Monday, March 12, 2012

‘Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did.’ ~ Mark Twain

The chance of being exploited in a long-term job is now experienced as a privilege.

ANOTHER brick has come down in the great wall separating India from the rest of the world. Recently, both Starbucks and Amazon announced that they would be entering the Indian market. Amazon has already started a comparison shopping site; Starbucks plans to open its first outlet this summer.

As one Indian newspaper put it, this could be "the final stamp of globalization."

For me, though, the arrival of these two companies, so emblematic of American consumerism, and so emblematic, too, of the West Coast techie culture that has infiltrated India's own booming technology sector, is a sign of something more distinctive. It signals the latest episode in India's remarkable process of Americanization.

I grew up in rural India, the son of an Indian father and American mother. I spent many summers (and the occasional biting, shocking winter) in rural Minnesota. I always considered both countries home. In truth, though, the India and America of my youth were very far apart: cold war adversaries, America's capitalist exuberance a sharp contrast to India's austere socialism. For much of my life, my two homes were literally  -  but also culturally, socially and experientially  -  on opposite sides of the planet.

All that began changing in the early 1990s, when India liberalized its economy. Since then, I've watched India's transformation with exhilaration, but occasionally, and increasingly, with some anxiety.

I left for boarding school in America in 1991. By the time I graduated from high school, two years later, Indian cities had filled with shopping malls and glass-paneled office buildings. In the countryside, thatch huts had given way to concrete homes, and cashew and mango plantations were being replaced by gated communities. In both city and country, a newly liberated population was indulging in a frenzy (some called it an orgy) of consumerism and self-expression.

More than half a century ago, R. K. Narayan, that great chronicler of India in simpler times, wrote about his travels in America. "America and India are profoundly different in attitude and philosophy," he wrote. "Indian philosophy stresses austerity and unencumbered, uncomplicated day-to-day living. America's emphasis, on the other hand, is on material acquisition and the limitless pursuit of prosperity." By the time I decided to return to India for good, in 2003, Narayan's observations felt outdated. A great reconciliation had taken place; my two homes were no longer so far apart.

This reconciliation  -  this Americanization of India  -  had both tangible and intangible manifestations. The tangible signs included an increase in the availability of American brands; a noticeable surge in the population of American businessmen (and their booming voices) in the corridors of five-star hotels; and, also, a striking use of American idiom and American accents. In outsourcing companies across the country, Indians were being taught to speak more slowly and stretch their O's. I found myself turning my head (and wincing a little) when I heard young Indians call their colleagues "dude." {Read on}