A friend of mine immigrated to Australia while we were still in high school. When he visited a couple of years later, all he did was curse and swear about the dirt and pollution that we wallowed in. Two decades down the line, I still remember his exact words: ‘Why are the public toilets so filthy? I threw 25 paise at the cleaner but she still didn’t clean it’. What struck me, like a bolt of lightning was not the fact that the boy who had spent most of his growing years in India was being so critical, but his simple assumption that 25 paise was such an attractive sum of money, enough to motivate a bathroom cleaner to do his job!
Anyway, this post is not about stereotypical-NRIs dissing India. Neither is it about the state of India’s public toilets. It is about the world-wide reactions to one NRI’s essay that was published in the New York Times, and caused an unprecedented uproar from various sections of society both in India and abroad.
At the risk of sounding clichéd, the essay has seriously stirred a hornet’s nest, invoking strong and powerful mixed reactions from readers. Scores of people have condemned the author for demeaning and insulting India and Indians. Equally so, many readers (seemingly NRIs themselves) have applauded him for his extremely candid revelation of how NRIs cope or fail to cope with life in India.
If you were to ask me what I felt on reading the essay, I would simply say ‘sad’ for want of a better word.
The sorrow is not about what the author claims he has turned into. Neither is it about the poor image of India as depicted by an NRI at the NYT. Let’s give him a break, he is truly not the sole protector of Indian heritage and image abroad! I believe we are all ambassadors in our own right, and holding one NRI responsible for ‘apparently tarnishing India’s image on the NYT’ does not seem quite right.
The sorrow is due to that faint glimmer of raw and unnerving truth that underlies the essay.
Let’s take the issues that the author feels gutted about:
‘Separate dinnerware for maids’. I don’t even see anything ‘abnormal’ about this, because this is what happens in almost every Indian household. Servants are treated as unclean people who should be treated as – ‘servants’!
Refusing small loans to domestic staff as ‘they are liars’. First-hand experience tells me this is believable. Certainly not the norm, but it happens rather often to be considered an exception. At the end of the day, one is left confused as to whether to believe or not!
Bullock-cart India making his daughter late for school. Road-rage is so common, it isn’t even ‘rage’ now. We live in a world of organized chaos, and we don’t seem to mind.
‘The glimmer of respect’ in the eyes of his driver - That is disturbing, to say the least. ‘I probably spent more on pizza than on my maid’. Nothing else need be said! How many times have we been in such a situation?
‘She knew this too, because she was often the one who handed the pizza delivery guy his money’ – Do you sense the irony, frustration and disappointment all rolled into one!
‘I coped in the worst possible way: by dehumanizing her and other people like her, ever so slightly, ever so subtly ...’.
Invariably, whether an NRI or not, one tends to dehumanise the wretched poor, and feel a little less guilty.
How much do you pay your servant-maid? Or the milkman? The newspaper boy? A few hundred rupees a month? Do we have any clue about their cost of living? Can they EVER afford to go to a good school or college? Can they even dream of finding a banking or IT job that would pay them enough to change their future?
Do they even have a future? And the moot point - do we even care?
The article brought to my mind, a comment that an English couple made at the airport on my last trip to India. They had been living in India for the last 4 years and while on one hand they found it lively and vibrant, they also found day-to-day life challenging in a very different sort of way. On the topic of luxury of cheap and easily available labour (maids, drivers, cleaners, etc), this is what the gentleman had to say: ‘But .. they have NO FUTURE’. I tried valiantly (and stupidly), to save the situation by suggesting that the poor get many material benefits from politicians due being a powerful vote bank. However, at the bottom of my heart, I knew that what the gentleman had said hit the nail on the head.
My heart sank, with the unbearable weight of ‘truth’. ‘They..have..no..future’.
This is the bare truth and it wrenches the heart. It is a shattering of illusions, and perhaps, of perceptions and standards of expectation that were unrealistic.
The NRI’s India is a complex one. It is a fabric, interwoven with childhood naiveté, teenage dreams of flowery foreign shores, bites of the Big Apple, a taste of a vastly different way of life, combined with the longing for a quiet home from the past – one that no longer exists. It often involves mixed emotions of pride about our culture and history, of an immeasurable sense of belonging, of a silent yearning for friends and family who make life truly worth living and sometimes even of embarrassment (aren’t the CWG scam, 2G scam and Agnivesh’s entry into Big Boss enough to make an Indian blush!)
An NRI myself, I know that the India I left a few years ago has disappeared. In her place, I see a bustling powerhouse on one hand, and complacent wretchedness on the other. It takes a lot of effort to be able to reconcile these two seemingly disparate and powerful forces.
Most people are able to cope with this, and continue to live life as it comes. But some people like the author of the essay choose to run away from it. I do not see anything wrong, as it is a completely personal decision.
The NRI’s (or resident Indian’s, for that matter) India is certainly not black and white. It is but natural that a huge section of readers is furious about such seemingly ‘anti Indian’ sentiments in the essay.
However, as I see it, this is a sliver of truth. And as with Truth, its best is also its worst.
So what do you think? Do share!
Photo credit: Shreyans Bhansali