The India and America of my youth no longer seem so far apart,
and that's both exhilarating and frightening.
Another brick has come down in the great wall separating India
from the rest of the world. Recently, both Starbucks and Amazon
announced that they would be entering the Indian market. Amazon has
already started a comparison shopping site; Starbucks plans to open
its first outlet this summer.
As one newspaper put it, this could be "the final stamp of
For me, though, the arrival of these two companies, so emblematic
of American consumerism, and so emblematic, too, of the West Coast
techie culture that has infiltrated India's own booming technology
sector, is a sign of something more distinctive. It signals the
latest episode in India's remarkable process of Americanization.
I grew up in rural India, the son of an Indian father and
American mother. I spent many summers (and the occasional biting,
shocking winter) in rural Minnesota. I always considered both
countries home. In truth, though, the India and America of my youth
were very far apart: cold war adversaries, America's capitalist
exuberance a sharp contrast to India's austere socialism. For much
of my life, my two homes were literally -- but also culturally,
socially and experientially -- on opposite sides of the planet.
All that began changing in the early 1990s, when India
liberalized its economy. Since then, I've watched India's
transformation with exhilaration, but occasionally, with some
I left for boarding school in America in 1991. By the time I
graduated from high school, two years later, Indian cities had
filled with malls and glass-paneled office buildings. In the
countryside, thatch huts had given way to concrete homes, and cashew
and mango plantations were being replaced by gated communities. In
both city and country, a newly liberated population was indulging in
a frenzy of consumerism and self-expression.
More than half a century ago, R.K. Narayan, that great chronicler
of India in simpler times, wrote about his travels in America.
"America and India are profoundly different in attitude and
philosophy," he wrote. "Indian philosophy stresses austerity and
unencumbered, uncomplicated day-to-day living. America's emphasis,
on the other hand, is on material acquisition and the limitless
pursuit of prosperity." By the time I decided to return to India for
good, in 2003, Narayan's observations felt outdated. A great
reconciliation had taken place; my two homes were no longer so far
This reconciliation -- this Americanization of India -- had both
tangible and intangible manifestations. The tangible signs included
an increase in the availability of American brands; a noticeable
surge in the population of American businessmen ; and, also, a
striking use of American idiom and American accents. In outsourcing
companies across the country, Indians were being taught to speak
more slowly and stretch their O's. I found myself wincing a little
when I heard young Indians call their colleagues "dude."
But the intangible evidence of Americanization was even more