Behind non-resident eyes

by Gautam Raja

The term non-resident Indian (NRI) is simply a geographic and economic status, referring to Indian nationals living outside their country. But within India, it can be pejorative: NRIs are stereotyped as people who are out of touch with home, in awe of the West, and India-haters who constantly criticise their country.

I spent the early part of this year back home in India, and noticed how often I was dubbed “American” or “NRI”. It was usually in jest, but also used as a facile put-down; an argument that nullified anything I said about India because I was “out of touch”, and couldn’t know anything.

And though Indians make criticising India a sport, suddenly my right to criticise was taken from me. It didn’t even have to be about politics or infrastructure; I discovered that complaining about the overcooked pizza we’d just been delivered (the cheese was hard and translucent) led to a defensive reaction. I was now officially the spoiled non-resident who always viewed India through Western eyes. “This isn’t your America,” said the clanging metal door that shut out all further communication.

It’s funny because as an NRI, I’m more positive, proud and hopeful about being an Indian than I ever was in India. And when I do criticise, I believe that I have a more balanced view than before, and tend to regard my country with a lot more affection than many of my resident friends. (Of course, they hasten to tell me that this will change when I’m back for good, and who’s to say they’re wrong?)

Also, being an NRI in America, especially California, results in a whole other set of assumptions. It was astonishing how many people had no trouble assuring us our lives were “boring” or “empty”, and characterised by general racism from the outside, and constant yearning from the inside. Interestingly, it was always people who’d either never been to the US, or who had only visited, who had the strongest opinions. What troubled me though, was not so much the perceptions, but the relish and conviction with which they were uttered. Once, a casual acquaintance launched into a 10-minute diatribe on how people who live outside the country are fools, and proceeded to tell me exactly how much money he earns, and how this has let him travel all over the world. Wow. All I’d done was answer the question, “So, where are you now?”

The incident I took the hardest though, was when I was spotted reading the ingredient list on some packaged food, and told not to be “so L.A.” about it. Like most of my friends in India, I grew up on fresh, home-cooked, “made from scratch” meals. Some of my earliest memories are of the kitchen-filling scents of mint and coriander leaves, chillies, ginger and garlic being pounded on a stone every morning. Of going to the village mill with our nanny, and watching our bags of coriander and cumin seeds being ground to a warm, fragrant powder. Of food pulled out of the ground or off trees just hours, even minutes, before being cooked.

This was my India, long before Los Angeles, Californian cuisine, nutrition labels or the organic movement touched my life. No preservatives, high-fructose corn syrup, artificial flavours, growth hormones or antibiotic residues. Long before “green”, “eco” and “recycling”, there was the paperwalla who bought old newspapers, glass bottles of water in the fridge, one-bucket baths, natural soaps, plates and packaging made of leaves, local vegetables sold on pushcarts and bicycle transportation.

Surely you don’t have to be a “homesick”, “stuck in a time warp”, “out of touch with reality” NRI to want to save all that?

First published in Gulf News, July 6, 2009