Here are the most surprising things I learnt about myself and the world, in roughly the order in which I experienced them.
1. "They are the people!"
It was only in my teens, when I read about the Russian revolution and learnt new words like 'proletariat' and 'bourgeoisie', that I was able to make some connections between these abstract concepts and the reality of our own lives. One day, during a conversation with my father, I suddenly burst out with, "They are the people!"
In that moment, I had realised that we the privileged were not representative of the population of the country at all. We were the tiny elite crust of society, and the bulk of the country was made up of less educated, poorer, "lower caste" people. Socialism had leapt out of my textbooks and taken concrete form in my mind.
2. I like strong women!
Of course, the more regressive aspects of cultural conditioning are not that easy to shake off. It has been a long journey since then to accept my own vulnerabilities as a human being and to unlearn the idea that being male has anything at all to do with "superiority". The journey continues...
3. I like people!
When I went to IIT after school to do my B.Tech. degree, it was in Madras (now Chennai). I stayed in a hostel along with about 150 other boys. I had a room of my own, and I could decide what to do with my time. I wasted most of it, but I don't regret it at all. I spent a lot of time socialising. I would spend hours in the rooms of other guys, usually in groups, and we had lots of fun in aimless discussions.
4. Religion is evil!
This epiphany shook me profoundly. I remember being thrilled by the shocking nature of this heretical idea. I, who had always looked upon religion as a necessity for goodness, had now seen something I could not unsee.
5. Porn is not sexist!
In the story, two brothers share a house along with a distant aunt or similar relative. The aunt is the villain of the piece, and she plots to set the brothers against each other. After she frames the younger brother in some situation, the elder brother decides he has to mete out justice. He takes a whip and delivers a few lashes to his younger sibling. The domestic violence represented by this scene didn't seem to bother anyone. Towards the end of the movie, the brothers realise the mischief wrought by their aunt. At that point, the elder brother grabs the whip again and begins to lash his aunt! Setting aside any misgivings we may have about the violence against women represented by that scene, just pay attention to what the aunt says. She not only confesses to her mischief, but also says that it's wrong for women to have positions of power, and that it's only men who should rule!
(The subtitles on this clip are atrocious too)
It was sometime during the second movie that I had a shocking epiphany. Porn was not sexist! Scene after explicit scene depicted men and women enjoying sex - as equals. In no scene was there even a suggestion that the women were inferior, or that they existed only for the pleasure of the men. All the characters were shown to be enjoying themselves and giving one another pleasure. It was one of the most egalitarian examples of interaction between men and women that I had seen up to that point. Besides, both the men and the women were well-built and had figures that were pleasurable to look at. I could see how a woman might be turned on watching the same scenes I was watching. There was nothing to demean the experience of being a woman. It was designed to be universally exciting. Anyone could be a sex object to anyone else, and therefore the status of being a sex object lost its sexist sting.
What I'm particularly happy about is that I arrived at this philosophy independently, long before I realised it had a name - Sex-Positive Feminism.
6. I like Hindustani classical music!
I grew up with two kinds of music in Bangalore. Kannada film songs would always be on the radio, and I grew to love them without being consciously aware of them. My family had a set schedule every morning so we could leave for school on time. The radio would be on, and when the program changed, that would be our marker to start or complete an activity, for example, finish breakfast by the time the English news started. Kannada film songs would be on for about half an hour every morning, I think, so I got to know them over many years. I didn't know who the singers were or which movies they were from. I just liked them passively. I only started to miss them after leaving Bangalore. Today, thanks to Youtube and other websites, I can listen to my favourite ones once more.
I guess if I had grown up in Bombay or in North India, I would have heard a lot more Bollywood (Hindi) film music. As it happened, although I was familiar with the most popular Hindi film songs, they weren't a big part of my life at all.
The other kind of music I grew to like in the late seventies was Western pop. I very quickly got hooked onto groups like ABBA and Boney M, and my favourite was The Carpenters.
My parents knew Indian classical music (the South Indian, or Carnatic, variety), but were not so strongly into it as to play pieces at home. There was a phase when my mother used to learn the veena, and that was when I got to hear some Carnatic music. It was OK, but I never warmed to it.
Then when I went to IIM Ahmedabad to do an MBA after my B.Tech., I heard another genre of music for the very first time. There was a "DJ Club" in the campus, with wall-to-wall mattresses. There was a music system that could play audocassettes and vinyl LPs (this was 1985). I liked going to the DJ Club and lying down on the soft floor with closed eyes, just listening to whatever other people played. Most of the time, the music was Western pop, with the occasional Hindi film song. One day, when I was lying there, someone came in and played an LP with something very different. It was an instrumental piece, and I found it haunting. I got up and went over to look at the LP cover. It was an album of the sitar player Nikhil Banerjee. The description had strange words that made no sense to me: "Raag Malkauns" and "Raag Hemlalit". I had no clue about any of this, except that I liked it, so the next time I went to the DJ Club, I played this LP myself. And I liked it even more the second time. And the third time. And the fourth. Then I got adventurous and decided to play other LPs from the same genre. There were about 20 LPs in the "Hindustani Classical Music" genre. The next one I tried was not instrumental. It was an album featuring a singer called "Pandit Jasraj", and again the description at the back had strange words that made no sense to me: "Raag Shuddh Sarang" and "Raag Bhimpalasi". The vocal LP had an even more powerful impact on me than the instrumental. I found myself going, "Wow! Why have I never heard this music before in my life?"
Today, if I had to name one genre of music that I love, it would have to be Hindustani Classical music. It transports me. When the music starts, I relax and smile almost reflexively. And to think that I missed hearing any of this for the first 22 years of my life!
7. Hindus can hate!
I had grown up in a benign home atmosphere where my parents never spoke in harsh generalities about other communities. There were light-hearted generalisations of course, but nothing that could be remotely considered "hard thoughts". On the contrary, there was plenty of self-disparagement about our own community. My mother even advised me when I left for hostel at the age of 18, "Only Christians and Malayalees will help you if you are in trouble. Tam-brahms will never help you." Perhaps this was based on her own hostel experiences.
In any case, I had never heard my parents, or even any member of my extended family, say harsh things about people belonging to other communities. To be sure, Christianity as a religion was spoken about with more acceptance than Islam, because it was considered more benign, but Muslims as people were never spoken about with hatred. Indeed, I would have proudly told anyone who asked that Hindus were the most tolerant people because we never thought ill of people of other religions. We were fine with them following their own faiths and never wanted to convert them to ours.
My first rude awakening came when I was at IIM. I met another Hindu student who had worked for a year or two at one of the South Indian manufacturers of two-wheelers. In those days in India, customers couldn't just walk into a showroom and drive off in a car or two-wheeler. They had to register for them and wait months until they got their allotment. This particular manufacturer had a monthly draw in which one lucky person from their waiting list would be selected for a free allotment, or something of that sort. This student told a group of us that he used to work in the IT department of this manufacturer, and that his team was responsible for running the software program that randomly selected a name from the waiting list each month. "If a Muslim name came up, we'd simply run it again," he laughed.
I was horrified at more than one level. The sheer unfairness of the act was the first thing that struck me, then I thought about other disquieting implications. Can a person hate another community so much that they would knowingly be unfair to them or do them harm?
In the years that followed, the answer to the latter question was reinforced again and again. In the last few years, especially since the explosion of social media, and the willingness of people to reveal some of their innermost thoughts, I wonder how I could ever have been so naive as to imagine that Hindus were incapable of hate. This has been one of my most depressing learnings about the world.
8. I'm a Bombayite!
After my graduation in 1987, I went to Bombay (Mumbai) for my first job at CMC Ltd. I had lived all my life in South India (mostly Bangalore, with some experience of Chennai and Madurai), and had just spent two years in Ahmedabad, the closest thing to a "North Indian" city. I had also briefly stayed in Delhi for 2 months during a summer project. However, my experiences in Bombay changed me in many fundamental ways.
For example, in my very first month in the city, I was waiting at VT station (now called CST) to catch a train. I saw a train leaving the platform, and a man running beside it, trying to get in. The train was already chock full, and people were hanging out of the open doors. I stared in disbelief, thinking there was no way this guy was going to be able to jump into such an overflowing train. But as I watched in astonishment, four arms reached out from the human mass in the compartment's doorway and grabbed the running man. He was pulled into that mass of humanity as the train disappeared from the station. I stood there in wonderment for a long time, trying to process what I had just seen. Instead of pushing the man away saying "No room!", the people in the overcrowded carriage had made space for him too.
I realised intuitively that this was a peculiar aspect of the culture of this particular city. No other city I knew had this level of civic camaraderie. There was this sense of "We're all in this together. Let's help each other get by as much as we can."
Over the next 8 years that I lived in Bombay, I experienced many more examples of the city's no-nonsense can-do attitude. People didn't waste time complaining. They just rolled up their sleeves and got things done. And the characteristic sense of humour was something else. I remember telling myself, "I like this city. This is the kind of person I want to be. I want to be a Bombayite." The city moulds your attitudes into something much more positive.
In a literal sense, I grew up in Bangalore. But I really only grew up in Bombay.
9. No community should have a majority!
Over the months that I worked in CMC Bombay, I began to realise something about the culture of the various regional offices in the same company. I had been to CMC Madras, and also met people from other offices (CMC Delhi and CMC Calcutta (now Kolkata)). What I learnt was that CMC Delhi was dominated by North Indians, mostly Punjabis. CMC Calcutta was dominated by Bengalis, and CMC Madras by Tamils. Being a Tamil myself, I should have felt most at home in the CMC Madras office, but I didn't! I felt most at home in the CMC Bombay office, and I asked myself why I felt that way.
I realised it was the sense of being left alone and not judged. The strange thing about CMC Bombay when compared to the other CMC offices was that it was not dominated by members of any one community, not even Maharashtrians, even though Bombay is the capital of Maharashtra. I actually sat down one day with the office phone book and marked the community of every single person in the office against their name, then tallied them up. I found that no community in my office accounted for more than 30% of the total (that was the Maharashtrians). No matter who you were, you were in a minority! It created a unique kind of culture where people were left alone and not judged. That's when I realised two things:
1. If one community forms a dominating majority, it makes members of the minority communities feel somewhat marginalised.
2. Even for members of the majority community, there is an oppressive pressure to conform. This is what I felt in CMC Madras. There was a set of "Tamil values" that I was expected to conform to, whether I approved of them or not. For example, managers felt entitled enough to upbraid younger staff if they socialised too much with members of the opposite sex!
That's when I distilled my learning into a general principle for the world. The best societies are those where no cultural group is in a majority.
10. I want to live abroad!
When I was younger, I never had the slightest interest in leaving India. My classmates at IIT, almost to a man, wanted to go to the US for higher studies, and most of them wanted to settle down there. I hadn't the slightest interest in going to the US. Besides, I had always been politically aware from my early teens, and US foreign policy had always infuriated me. I couldn't see myself living in that country or even going there to study. My parents often tried convincing me that a foreign degree might help me in my later career even if I chose not to settle abroad, but all those words fell on deaf ears.
When I started working in a software company, I found myself surrounded by people whose only aim was to acquire enough IT skills to be hired by a consultancy that supplied manpower to an American company. Like with my former IIT classmates, most of my CMC colleagues also ended up settling in the US. I still didn't care.
Then, four years after I started working at CMC, I was sent on a 5 week consultancy assignment to Mauritius. CMC was accommodating enough to book my return flight via Singapore, since that was only marginally more expensive than the direct return flight. I took 3 days out of my annual vacation to see Singapore.
To say my mind was blown would be an understatement. The place seemed too good to be true. Not only was everything amazingly clean, but the very systems seemed so well designed. I experienced this when I was walking out of the airport. I thought to myself at one point, "I need to get some local currency", and I saw a sign that said "Currency Exchange". Then I thought, "I need to get out of the airport and catch a taxi", and right there was a sign that said "Exit, Taxis". And people were so honest! I had to pay an airport surcharge to the cabbie when I arrived, and when I was leaving, I tested the second cabbie by asking if I needed to pay an airport surcharge. He said, "No, only when coming out." I was amazed at the pervasive honesty.
When I was in the plane leaving Singapore, I swore to myself that I'd be back. I had realised one thing during those three days. I wanted to leave India and live abroad. My eyes had been opened to a different plane of existence. I had often thought about whether I wanted to leave India and live abroad, but had always contemptuously dismissed the idea. Now that I saw what that life was really like, my mind changed so fast and so emphatically it surprised me. As I joked to my friends later, "CMC made a mistake by sending me abroad."
A few years later, I had migrated permanently to Australia and never regretted it. It was a struggle to get to that point, as I've written about here, but it was worth it.