Me, Tommy and Jesus in the New India: A Republic Day Reflection (2008)

Today, January 26th, is Republic Day in India. This year marks the 58th anniversary of Republic Day celebrations in this great nation. Days like this are not only for celebrating achievements of the past but for dreaming about the future. Here in Delhi, the nation's capital, during the days leading up to this Republic Day, the news media has featured the thoughts and reflections of various citizens on the future of the nation. As a foreigner residing in India, I offer here some of my own musings.

On a recent trip to Chandigarh, I walked through the Tommy Hilfiger store in Sector 17, and I felt a sadness in my soul. I really have nothing against that particular brand of clothing, yet in that store I found myself in a moment of mourning as I reflected on some of the negative effects of globalization.

As I perused the store’s merchandise, I realized that I could have been anywhere in the world – at least anywhere that Tommy has found a significant market. But the fact is, I wasn’t in America or Europe. I was in India – and something didn’t feel totally right about that. You see, I love India and the Indianness about India. While I was in that store, I wanted to say, This isn’t India. But in reality, I know it is – it is the New India, the product of globalization, that phenomenon which has transformed India into a place where Tommy feels at home.

I guess, in some ways, I am nostalgic about the Old India, without Tommy, McDonalds or Coca Cola. I first visited India before any of these staked their claim on the country. I loved that India. That doesn’t mean that I hate the New India. Practically speaking, my family and I are enjoying the New India very much. We like the blend of Old and New, and as residents of New Delhi we probably live more in the New. I still drink more coffee than chai, and wear more t-shirts than kurtas. We love chole and chapatis but we still eat more bread and pasta. And although we are learning Hindi we function mostly in English.

Despite this, I feel a little like India is losing something when Tommy Hilfiger becomes popular. Maybe I shouldn’t pick on Tommy, but he’s an easy target. He’s just a symbol, and only one of a myriad of examples that help to explain the pervading influence of globalization. I could easily choose any of the new global brands that are out there. Maybe it’s more offensive to me because so many of these brands, like Tommy, are American. And that’s where I’m from, not America proper, but Canada – the northernmost part of North America. Somehow it’s difficult for me to see so many Indians prefering American brands. Of course, this goes beyond clothing. There’s something about seeing Indians become more like me that doesn’t feel very good. Because some of what I see in myself reflects what I see as the negative aspects of my own culture. And as a foreigner in India, there’s so much about Indian culture that I love, everything from the strength of the family to the beauty of the textiles. It doesn’t mean that I hate my own culture, but in the global cultural market today we all have the privilege of picking and choosing from a wide variety of cultures. And when I see Indians choosing aspects of Western culture – like consumerism and individualism – that I happen to dislike and even consider unhealthy for the human soul, then that’s when this sadness sets in.

While in that same store in Chandigarh, I asked myself another question, Is the presence of Jesus in India anything like the presence of Tommy Hilfiger? As a follower of Jesus in India, I’m pretty convinced that the answer to that question is, No.

Of course, Jesus has been here for a lot longer than Tommy. There are a few different stories about how Jesus came to India, but one of the most well known is that one of his disciples, Thomas, brought him and his message to South India soon after Jesus died in the Middle East. Thomas preached the message of Jesus and a number of Indians became followers. Later, of course, the modern missionary movement brought a host of others, this time mostly from the West, who came as representatives of Jesus and his church. There is undoubtedly a host of opinions about whether or not this movement has truly benefitted India, though the fact of its impact on today’s India is not in dispute; it is an integral part of India’s history.

That is the story according to man’s historical perspective. God’s perspective is different. If one accepts the divinity of Jesus, then one must also confess that he has been lovingly present in India long before this nation was born. But whatever your perspective is on theology or history, Jesus is here in India today.

If I am able to freely contemplate the value of Tommy’s presence in India, I would also like to offer some brief and personal thoughts on the presence of Jesus here in this nation today, and how it relates to the present trend that we call globalization.

In some ways, I am in India as a product of globalization. I am here on a business visa, representing a Canadian home textiles company. This company imports carpets from India to Canada where it then distributes them to retail outlets throughout Canada and the US. In this way, I am playing a small role in helping to spread India around the globe by giving Indian suppliers a better chance to reach foreign markets.

This is, at least, a part of my identity, my official status. But there’s more to me than carpets. I am also a spiritual man and a follower of Jesus. I have a sense of calling, that God has brought me to India for a purpose. Part of that has to do with carpets, and I sincerely hope that my business dealings will benefit India’s economy, and ultimately, her people. But I also represent Jesus as I live and work here – this understanding is foundational to my identity as a follower of Jesus – and I believe that what I have to offer India in terms of my relationship with Jesus and the message of his love is far greater than what I have to offer as a business representative.

I didn’t come to India with grand ideas of saving this great nation, or changing her culture, or converting her people to my religion. I hope that I am not so arrogant to believe that I can achieve those things in my own strength and ability. But I can honestly say that I love India and I care about her future. After spending the past two years here, I feel attached to this nation and her people. India has become home for me and my family. I have already received so much from India in terms of friendships and experiences. But is it possible that I also have something to give? I believe in humanity enough to be convinced that, as a fellow human being, I do have something to contribute to India’s well being.

Does India need help? Of course, it does. Every nation does. My own nation, Canada, is in many ways a very needy place, albeit the needs may be slightly different from that of India. So, the question remains, What does India need?

There will be a wide variety of opinions on that question, but here I will share mine. And I know that I am not alone in this opinion, nor am I surrounded only by other foreigners. I live and work among the Indian Middle Class and I hear many of them press this point as well. It goes something like this: India’s greatest needs are 1) a new morality that does not accept corruption and bribery, and 2) a new leadership that lives by the new morality. These are problems not only in the government – they are in the society as a whole. They cross racial and religious boundaries. They touch every city, every village, every family and every soul. There are other problems, no doubt, everything from poverty to poor infrastructure, but these are more the result of the former problem.

It might sound strange at first, but in my estimation, India needs more servants. By that, I mean that it needs leaders who will serve, those who will see their primary duty as one of meeting the needs of others, those who will sacrifice their own dreams, even their own lives, for the sake of the nation. These servant leaders will not necessarily be found in traditional positions of authority, though this would be good. To be most effective, these leaders need to be found in every part of society, in every home, every office, every school, every market.

In this regard, I see hope in Jesus. To me, Jesus exemplifies servant leadership. Therefore, I believe that the best I am able to give to this nation would be first, to follow Jesus wholeheartedly in my own life, and second, to train leaders who similarly exhibit this kind of leadership. Jesus said this about himself, "The Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many" (Mark 10:45). He was true to this message in his life and in his death. In my experience, Jesus is the only leader who provides both a perfect example to follow in attitude and behaviour, but also provides the power to transform us into those kinds of leaders.

The latter part of Jesus' statement above defines something beyond service. Jesus gave his life as a ransom for many. Jesus died for you. He promises to transform India, but only by means of bringing salvation to your own soul through dealing with the greatest problem that plagues all humanity – the sin that lies in every human heart. This is the only path to personal salvation and national healing.

Gandhi-ji helped to transform India. He did so by a great vision and great exploits. A critical component of his approach was that he followed the teachings of Jesus, specifically the teachings on non-violence. In fact, Gandhi-ji was enamoured by Jesus. In some ways, he followed Jesus’ teachings on non-violence more honestly than many Jesus-followers. But in the end, Gandhi-ji would not trust Jesus with his soul, or with his India. And so, amazing as the transformation was at the time – the fruit of which endures to this day and is celebrated on this Republic Day – today, for the most part, the nation still chooses to keep Jesus at a distance. He may have helped them in one way, but the wounds of too many Indian souls still bleed. Though Gandhi-ji valued Jesus, I believe that Jesus has been greatly misunderstood by Indians. As a result, the healing that Jesus alone can bring to India has not yet been received. God’s greatest gift to this nation still remains unopened. I believe that Jesus needs to be heard again in India.

On this Republic Day, I am readily able to accept the idea that Tommy Hilfiger is here in India to stay, and in the grand scheme of things it is a small question of whether or not the Indian’s attire and lifestyle may be better for it. But someone greater is also here – Jesus – and in the end, the greatest question Indians will ever ask is what they will do with him – whether to keep him at a distance, or to invite him into their lives, to save their souls and heal their land.

Meeting the Major

On a flight from Delhi to Srinagar, I sat beside a man from West Bengal named Raj Neogi. He was a Major in the Indian army stationed in Kashmir. Raj quickly introduced himself to me and made conversation easy for the duration of the flight.

When we landed in Srinagar, Raj was eager to help me get through security and find a taxi to the city. At the final police check, he even gave his name and address as my host in Srinagar, since I didn’t know the address of those I was visiting.

As we parted, Raj invited me to give him a call before I left Srinagar and to see if we could spend some more time together. A couple days later, I sent him a text message to see if he was available on the following day before my 3pm flight. He responded quickly and we arranged that he would send a civilian driver into the city to pick me up at a café by 11:30am.

A young man named Mr. Feroz picked me up and we drove out to the army base. Feroz was a young Kashmiri Muslim who was an expert in computers and did contract work for the army, mostly through Major Neogi. He had nothing but praise and admiration for Raj as a person and a business client, claiming that even the Army officers under Neogi’s command said that they could not ask for a more kind and humane Major.

After arriving at the first gates of the army base it took almost two hours to pass through security, including rigorous bomb checks. After all the waiting, Raj sent a military vehicle to pick up Feroz and myself and we made our way across the base through a few more gates and past various buildings. I thought we were headed for Neogi’s residence but instead we were driven out to an isolated valley on the base which turned out to be the artillery range. As we drove in, several soldiers were lined up with their rifles firing at targets a hundred meters away. The major and another soldier were sitting under a tent a short distance away. Raj, in full fatigues, greeted me warmly and offered me water, chai and chicken tikka.

By this time my flight was less than an hour away, but Raj assured me again and again that it would not be a problem. He said we would even have time for me to take up a rifle and fire a round if I wanted. At first, I refused, but after further bidding, I obliged. I made my way out to the firing range, lay down on the ground with a rifle and fired ten bullets into the targets. Immediately after that, Raj escorted us back to the main gate of the base, where he instructed Feroz to take me directly to the airport. By now I was very worried that I would miss my flight, and I think Feroz was beginning to wonder the same, and to feel the weight of the responsibility.
We arrived at the airport a mere fifteen minutes before my flight was scheduled to depart, and then it took another five minutes to get through a series of security checks. I made it to the SpiceJet ticket counter at ten minutes before take-off. The SpiceJet people were already outside and when I banged on the window they made it very clear that it was too late. At that point, I was curiously approached by someone not from SpiceJet and asked if my name was Mark Klassen. Shortly thereafter, a man from SpiceJet came inside and curtly told me that the ticket counter had been closed for more than twenty minutes. But to my surprise, he begrudgingly issued me a boarding pass. Before I knew it, I was flying to Delhi. I could hardly believe that I had made the flight.

Hours later, when I was back in my home in Delhi, I received a call from Raj. He asked about my trip back to Delhi. I explained the drama. He laughed and told me that after he had said goodbye to me at the army base, he made a call to the air traffic control tower at the Srinagar airport. He had given them very clear instructions that that SpiceJet flight to Delhi was not to depart until Mark Klassen was safely aboard.

The Welcome: An excerpt from a longer story about a young American traveling in India

From inside the train, I looked out at the scene on the platform and began to observe individuals. I noticed the man at the book stall, the beggar at the bottom of the stairs and the well-dressed businessman looking in a rush. I wondered who I would meet in India and who would sit in the seat beside me. I rested my head against the window and closed my eyes.

Minutes later, I awoke as the train lurched forward. To my amazement, the time on my watch matched the time on my ticket. The seat beside me had been occupied as I dozed and the elderly man with a bright red turban intruded upon me with a gleaming smile. I knew enough about Indians to know that this man was a Sikh – the turban and long beard being distinctive features. I had come to learn this fact from an Indian classmate of mine in junior high, whose grandfather regularly picked him up from school and displayed the same two features. I had also learned that the Sikh religion is neither Hindu nor Muslim, though as some explain simply, it is a combination of the two. Of course, this is an oversimplification. Though Sikhism was born and is based in the state of Punjab in India’s Northwest, Sikhs have spread all over India, and indeed, all over the world. A man named Guru Nanak is considered the founder of Sikhism and the first of twelve gurus, or teachers. The last guru is a book, the Scriptures of Sikhism, which they call the Guru Granth Sahib. Sikhs, wherever they live, are known for being both very devout in their religion and gregarious in their work.

The old man’s first question to me, I’m sure, was heard throughout the coach: "What is your country?"

I was dumbfounded. It took me far too long to answer, but eventually it came, "The States, USA." I blinked my eyes twice, straightened up in my seat and shifted myself to face him.

"Oh", his happy reply came out like a song, as loud and obnoxious as the question, "my brother lives Buffalo. He is businessman."

In the pause before my answer, I admired the simple grammar he was using, not to mention the enthusiasm he was showing toward me. "I’m from Idaho". I spoke slowly and loudly, surprising even myself. Why was I talking like that?

I’m sure he had never heard of Idaho, yet he smiled politely and wagged his head repeatedly, as Indians do. It’s an amazing manoeuver, head-wagging, that is. It’s not a nod, neither up nor down. It’s a combination of both. The top of your head goes one way and your chin goes the other. It tends to look a bit like one of those bobble-head toys, with the head on some kind of elevated spring. I found that I couldn’t really teach myself to do it, even though I practiced it in the privacy of my hotel room. But eventually, within the first few days, it just happened – I was doing it without effort. In that way, it was more of a discovery than an achievement, but very satisfying nonetheless. It was my first concrete step in learning and adopting something of India’s culture.

The man’s next question, as I would learn, was the classic question asked by almost every Indian I would meet: "You like India?"

"I love it, so far", which was hardly true. How could it be? I had experienced so little and was undecided about most of my experience. I guess it was a statement of intent more than anything, and sincere at that. Of course, it was also exactly what my new friend wanted to hear. His smile now was gleaming brighter than ever.

"I just arrived yesterday," I continued, nodding. "Flew into Delhi, spent the day in Paharganj."

At that point, the ticket master stepped up to our seats and requested our tickets. I pulled mine out of the thin pouch around my waist, separating it from my passport, my airline ticket and my money. The tall man with a long black moustache looked down at us sternly as he handed our tickets back to us, then he broke into a huge smile as he looked directly at me. He looked sharp in his black uniform. I responded with a gentle, "Thank you," feeling like I had just been officially welcomed to India. The man received my thanks only by closing his eyes gently and tilting his head down slightly to the side.

The old man beside me was still smiling and wagging his head, as he observed my exchange with the ticket master. "You will like India very much," he spoke as if to bless me.

Nodding again, I asked him in a clear voice, "What is your name?"

"Mister Singh," he answered quickly with another big smile, "Manmohan Singh!" And at that he burst out laughing.

I smiled, but didn’t understand the reason for his laughter. I looked around, bewildered. Others close to us had obviously overheard our conversation because they joined in with smiles and chuckles. I guess my face betrayed my ignorance and surprise, because when Mr. Singh looked at me again he began to laugh even more loudly.

Then, in the midst of his laughter, he took a quick breath, and burst forth with the punch line, "I am the Prime Minister of India!"

He had a powerful voice, and I had no doubt that everyone in the entire coach heard him make that wild confession. By now, I was embarrassed. Either this man was crazy or I was in the dark about one very important detail. It was probably the latter. One thing was for sure – the man sitting beside me was not the Prime Minister of India.

As I waited for the laughter to die down, I felt like an outsider, which I obviously was. I hadn’t checked yet, but I assumed that I was the only foreigner in the coach. Since arriving in India, this was the first time I had felt a little uncomfortable with being a minority. Interestingly enough, it had happened in a conversation in my own language. I know he hadn’t meant to, but Mr. Singh had definitely put me onto the defensive. I was trying to relax, and more importantly, to look relaxed.

As Mr. Singh was still catching his breath, a younger man from across the aisle leaned over and said, without a discernable accent, "The current Prime Minister’s name is Manmohan Singh. It’s a common name. Makes for a good joke."

I grinned and nodded, acknowledging to Mr. Singh and everyone else around me that I had now gotten the joke. I gave special acknowledgment to the man who had obviously felt bad for me and had kindly intervened. I appreciated that.

I’m sure that Mr. Singh had used the joke countless times since his namesake had taken office, but maybe not in a situation involving a foreigner. He had capitalized on a good opportunity. For him, it was a special moment. I granted it to him. I imagine that the laughter would be just as sweet later when he would recount the story to his friends and family members. He would try to describe the look on my face. He would embellish my reaction. He would laugh again, and his laughter would be contagious. If the humour was at my expense, that was OK. I probably needed to relax and to accept my foreignness. And Mr. Singh probably needed a good laugh.

Finally, sensing my discomfort and having pity on me, Mr. Singh took a deep breath, wagged his head once more and apologized, "Sorry."

I tried to wag my head and to make light of it all, "No problem. Good joke. My name is Todd."
As I said my name, my hand automatically extended toward him in common Western fashion. Mr. Singh turned toward me and clutched my hand firmly with both of his. He held on far longer than is appropriate in my culture between heterosexual men, but I tried not to mind. It was as if, through our hands, he was receiving me into his heart. I stayed calm. He stayed smiling. He finally did let go, and we sat in silence beside each other. I wasn’t sure what to feel, but it seemed to me that I had already endured an important experience.

When someone came around serving tea and coffee, it was a nice distraction. Both Mr. Singh and I took tea, or chai, as they call it. It was my first cup of tea in India, but not quite what I had expected. The train employee served each of us a thermos with hot water and a tea kit, equipped with one lone tea bag, some powdered whitener, and sugar. I was to learn quickly that this was hardly what having chai was all about. Most of the time, when Indians served tea the drink is prepared by boiling milk and adding loose tea and copious amounts of sugar. There are probably millions of variations on that theme, using different amounts of those ingredients and others, including spices. But in my experience, that is the basic idea. It is then commonly served in small cups, not unlike a shot of Italian espresso. Though I would enjoy many cups of chai on my trip, and many more genuine than on that train, nevertheless that first cup was still special, and it kept me awake all the way to Agra.

At the Agra train station, I said goodbye to Mr. Singh and he confidently entrusted me into the care of his countrymen. My plan was to make my way as quickly as possible to the Taj Mahal, as that was my primary goal in visiting Agra.

in this strange world

just want the sun to shine
once in a while
just want a little truth
a little style
just want enough vision
to see the day
to end up knowing
that I could say
"with all this living
in this strange place
I was true
to the smile
on His face."