I have been a non-resident Indian (NRI) for four years. And that has defined a vast majority of my circumstances and actions throughout this time. Everything from my ability to vote for the British parliament to being at the receiving end of puzzled looks for pronouncing words differently from how they’re said outside India – it has all been about me being an Indian in a context outside of its boundaries, physical or otherwise.
I have consciously avoided discussing this position on social media and with most people outside my immediate circle because often instant judgments and opinions are passed at the mention of a fancy-sounding city. So, I neither post photos of the Big Ben, nor do I comment on India’s politics on Facebook. Because I fear all of it gets perceived through this first filter of a non-resident voice which leaves me a little more than uncomfortable.
Some of these perceptions are grounded in fair assessment. If one is 5,000 miles away from the country, it is so convenient to make commentary about issues – political or civic – because undeniably, none of them affect us on a daily basis.
I am also guilty of subscribing to the stereotype about NRIs loving to stroke their nostalgia about how great things are – or at least ought to be – back home. I left the country in 2014, before the last general elections, and that is my locus for how things are in India. #BMKJ is hard to digest because I don’t know whom to believe and with whom to argue. I don’t live there, so my alternative truth is all the more convoluted than those two people’s whose ideologies might differ but for whom at least the physical context is the same.
But I still have a problem.
NRIs are not just armchair activists or commentators, Karan Johar-loving desh bhakts who cry every time Rehman’s Swades shehnai echoes in their ears. They don’t all donate money to Modi even if a mind-boggling number of them are from Gujarat. And they aren’t all awestruck by the idea of India buying more Burberry bags than some other international markets.
The privilege of an opportunity outside India goes away as soon as that plane leaves India’s boundaries. An NRI often begins as a mess in their host country because he/she doesn’t understand the words, the smells, the styles or the motivations of the people who surround them.
They struggle to understand cultures. They struggle to adjust and be accepted. They struggle to make friends. They get hurt and learn lessons the hard way at work because they don’t know the ways of the new people. Their learning curves are steep and that is often on the back of having to start from scratch.
If they make friends with only Indians – “oh what’s the point of being there then!”
If they marry someone who’s not Indian – “oh my god this person is gone forever now!”
NRIs work on Republic Day, Holi, Independence Day, Rakhi, Diwali, you name it! Maybe Eid will be off. Christmas most likely will be off. They miss the weddings back home. And they miss the reunions too. Sometimes they choose to, but often they are forced to. It is heartbreakingly painful to come to terms with a grey, rainy, Diwali day, topped with a difficult day at work. There’s no luxury to pause for a day because it is the most special one of the year. And there is often no family to share a meal with either.
And then they get judged for being brown. Sometimes they get attacked for being brown. The second-generation Indians judge them too.
Amrish Puri’s dhobi ka kutta, na ghar ka, na ghaat ka rings true at some level. But what do you know, we still love DDLJ and all the current-day opulence.
To be fair, many like me do live a good life despite these challenges. Same as being in Mumbai or Delhi, right? It is a good life even if sewers are over-flowing and auto guys continue to be a pain. I make a like-for-like comparison here. This is not about those Indians who go straight from a village in Punjab to Toronto or London, having completely skipped a big Indian city. Nor is this about an average middle-class person in Delhi or Mumbai who only goes to a mall or metro station for air conditioning. Like for like.
The opportunity cost of an international opportunity is quite big, and often easily overlooked.