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Thursday, January 12, 2006

Homeland tales

Everyone has dreams of achieving great things in life. Moving up the social hierarchy is the natural order of things. There was a generation of people who left their native shores to seek better opportunities, to give their talent the space to flower in a more conducive environment. Some of course, left just to get away from all that was unclean, corrupt and regressive about their homeland. They were searching for asylum of the social kind.

These are the non-resident Indians (NRIs) who have spread across the globe. They are evidence, if any was required, that given the right circumstances, we can scale the highest peaks. We only have to say Kalpana Chawla in New York and we will be understood. The same goes for Manoj Shyamalan in Hollywood. And Salman Rushdie and VS Naipaul in London. And Lord Swraj Paul, Lakshmi Mittal and countless others who run successful businesses, or are in positions of power today but are never in the news. They make us proud of being Indian and we bask in the reflected glory.

They come down to India and the press gets its fill of soundbytes about how much India means to them, how the emotional tugs ensure that they teach their foreign born children to speak Hindi or Punjabi or Bengali, make them appreciate the good life they have as opposed to the poverty back here. And now that Indian food is de rigeur the world over, they can even begin to enjoy eating their dal sabzi, if they didn’t already!

But like with everything else, there is a flip side to all this longing for the Indian way of life. A couple of years ago, I was at a friend’s home where I met her aunt and uncle who’ve lived in the US for nearly 40 years. We got talking and the man said he is a neurosurgeon and lives in Temple, a city in Texas. His wife is a homemaker and has always been one since she married at 16 and went to live abroad. One would think that after marrying so young, this lady would miss India and Gujarat (her native state) with some amount of regret. Let’s face it, India begins to grow even on foreigners who are born in far wealthier countries. The quirkiness, the randomness, the beauty -- all appeal at some level.

But through the years, the lady had carefully nurtured a dislike of everything Indian. She began her conversation with me, a complete stranger to her until then, about how she was visiting a friend for lunch and the friend told her that they would have to have their lunch right away because the maid was expected to turn up anytime to do the dishes. She was angry that her friend chose to live her life on her maid’s terms! As she put it, “Are we supposed to do things in our home according to a maid’s schedule?” Of course you’re not. What she didn’t think about was that her friend had probably made the decision to serve lunch and get it out of the way. She wasn’t trying to tell her how inflexible Indian maids are. But that is what this lady chose to interpret.

Then, she set off on a long rant about how she had wanted to do some shopping in Colaba but the hawkers on the Causeway were so lazy that some of them had still not put out their wares. Whew! Obviously, these guys must have been on their best behaviour for her! She proceeded to complain about the traffic, the rudeness, the lack of pride in what they do (which coming from her sounded hollow). She didn’t have a nice word to say about India or Indians.

I asked her if she had any Indian neighbours in the US. She said, yes, they did, they lived across the street from her home but they never went over to say hello or anything. Not like in India, where according to her, everyone was always in each other’s homes. But when I asked her if she knew where President George Bush’s ranch was and if Crawford was close to their home, she promptly said: “Oh yes, we are neighbours you know, he’s just 20 miles away from us!” This pretentious woman couldn’t be bothered about getting to know her neighbour from across the street but was inferring the US president and her family were close friends. Now that is an Indian trait that she surely hadn’t forgotten – name-dropping and showing off.

Having left India at a young age, she has become completely seduced by the American way of life. Nothing wrong with that but you can imagine how much venom she must be spewing back in Texas about India. I’ve known so many others who have lived as long or far longer than her in the US, but come down to India with grown up kids and happily stay with a brother or sister in a two-bedroom apartment, all the while having to share one loo and bathroom among six or more family members. Whereas, in the US, I’m sure they are accustomed to having their own bedroom with an attached bath.

I don’t think our way or their way of living is better; it is not even a point of contention here -- it’s just different and the way society has evolved. Here, we have always been concerned about inter-personal relationships, where family, relatives, friends, neighbours participate in the joys and sorrows of our lives, unlike in the Western societies, which are more individualistic. The families who stay in touch with their roots are able to incorporate that closeness and warmth even while living thousands of miles away. That, I feel, is essentially the best of both worlds. You get your space (that much maligned term!) and you have a loving family which is a great safety net.

So, I had every reason to pity this woman. She’s probably not given her three children anything to cherish or hold on to. She gloated to me about how her middle child, a daughter, was living by herself and that she was truly independent -- unlike me, because even though I was earning, I had to still live by myself. Obviously, she didn't bother to find out that I help with the bills at home unlike her daughter who chose to move away rather than contribute to the existing household. Of course, I could have told her that to her face, but again, it was the Indian restraint and manners that saved her. I could have been more crude and told her that her daughter chose to move away because she couldn’t bring all those men or women (if she was inclined that way) she wanted to sleep with, over to her parents’ house. Yes, that is a big part of the reason why they value their individuality so much and I’m sure she was aware of that.

After all this, my friend told me that her uncle, who does not share his wife’s rabid anti-India views, actually helped set up their daughter by taking on the mortgage for the apartment and the car (which is another necessity abroad). I’m not sure what this proves. Of course the lady in question didn’t reveal this. It means that the daughter lives by herself at additional expense to the parents and she’s proud of it!

I then decided that I was not going to tolerate this kind of extreme opinions from anyone and I came up with some succinct thoughts on the subject, which I shall employ in future.

Here they are - The Dummies' guide to dealing with boorish NRIs:
# I know we have poverty, slums, congested trains, beggars on the street and in some cases no streets to walk on in the city of Mumbai. But I live in this city and I can afford to complain and make some noise about it. You have come to visit relatives on a 10-day trip, so learn to put up with it or get back on the earliest flight to wherever you came from.
# Don’t trumpet your children’s great carpe diem (seize the day) attitude because there is loads of that here too. It’s not something only found in foreign locales. To make it in India takes a peculiar kind of resistance and endurance, which your kids may not possess. Also, parents in India usually know whether their children are making bombs in their bedrooms or carrying loaded automatic weapons to school, unlike what is happening in the great USA. (This is for the brags. Most people can tell genuine parental pride from the make-believe.)
# We are not subservient to our parents and the society in general, we just respect the order of things. We recognize there is a certain scheme to all the madness. You flout the rules and get your way because you live in the US or the UK but you wouldn’t dare do it here. We dare to do it here in the presence of the people we care about.
# We have accepted a lot from the West (and not just foreign aid), which by the way has not come only from the pockets of NRIs. There are millions of Caucasians, Hispanics and coloured people who also pay taxes. So, don’t come down to India and pretend you have done us a personal favour. We also accepted McDonald’s and MTV and a lot of crappy reality shows that you thrive on, back in the US and the UK. Only MTV has some redeeming qualities. If we can take your trash, then so can you.
# Don’t let living abroad fool you. It only takes something like 9/11 to occur and you suddenly realize you are actually brown skinned, even though you have deluded yourself into thinking you are whiter than the Caucasians. Then don’t expect sympathy from the people back in India because we live through our share of riots, earthquakes and strikes on a periodic basis. So, we understand the meaning of "live-and-let-live." I know and get along with Muslims and am not living in some Hindu or Muslim ghetto in a First World country. That kind of insularity has made you feel superior. But when the going gets tough, you will be the first ones to come back to India.
# Whether you accept it or not, India’s culture overwhelms everyone who comes in contact with it. Don’t undermine it because you went to one place in an AC coach where the AC didn’t work. There are bigger issues that India could use your help with. If you don’t want to help, then stay away but don’t come here and add to the decibel levels.

Luckily, this loud woman is the only one in my experience who bad-mouthed India and Indians. All the others I’ve known are people I’m proud to associate with and are great representatives of our country. Kudos to you guys. But let it be known that just because some of us chose to stay back or continue to want to do things for our country and not an adopted homeland, that does not make us less adventurous and lacking in entrepreneurial spirit or pride. It just means we are who we are, here, in India. We don’t have to put on airs to feel accepted and we don’t have to undermine our heritage and culture to score brownie points. So, take it or leave it.

Written for www.dancewithshadows.com


Zeevagabond said...

This article was wonderfully true....and it's not just in
India these wonderful people mess up, they do it here as well, especially with other not so fortunate desis, who unlike these wonderful people (who get everything on a platter on arriving here just coz they married
a green card holder or a citizen sponsored them)...These very people frown upon other not so fortunate desis, whose life is as much a struggle, as living in India is for the common man.....There are still a lot of desis here, who think of their birthplace more dearly than anything else...thanks for the article, it was a good read and fair.

Manali said...

Thanks for writing in and backing me up on this. I'm glad you were big-hearted enough, not to take it as a personal attack on you, per se.