Whether its friends from India or the US, one question I am constantly asked is, “How does it feel to be back?” It’s not easy to answer because I am equally at home in both places with pros and cons to being in both countries. While I love being in India, my life is in the US. The overwhelming feeling when I return is one of being back to reality.
Life in India is like living in a bubble. I love it but I know it’s not how most of India lives. In fact, my desire for escape and self-discovery was one of the reasons I relocated.
My book club just finished reading Kevin Kwan’s ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ and I have to say the Indian elite are not a patch on the Chinese. I laughed my way through not just that book but the two sequels. I say laugh but it’s not a funny book. The book is based on the life of rich Chinese. My amusement stems from their unbelievable lives whether in Singapore, Hong kong, Mainland China, Thailand or far flung UK, US and Australia.Any desire for reality check gets left by the roadside in Kwan’s world. The book made me ponder similarities and differences in the lives of wealthy Chinese and Indians. Having seen and led a life of luxury in India, it’s nothing compared to the scale of the Chinese. Maybe extremely wealthy Indians lead similar lives but I don’t believe they come close to the Chinese. It’s possible the Indian belief in karma and dharma leads to a more tempered approach.
Similarities include living in custom homes, surrounded by staff, dressed in designer clothes, indulging in shopping sprees for baubles and bags, luxury cars, latest gadgets and exotic holidays. The importance of school, residential location, holiday destinations is evident in both cultures. The school network is especially significant because those ties last a lifetime. The behavior of people with new and old money is also somewhat similar. People from old money tend to be more low key, prefer not to be in the news and are less inclined to spend their money on expensive attire. New money on the other hand tends to hog headlines, lead flashy lives, devour designer labels, acquire expensive hobbies, cars, paintings and anything else money can buy.
Kwan’s Chinese matriarchs interfere in the lives of their children by trying to ensure they marry the right heir or heiress, sabotaging plans they do not approve of, covering up nefarious activities and keeping an ear on the ground for investment opportunities. Indian matriarchs are not as obvious. True there is a lot of behind the scenes negotiating for eligible brides and grooms especially at Indian weddings, hot beds for checking out potential sons and daughters in law. But it is subtle. While love marriages proliferate in modern India, arranged marriages are not written off and subtle prodding does end up in matrimony. Indian matriarchs tend not to be as involved in financial wheeling and dealing, spending more time in social endeavours. Covering up for children’s wrongdoings is par for the course, but then again, most parents would use contacts to hush misdeeds and protect their child.
Kwan’s protagonists think nothing of bidding hundreds of millions of dollars for paintings at auctions, jumping into private jets in drunken moments and flying half way across the world on a shopping spree. Compared to the Chinese, there are probably a handful of wealthy Indians with that kind of spending power and chances are they are not as foolhardy, probably tempering their impulsive behavior. Most of Kwan’s society women come across as money grabbing, mud-flinging, avaricious women with only one thing on their mind, bagging the most eligible bachelor. They would claw the eyes out of competitors. I like to believe Indian girls are less vicious.
Books such as Crazy Rich Asians actually reflect a more global culture. My comparisons may be restricted to Chinese and Indians, but throw in other BRIC nations and the results are not dissimilar. I am not a social scientist but in my opinion, as globalization shrinks the world, cultural differences will become less relevant. The world over millennial kids have a sense of entitlement. Rich millennials lead a life that is a far cry from the reality of our times. Tables at the most popular bars and clubs, bachelor parties in trendy spots such as Ibiza, international celebrities performing at weddings, all these and more have become the norm.
But every once in a while, as I wander among this sea of lost souls, I have some uplifting moments. I hear about kids who do not want lavish weddings. Or children who give up lucrative careers to give back to society. Children from privilege who decide to use their position to create a better world. And that’s when I feel, everything has an expiry date. Life is cyclical. Even Kwan’s book ends on a positive note of giving back and good hearts.
And as I try to adjust to a more pleb life in New York, I remember a recent conversation I had with a friend before leaving India. I was having an ideological tussle about indulging in a luxurious lifestyle while there is such abundant poverty in India. My not for profit mindset just could not come to terms with this. The amount of money people spend on events could pay for the entire education of less privileged children giving them a chance at a better life. My friend reminded me about a few elemental truths. There is a small scale industry created as a result of these events enabling many to make a good living and finally maybe my good karma in my previous life is what allows me the luxuries in this life.
In the meantime, its I’m back to a country abubble with festive fervor, celebrating in a mishpocha of friends, family and loved ones.