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The Real Indian Experience

When I was offered the opportunity to work and live in India for a couple of years, it was the proverbial offer I could not refuse. I had been seeking professional and personal transformation, and what better place? The exotic, colourful, and transcendent images that had been built in my mind’s eye over the years about India danced before me – it was like a visual siren call. I had to go.

Reality is almost always different than our dreams, especially when it comes to personal transformation. Sometimes we seek it, sometimes it seeks us. Most often we meet transformation someplace between what we thought we wanted and something quite outside our comprehension.

India is so intense that people believe they get her quickly. This is because she overwhelms the senses so utterly and completely, even on the shortest of trips. I listen to other business travellers talk expertly about her, as if though they know her intimately, all the while staying at 5-star hotels and working with the best and the brightest of the Indian business world. And I also listen silently and somewhat proudly, because of the knowledge that the sliver of shimmering heat, pulsating energy, eye stinging aroma and multi-tiered chaos that they sense through the hotel window or while being driven from meeting to meeting is only the beginning of understanding the depth of diversity -and the difference- that is India. Visiting India is much different than living in India. And I lived in Mumbai, which is India on steroids.

I am profoundly grateful for my time in India and for the person I am as a result. I am, at my core, different than the woman who went there. What follows are the critical lessons that I learned that affect how I view the worldnow. To me, this was the real “Indian Experience.” It is not a story of spiritual transcendence, or a story of developing a razor sharp commercial edge through working in the emerging market. It is more a story of easing into myself and the world, beyond how I defined myself as a person or as a citizen of the US and western world. Paradoxically, this did indeed lead to somewhat of a spiritual awakening and heightened my commercial edge. These are some of the lessons I learned:

  • Relax, it will come to you. Our real estate broker said this when he sensed I was particularly frustrated with trying to execute my western style, lengthy to-do list. I wanted everything done, as you can imagine, now. So I tried to relax and this is what I learned: In India, merely talking to others about what I needed would set a social network in play whereby the things you needed found you. This is how we found our maid, got our car fixed, the mold in our flat removed, found French Vanilla Coffee Mate, and taco shells. I found this process mysterious and amazing. I now employ it everywhere in the world and it works.
  • Nurture your entourage. Most people who work in what is traditionally called “the middle class” and higher in India have an entourage that consists of at least two people: your head maid and your driver. The maid controls your household and can save your life. Your driver controls your “outside-the-house” experience and can save your life, too. This can be the beginning of a empire enabling you to accomplish and acquire most anything available in India, legal or not. One important tip: choose a really good maid and make sure she, your driver and any other person you hire permanently, or temporarily, knows she is in charge. There is a hierarchy that it is best to work with and not fight against. At times, I felt the chain of the command in our flat was Maggie, our maid, then Jim, my partner, then me and then our driver Michael. Our entourage increased by 20 sometimes depending on the task or project. We were brought in to solve major and minor conflicts over roles, processes and outcomes and were seen as benefactors to a slew of family members, activities and holidays. Being American, it was hard for us to position ourselves in a hierarchy, but the learning was that it really was not about us, but about how we could make life easier for those around us, and thus, we found our lives were easier, too.
  • Getting things done is about setting critical priorities. Activity and getting things done can be seen as the same thing in India. Many times, we had to follow up innumerable times to get things completed. Often we would get a lots of running around, people quickly walking to and fro, looking intently at the water heater, the electrical socket, the mold, etc., and then more talking and explaining. Yet often things never quite got fixed. Our conclusion was that people honestly thought they were doing their best to help us, but did not know how. Saying “no” was not an option and even considered rude. Thus the continued swirl of activity without resolution until we eventually gave up on things that were less important. These things were taken off the to-do list. And that was getting it done.
  • Structure is a good thing. Agreement does not necessarily mean something will happen. I had many intense conversations with people and it would seem we would unanimously agree on what to do and the next steps. I was use to everyone immediately beginning to work on our agreed task and next steps. What I learned was that I had to set clear timelines, boundaries and schedules, and inject rigorous follow-up into the process. In other words, I had to work to get things to work. Otherwise, these commitments seemed to be tossed out to the vast social network to get done by other means. If at all.
  • Now I really know what resilience means. The lack of infrastructure makes doing anything in Mumbai difficult. Going to and from work, running errands or even attending social events becomes a struggle. Yes, the roads are rough with holes. Yes, the traffic is horrible. People squeeze five lanes into a two lane road all while people are walking in the middle of the street, holding a hand out indicating they are going to walk in front of an oncoming car without even a mere glance. But there is also an emotional cost of being on the road in Mumbai that can tear on your soul. The sights, the sounds, the smells are riveting, startling, intoxicating and shaming. I would sometimes imagine what the power of India would be should all the infrastructure issues be magically fixed overnight. The power and resiliency that I saw on a daily basis to merely survive could be released into something quite powerful and transcendent.
  • Health is everything. Since I had completed land and water survival courses in the military and travelled throughout the world, my belief was that I was physically resilient, and as a former naval officer, pretty tough. Yet, I had never lived daily within a crowded population with easy access to antibiotics. This environment creates new and highly resilient strains of some of mankind’s long-term diseases like the flu and TB. During my first six months in Mumbai, I had illnesses ranging from pneumonia to an atypical mycobacterium related to both TB and leprosy, along with numerous cases of food poisoning. I dropped 20 pounds in two months and at a certain point could hardly walk. Eventually, I figured out how best to live in Mumbai. Now, I seem super-resilient to whatever bug my American colleagues pass around to one another. My Doctor, who is Indian, says I could go any place in the world now because I have honed my immune system in one of the toughest places. I have a new found appreciation for healthy eating, thinking and existing that I devote considerable time to because I truly know what it means to be sick.
  • American politics look even more ridiculous than I thought they did. Perspective and distance makes us look even sillier and small minded. Enough said.

Like most personal transformations, mine is not what I expected. Through my physical, emotional and intellectual changes, I learned from India in some way to be more myself and let other expectations I had about myself go. There was a sharpening of focus on what was most important and a releasing of things that were not so important. After having lived in an environment where many of my American friends would find horribly intolerable, I found myself truly appreciating, for the first time in my life, the gifts that had come to me merely by being born where I had been born. Without many creature comforts, I found comfort in my relationships. I cared less about anything in popular media save my FB account. I have been back in the US about two months and I still do not know the latest movies or television shows, and the recent rising stars all seem the same to me. The pressure to buy, buy, buy, is never ending, and I understand that I actually don’t need very much, just my health and my relationships. I had searched for peace of mind my entire life. For many, there is peace in this world anyplace you go if you know how to get it. For me, it was through the chaos, drama and the kaleidoscope of my Indian experience that I found peace for the first time in my life.

Written March 2013

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