The Discovery of Civilization

I landed in London in late 1991 to pursue my MBA, using it to obtain a British visa and depart from India. There was a peculiar allure, a charm that felt almost erotic, drawing me towards the West. I was filled with curiosity, eager to understand what contributed to the West’s success and why the world held it in such a high regard. It was impossible to quantify what I was after—if I knew what was on the other side, I would not have needed to go there to find out.

The British immigration officer inquired if I was carrying the money to pay for my education. I affirmed that I had the necessary funds and began to open my bag. I didn’t have the money, but fortunately, he stopped me from opening the bag. I felt proud that I had fooled the officer.

The only way to get any work done in India was by fooling or bribing the bureaucrats.

I was transitioning from a society built on distrust to one characterized by trust, though I wasn’t aware of these concepts then.

The abundant fruits of the West—wealth, confidence, power, liberties, conveniences, and the god-like image of the Europeans—only vaguely understood through rare, heavily censored TV shows and Western movies compelled me to go and live there to comprehend what it was all about.

In India, we lacked the concept of material conveniences. Cooking oil was in short supply, requiring us to secure it through personal connections. Proud of our elite status, I would carry it back on my shoulder. Sugar, a costly and rationed commodity, was a luxury. My exposure to television came only in the last few years of my schooling. There was just one ice cream shop in the capital city, with nearly a million people. We had a few cinema halls, our only real option for entertainment. There was no concept of eating out.

My granddad owned a scooter, a rarity in the city where horse-driven carts served as taxis. We were among the few households with a telephone, although obtaining a connection was not easy. Yet, why bother when hardly anyone else had it? Visits to friends or family were often unannounced. During this time, I also encountered the refrigerator, a luxury we couldn’t afford. The air conditioner came much later. We had electrical outages over extended periods every day.

Our money couldn’t accomplish much. Most of our savings were invested in gold, allocated for dowries for daughters, and spent on ostentatious wedding ceremonies that often hosted a thousand or more guests.

At the age of seven or eight, my early mornings were spent pumping water from the street to fill our water tank. I watched the pump vigilantly to prevent it from running dry and burning up. Subsequently, we used another pump to send the water to our third-floor apartment while neighbors carried their water in buckets—we took pride in considering ourselves technologically advanced.

Before organizing water, I went to the dairy to witness the milking of water buffalo. This was to ensure the milker didn’t adulterate the milk—without my watchful eyes, he would have added a profuse amount of water. The dairy was ridden with dung and flies. Once the milking was done, the milker would sprinkle a drop or two of water to the milk, a practice I requested him to omit. However, he declined, stating that giving milk away without at least a drop of water would be sacrilegious, and without it, there would be no “barkat.” Hindi and Urdu are filled with Persian and Arabic words. “Barkat” in Persian means “prosperity, abundance, success.”

What looks relatively innocent carries profound significance and is reflected in all social and economic transactions in India: making money from a transaction is insufficient. At the very least, a small part must be earned through cheating, even if it’s a symbolic fraction of a penny. You could pay an employee as much as you wanted, pay the businessman what he asked for, or enter into a contract favorable to the other party, but you knew you would be shortchanged and contracts reneged. There is no shame or guilt associated with cheating.

People no longer worry about water in the milk; India has come a long way. Nowadays, milkers add chemicals and thickeners, some of which are carcinogenic. Vegetables are now colored, dipped in chemicals to appear fresh, and “washed” in sewage to add shine.

In the ultimate analysis, India was a no-trust, atomized, amoral society. Envy, greed, and absence of fairness ran unrestrained and wild, for virtues and sins were foreign concepts. People praised your street smartness if you cheated on someone and got away with it. Lacking virtues and spirituality, people visited temples to get material favors from their favorite deities. The virtues implanted by colonizers were wearing thin.

When my dad bought a car, every morning, unbothered by people watching him, the aged neighbor would gather a lot of phlegm in his throat, roll it luxuriantly in his mouth, and then spit it onto the windshield from the floor above.

Westerners who believe that the virtues and sins they are familiar with are fixed elements of the firmament or part of the natural law may not realize that they think that way merely because they grew up with them in their culture, which is a product of several millennia of intertwining classical western philosophy, Christianity and the honor system. Without that cultural fabric, they would have never consciously known if they felt envious or covetous, and there would be no guilt or shame associated with what is known as sinful behavior. Without the European cultural fabric, they would have never known the concept of sins and virtues, let alone a way to differentiate them.

Our teachers dictated what we were supposed to believe in, and any questioning was perceived as an offense. This authoritarian attitude permeated society, institutions, and social relationships. Complying with instructions was the norm, and sadistic individuals held sway. Every relationship seemed to adopt an oppressor-subservient dynamic. My heart couldn’t conform to this, but resisting the prevailing current was exhausting.

I had left India to escape the ever-present oppression marked by sadistic, irrational, and unaccountable figures in authority. It was a discouraging environment for curiosity. Everyone in society knew how I should live, reminded me about it, manipulated me into following him, and enforced it on me if he had the authority. No one could be trusted to do his job honestly.

That day, after arriving at Heathrow, I went to purchase a train ticket to Manchester. The ticket seller answered my questions respectfully, and the people behind me patiently waited without shouting. It was a stark departure from what I was accustomed to. At the least, I thought the ticket seller had no reason to be nice to me if not ask for a bribe. Why would he not show off his power? I had no experience of anyone doing his job without expecting a return favor. This was highly disorienting—I caught myself stiff and fidgeting with my hands in my pocket.

On the train to Manchester, I looked outside with disbelief. Something had changed with my eyes. I rubbed them. The waterways we passed surprised me—I had never seen that clean air and water.

Over the next few days, I witnessed people seemingly doing their job selflessly, being nice for no other reason than to be friendly, even when no one was watching them. They went the extra mile to be helpful. Why? What did they want in return? It puzzled me—why would anyone hold the door open for me and risk being seen as a servant?

Recognizing my financial problems, the Director of the Business School deferred my tuition fees to the end of the year. The question lingered: why would anyone go out of his way to be so helpful? Why take personal risks when I could offer no collateral? I was uncomfortable and disoriented, for it felt like I had not played my side of the transaction by offering bribes.

A day after I arrived in the UK, I returned to my room and cried.

Strangely, a melancholy was descending on me. The unpretentious, neatly organized brick houses seemed too calm for my soul. The lack of assault on my senses—the quietness, peace, cleanliness, absence of non-stop hassles, the lack of smell and nose, and no one pushing me around—created in me an emptiness and a strong withdrawal symptom. Nothing required a struggle, manipulating others, or scheming. There was no drama or dance. What would I do with all that time?

There was no chaos to keep me engaged and help me avoid looking within my mind and heart, exposing my inner chattering and existential crises.

I was in the UK to learn and evolve. I was to wean myself out of the melancholy over the next few months. Most immigrants I got to know never came out of this and had to live among people of the Third World in surroundings that created stink, noise, and chaos, essentially replicating the country that they had struggled to leave. They never introspected, were not interested in learning, and were focused solely on making money and indulging in the hedonistic fruit of Western prosperity. Their hearts stayed where they had come from.

Lacking money, I was often hungry, a sensation I had never experienced before. Yet, there was something else that I had hardly experienced before. It was a sense of liberty, a feeling of having an existence and identity. I didn’t have to prove my position or power to be a part of the society. People respectfully engaged with me irrespective of my caste, social position, race, or skin color. There was an acceptance of my being an equal and having access to opportunities that the British had. I was perhaps smelly, for I couldn’t afford laundry detergent, but people didn’t look down at me—if they did, they didn’t show it.

Despite the financial stress, my stay in the UK would be the happiest time of my life.

Once, I needed a tooth filling, and the dentist quoted a figure I couldn’t imagine paying. Desperate, I visited the hospital to explore alternatives. The dentist on duty explained that they only handled emergencies and advised me to seek a private dentist. When he realized I didn’t have the money, he offered me a suggestion. Would I allow myself to be used for demonstration to his students? There was no student. He found a loophole to help me.

In India, even the poorest people avoid going to government hospitals. A worker at my dad’s printing press once had an accident, resulting in his arm bones breaking into several pieces. In our absence, he was taken to a government hospital, where he went unseen for a very long time. When someone finally noticed him, the suggestion was made, casually, for amputation. We paid a bribe to smuggle him out. Later, we paid a fatter bribe to the police.

Having grown up in a caste-based society, I was gradually coming to accept that a social structure promoting equality was possible. Your car’s size and status didn’t exclude others from being treated well.

When I started interning for an office, I was immediately given a key that allowed me unquestioned access 24 hours a day. The apparent simplicity surprised me. Indians I talked to echoed the sentiment, questioning whether the British people were naïve. In India, everything was always locked away, necessitating forms and bureaucratic processes for basic access—the grocery store, for instance, conducted transactions from the other side of the counter.

When there was a theft at the office in Manchester, I worried the police would interrogate me. I was perplexed that no one asked me a single question. In India, the failure to catch a thief would have resulted in the police giving collective punishment. Were the people involved poor, some bones would have been broken and confessions extracted. The wealthier people would have, of course, paid a bribe.

In India, during my graduation in India, at a nearby police station, an alleged thief had his wrists bound to a tree branch in a way that prevented him from resting his heels on the ground. In another incident, a prostitute was subjected to rape by everyone at the station, purportedly to teach her a “moral” lesson. The senior police officers perhaps saw this as a bonus for the lower-level staff. The Indian society and courts believed that the victims received what they deserved.

You can never visit a police station in India where you do not see abuses happening in real-time.

In Manchester, late at night, I walked home because I couldn’t afford a bus ticket, let alone a taxi. Occasionally, a police car would follow me with its headlights switched off. At that time, my awareness hadn’t developed enough to understand that, although it might have been expedient for them to stop me and ask questions about what I was up to, they were not allowed to do so without a plausible reason.

Once, a friend who had consumed too much alcohol was stopped by the police while driving. I chose to accompany him to the police station. To my surprise, they treated both of us courteously, using “sir” to address us and ensuring my friend was aware of his rights during questioning. Bizarrely, I was horrified by this experience. Even after a year in the UK, I struggled to understand why the Manchester police did not resort to using, abusing, or exploiting their power.

It would take me a couple of decades to let this truth sink into my psyche: the real test of a civilization lies in how it deals with its alleged criminals and those who are weak. In India, an old man or a disabled individual is likely to be labeled just that—predatory institutions, courts, and the police, instead of offering assistance, exploit them to the fullest.

My dad and grandmom were the most financially honest people I had met. They taught us to have dignity in the cultural environment of servility, where people had no hesitation to grovel and beg. From as early as I could remember, I worked alongside my granddad and dad in their printing presses, where a keen eye for detail was crucial—a small spelling mistake meant massive losses. I had an eye for quality. I developed a discerning eye for quality and gained hands-on experience diagnosing and fixing problems with the machines.

Despite considering myself more rational than my Indian peers, living in the UK, I began to realize how much my mind was clogged with “ifs” and “buts.”

Unknowns lurked in every corner of my stay in the UK, crystallizing many ideas I had never known or thought of in my wildest imagination. Lacking anything akin to the Ten Commandments, India has no prohibitions for sins, certainly not lying. I grew up firm in my view that you say what makes you look good and what gets you the most resources. It would take me a year after my arrival in the UK to realize that people might speak the truth for the sake of speaking it.

At the office where I worked in Manchester, I compiled a newsletter, placing the list of all the projects they were working on at the back page. To create the impression of a more extensive workload, I would add old projects to make the list appear crowded. One day, a consultant told me I had overblown his contributions. I was surprised. Why would he want to undercut the promotion of his work? In those days, political correctness and multi-culturalism weren’t the thing. If you strayed too far away, you were told.

I was experiencing civilization for the first time and had stepped into the unknown. The cloud that had always lingered in my mind started lifting, and my body began to change, albeit hindered by half-starvation. It would set a decades-long process to readjust my thinking and decision-making. With a crisper way of reasoning, how and what I comprehended from the spoken and written word began to evolve. I found myself less focused on converting others to my opinions and more engaged in exploration and searching for truth. Consequently, my interactions with people changed significantly, leading to fewer conflicts.

During the first few months in the UK, I initially harbored thoughts of exploiting the system, viewing it as payback time for the British colonization of India. However, this perspective began to dissolve in the face of a stream of compassionate, generous, helpful, moral, fair, dutiful, and upright people.

Before I arrived in the UK, I knew the word “generous” but didn’t truly grasp its meaning. The UK helped me understand this concept and introduced me to another word, “gratitude.” How else would I have felt it unless someone did something for me without expecting anything? It would take me years to comprehend the meaning of “love.” In India, I hadn’t witnessed a happy family.

Unlearning bad ideas, acquiring new ones, and accommodating those ideas and virtues take a very long time, as they must be accepted by other ideas within the worldview one holds. Even a small change in an idea does not happen in isolation; it affects the other ideas, leading to a cascade of minor changes one must go through. One must regurgitate, ruminate, and slowly, organically change one’s worldview, with each shift in an idea being nothing but a slight adjustment. This is a slow dance that takes decades.

None of these things could be learned or taught directly—that is the nature of complexity. If you are open-minded enough, you soak them slowly. Virtues are complex and have a symbiotic relationship with each other.

Unlearning the wrong ways is the most challenging job. It’s like building a better home from a ramshackle house with rotten foundations without the option of demolishing it first. Changing a brick or foundations, however suitable, destabilizes the remaining house. It’s a slow and unsteady process. The complex emotions built in a culture ecology lacking virtues and sins cannot be changed overnight. Using rational faculties, I had to change one brick at a time and then very slowly. I still risked destabilizing my mental framework. Any attempt to change this was a years-long process, as I had to introspect and contemplate my inner motivations.

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