The Banana and the Tennis Ball

Why life in India is so different. And why it is not.

How it is totally different

Who would have thought that India and America are not so different after all? Two years ago, I traveled to the sub-continent in search for, I actually don’t know what I was searching for, probably for nothing at all. I just went, not sure what to expect, except that it would be different from where I came from.
And different it was. So different, that at times, I couldn’t even draw comparisons, because it seemed that suddenly everything seemed to relate to a different point of reference. A point that I still had to find. It’s easy to compare bananas and oranges, even if they’re very different in appearance and taste. Nevertheless, both belong to the concept of fruit and as such bear a certain resemblance and outlining their similarities and differences in a way makes sense. But why bother and compare a banana to let’s say, a tennis ball? Sure, they’re both yellow, you might say. But does that help you in understanding how a banana tastes like? Tennis balls and bananas belong to different concepts and hardly share any meaningful commonalities. Thus were my feelings whenever I tried to compare life in Germany to life in India. I eventually stopped making comparisons and instead tried to wrap my head around the fact that there are these totally different societies on planet Earth. With this experience in mind, I entered the United States and I remember this one day back in India, when this insight once again left me mind-blown:
We traveled to a remote mountain village to visit an indigenous Adivasi-tribe. The path had already ceased to exist for a few kilometres and our jeep still crawled on and on through the impenetrable fog. When we finally arrived, we were greeted by a shy group of villagers, mostly men, because the women and young girls were too timid to confront us strangers. So this was the place where we would spend the night. Some time later, when I tried to fall asleep on the floor of this traditional mud-walled hut with my head next to a bunch of sleepy chicken, I couldn’t help but compare: how was it possible, that there are places like this on this planet, without electricity, without proper access to safe water, cut off from all public facilities, while at the same time, people walk places like 6th Avenue or Times Square in Manhattan, where everything is light and where the buzz of urban lifestyle culminates in uncounted superlatives? How could two places so different even co-exist? Wouldn’t they have to be at least three solar systems apart? And then I understood. These two places, Manhattan on the one hand and the indigenous village in the mountains of Orissa, India on the other hand can co-exist, because there is no, absolutely no connection between the two. For better or worse, they remain unconcerned by what happens at the other location. Like I said, I was left mind-blown by the dimension of this difference and I told myself that one day, I would be standing there on Times Square and then I would remember the night in this village when I slept in the light of a kerosene lamp, my head next to a basket of sleeping hens. This day hasn’t come yet. I haven’t been to New York, I didn’t stand at Times Square. But I will. Soon.

How it is not so different

Interestingly however, in some respects, India and the United States are not as different as one would think. If you move beyond the obvious (hindu, oriental-asian culture), there are small, subtle things that suddenly bring back memories of my time in India. Sometimes it’s the cracks in the pavement, that run across the sidewalk. Sometimes it’s the whirring sound of the overhead electricity cables. It’s also many Japanese jeeps on the streets, the sudden sight of a hibiscus bush and at the moment, it is certainly the whether, a humid mix of rain and mist. And as insignificant as these impressions may seem, they make me realize one thing: India and the U.S. do not belong to different concepts, they are not as different as a tennis ball is from a banana.

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