Dilemmas of an Aussie guy in Chennai

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For TIM BLIGHT, living in India has brought about a strange, comforting and paradoxical sense of belonging

After eighteen months in India, my time as ‘An Aussie Guy in Chennai’ is now drawing to an end. Over the last year and a half I’ve had made lots of friends, seen some amazing sights, learned a lifetime’s worth of lessons, suffered from ‘Chennai chunder’ twice, and significantly improved my knowledge of Hindi. (Unfortunately, the latter came at the expense of tongue-twisting Tamil, which I have failed to pick up despite some attempts). I have battled the bureaucracy, the heat and humidity and the traffic, and been hit at low speed by a motorbike (the driver was most apologetic, and I walked away with barely a scratch). I’ve visited north, south, east and west around the nation which I now feel is somewhat an adopted home for me.

Throughout my time in India, one question I have grappled with is why I like it here. Some say it’s the preferential treatment I receive as a foreigner – although that actually makes me rather uncomfortable. Some have pointed to the exoticism and glamour of living abroad, although I promise there were just as many unpleasant experiences as there were enjoyable. A Hindu approach might suggest that I lived in India in a previous life, and felt that I had come home. A Muslim or a Sikh might suggest that the sense of community is responsible, being close to the ummah or the sheraan di kaum, though I might not know it. A Marxist might tell me that I have turned my back on the materialist West, but anyone who shops in India knows that’s not true!

Two years ago I wrote an article entitled ‘Indophile’ in which I declared my love for India, and spoke of the everyday spirituality which enchanted me with every visit. Having now lived here, I can reaffirm these sentiments. Yes it’s dirty, polluted, crowded, frustrating, difficult and all the rest of it. However these unpleasant facts of life might only serve to heighten one’s awareness of other aspects. Unlike the subdued rises and falls of life in Australia, the highs and lows of life in India are extreme, terrible and beautiful. India is really a country that you feel. As a feeling person, as a spiritual person, I can honestly say that I felt at home here and would stay longer, possibly forever, if I had the option. Perhaps I am actually suited to Indian life?

Perhaps it was stepping out of my own society and into one where I was anonymous, where I could be whoever I wanted to be, where I would be judged differently – isn’t that what so many of us love about being in a foreign country? Being a novelty soon wears off, but the feeling of breaking free from the shackles of our native society is a powerful drug. How many Indian Australians love their lives in Australia for that reason? When we leave our native country to live abroad, we offer a contract to our own selves; that we will relish the positive aspects of life in a new nation, with the negatives as a small cost. Without such a contract, living abroad wouldn’t seem worth it: “Oh yes, Australia has its problems, but look at the benefits!” is a phrase which can be applied both ways. Not to mention the fact that we often judge our own culture much more harshly than we do others – how many people pass off (or don’t notice) negatives in foreign countries when the same thing in their own would make them cringe? Maybe this is the secret to why I love it here.

Perhaps these questions will never be answered. At the end of a year and a half in India, there are still many questions to be answered, aside from these. Why is ‘India the superpower’ an ideal fast-becoming reality, yet development for the average Indian is largely an elusive dream? Why, after 65 years, has so little changed in the nation’s relationship with Pakistan? Why is Indian politics so dominated by stuffy, bureaucratic, corrupt old men when the country’s youth have so much exciting potential? Why is Salman Khan not in jail? Maybe like the reasoning behind my affection for India, we’ll never solve these. But India is a riddle which might not need solving. As Dev Patel’s character in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel said time and time again, “Everything will be alright in the end. If it’s not alright, it’s not the end”. Say what you like about the film, truer words were never spoken about life in India – there is hope, no matter how futile, that things will be better. It’s a lesson we could all use from time to time.

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