Every time I talk about India as though it’s a brand-new experience, I feel a little twinge of guilt. This is my country, after all. I spent the majority of my life here. Yes, I moved around a lot, and Singapore officially qualifies as the longest I’ve ever lived in one city, but India is still home. There is, however, a significant difference between living in India as a child and living here as an adult, and that’s the experience I’m usually talking about when I speak of India now, whether that takes the form of a rant or a rave.
Coming back here has been eye-opening. It’s not really that India has changed all that much in 12 years (although it probably has), it’s that my worldview has done a full 180 since I was a teenager. Things that used to matter don’t anymore, and things I didn’t give a second thought to take center stage these days. From that viewpoint, here are the things that stick out to me about this second India experience.
- Things are SLOW, especially if it has anything to do with the government. I think I was pretty sheltered from this when I was a child, because I never really had to do anything for myself, but this time around, I became really aware of how long everything takes. I applied for an Aadhaar card when I got here, and my jaw pretty much dropped when they said the official card would me sent to me in two months’ time. I don’t think I’ve ever waited two months for anything in Singapore. (I would have added “except my tax notice” to that, but I filed my Singapore tax yesterday, and I kid you not, got the notice of assessment AND made my payment within 15 minutes, so that throws that out the window.) When the power in our house went out, we had to run about like headless chickens to get the papers in order to restore electricity, when it would have been done with the click of a button back in Singapore. Things just move much, much more slowly over here.
- Transport has gotten hugely better since I was a child. I barely ever took public transport when I was a child (a private auto usually ferried me to and from school), but I got so used to it in Singapore that I was afraid I’d suffer without it back in India. I needn’t have worried so much. The metro in Bangalore has been a nice transition from the super efficient Singapore MRT. The introduction of Ola and Uber have made taking taxis and autos simpler and cheaper (remember when we actually had to go and wait on main roads to flag one down?), and Google Maps has been an absolute life-saver. I’ve never been good with understanding directions or remembering landmarks, and so having something like Google Maps helping me navigate pretty much anywhere in an easy, step-by-step fashion has made transitioning into a new city very, very easy.
- There are still way too many people everywhere, but online shopping has made it so much easier to avoid crowds. Pretty much the only thing I remember being able get delivered at home when I was a kid was pizza, which was expensive and not something we’d indulge in a lot. These days, though, you can get practically anything delivered, from groceries and produce to clothes, gadgets and food. It’s a great way for someone who hates crowds to lead their ideal hermit life.
- The food choices here have opened up so much since I was a kid. This is probably due to my not living in a city like Bangalore when I was younger, but you get pretty much every cuisine here. Also, almost every food place (including established brands like McDonald’s, KFC and Subway) actually has decent vegetarian options, which makes choosing something to eat pretty difficult, but I won’t complain about finally having options again. That said…
- India is not as cheap as it used to be. This is something I know is true, just based on what my parents recall, but also something that’s tinted by the fact that I didn’t think about the price of things when I was a child. I remember coming home from university one year and going grocery shopping with Dad and being shocked at the bill. I don’t know what antiquated idea I had in my head of how much things cost here, but I’m still taken aback by the price of things now, even when I earn my own money. In fact, I end up converting back to Singapore dollars when in doubt, which is a very, very bad idea for my sanity, because things aren’t that much cheaper than they are in Singapore, but I only make a fraction of the money I used to there.
- You guys, there are so many stereotypes about India out there, but the one I never expected to get so much confirmation for was the one about cows walking around in the middle of the road. I’m telling you, the cows these days are bolder, because I don’t remember them being this blatant in my youth. My cab driver literally has to navigate around at least two every single day on the way to and from work. They have supreme right of road – you either drive around them or you wait for them to cross the road. There is no situation in which you win.
- And that brings me to my last point – I think what I’m noticing now about India that I never noticed earlier is just how resilient Indians are. There might be a million and one things happening here that could be rectified or made better, but that resilience is why things keep going. The people here don’t stop. Yes, things take time and the country is not always as efficient as you want it to be, but that deficit has sort of resulted in a can-do culture that overpowers most things. People just keep moving. Cows on the road? Go around them. Power cut? Light a candle and continue working. Metro breaks down? Walk or take the bus. Yes, everyone complains, but that doesn’t stop people from getting their work done. Who knew one day I’d find bull-headed persistence an admirable quality?