Sunday, March 9, 2008

No longer kissing cousins

Wider Angle | S.Mitra Kalita

We four NRIs (non-resident Indians) sat around the table, dipping pita into hummus, sipping sangria, talking Hillary Clinton vs Barack Obama.
Once our visitors grew comfortable, their real views tumbled out: “Everyone here just wants to hustle you,” said one woman in town for business.
“Nobody in this country wants to do anything for the sheer love of it,” said another, here to organize a music festival, unable to find free performers.
“Well, not really,” I retorted. “You can’t blame people for wanting to make their share if you’re coming in to profit off their labour.”
My husband nudged me. I shut up. The conversation topic changed.
That night, in the safety and honesty of bed, I said what I really meant: “NRIs can be so annoying. All they do is complain about India. Why do they even come?”
The obviously hypocritical question (my family and I moved here last year after lifetimes in the US) remained with me, especially this week as the biggest NRI jamboree unfolded yet again in New Delhi, and thousands of the diaspora were heralded for doing India proud. In panel discussion after panel discussion, delegates attempted a delicate balancing act between decrying the state of Indian poverty, bureaucracy, infrastructure and celebrating Indian culture, values, heritage.
This was my second Pravasi Bharatiya Divas, as the event is known. The first time I attended, in 2004, I was promoting a book I had just written on Indian immigration to the US. Back then, I was an NRI in every definition of the acronym: Non-Resident Indian, Not Really Indian, Non Reliable Indian, Know It All. Pictures of me ran on the front pages of Indian newspapers. I made some appearances on television. When I headed to my parents’ native Assam a few days later, I again was garlanded and applauded.
Between then and now, so much has changed—namely me and India’s attitudes towards people like me.
In a satirical essay in Outlook magazine last month, historian and writer Ramachandra Guha labelled winter the season of the “NRI puja”. He wrote, “When these family NRIs appear, we, mere permanent residents, are obliged to pay homage, altering our own lives and work schedules to do so. It is striking how naturally we slip into the role of worshippers; they, as naturally, into the role of the worshipped.”
Even The Patna Daily has gotten in on the NRI bashing: “Now, if you get a tourist visa and come to America for four months, you are an NRI. If you went to Singapore on a business trip, you immediately acquire the status of an NRI. Oh yeah, let’s not forget about your trip to Nepal.”
An excerpt from a website offering advice to someone about to move to India: “As long as you’re open and don’t show a lot of that ‘Indo-American’ attitude (trust me, a lot of NRIs do it and its [sic] annoying enough to make anyone scream)…”
This time at the conference I was thankfully barely recognized. Now feeling quite at home in India, I looked around and wondered if those gathered really pondered free trade agreements and the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act. (Note to next year’s organizers, most of this crowd worries more about teaching their children Bharatanatyam or setting up temples that can rival Akshardham and Tirupati.)
As the man at the dais began his talk on infrastructure with the words, “We became an independent nation in 1947,” I rolled my eyes and prepared to leave. But first, I turned to the random guy sitting next to me:
“Why did you come here?”
“This is my first time in India,” Dhurmanund Gobin said, smiling. “I am from Mauritius.”
He told me he had just turned 58 that day and pulled out his national identity card to prove it. An identity that showed him belonging elsewhere.
“Our forefathers were very poor people but they worked hard so we could get an education. And they never let us forget India. …When I landed here,” he said, “I felt like I am in my true land.”
I thought of the international arrivals terminal at the airport, especially between the 10pm and 2am. Each time, the crowds gathered to greet NRIs feels thinner and thinner. But the joy on the faces of the greeted and the greeters hasn’t changed much.
A man like Gobind, of course, wouldn’t have family waiting for him; he doesn’t know exactly where in Bihar his grandfather left. And so he showed up to this conference, hoping to belong as he heard how he too could invest in roads and bridges.
His search for identity is one I imagine many global Indians—here, there, everywhere and nowhere—share. This recent tide of NRI bashing feels like an overdue, inevitable threshold. On the other side, we might shed the useless labels and accept and embrace our global, fluid, confused identities. That would be worth celebrating.

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