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Embracing the new

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May 2008
Embracing the new

“Tradition vs. integration”, the title of a column in a desi women’s magazine caught my eye. Enough already, I thought, haven’t we debated that to death? Through desi fiction and films catharsis has been achieved, celebrated even. The likes of Gurinder Chadha and Jhumpa Lahiri have showcased the immigrant dilemma and drama worldwide. Let’s move on, people. And then, in an epiphany of sorts it came to me – integration is now the tradition.

Today there is a constant attempt to be relevant in the current cultural context. Immigrants or not, we all must reinvent ourselves in varying degrees in the name of assimilation. Given the pace of change, everybody – young and old – is moving forward much faster than prior generations. Who would have thought America would consider electing an African-American or a woman for president?

We’ve met the fresh-off-the-boat techie in the Silicon Valley attempting to chow down corn dogs with newfound peers. And the mother in Alpharetta hauling a reluctant teenager to a Kathak class at Global Mall. Or the Indian father feigning a smile as he shakes hands with his 16-year-old daughter’s drummer boyfriend. Now meet my 70-year-old mother-in-law who took lessons in basic computer operations in Washington. And my mother who text messages from Dehra Dun at the speed of light. She can also jog faster than people half her age – I never get on the treadmill next to her!

Indian society appears to have loosened its noose around dogmatic customs and perspectives. My unmarried girlfriend in Mumbai spends nights away from home with parental consent. “I can’t stop her. She is 25, earns more money than her father. This way at least I know where she is,” says her mother. I admire the 60-year-old’s ability to adapt to modern-day circumstances. This isn’t the India I grew up in. Change has hit hard, dumping western ways on a conservative country. It has, however, also brought with it a healthy measure of freedom, like rain to a parched land. My mother’s friend in New Delhi – bound in a loveless marriage for years – is now divorced and living with her man friend. In the ‘old days’ she would have been ostracized.

Our society is displaying sparks of progressiveness. I’ve seen joint families in India work better today than they did a decade ago. Liberal parents are willing to bend the rules of conduct and rewrite rituals to better suit their families while children are prepared to communicate instead of confront. Some parents now prefer to live apart from their grown children – to savor their independence! I see people in their 50s and 60s buying vacation homes in Nainital and Rishikesh.

The greatest draw for me to move to Mumbai from the U.S. for a while was to introduce my son to India in India. To teach him our ways of life on home turf. He played with pathakas (firecrackers) and gulal, learnt the Gayatri mantra and Jana Gana Mana without an American accent. He also learnt that garbage and poor people don’t belong on streets, that change is necessary. And that he is the most powerful instrument of change while being the most valuable custodian of our Indianness. Change need not contradict the past, it should correct it. Some fight hard to keep rituals from being antiquated; others attempt to shake off the past like a pooch after a bath. It isn’t an either-or situation any longer, I tell him.

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My one-year sabbatical that turned into a two-year vacation – as some of our readers pointed out – has finally come to a close. I must leave one home to return to another. I must prepare to answer the recurrent query “Where are you from?” once again. And while I define my uniqueness to all and sundry in America my ethnicity will add more flavor to the melting pot.


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