4th Seat Not Allowed
I was new to the US, had just landed a job and was travelling within the city with some colleagues on the NYC subway. For those unaware of NYC subway, it’s basically Mumbai local but with AC. Which means that on most occasions, it is crowded, it stinks of sweat and rat piss among other things and people are rude. Sometimes there are beggars too. See, I told you - Mumbai local.
Coming back to the story. One of my colleagues found a place to sit. Being a true Mumbaikar that I am, I immediately asked him to make some room for me so that I can place at least a part of my butt in whatever little space there was left after he sat down. My exact words we, “Please Adjust”. To my horror, he straight out refused. And that’s when I realized. There’s no concept of fourth seat in the US.
Apart from the obvious embarrassment and humiliation that I’d just faced, I was also taken aback by the sheer frankness of my colleague when he refused to adjust for me. I know I would’ve done it for him. But why didn’t he? This one question took me on a new journey altogether. Albeit a metaphorical one.
Back to the Past
I started introspecting my life with a fine-tooth comb (or was it a magnifying glass?) It doesn’t matter because I found what I was looking for - Instances in my life where I’d ‘Adjusted’, was asked to Adjust (or compromise) or where I’d asked someone else to do the same. And how omnipresent that practice is back home in India.
I can’t list down every instance that I came up with. But below are some “Hall of fame” instances which I think everyone has experienced at some point in time.
Here we go:
We were a middle-class family of 6. So obviously, being the youngest one, I had to sit on someone’s lap every time we take a cab. This doesn’t end here. I’ve had to sit on laps of strangers (for some reason my family called them relatives) too when they were visiting, and we decided to take them for Mumbai Darshan
I was growing fast. So, every year my mom got me new school uniforms. Said no middle-class kid ever. Instead, we bought clothes that were 2 sizes bigger, and I eventually grew into them. Until then, I had to adjust. This was not it. Even those clothes had an extra stitch in it that can be removed if I grew too big for it. So, imagine my horror when a classmate asked why my shorts had a big ‘V’. For those who didn’t understand, good. You had a better life in school.
My sister and I were in the same school. I’ve always used her textbooks until class 8. The change in syllabus was responsible for new textbooks. All this when I know we could actually afford new textbooks every year. But why buy new if the old one is fine. What’s a few missing pages, right?
For most of my adult life I’ve sat on the fourth seat of the Mumbai local
My first mobile was a Nokia 6610 that my father had already used for 2 years, and it had a faulty display. Regardless, one of the best phones after 3310 of course.
There are many more personal instances. But I’ll stop here. And if anyone of you thinks that this is nothing. They’ve gone through worse. Congratulations, you’re helping me prove my point. I’m not complaining. I’m trying to prove a point. But until I come to the point, please adjust.
On closer examination, I realized that this adjusting behavior is for too prevalent in our country.
We take all the shit our managers give us at our workplaces. But instead of standing up to them or calling their bullshit, we avoid any conflict whatsoever. Heck, we’ll change our jobs.
Teachers aren’t good at school, take tuitions.
Roads aren’t good. There’s a pothole, well, that’s how it is. Let’s just avoid that route or better yet just go through it. Your muscles will get some exercise.
Your Dad will adjust with his old scooter because you need a bike.
Your Mom will adjust and eat a day’s old food if there’s an unexpected guest at your place.
Because how can you serve them stale food.
A girl gets married and is asked to adjust in her new home. She’s supposed to adjust according to the rituals and way of life of her “new home”. And if she doesn’t, she’s difficult. She’s too independent. She’s too educated to compromise. I can go on. But then, this will become an entirely different blog.
I’m from Mumbai (It's amazing how many times I've said this already in this blog) - a city that apparently never sleeps. A city that is known for its spirit.
I believed in this bullshit even when I always knew that it is also a city that gets flooded every year during rains. Not storms, just normal heavy rainfall. And what do Mumbaikars do about it? We wade through the waters with our belongings in our hands or our heads.
Wow, this seems like Naseeruddin Shah’s rant from A Wednesday. Basically, no matter the situation, all we’re supposed to do is – you guessed it right – Adjust.
But dare we complain.
The mentality that we as a country are brought up with is –
“don’t talk back to authority”. “Don’t demand your rights”.
“You get what you deserve”
“Look at all the people who do not have what you have”
We are just so used to adjusting.
2 simple words. It’s not just a phrase. It is our way of life. I might as well go ahead and say it is our motto. We live by it and yes, more often than not, even die with it.
We’re just too proud of this trait of ours. And there are times when we should be. After all, it is this trait that has allowed our people to travel and assimilate all over the globe. Be it US, UK, Australia, Canada, Africa and so on.
We’re like water. We take the shape of the container we’re in. Historically, it has only helped us. The practice of put your head down and work, ignore everything else has led to tremendous success for a lot of people for a lot of years. But this stems from the belief that hard work rewards.
But why are we like this?
The most common response I received was, “Hum toh aise hai Bhaiya”, which translates as, “We’re like this only brother”.
But then I researched further (basically I just googled and landed on quora and then I reddit thread). Turns out, I am not the first one who thought about asking this question. But the answers there were underwhelming. They have some truth to it. But it’s not quite convincing.
What most people on Quora said that we’re like this because we as a nation have been ruled for far too long. Which is to say, that we still have a colonial hangover. And before that we had a Mughal hangover. And something else before that. Our politicians (for lack of a better word or euphemism) are shitty and they too rule us with an Iron Fist.
So, there it is.
But will we change? Will we ever come out of this colonial hangover?
A new Generation
Something in me has changed over the past 2 years. At least there’s a change in my mindset now. I no longer want to adjust to a large extent.
You remember the colleague who refused to offer me the fourth seat in the train. I left out an important information. I was shocked at his refusal because he too was like me – Indian. The only difference, he was an Indian American. Also, I don't think I'd gained confidence to ask an American to adjust for me (classic new immigrant shyness).
While the 2 of us look the same because of our skin color. Our lived experiences are quite different. I initially used to dismiss him as too privileged. And sure, he is quite privileged. But he’s also confident enough to get what he wants. And this is important - Without adjusting.
The more I spoke to him, the more I realized that most Indian American kids fight for what they think is right. They know how to stand up for themselves. They know that the more you adjust and the more you give in, the more will be expected of you.
And I don’t see this change just here. I see this happening back home in India too. No matter how much you hate Gen Z. They’re more vocal about what they need. They know exactly what they want, and they are not ready to compromise.
And maybe one day when someone asks me to adjust in a train I’ll refuse. Unless of course I’m in a Mumbai local. You can’t pull off this shit there.