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'Living in India was like looking at myself'

Last updated on: April 05, 2010 12:00 IST

Aruna Vishwanatha grew up in New Jersey but worked in New Delhi as a reporter from December 2007 to May 2009. She is currently a reporter in Washington, D.C.

Aruna offers her take on working in Indian offices:

Living in India made me feel like I was 16-years-old again. Hip restaurants didn't often pipe Bollywood music through the speakers. They didn't even often play the latest hits from Beyonce, or Kanye West. Instead, their deejays usually chose songs like "Zombie", by the Cranberries, or "Black Hole Sun," by Soundgarden; the second rate alternative songs I used to videotape off MTV in 1996. I loved them then because they catered to my teenage angst. Here, too, they seemed to fulfill a similar need.

It wasn't just the music in India that reminded me of my younger days, working and living there had the same effect. I grew up in New Jersey but moved to Delhi a couple of years ago to work with a newspaper there. Before I arrived, one American friend who had also relocated to India the year before said that the country reminded him of an American teenager, a bright, over-eager, insecure, pimply-faced adolescent. It took me a while to realise this was not just a metaphor. Living in India really was like looking at myself, five or ten years later.

For one thing, I felt as helpless as I did as a teenager. Within two weeks of starting work, I was crying at my desk, trying to choke back the tears. I was sobbing and screaming on the phone. After I hung up, a colleague that was sitting next to me hesitated, then turned in my direction. "Was that a source?" he asked. He thought maybe someone had fed me a fake story and gotten me into trouble with my editors. I said, no, that was Airtel, my phone company, that was giving me so much grief. He burst out laughing, then I did too.

The statistics about youth in India are mind-boggling. 51 per cent of Indians are under 25 and two-thirds are under 35. But it's not just numbers, it's something you see and feel and hear everywhere in this chaotic country. Instead of the usual age-spread you might get in an American office, with middle-aged management, and everyone else stretched from 20-something to 40-something, in my Delhi office, I was 26, and older than a lot of my colleagues.

It was the little things that showed who was really in charge. The dress code was jeans and flip-flops. The hours began after 11 am and stretched into the night. Even the colour scheme, bright orange, was youthful. But more than anything else, it was the friendships that reminded me of being a kid again.

I was used to friendly offices, where everyone heads out after work to a happy hour every few weeks, and has lunch together when we are at our desks. Indian offices, though, were a completely different story. They were much more of a social centre than any office I'd ever worked in before.

It was a colleague that spent an hour on the phone with an exterminator for me, when I needed to get rid of ants in my apartment but didn't know enough Hindi to even know the word for ant. It was another colleague who spent an hour a day explaining the social pecking order of different bloggers, and why Indians liked Rajiv Gandhi, and all the other little things I didn't know because I hadn't grown up there. It was yet another colleague who comforted me when I had my heart broken, and listened to me vent as one Kingfisher would routinely turn into three.

There was the closeness that comes with shared hardship. Often people would ask if I lived in a hostel, or as a paying guest with a family. Such a question would be nothing less than an insult here; imagine, being in your mid-twenties and not being independent! But in India, where worrying about a gas and water supply was itself a full-time job, it made practical sense.

Renting an apartment as a single girl in Delhi is tough, because nobody really does it. But many of my colleagues had moved there from Bangalore and Calcutta and Kerala, so many of us were young and single and trying to do just that. Without the family network around that most Indians rely on to feed and house and take care of them, the office functioned almost as a substitute.

One colleague who moved to Delhi from Chennai had to deal with things that she had never before considered: she lived in west Patel Nagar, surrounded by Punjabis when she didn't speak any Hindi, and it was her first time with only an Indian toilet. A giant hole sat in the middle of her wall where an air conditioner should be, because she didn't have the money to afford one. It reminded me of my first apartment, where a guy was arrested in my backyard once with a kilo of cocaine, and where I would routinely help my roommate duct-tape her car back together after another slight mishap.

There was also the closeness that comes with being on your own for the first time. When I first moved to college, I remember the marathon chat sessions in the campus cafeteria, the gossip mixed with the heated discussions about old punk records and the IMF, the excitement of getting to choose how you spent your days and nights, especially when it meant leaving the strict rules of my Indian home behind. By the time I made it to the American work world, though, I had lived on my own for years and had a social network already in place.

But in India, where college students often live at home, or in sex-segregated hostels with curfews and visiting rules, freedom seems to only come after that. In my office, it felt like that kind of early high school or college intensity again. Office gossip involved secrets about crushes, teasing about kisses, embarrassing stories about parents finding things they shouldn't have. Once, I went out after work with several of my colleagues, in honor of one of them who had just gone on their first date.

The social and professional boundaries were so blurred they were almost non-existent. And after one particularly rowdy work celebration, I got a text message from my boss the next morning: "r u alive?" it read. Thinking I might have done something to embarrass myself but recognising my state, I texted her back: barely. It turned out I had nothing to worry about. Her response: "thank god I didn't have an affair".