India's Future: Balancing Old and New Worlds

Young adults break down barriers while juggling traditions.

July 13, 2009, 8:44 AM

MUMBAI, India, April 7, 2008 — -- We reporters are taught to be skeptical of the people we cover. It's hard, however, not to feel warmly toward Nisha Mehta. She's giggly, stylish and warm -- and when she turns her gale-force smile on you, it's irresistible. She's also tough, independent and has a regal bearing. She's simultaneously someone you want to hug and someone not to be trifled with.

Karen Russo, ABC's digital reporter based in Mumbai, found Mehta for us.

Russo lives in the same apartment building as Mehta's boss, Amirah Shah, a 29-year-old woman who runs her family's medical testing company, where Mehta was recently promoted to sales manager.

At age 21, Mehta has five people -- all older than she is -- working under her. And her boss says the sky's the limit.

This is a seismic change in a country where women have, until recently, been restricted to traditional family roles. And it's a change that has transpired within one generation in one household.

Mehta's mother never went to college, doesn't work and cannot make major decisions without the consent of her husband. Mehta says she has no desire to live the way her mother does -- and her mother has actively encouraged her not to follow in her footsteps. In this way, her mother is -- in the words of my producer Alice Maggin -- a "quiet feminist."

Mehta is conducting an interesting -- and seemingly effortless -- balancing act between two very different worlds. On the one hand, she lives at home, as most unmarried Indians do, in a tiny, two-room apartment. She shares a pull-out couch with her little brother. On the other, she is financially independent and also insistent that she will not submit to an arranged marriage, as the vast majority of young Indians do.

Mehta says she wants a "love match." But, she says that she'll get her parents' consent before marrying and that she won't marry anyone from outside her community.

The changes going on in India right now -- the breaking down of old barriers of gender, religion and caste -- are incredibly exciting. But it's important to realize that these changes -- as of right now, at least -- are only affecting a minority.

India's exploding middle class is estimated to be 300 million people -- roughly the size of the U.S. population! -- But there are still 600 million people living on less than $2 a day.

Driving around Mumbai, which, by the way, most locals still refer to by its colonial name, Bombay, we saw some extraordinary extremes: Porsche dealerships, Louis Vuitton stores, Bollywood shoots right outside our (fancy) hotel. Meanwhile, 6 million people in Mumbai alone have no access to toilets. Beggars bombard you at every traffic light. We saw entire families living in giant, filthy metal tubes abandoned by the side of the road.

Mehta says she's concerned about these inequities, but still believes there's no place on Earth she'd rather live. In fact, she was -- to my mind, at least -- shockingly ambivalent about the United States.

In most of the countries I've traveled as a reporter -- Iraq, Israel, Pakistan, Afghanistan, South Korea, to name a few -- American reporters are met by either awe or anger. With Mehta, we found something verging on indifference. She has no desire to live here and only lukewarm desire to even visit.

It makes sense when you consider that India has three times the U.S. population, three times our economic growth and a movie industry, Bollywood, that is twice the size of Hollywood.

Why shouldn't she feel like she's at the center of the universe, especially given the seemingly limitless professional opportunities she faces? And why should she aspire to be American when Indian culture is so vibrant? Tellingly, she didn't even know of Brad Pitt.

The assignment given to us by our bosses was to ask her lots of questions about her attitude toward the United States. But the questions fell flat because, frankly, she had never spent much time thinking about us. This was a real wake-up call for me.

One of the questions on our list was this: "If you could change anything about your life, what would it be?"

Mehta paused for a while, looked up at the ceiling and then finally said, softly, "I find everything is just right as of now."

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