Diversity Lessons From My First Trip to India

The first time I visited India, I went to Bangalore on a business trip (but stayed extra days for pleasure and adventure – moving through other areas of southern India).  India is a massive country – different depending on where you are.  Recently, I have been reflecting on my very first trip –as it was probably one of the most impactful trips of my life.

India is romantic, having been pursued and conquered by many suitors; she is paradoxical as she leans heavily on the traditions from her long rich history while leading in modern technical advances; she is loud, yet guides you to find your inner peace; she is devoutly religious, yet openly indulges in frequent celebrations; she’s boldly colorful and spicy; yet subdued and calming.  She’s simultaneously fascinating and calming at the same time. At bottom, she is intriguing.

The traffic is the bugle call – the first thing that seizes your attention.  Traffic in that part of India is like Einstein’s brain, scattered, chaotic, and yet brilliant.  It is inexplicable how anyone gets anywhere on time, but they do.  Though a tuk-tuk, BMW, and motorbike must certainly speak different languages; they all somehow communicate with one another – holding spirited, halted conversations that are usually effective. 

The transportation is representative of the people: there are over 19,000 languages spoken in India, yet seemingly not many problems communicating.  That is the magic of India:  DIVERSITY.  It is a country where over 19,000 languages are spoken, a plethora of religions are practiced, and over 75% of the world’s spices are produced.  It is a country that in one block can introduce you to more culture than you would experience in some entire countries.  It is a country where you can eat a dish that at first bite you think is slightly sweet, but within moments transforms to spicy; where patterns and colors that you think would clash work together beautifully; where you can spend an afternoon steeped in learning about century old traditions and then walk around the corner and be in a boardroom discussing the roll-out of the latest technology.

So, of course, as a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion professional, I have spent hours thinking about the diversity in India; and how it works.  Here are a few of the lessons I’ve culled out that I believe can be helpful to all organizations:

  1. We Are All Here

One time when I was in a meeting at Freshworks, someone in our Chennai office said, “India doesn’t have a lot of diversity.”  I immediately chuckled. I understood that what they meant is that diversity isn’t a big deal in India. It’s not something that people talk about or write articles about with the same vigor as in some other countries.  Being a diverse country is who India is. There is not a lot of attention paid to whom is in what religion for instance.  There’s an innate understanding that we are all here.  We are different in some ways; but we are all here.

Organizations would conduct themselves differently, hire differently, build their company cultures differently if there was an acceptance that ‘we (diverse people) are all here’—living in the world.  The world is only going to become increasingly diverse.  Diversity or “diverse people” shouldn’t be treated as an add-on or a problem that must be fixed; but as a truth of our humanity.

  • Be Curious    

India is busy.  Everyone seemed to be on a mission; however no one was ever too busy to talk, to explain, to guide me, or to indulge my insatiable curiosity. When I went to a boutique to have my Sari made, I walked into a place more colorful than the grandest of gardens. Perfectly folded bolts of cottons and silks of any imaginable variation, of every hue in countless patterns lined the walls from top to bottom of an expansive boutique; and I was given the task of choosing only one. Accordingly, I ended up spending hours touching and admiring fabrics, sometimes simply sitting and people watching, and talking to the boutique owners. I asked so many questions about the fabric that although the boutique was busy, one of the employees walked me around the corner, down an alley to meet a young man and to show me around a fairly small room where the fabric was handmade.

Sometimes we are afraid to ask questions because we think people will be offended that we don’t know about them or their culture.  Ask questions.  People want to share; they understand that you don’t know; and appreciate your genuine curiosity to learn more.

  • Be Vulnerable – Showing Your Humanity Opens the Door for Others to Share Theirs

My sari was delivered to my hotel a day or two later – just in time for a dinner I was to attend. Before I left the boutique, the owner had taken great care to show me how to elegantly wrap myself in the fabric after putting on my choli, then how to tuck the fabric so that it would drape and pleat perfectly. The teacher was excellent; but I, the student didn’t fully retain the lesson. I found myself alone in the middle of my hotel room frustrated because nothing was wrapping, tucking, pleating or draping correctly.  Desperate, as I didn’t want to show up late and/or improperly dressed to the dinner, I shuffled downstairs to seek help. The expressions of the people at the front desk told me that I looked as ridiculous as I felt; but two women walked me to the lobby restroom and lovingly fussed over me — one adjusting the fabric, the other instructing and critiquing. The sari was unfamiliar, but that exchange between us wasn’t.

One travels to India to be awakened in some way: your senses, your sensibilities, or your sense of self.  The incredible diversity found in India is a marvelous thing; simultaneously highlighting such wonderful differences, but also reiterating how connected we all are.

A person in a dress standing on a staircase

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*India is the 7th largest country in the world. This short chronicle reflects just one of my many  experiences in just one of the areas I was fortunate enough to visit.

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About Randi B.

Randi is a diversity and inclusion strategist, speaker, trainer and writer, focusing on making connections and cultivating empathy in this diverse world one trip, speech, article, book and conversation at a time.

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