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A home of their own

Lakshmi Palecanda, May 5, 2013, DHNS:

Imported views

To paraphrase old Will Shakespeare, some people are born Non-Resident Indians (NRI), some become NRI, and some have NRI status thrust upon them. People born NRIs don’t know India, so they are not the real deal, while those who have the NRI status thrust upon them (usually wives) usually get used to the idea. NRIs are those who have chosen to go abroad to work and live, and they are an interesting group of people.

First off, it must be understood that being a Non-Resident Indian means different things to different people. The NRIs themselves feel they’ve climbed up to another level. Some hold themselves superior in some ways to the local hoi polloi. They want to be deferred to always, asked opinions, and want to have the final say in matters. Their idea is, they’ve been there, done that, and have the T-shirt to prove it, and so now they are wiser than the locals. They fail to realise that life’s struggles, problems, joys and sorrows, and even the people, are essentially the same, no matter where one lives.

Quite forgetting that they too once lived like this, they can’t understand how the local people live the way they do. I once heard an NRI complain about her mother’s neighbours in India. The neighbours had a telephone with ISD service. She had called them from Dubai and asked them to call her mother to the phone. That family coolly replied that they were watching a mega-serial on TV, and could she call back in an hour’s time? They couldn’t have cared less if she’d called from the International Space Station, they were busy with the lives of their favourite stars of the small screen. However, being an NRI, she was miffed that everybody didn’t drop everything and rush to the phone when she called. And what was so important about a mega-serial, she wondered, she herself had been an addict once.


NRIs also have a real thing about Culture with a capital C. They miss the ambience they grew up with, and try to recreate whatever portion of it they can, within their own homes and communities. From pictures of Ganesha and Gitopadesha adorning the walls, to a nook reserved for the pantheon of Indian gods and goddesses (or the equivalent in other religions) in their homes offshore, Indians born and brought up in India try to recreate the atmosphere they had in their own homes, growing up. If you enter a temple when you are abroad, you can be forgiven for thinking yourself in India: the atmosphere is just like it is here.

And, as for festivals, don’t even get me started on them. Every festival, anywhere in the world, has rituals and foods that are peculiar to it, and it is all the more so in India. Since going entirely by the book involves a lot of work, Indians often ‘adjust’, outsourcing at least some of the sweets and savouries peculiar to the festival, and forego a ritual or two. But people abroad often break their backs, faithfully preparing as much of the festive foods, and conducting as much of the rituals as they possibly can. On some level, NRIs are dealing with guilt for having left their homeland, either self-inflicted or imposed by friends and family, and don’t want to compound it by neglecting festivals too. Also, festivals and rituals mean more to them when they have to provide the colour and atmosphere themselves, whereas to people in India, the atmosphere is there in plenty, so they can afford to skip some of the traditions. Finally, let’s not forget the Kodak factor, something to show and tell folks back home.

Saving for posterity

You can also spot the NRIs in weddings very easily. They will be the ones mingling enthusiastically, whereas the locals, who have already been seeing far too much of each other, are content with a ‘hi’ and ‘bye’. They will be the ones capturing all the rituals with the latest video cameras, to record the ‘fast-dying traditions’, while the others want to find out either the features of the camera, or when lunch will be served. They will also be the ones who badger the purohit for the meanings of the shlokas he is reciting, causing him to lose his place and forget the whole procedure completely. They actually end up meeting and schmoozing more people than the locals themselves.

As for family, most NRIs are forced to live such anonymous lives when abroad that they yearn to be part of a large group. They try to make up for it by trying to get together with family, both near and distant, during their brief visits. They may complain at being invited to lunch, dinner and tea at every relative’s house, but they lap it up all the same. However, they expect that families will somehow remain as they were when they themselves left India, understanding intellectually, but not realising viscerally that families tend to drift constantly on the currents of marriages, births, deaths, feuds and individual priorities. As a result, they find themselves caught in the minefields of family fights, which they consider highly trivial, especially compared to their very expensive visit. However, to the people immediately concerned in these feuds, they are all-absorbing, while the NRI’s visit is just a mere blip on their radar.

Your average NRIs don’t stop just at caring about traditions and family, themselves. They also invariably thrust them on their children. NRI children are the ones who study traditional music, dance, Sanskrit and their mother tongues, and attend Balavihar without fail. On visits to the homeland, they are also the ones who are stunned when their Indian cousins clamour to get the latest on Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber, and don’t know or care to know the difference between aarohanam and avarohanam. Either that, or they are learning to play the piano, or doing gymnastics, or acing Science Olympiads or Spelling Bees. Naturally, these second generation NRIs are made much of by uncles and aunts, something which naturally irritates their Indian cousins who naturally resent the fact that these kids don’t have as much homework to do as they themselves.

Also, when talking to NRIs, you will notice that they always talk of change, bet it people, places or behaviour. It is as if they are caught in some kind of a time warp. The comment, “My, how you have grown!” just doesn’t cut it when you meet a niece you last saw 10 years ago… especially when she is holding her firstborn babe. Commenting on a ‘new’ song which has been long forgotten on the sub-continent is yet another dead give-away, the staple NRI behaviour.

Change is the only constant

To be sure, India is changing every minute, and so are the people and the attitudes. But to be constantly reminded of it irritates any normal Indian, whereas the NRI just can’t stop exclaiming about it. Imagine being asked questions like, “You actually have HD TV?” The average urban Indian feels like replying, “Yes, we do. What else do you think we watch every evening in the light of kerosene lamps under the village neem tree?” Or someone comments: “I actually saw a BMW on the local street!” and a person feels like saying, “If you think that is something, you should see the bullocks that draw it!”

What NRIs don’t realise often is that they themselves have changed. They have seen how other countries, other cultures, and other people operate, and to some extent, have imbibed some of their ideas. When they talk of how dirty India is, they fail to realise that India was always dirty; it is just that they are noticing it now. They also learn such good things as politeness, fairness and cleanliness, since those behaviours are absolutely required abroad. But unfortunately, most of them seem to lose those new habits the minute they get on a plane back to India. Behaviours like yelling at stewardesses on the flight, rushing for the doorway even when the plane is taxiing down the runway after landing, and elbowing and cutting queues when waiting to get passports stamped in immigration… these are too common to be ignored.

In reality...

But to be fair to NRIs, they have a lot to deal with. When they left India, they were regarded as heroes, or at least the ones that made good. But in the end, they are seen as aliens, or the ultimate fence-sitters, or in extreme cases, cop-outs. The local sentiment is, “They could have stayed here and done well. Instead, they took the easy way out, and left the country.”

What people don’t realise is that leaving the country is not necessarily the easy way out. People leave their homeland in search of something different, some adventure, something better. They may or may not achieve it, but they also pay a hefty price for their quest. Leave out currency exchange rates, and what do NRIs face? Feelings of loneliness and alienation, gradually losing family, and not being able to do anything about it, living without a support system provided by extended families, and being under tremendous pressure to live up to the expectations of families back in India, are what they contend with, everyday.

Losing close family to death, and being unable to see them one last time, has to be the worst of all these consequences of living abroad. Another aspect of this is losing family while living abroad, and having to go through it without the comfort and support of relatives. There was once an article on how a man lost his father while he was in the States, and couldn’t make it back to India for the cremation. He had written that he cried, sitting all alone at night in a parking lot. That pain is the lot of NRIs.

The glib answer to this is, of course, to return home. But to give up careers that have been carefully crafted, networks painstakingly built, friends made purely on shared ideas and interests, and places that have become familiar and that one has grown to love, can be excruciatingly hard. Further, to uproot children who have known no other way of life can be considered criminal even. So, NRIs are caught on the horns of dilemma, more often than not.

What it all boils down to is this: NRIs are not a different species, though they may look like it or behave like it sometimes. They are the same items, just different packaging. Shylock in The Merchant of Venice says of the people of his community, the Jews, “If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die?” In much the same way, NRIs have the same basic goals and ambitions of leading as good a life as their RI counterparts.

And ultimately, you can take people out of India, but you can never take India out of those people.

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