So after spending only 5 weeks travelling through India it would be fair to say I have not earned sufficient experience or insight to provide a critique of India's geopolitical and social challenges, there are experts who have dedicated their life to predicting how this ancient culture, tasked with building a fledgling nation upon the ruins of foreign empires will end up in the near future. In this respect I will leave the academics to their tasks.
However what I lack in depth of Indian experience I perhaps make up for in variance of experience. India is the 53rd nation I have visited, and I believe this affords me the capacity to make some basic (and of cource generalised) cultural observations.
My first impression, and one that lasted with me throughout this trip, was that despite India being so inextricably intertwined with the world, both historically and currently, I felt that I had never been to a more isolated society in all my life (and I've been to Cuba!). It was as though the sheer enormity of India had made it somewhat remote, unique, and impervious to the seemingly inescapable global community.
For the most part I think this should be seen within a positive light, if not just for the intrinsic value of the diversity of humanity. India is unlike anywhere else on Earth, and that makes it special... and worth experiencing.
There are inescapable cultural differences that range from beautiful, to strange, to confronting (as I type this on my plane an Indian man next to me loudly belches and groans in appreciation of his meal). The influence of being 1 in 1.3 billion has encouraged an impatience within much of the middle class, however I think it has induced another distinction amongst our cultures worth mentioning.
“Western Society” (apologies in advance if this generic term offends anyone) has, especially in the last 50 years, created an increasing impetus on the notion of individualism. The idea that each of us are unique and capable or “running our own race”, being ourselves, and not always doing what is expected of us. This is a facet I failed to find in abundance during my brief time on the sub-continent.
It is entirely plausible that the mere fact of general racial homogeneity obscured my observations, but I felt as though the Indians I observed rarely sought to stand out from the crowd. The Hindu religion teaches of an immutable cycle that our current life is but a moment in. Perhaps it is under this influence that so many Indians seem greatly at peace with being part of something they can’t control, and don’t try to.
The manner in which they literally set fire to the bodies of their dead loved ones repeatedly reminds them of the fleeting nature of their physical form. From a young age they are aware that one day their bodies will also burn on the pyres, and they seem more at peace with that than westerners. Most Australian adults have never even seen a dead body before and thus hold a rather illogical fear of the inescapability of death.
As I traversed the country in which so many names and personal stories seemed the same, I found an unavoidable contrast in my social media feeds. Adults struggling to define themselves, not just to themselves but to anyone that would listen. We appear to possess a need to articulate who we are and why we are different, and as a result, why we matter.
To be honest, I still believe that individualism offers a greater value to us. It enables us a litany of opportunity of human experience, a chance to celebrate and explore our unique qualities and passions; but it certainly comes with a significantly greater burden. In fact, too often it cripples us.
Perhaps the best advice, as it so often is, is a compromise. We should be proud of what makes us unique, but not delude ourselves into thinking this will afford us automatic significance or indeed happiness. If you are spending your time working to convince everyone else what kind of person you are, chances are you're not that kind of person, otherwise they wouldn't need much convincing.
We should seek our identity and purpose in life, but accept that no matter how unique and brilliant we may aspire to be, our body too will unavoidably one day be lifeless on the pyres; so maybe we should just enjoy the ride a little more whilst we still have full use of it.
(Below is a video containing highlights from my trip for anyone looking for more of an audio-visual insight)