India being a great civilisation and an emerging world power and economy I am well aware of India’s several unresolved issues whether it is exploding population, divisive caste system, monstrous corruption, un-cleanliness, inadequate infrastructure etc etc – the list grows longer. But despite all of this, why did I react the way I did when someone was showing India in bad light? Who am I? Where does my allegiance lie?

I have come one full circle. During my childhood to youth, I loved “my” India, travelled the length and breadth of India and developed a heartfelt connection with the entire country.The fond memories of my childhood, my adolescence, the school, the great teachers; the cricket matches etc are green in my memory.  After I grew up a bit and commenced my working career I found that I was not earning and saving enough despite my education and hard work.The work culture, the corruption, the rat race, the rush, the crowd were all overwhelming.When my daughter was born and quickly started growing up, I worried for her future as well as her safety. When I used to experience frequent power cuts and when the taps used to go dry, I cursed my destiny as well as India and so, I took the first opportunity to leave the country. I thought it was a God send and indeed it appeared to be so and so it has been.

Initially the indications were only subtle but as I picked up the way of life here and as I understood the cultural nuances, despite the relative material comfort, I realised that “everything that looks white is not milk”. After a length of stay here, after interacting and interfacing with the general public, after working here and after watching the media on how India and Indians are portrayed, I started realising the subtle (actually not so subtle) social segregation and  inevitably I started drifting towards where my journey of life had originally started – love for my birth place – India!!

Moving on….there is an added pressure – me being an Indian I seem to carry the whole Country on my back at times. Here is an example: One particular morning, I met with a very talkative fun loving local mate of mine on train travelling to our respective work places in the morning and as I did every day, I sat next to him. As per the norm, I attempted to engage with him in conversation and he kept giving me short (but courteous) answers and repeatedly tried falling asleep. He was genuinely tired. I started probing a bit. Here is how it went:

  • Mate: “Shashi, I went back home from work very late yesterday – after midnight”
  • Me: “Oh Really? Why so?”
  • Mate: “Oh, I had to launch a software and get that working and it took time”
  • Me: “OK, that is fine but why did you have to stay until midnight for that?”
  • Mate: “We had outsourced the software development and they got it all wrong, I tried explaining, but they wouldn’t get it, they wouldn’t understand my requirements and so, I had to do it myself at the eleventh hour. I had no option”

That is when it dawned on me:

  • Me: “Oh!! I get it!! You outsourced the software development to India right?”
  • Mate: “Yeah, that’s right. I didn’t want to mention that and hurt your feelings”

What? Hurt what? My feelings? Why did he think it would be hurtful to me if he told me that someone in India had messed up a piece of work handed to them? Does he think I represent the whole country of 1.3b people?

When people called me “that Indian bloke” I used to wonder – I have Australian Citizenship, love being so, I speak, read and write English well, I dress like the locals, I work like locals, I pay taxes – just like the locals, I try and participate in public cultural events and even drink beer like them in a pub!! – but why am I “that Indian bloke” to them? After attending that symposium, I think I know the answer to that question. I am Indian by heart!! And an Australian otherwise. And the society seems to identify that. No wonder I pray for an Indian victory when the cricket is on against Australia.It so happens that I can come out of India, but India can’t come out of me – no matter what, where, when and how!!!!

Do I have an identity crisis? Who am I? Not sure, still thinking….

(Readers are welcome to share their feedback).

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