The peculiar case of the NRI Hindu

It was the end of 2003 and I was returning from India after an abruptly interrupted vacation. Flying down from Calcutta to Delhi, to catch the god-awful late night (or early morning, depending on how one chooses to see it) Air India flight to the US, I was greeted with a closed airport. Actually since my flight (the last flight of the evening from Calcutta to New Delhi) dropped me off only 8 hours before the next one, I had thought I could perhaps check in baggage and wait at the terminal of the international airport. No such luck, I was directed to go to the “waiting area” (a la waiting rooms of the railway stations) until my flight was announced. Having bought a ticket to get into the waiting room (if my memory does me justice, I had to spend 500 rupees to get a ticket for 3-4 hours), I meandered in. I walked up to the exorbitantly priced pay phone to make a few calls. That accomplished, I decided to park my self (and the baggage) amidst several snoring, a few flatulating and then again some both snoring and flatulating fellow-travelers – in the waiting lounge of the Indira Gandhi International Airport. It was difficult – believe me – I hadn't expected to find this phenomenon of snoring and farting to be so prevalent among my countrymen (and women)…almost makes me wonder whether it's a genetically transmitted and evolutionarily polished “gift” (due to some odd genetic mutation from the days of yore).

Anyhow, I digress – I managed to extricate myself from that sordid mess of a lounge within a couple of hours and decided to brave it outside amidst the noxious taxi fumes and chahal pahal (of the drop-off'ers, the wait-n-see-off'ers and simply the passers-by). By the time it was four hours before my flight was scheduled to take off, I was finally let in by the hefty policemen on duty at the entrance of the “real” airport. I walked into confusing rows of passengers (most of which belonged to passengers of Air India or Indian Airlines I discovered later to my amazement). After a brief period of indecision, I took my chances and picked one line. Minutes rolled into an hour but there was no one at the ticket counters. Then the hours starting multiplying, still no one turned up. Then suddenly, the appearance of an authoritative-looking person in an Air India uniform, brought a glimmer of hope to the (by then) haggard travelers – “Ladies and Gentlemen,” the Officer announced, “we will be opening two counters shortly, please make sure you form only two lines and approach the counters in an orderly manner.” And lo and behold! There was a mad rush to get ahead in the two lines – the six odd lines broke up and reformed into two (many a traveler lost his/her coveted position in the beginning of each line to a more aggressive, jostling fellow passenger – I didn't think to check, but perhaps a few got trampled underfoot as well?).

Let me interrupt you at this point dear reader – this is by no means an attempt to disrespect the Indian Airport system/authorities/carriers (they didn't have one to start with anyway). I'll get to the “real topic” of discussion after this very brief introduction.

Well, it looked like a long wait for me (I was somewhere in the middle of one of these mile-long queues). I turned around and noticed this portly gentleman behind me (obviously as flummoxed by the mechanism of “customer service” employed by the Air India ticketing crew). He hesitantly struck up a conversation (I'll be darned if I can remember his name though – let's just call him Mr. K for the heck of it). I gladly obliged – I was beginning to feel like a ghost in the hustle-bustle of the Airport, where no one looked me, acknowledged me or spoke to me all this while.

He said that he would be traveling to the US for the first time. “I'm going to America to perform academic research – I'm a professor at the Delhi University Social Sciences department,” he explained. “Wow!” I said, “what a great reason to visit the US.” We got talking about different things after enduring another harrowing hour or so (taking turns enduring the ticketing officers' smirks, ridicule and outright rudeness).

By the time we boarded the plane, I was informed that Mr. K was embarking on a ground-breaking research project – the phenomenon of the “back to the basics” (he termed it Fundamentalist) characteristics of the NRI Hindu. What was more surprising was the fact that he (and his colleagues in India apparently) were extremely alarmed in seeing the kind of articles that were being published on Sulekha!

Obviously, some of the star writers on Sulekha had managed to ruffle feathers in New Delhi. To make a long story short, when we changed flights in Heathrow, Mr. K boarded a flight to New York and I continued forward onto the last leg of my journey to Chicago. I never heard of Mr. K or his research ever after. Perhaps he's still researching the “Peculiar Case of the NRI Hindu.”

But his alarm about the “rising fundamentalism” among NRI Hindus got me thinking. I will try to put forth my thoughts on this phenomenon in the following paragraphs.

The Resident Indian (RI) and his penchant for Western Culture

Maybe it's presumptuous of me, but I have seen enough RIs (especially those middle-class city-dwellers) who have been brought up on unhealthy doses of MTV and Channel V (and toss in the Zee TV soaps and Star TV soaps); who are so enamored by Western Culture that they typically deride everything that is Indic (Hindu) and (according to them) unsophisticated. In their eyes, an unwashed, unshaved, stinking (not a derogatory term, but practically…) Rock Star (or his/her slightly cleaner cousin – the Pop Star) is the epitome of sophistication and “coolness.” “Why do we need to look up to traditions and heritage? Look at those demigods on screen, living it up on the wild side…shouldn't we rather emulate them?” these youngsters seem to think. Add to the mix their usually “modern” school education that prevents them from learning anything worthwhile about their own culture – and you get generation after generation of ignoramuses, who would do anything to become more Western (and “hip”).

When these RIs step out of their cocoons (meaning the protected sedentary lives they live in their parents' homes – pampered and spoilt beyond belief) – usually moving to a western nation (either as students or as professionals), they spend their first few years abroad soaking in/up this western culture. And one of three things tend to happen –

 

  1. They are so totally mesmerized by Western culture (since they already had an earnest introduction to it in India), they take to it like fish to water.
  2. They take a step back and look at their lives – comparing the past with the present (and the foreseeable future) and decide to give their Indian roots a second chance. They find several things Indian slowly starting to become likable and try to attain a balance in their Indic roots and Western environment.
  3. They “bury their heads in the sand” and like the proverbial ostrich, are happy/contented with what/who/how they are. For them, neither the Indic tradition matters, nor do they care to integrate well into their Western Environment.

Note: Though I have grouped people into these “broader” categories, I'm sure we will find it in us to adjust the boundaries between these three definitions (not look at these categories so much in “black and white” as in “gray scale”). And also, please! This is not an attempt at ridiculing any group whatsoever. How people are and how they choose to value things in life is after all strictly their choice.

Bird's Eye View

Belonging to the second category myself, I can say that I have had the opportunity of a bird's eye view of how these “things” (some may choose to call them mere distractions, while others – life changing events) unfold. And I have had the opportunity to know a lot of people belonging to the other categories as well.

The NRI is a peculiar creature – usually smart, hard working and diligent. But he's got an idiosyncrasy that's mind-boggling. Those NRIs that belong to the early waves of migration to the Western Shores have somehow managed to retain the memory of a land and culture that they left behind – but no longer exists!

Well, the first wave arrived and then went and had children (lovingly called ABCDs – yes, this adage holds true even for the non-American NRIs as well – by everyone else). Then they went and instilled the values of their mythical culture and land (often times, their rendition of culture is several shades darker than it actually was back in the day) into these kids. What happens to these kids is out of the scope of this essay – I'll assume that most of them turn out pretty okay. But let me elaborate a bit more on the waves of RIs migrating to the west. Each generation of migrating (soon to be erstwhile) RIs (now NRIs) arriving brought with them their own baggage of how the motherland looked – kind of a snapshot, frozen in time.

Note: Despite multiple trips back to the old country, ground realities don't rise up and bite you in the “you know what” unless you really “Live” in a place. So, the changing realities on the ground back in India go more or less unrecognized (or at least unacknowledged) by each generation of the NRIs.

There is a point (a few years into their arrival in the West) when the differentiation starts happening. NRIs branch into one of the three categories (or stay stuck somewhere in between) depending primarily on their natural proclivity.

The harbinger of this change is the driving need to understand one's place in the value system (society). The eternal question of “Who am I?” is a persistent nag. This is the question that drove me to want to find my identity (although it happened back in India in the midst of crazy parties, long nights, loud music, alcohol and other things I'd rather not discuss) and this is what drives almost everyone else (of course, this is my theory and therefore differences in opinion are permissible) – in many cases, I'll admit that it is sans the debauchery that I mentioned above.

Coming back to more relevant things – the basic question everyone asks themselves, “Who am I?” boils down to these general streams of thought:

 

  1. I am “what's my name”, son of “what's his name”, grandson of “what's his name”…
  2. I am “what's my name” from “what's that place's name” in “what's that country's name”…
  3. I am “what's my name” and I do “what's my profession”…
  4. I am “what's my name” and these are my hobbies…
  5. I am “what's my name” and I belong to “that” society/culture.

Look at the fifth point there – the four points naturally lead to this last one (of course, one might have several other deviations getting to this point – but everyone will get there, some day).

Under normal circumstances (in a native environment, a native cultural backdrop and in one's motherland), most people have way too many activities, social commitments, and familial ties to keep them busy enough not to ask themselves this “inevitable” question, “Who am I?” In a foreign land, this questioning is accelerated – there is a driving need to identify oneself – especially seeing the “other” (host) culture in all its mellifluousness (or not). So the NRI starts asking these questions – the loneliness of alien-ness (he is still alien, although he tries hard to fit in) driving him hard.

This is important because the NRI needs to find his cultural roots – to go back to the roots and learn who he really is. So his quest leads him to start scratching at the roots of his native society, his native culture. And we all know that in India, culture is integrally coupled with religion. When the major landmarks of a nation are its places of worship (pilgrimages), how else could it be?

But this religiousness should not be automatically taken as a negative thing – for, its wrapper-like nature takes the edge off most exclusivities. It is a living, breathing thing – an entity that is inseparable from everything else one would categorize as culture. Its influence is subtle, yet its effect is profound.

What are the key components of our (Indian/Indic) culture?

 

  • Arts – like dance, music, literature, poetry – all classical forms are based in religion (or should we say dharma?)
  • Philosophy – that's definitely spiritual/religious in nature
  • Lifestyles – once again, major patterns of lifestyle are governed (at least in part) by religious beliefs (eg: vegetarianism, etc)
  • Festivals and cultural celebrations – again, interwoven with the religious fabric of the majority of the nation

Since man is an integral part of culture (without man, there is no culture in the sense that we know), perhaps it would be safe to surmise that he is but a sub-set (or perhaps a microcosm) of the larger entity called culture or civilization or society? And as a corollary thereof, he would mirror at least some features of that which he is part of?

Note: There is yet another aspect of “Who am I?” that I will refrain from touching this time, in light of vehement acrimony that seems to permeate every such topic on Sulekha.

In other words, each of us goes through this phase of self-questioning “Who am I?” and eventually narrows it down to an amalgam of the several points I listed earlier (and perhaps many more that I haven't thought of yet) and perhaps leans more so towards the last one – the cultural identity.

Since Indian culture is so closely woven into the religious culture (and since we're talking about NRI Hindus here – SanAtana dharma), it would be reasonable to say that a lot of the NRI Hindu's closer association with religion (Hinduism) is a result of this self questioning and resultant identification of the self with the Cultural aspect.

Hindu Nationalism and the NRI

The oft repeated criticism of the NRIs is that they don't really know the ground facts of the Indian situation and yet participate in mindless activism, supporting “Saffron” ideals.

I'm saying that the NRI is not completely out of touch with the goings-on in India, especially these days, when the Internet has shrunk the world so dramatically for us all.

Now, as far as the “Saffron” issues go, I would say that there are some who seem to blatantly monger hatred – spewing venom against definitive “others”. But then again, there are some people that are naturally predisposed towards obnoxiousness – in every culture, every social group.

On the whole, a whole load of items on the “Saffron” agenda seem to be rather reasonable. For example (this is by no means a complete list of the BJP party manifesto):

 

  • Correct obvious gaps/mis-representations in the teaching of Indian history seems like a desirable goal – don't see why obviously wrong theories (like the AIT and the Aryan/Dravidian racial divide) should remain in limelight.
  • Implement Uniform Civil Code – every self respecting democracy (and purportedly secular ones at that) should have a uniform set of laws and rules governing their entire populace.
  • Abolish Article 370 – As long as the politicians continue to treat Kashmir with kid gloves, this issue is not going to be resolved. There has to be tight integration with the rest of India. What that means is people from other parts of India should be allowed to acquire domicile status and own property and vote in Kashmir.

Understandably there are gray areas between what these ideals stand for and how they are used by conniving politicians. But to simply look at these from a dispassionate perspective, one would be bound to see that these are actually desirable goals. So now, coming back to the topic of NRIs – some of these NRIs are supportive towards the more reasonable and sensible goals – it is coincidental that these have been labeled “Saffron ideals”. I haven't seen or heard too many people condoning the Babri Mosque demolition (neither Resident Indians, nor the Non-Resident ones) or praising the Gujarat riots – save the few fanatics, almost everyone else have only condemned these acts. These very same NRIs (many of whom are accused of being divisive and vocally non-secular) all banded together and generated over a million US dollars for the Tsunami Relief funds – I just looked on, awestruck, by the generosity of so many. I'm sure they didn't care whether their relief went to Hindus, Muslims or Christians (although personally I'd be appalled if any charitable donation ended up in the coffers of those that would use it for proselytizing or any other nefarious purpose)…they just wanted to help.

I guess we might never find out what results Mr. K's research yielded (or maybe we will); but he sure got me thinking.

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