A labour of love
For a change, let me quit complaining.
A few days ago, my family and I celebrated one year of living here—a journey I have largely shared with readers in this space. And yet because our transition has taken place inside the fast, bumpy ride that is India’s, reflections tend to veer towards criticism: poor infrastructure, unempowered workplaces, corruption, a lack of inclusive progress.
My husband and I expected some of these conditions when we arrived, an American-born journalist and an artist looking to find opportunity—and a bit of themselves—in the country their parents left more than three decades ago. Even before we arrived, we had been admonished to sanitize negative opinions or keep them to ourselves.
“The last person Indians want to hear about India from is an NRI,” a friend of mine, who abandoned India six months into what was to be a three-year assignment, ominously told me. (Apparently, the abbreviation I have repeatedly defined as Not Really Indian also stands for Non Reliable Indian or Not Required Indian.)
The warning partly prepared me for the feedback occasionally offered to this column, from the salutation that began, “For our dear misled author,” to the accusation, “I’ve been reading your articles for a while and most of the time its (sic) more cribbing than anything else. … all your exposure to the US makes you feel a little different from regular Indians in India.”
It’s true. Just as I was conscious of being different every day of my life spent in the US, I am conscious of being an outsider in India. So, when people here and elsewhere check in and innocently yet oversimplistically ask, “Do you like India?” I feel stumped to provide some kind of right, honest answer. To somehow encapsulate all I am doing and feeling, all India is doing and not doing, the four-steps-forward-and-two-back phenomenon, appreciating how far we have come, lamenting the distance we still have to go.
After a year of trying to create and define a home, my answer actually boils down to something just as simple as the question: I want to belong and believe. I do love this country.
I love the rhythm of life, the entrepreneurial sounds of vendors in the morning and less-predictable fireworks when Team India wins at night.
I love to see colleagues at work dipping rotis into the same dish without inhibition or fear of germs. Initially when I stared, their reaction always was: “Do you want some?”
I love that even as I stress out before every function, switching from sari to black cocktail dress to jeans with high heels, I know each style will be acceptable and likely have plenty of company at the affair.
I love that Indian music no longer needs to be relegated to CDs or the iPod; I can just turn on the radio for the soundtrack to my life and mood.
I love Indians’ hunger for news and information, keeping up at once with the Sensex and global crude prices, Trinamool Congress leader Mamata Banerjee’s tantrums and the race between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.
I love that in my house, I speak Assamese to the maid from Orissa who speaks Hindi to my Punjabi husband who speaks English to me—and somehow my daughter has learnt all of the above to complete the circle.
An anniversary may be a meaningless milestone to some. For me, the past year has been nothing short of transformative, as a manager, as a mother, as a storyteller, as a product of this soil—albeit one generation removed. I concede that, like many Westerners, I arrived thinking I had more figured out than I did; in humbling me yet guiding me, India has imparted life-altering and life-long lessons.
I am grateful for the new relationships formed with family which suddenly can afford to call my mobile or even visit, engaging in my daily life and routines. Sure, the newfound interference sometimes annoys me and my decisions are always second-guessed—but this is the welcome reality of family life, replacing the artificial and temporary adoration shown to the American cousin and her Samsonite suitcases of cheap perfume and nail polish as gift. Sometimes, when relatives fill my home in New Delhi (very often), I recall a visit to my father’s birthplace just a few years ago. A distant cousin asked if she could touch my skin to see if I felt any different.
Every now and then, it’s worth remembering, in many ways, how far I have come, and India too. I love that possibilities today, for people like me to software engineers to retail workers to rural youth like that cousin, can feel endless, at least once the link is made between opportunity and seeker. That is the feeling I try to hang on to most, the belief in a nation and its economy and its people.
Yes, I love India. And that is why the harder truths and criticisms must resume next week.
(Your comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org)