Sunday, January 10, 2010

The Non-Resident Indian

A large number of my friends and family live abroad. In the Brahmin community that I come from, this is quite common. In the 80's many went abroad to study engineering or computer science, or to do research. Most found jobs and stayed back, returning briefly to India to marry and take wives back with them.

Most of the Indians we know abroad are first generation immigrants. Almost all are well-settled and successful, with well-paid jobs and beautiful homes. They are, as a group, quite well-integrated into the countries where they live.

But the one thread common to all of them, is that their hearts and souls are still Indian.

They are Indians, because their initial years were lived in India. Whether you grow up in a small town, or a sleepy city, or a big bustling metropolis, growing up in India is an experience that shapes you, defines you. The friends you make at schools and college, the often over-protective family that cloisters you, the extended community that you love to hate...the weddings, the festivals, the food, the weather, the crazy conversations over cricket, the laughter, the bitching, the rants about the bureaucracy - all of these define you.

So it's not surprising that almost all of my family and friends living abroad make visits to India, every couple of years. Most speak fondly of the country they left behind, and are nostalgic about the food, festivals, family and community get-togethers. As they grow into their forties and fifties and sixties, the nostalgia gets stronger and stronger, and the trips often more frequent.

But their children - second and third generation migrants - are a different matter altogether. They were born abroad, and their passports mark them as a different nationality. It's not just their accents that sound different - their slang, their jokes, their TV programmes, their food (yes, food is a big thing) - are all different. Just as my generation was shaped by India, these children have been shaped by the countries they live in.

They are, at heart, not Indian - although their well-meaning parents have sent them for Sanskrit classes, or music and dance lessons. These children will never know or relate to the many little anecdotes that bind Indians together - Ajit jokes, or the magic of Sholay, cricket.

Instead they are world citizens, global in their outlook, as comfortable with sushi as they are with tacos or nasi goreng. My nephew in New York learns Mandarin. A friend's daughter learns the cello.

The rational half of me recognises that this is a good thing - that as people migrate and spread and intermarry, many of the artificial boundaries that separate humans from each other are blurring. This is surely good for the planet.

But the other half - the emotional half - sharply mourns my personal loss. These are my friends and family, and their children, now strangers to me. As I head into my forties, I want to be surrounded by these people. Instead, they are far away, and we are each forced to move on with our personal spheres, intersecting occasionally. Digital images and facebook updates take the place of flesh and blood meetings or evenings spent over drinks, debating and laughing.

I feel especially sharply, the loss of my family. My nephew and niece, twins, were born in Cinncinnati a few months ago. I have not seen them yet. Another will be born in San Diego and I will not see that child either. I cannot gather them to me, or rock them to sleep, or tell them stories.

Even though my life is so full, I feel a sharp sense of loss. It is even worse for older people. I know elderly parents in India whose children have migrated abroad. Their days loom empty and lonely, without the sounds of grandchildren. Their visits to their family are complicated by unfriendly visa rules and alien surroundings.

All migration brings loss, yes. From village to city, or from one city to another, migration is difficult on those left behind. But migration abroad seems to have a finality, a severing of common ties, language, food and culture, that is harder to cope with. When asked, "Are you Indian?", my nieces and nephews in the US are going to answer, "No, we're American." I have yet to come to terms with that.

20 comments:

Super Babe said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Roopa said...

A very sensitive and confusing issue where we find ourselves often changing sides. Extremely well written

Super Babe said...

Very well written... and you could really exchange the words Indian for whatever other nationality (in my case, Mexican), and it still is very true...

SoupSen said...

Excellent! Well written

SoupSen said...

Excellent! Well written

Sunil said...

Very Interesting....and very well written....

Euclid said...

Deepa - What an excellent article! very well written!!.

A pity we didn't meet during my last trip down to Mumbai.

Regards,
Euclid

Priya said...

Very well written...I feel like you just spoke my mind....

Leela (LRS.) said...

Heartfelt and exquisitely written...and hit a raw nerve. For the second time after reading one of your blogs, I cried.

Samba said...

Excellent. Very well written. The issues that most people living abroad like me are unable to confront and 'irrationally' think that i will go away on its own one day.

iamyuva said...

very well written.
my 2cents.. returning to india
and interesting thought about second-generation dilemmas

will you call yourself mumbaikar? certainly your kid might. and iam assuming mumbai is not your heritage. possibly migrated from different city(home town). how does your mom feel about this migration? if she is ok with it and may be that explanation can hold good for you too.
hope i make sense.!
that's just rational argument but i certainly can feel what you say..

vandana said...

I believe that foreign born and bred children of Indian origins may feel indian or not, depending very much on their parents/thoughts/inculcation into the indian consciousness etc. My children though born in australia not only know ajit jokes but ask them their nationality and they say "Indian" though their passports proclaim them as dual natioanlity holders. When it comes to cricket ( prime test, I believe) they publicly(with flags t-shirts)support indian team over any else.

Chitra said...

It is a difficult issue to address - one of my cousins abroad wants to come back to India but his children are born and bred in UK and they consider themselves British!!

Ravikumar said...

ood article, Deepa. There are at least two types of "losses" addressed here - one, the loss of cultural affinity and the other purely on account of the sheer physical distance. Language is key to addressing the cultural aspect, in my opinion. Politicians understand this intuitively and hence you find such a hue and cry about language than any other cultural aspect. Migration even within India has always produced this type of loss - I am sure quite a few aunts/uncles of second-generation Tamils living in Mumbai or Delhi (such as yourself) feel the loss of not being able to share with them the nuanced wisdom of Thirukkural, for instance. Teach your children to be proficient and fluent in the native tongue and a number of cultural aspects are automatically addressed. The distance aspect is far more acute when living away from India but to some extent, technology - streaming videos, youtube etc - is increasingly mitigating this loss. Finally, I find the loss of national identity, such as I am an Indian or American - if it is a loss - a blessing.

aarti said...

deepa, it just felt you spoke my mind.it was very touching,especially the last bit.you wrote it all so well.the photographs in your blog are superb.

indian yarn said...

yes the second generation is american/dutch/british/danish no doubt, but in the respective countries they stay, they are always known indian/or half brit/half indian even when born or raised in england. their friends call them their indian friends.

another teenage girl raised in newyork told me that she is indian, though her wealthy parents (both physicians) do not like to be seen in the indian circle they live in.

is migration a loss - it depends on the context. Better to fend for the livelihood, than being traumatised for it, just to maintain community feeling - don't you think ?

Anonymous said...

so many people in this space...really liked the blog... You conveyed the melancholy surrounding this issue very well...will endeavour to read more and engage! ... Jag in England

Anonymous said...

so many people in this space...really liked the blog... You conveyed the melancholy surrounding this issue very well...will endeavour to read more and engage! ... Jag in England

Anitha said...

Deepa,

I have a cousin who is your namesake, I googled her and found your blog on Mumbai and Delhi. Very interesting read.Way to go!
Keep writing!

KS

Uma said...

Sometimes situations are so heart wrenching but so true. this was one of those write ups i have read so far. it is really one of the pieces everyone can relate to somewhere in their lives. very well written and heart touching.