It’s good to be home. Sitting on the couch in the living room of my apartment here, I’m surrounded by the comforts of the expat life I missed — satellite television, broadband internet, pretty consistent electricity.
But something’s changed. These things don’t feel the same anymore. The luxuries used to make me comfortable; being comfortable, I thought I’d adjusted to India rather well. The last two weeks changed my mind. Since I set out with a friend of mine on a road trip to discover the “other” India, I’ve come to realize that the India I live in is hardly the same for most people in this country.
As we entered Mumbai last week, I called a friend to say that we had finally arrived. “It must have been amazing to see that part of India,” she said. “It is very interesting. But can you imagine actually living there?”
I had to say no. The country I saw over the last two weeks is most definitely not the India I call home. It looks different, sounds different, even tastes different (food is much spicier, for one). What drives life in India’s modern cities is a mixture of dreams, ambitions and hope. But, I learned, what it takes to live in the parts outside the city limits is something very different.
From our time on the road, that’s the lesson I’ll remember: to live out there, in the India beyond the cities, you muct accept and adjust — to whatever, whenever, however. Drivers regularly defy the rules of common sense, to say nothing of traffic laws. Yet not once did I see a moment of road rage or incredulity. I’m hard pressed to think of an instance when a near-miss didn’t end in drivers smiling at each other. They accept, and adjust.
There’s a Hindi word Indians use often when the unexpected comes up: chalega. Literally, it means “it’ll work” or “it’ll do.” And they use it all the time. Can one more passenger squeeze into a long-haul auto-rickshaw already bursting with a dozen human bodies? Of course: Chalega. What should I do if there’s a truck charging at me head-on? Pull to the left and wait for it to swerve at the last possible moment: Chalega. What happens if my muffler falls off? Re-attach it with some duct tape: Chalega. And if it’s pouring rain and I don’t have an umbrella? Tie a rag around your head and go for a walk: Chalega.
I tend to think I’m a fairly easygoing guy. But I’m not sure I’m laid-back enough for everything I saw. I can’t always say chalega, not to the destitute poverty of children begging the streets of some towns we passed, nor to the poor infrastructure that leaves millions without electricity for hours every day. And I definitely can’t say chalega to the rural health clinics that forced my friend to have his stitches removed and redone in a larger hospital — after lackadaisical care left him with a spreading infection. For me, chalega is not a valid response.
Living in many of the small towns and villages I saw takes an ability to accept and abide, an ability that I just don’t have — mainly because I was raised in America amid comfort and order. But as India develops, and more people become accustomed to similar comforts, I wonder how long that attitude can last. How long will people in the hinterlands of this country accept their lot with a shrug and a nod? How long will people keep making space in already crowded buses and auto-rickshaws for a population bursting at the seams? How long before Indians need more than just a word — chalega — to keep going on?