A man darts across a congested street, auto rickshaws and cyclists missing him only by inches. Any Jewish mother’s heart would jump.
A woman in a bright red sari takes a bite out of a samosa that’s been sitting out on a street vendor’s display in the hot sun for hours. Any health inspector would be appalled.
A train rushes by, a half a dozen Indians hanging out of every open car door, taking in the breeze. Part of me keeps waiting for someone to fall out, a misstep to take place, some kind of railroad tragedy to occur. There’s no doubt in my mind that it could easily happen.
I constantly notice these instances, these potential brushes with death and disaster, and I come to realize that I’m not noticing only an external phenomenon, but an internal one as well. On the external side, I’m seeing that India is a place that some might call ‘high risk.’ That many things here are without safeguards, more things could go wrong more easily than almost anywhere in the West.
The other side of what I’m noticing, though, is much more significant in my opinion. It’s much deeper. It’s fear. Fear of what might be, what’s possible, what could go wrong. And the more I watch, the more I realize that this fear might simply be my own and no one else’s. The man that darted across the street probably doesn’t think to himself, ‘Maybe I shouldn’t cross this street right now, there are a lot of cars coming, I might get hurt.’ Forget about the fact that if everyone in this country did this no one would ever cross the street. What’s of greater importance in my mind is that in general Indians won’t think in this way but most Westerners will.
The manifestation of fear in a person’s mind is often heavily linked to the culture that they come from, and how this culture relates to things like perceived threats and dangers. There is no question the contemporary American culture is one that focuses heavily on these perceived threats, and many would say that it has just reason to do so. Many people, including some of the younger insightful members of my own family, have commented upon this fact when given some distance from it. It’s no news that politicians, big business and the media in the States all contribute to and exploit this anxiety society for their own gains, bringing those who believe in the red, white and blue to red, yellow and orange levels of fear. What’s news is that this isn’t the norm, even in places in the world where the simple living of one’s day to day life is a high risk venture.
I’m trying to wrap my head around this distinctive Indian psyche, which I see as one that we as Americans might learn and benefit from. To begin with, part of me needs to emulate it in one way or another or else I can’t cross the street in this city. On a higher level though, I believe that life simply cannot be lived in fear.
It is obvious that a major part of this difference in the Indian mentality and the Western mindset is due to the way the people of these respective cultures view their lives and relate to their worlds. In the West, and in America especially, people tend to hold the view that an individual is in control of his or her own life. If something goes wrong in one’s life, the habit is often to take personal responsibility for the situation. ‘What could I have done differently, where did I go wrong?’ are common phrases that are manifestations of this worldview. That people need to and more importantly can take personal responsibility for everything that happens in their lives is what the American dream is made of. Down in the dumps? Well, don’t just sit there on the corner, pull up your bootstraps and do something about it.
In terms of taking responsibility for possible threats, Western culture has reacted in a mind boggling way. Insurance policies for everything under the sun. Enormous amounts of focus on health and an almost obsessive compulsive relation to hygiene. Home security systems. The club. W’s duct tape. The list goes on and on. Don’t get me wrong, these are not bad things. Anyone who knows me well knows that I actually swear by duct tape, and when traveling view it as a necessary staple. The issue is not the duct tape but how one relates to the duct tape. In the West we build up all of these systems of preparation and safeguarding, and as a result believe, consciously or unconsciously, that we are indeed safe and need to continue to do more things to ensure that safety. We learned in a big way three years ago this is not in fact the case, that we are not as in control of our lives as it might seem.
The Indian mind, on the other hand, has been conditioned towards the opposite end of that spectrum. In general, as a result of the religious history of the country, people here tend to believe in fate. In the West the word fatalism has taken on negative connotations; one who is fatalistic does not live life but ‘succumbs’ to it. Here, the idea of fate has been deeply ingrained in the minds of the people through centuries of a hierarchical caste system which was supported by the notion that you not only got what you deserved, but that you can't change what you got, at least not in this life. And though the country is developing rapidly, and many Indians when questioned might say that they don't believe in reincarnation or even fate, habits and views of India’s previous life will remain for a long time, and the residual psyche of days of yore still remains.
Obviously Indians are not completely fatalistic, just as Westerners don’t entirely believe that they are in complete control of their lives. If this were the case, Indians would never get things done and Westerner’s would simply go insane. However, notions of fate do remain a vital part of the mindset here. And a certain degree of fatalism has its advantages, especially in such an overtly class divided society as India’s. I like to believe that Indians who have a consciousness of fate can cope better with the harsh realities of life here. Instead there being intense friction between the person trying to cross the street and the taxis and buses that won’t give an inch, one simply sees that the cars and buses are going to be there no matter what, and one must simply weave a way through them.
This outlook, obviously, doesn’t always manifest in such a positive way. While it has the advantages of lower levels of stress, anxiety and fear, it is also the cause of many of this country’s ailments. A fatalistic outlook taken to the extreme means that proper measures aren’t being put in place externally to deal with certain pressing needs of the country, such as more hygienic hospitals and food establishments. In the long run, it means that the country will have more trouble ‘developing.’ If a person really believes that their position in life and the world can’t change, it won’t, at least not as a result of anything they themselves do.
Being in the position that I am, coming from the West and living in the East, I like to think that I can see the advantages and disadvantages of the way that these two very different cultures live. As I see the developing microcosm of India that is Bombay, I see how certain Western tendencies seem to have infiltrated the environment and people here. The people that I met here that have the most success by Western standards also tend to be the ones with the most neuroses and insecurities. However, they’re also often the first ones to critique the country about where it needs improvement. As I speak to them, I worry. Does improving your external conditions here mean that your sanity is at stake? Or can there be an integration of the two views?
I believe that the West has much to offer India in terms of improving what we call ‘quality of life.’ And India has much to offer the West in terms of ‘quality of mind.’ And so, a middle way might be found.
For the Indian, a greater valuing of health and safety cannot be a bad thing. As a country, India has the potential for greatness; it has wonderful and intelligent people within it. But greater care must be taken in keeping people safe, providing effective healthcare, and keeping the environment clean. If people are able to do this and maintain their lack of anxiety and sound minds, India might one day be a country that the third world might look to as a model of not only economic development, but psychological development as well.
For the Western mind, there is a need for humility. While we know that we have degrees of control in our lives, we need to learn that we are by no means in complete control. Some might find this outlook terrifying, but if a closer look is taken we can realize that it is actually quite liberating. That we are not entirely responsible for each and every thing that happens to us means that we don’t have to shoulder a massive psychological burden. It also means that we don’t have to exist in fear. If I could import anything from India to America, it would the ability that people have here to both see and accept that life is full of danger and uncertainty, and the knowledge that to live in fear of these uncertainties only makes things worse.
If somehow effective cultural transmission might occur, great gains are almost certain to happen on both sides. As for me, I’m still trying to negotiate crossing the street without getting run over.