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The NRI’s India

The NRI’s India

November 12, 2011

A glimpse into an NRI’s essay in the New York Times that caused an unprecedented uproar.

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’. ‘’.

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


  • Ruchita
    18.10.12 12:35 PM
    Dear Pallavi,

    Thank you for this follow-up on the NYtimes blog. This is exactly how I feel and interpreted it. I have just returned to India in Januray this year. Your last few paragraphs and your description of the image of India in a NRI's mind totally reflect what I am going through. I would also like to add that this is not just about India. I shared the blog with several of my non Indian immigrant friends and they all feel the same about their country of origin. You can never again be the same person that you were in your home country before you left it. Now you have that outside-in persepective of it and that changes everything. Finally, like you said whether to cope up with it or run away is a matter of personal choice!
  • Rajpriya
    29.06.12 04:04 PM

    World knows that eradicating corruption from the lowest to the highest ranks in India is the primary step to any kind of progress to help the underprivileged in India. A sound political leadership with honest politicians governing the country alone can help India make any progress in the direction you are talking about.

    India is a country open to tourism. There are thousands of tourists who go back with the true picture of India’s problems. As you rightly say there are NRIs who come back for holidays and expect everything to be perfect like in their adopted countries. Yet there are other NRIs who are in the crushing hands of Indian bureaucracy that expects bribes for even the smallest contribution they want to make.

    There are more Celebs in the moneymaking business in India than there are well to do NRIs in the world. All the NRIs who were educated in India and went abroad to get their masters did not have it easy thinking of ever coming back may be because there were little or no opportunities for them find the right employment to suit their higher education.

    There are NRIs who don’t come out beating the drum to announce that they are contributing whatever they can to so many things in India and doing it because it’s their motherland. I personally think I can do many things living abroad than coming back to India and be in a position to be able to do nothing.

    It is the Political System that has to be corrected for the citizens to follow just like we follow our religions. Leave the older generation alone that cannot be corrected or it is too late but invest more on the younger generation to change course in India.

    The free fall of the Rupee is being influenced by the Euro crisis. Foreign investors won’t find the falling Rupee attractive and the uncertainty over Greece will influence ups and downs of the Rupee. On the other hand think of the benefits of the outsourcing industry (IT) due to a depreciated Rupee or the strong dollar. One man's meat is another man's poison.

    NRIs returning to India will only provide to a higher unemployment figure than help benefit the under privileged. A change to the Political System of India alone can bring the green days you are dreaming of.

    Make sure you plant ten trees in place every one that you cut down in the name development is one way of making India look green.
  • Writerzblock
    29.06.12 02:57 AM
    @ Keshavan,

    Sir, there are all kinds of people in the world, like you mentioned, some NRIs only find fault with the 'system' forgetting that they are part of it.

    However, it is not fair to generalise that ALL NRIs behave that way/do not contribute to India. There are various ways of contributing to one's country. One needn't live there physically to be able to contribute to the betterment of the country!!

    Each country has its unique culture and ways of working. This is what the author refers to in his original post. To live in India, one needs to get into this frame of mind. One of these 'adjustments' is that you have to consciously numb yourself to the stark and extreme disparity surrounding you, almost engulfing you.

    This is a very delicate situation, and one cannot categorise it into black or white, right or wrong.

    At the end of the day, where one lives/decides to settle down is a matter of personal choice.

    Patriotism is not about 'where' one lives, but love for the motherland, and contribution, even in the littlest way.

    Sir, do you really think that if all NRIs return to India, it will solve all the problems?

    What will truly be great is if EVERY Indian decides to take the plunge and 'change' the system.

    Maybe we can start with pledging to sponsor the education of ONE poor child in our vicinity. To me, that is far more patriotic than returning to India to build roads.
  • Writerzblock
    29.06.12 02:39 AM
    @ Paulose,

    Thank you for sharing your personal experience. It is unfortunate, that your dreams/ambitions of settling in India did not completely materialise. I think it has a lot to do with our level of 'expectation' as that determines our reaction to the reality that hits.

    I do hope that one day you will achieve your dreams of settling down in India :-)
  • keshavan madabushi
    keshavan madabushi
    28.06.12 11:53 PM
    Dear All NRI

    it is all your own showing up poor image of India and blaming the system in india poverty,under privileged ,ignorant of public hygiene,all of you get educated India with Degree go abroad do masters settle there .come for holiday for a month roam around city, beaches,meet relatives , go back after holiday ,you all go with much promise to return to india to help , develop under privileged ones.But after your masters and working abroad to realize your dream , you all aim at green card and citizen ship abroad.

    You have no time to think of India for under privileged development.All big talks go futile .All NRI blame India,bad road, haphazard traffic, indignant of public hygiene etc etc.

    It is time to think and act . NRI's instead of contributing your knowledge , experience to developed county , it is time to think of our mother land which has give you all basic foundation education, lots of family values, rich religious values, rich inter religious culture heritage, big monuments.

    So it is time to think of India instead of only blaming the system in india please come and develop it for the benefit of all future generation .

    All the time we were ruled by wealthy persons ,Kings & others .Third world technology influence has taken indian rupees soaring high is only because of your Non contribution .

    If all NRI together think of returning to your mother land with all your wealth,knowledge and technical skills , i am sure we will see a green days ahead , with lots of complete all development for the future of india .

    Good luck
  • paulose
    03.06.12 04:37 PM
    I came to your website through the NYtimes. Someone had left a link there in the comments section. Well I had read that article sometime last year. I felt like reading it again. I will give you the reason.

    I am a NZ passport holder and have lived in NZ for 8 years from 2003 to 2011. Its not even a year I am back in India because last year June I was in NZ.

    Uptill last year I was still in the honeymoon period about India and was looking for jobs here and thinking of living here in India for at least 5-6 years. But how much 5 more months have changed my plans.


    Last year, I had actually told the author of the article that this was his personal experience and I was having a different experience than him. But now I can totally resonate with him and am planning to move to Australia within next 6 months and take my family (wife and 2 year kid) with me within next 2-3 years. I feel they will be more comfortable in India in the mean time till my daughter grows up a bit with domestic servants etc. In the interim I will be on and off from India. Like 6 months Australia, 6 months here.

    But still I want to retire in India (I am just 31 now)with a big bungalow and good amoount of cash.
  • Writerzblock
    04.03.12 11:50 PM
    @ Ritesh:
    Thank you. It is a tricky question, really, about whether NRIs are being critical or just being objective. Often, we see things more clearly, from a distance than from near by. Perhaps the same way, an NRI is able to view India more objectively than he did while living in India.

    But yes, it is definitely not nice to put down one's country in front of other people.

    I don't recommend we turn a blind eye to our faults, but Imho, our best contribution to India can be to be the nicest brand ambassadors ever.
  • Writerzblock
    04.03.12 11:47 PM
    @ Raman:
    Thank you for your kind words.

    @ Krishna:
    That is a great solution, but that is all of us should do in India. Unfortunately we seem to have an attitude that says 'money is power'

    @ Anon:
    I'm sorry to hear that. Life in India must have been quite disillusioning for you to have chosen to go back!!
    Anon, just a vague question, I hope you don't mind me asking this. If you did not have the choice (to go back, that is), do you think you would have settled in better?
  • Ritesh
    07.02.12 11:37 AM
    This is very good group discussion and nice people here. I live in India since last 6 years. I lived in US for more than 10 years before I moved back to India. I was literally tired to hear cursing and humiliating things about India, people in India, life in India etc. And people used to feel pride while saying such things. A question comes to my mind that when we are talking about an individual's dignity, what do we think when we talk rubbish about a whole big community or a country, called India? Other cultures would not mind writing such garbage in their media. But we being Indian, should not feel pride about it on the name of truth. If we really want to find the truth, we have a lot of truth on the other side also. But we are not into it. We might know the saying popular in India: "The mother who is not respected by her children is respected by none". If we think India is our motherland, it is us who needs to respect her and her other children.

    Talking about the maid (or respect for poor people, for that matter), I would like to share the practices here. The person regarded as Servent (or Kaamvali) is called by her name with "Bahan" suffix. Her kids play with our kids. I dont get angry on her, but she does when I walk on the wet floor after doing "Pochha". Yes, there is financial gap between our family and her's. But she does not take anything with less dignity. This is not eutopia. This is very much happening in India. So, feeling pity about India's maid is not solution. I understand that being away from India, NRIs can not do much for their Indian brothers and sisters, but atleast can spread positive vibrations and stop being critical when the visit India. Otherwise, it is not far when a young boy is asked if he is Indian, he would reply, "No, my parents are Indian, I am American".

  • Anonymous
    19.01.12 12:08 AM
    I moved to India 3 years back and am about to leave for the USA and completely identified with Mr. Mungee's essay.
  • Krishna
    16.12.11 12:39 AM
    So many word but it seems his main reason for leaving was that he began dehumanizing other Indians.

    Simple solution: always be respectful and pay the help more!
  • Raman
    20.11.11 08:47 PM
    An interesting thought on how an NRI views India. Never would have seen it from this perspective.
  • Writerzblock
    18.11.11 08:04 PM

    Thank you!! It certainly is a huge issue and a very debatable one at that!

    If we were to put ourselves in the shoes of an ordinary middle-class person living in Bombay (or should we stick to 'Mumbai'!) then I assume we would not want to pay domestic help more than the commonly accepted standards.

    However, it just does not make sense that one section of society forges ahead with science/technology/wealth and another lags behind severely, with hardly any scope for improvement.

    How do we ever bridge this gap!!! If more people were to take baby steps (like you mentioned - supporting education) and if the Government were to provide a really big boost to the underprivileged in terms of employment/education/health-care, then I assume it would be the beginning of a new future...
  • Bronwyn
    18.11.11 09:16 AM
    Thank you Pallavi for this wonderful post!

    What to pay your domestic help: it's the question of the moment for expats in Bombay. There was recently a long discussion over the Bombay expat yahoo group, which includes all sorts of expats and returned NRIs: it got very heated!

    Some people were expressing that expats and returned NRIs are a vulnerable group that is regularly taken advantage of by domestic workers. Others like me said that that idea is laughable, especially as most expats and returned NRIs make huge salaries and pay a pittance to their maids and drivers. Others are more reasonable, and often support the education or vocational training of their domestic workers or their children. It's a huge topic: thanks for bringing it to the surface!

    And 25 paise... what does that buy even in the village, let alone a place like Bangalore or Bombay!
  • Writerzblock
    16.11.11 04:13 AM
    @ Maddie,

    My thoughts exactly... we do need to relax a bit and read the essay by being objective, rather than condemn the author (that too, out of couch-patriotism)!!

    You are right about the words in italics, I thought the same - that they were not what the author's judgement, but a general perception of people around him.

    Thank you, Maddie, for sharing your viewpoint.
  • Maddie
    15.11.11 09:27 PM
    I read the article and Almost every comment from India is a rant about him being a failure or a quitter because he decided to leave. They also take every comment within the piece at face value. It would have been great if all those British grammar schools would have taken the time to teach the people of India how to correctly read an OPINION piece such as this. When a writer is placing their opinion or mindset within an editorial piece they will use italics to distinguish their thoughts at that time within the context of the emotions they are experiencing within that circumstance. THIS DOES NOT MEAN THAT THEY FIRMLY FEEL THIS WAY ALL THE TIME - ONLY WITHIN THE CONTEXT OF THAT MOMENT!!!! Desis need to learn to relax a bit and stop feeling the need to defend themselves or their country. The reason tourism is so large within India is because India is the most dynamic country in the world. It can offer countless forms of pleasure and energy to anyone willing to enter its borders. We know this, we get this, that is why we all go there.

    Ironically, by chastising him for leaving and questioning his motives through their defense of India and themselves, they are only providing examples of the exact things which drove him away.
  • Writerzblock
    15.11.11 07:52 PM

    Came back to say, when I mentioned 'understandably, people are outraged at the essay' I only meant I understand their anger, not necessarily agree with it or feel the same. Hope I've made my stance clear this time.
  • Writerzblock
    15.11.11 02:48 AM

    My point, very simply is that the truth behind the essay is unnerving.

    My concern is not about the author's decision to leave India / the author's image / India's image as portrayed by the essay/ etc. No.. I am only talking about the fact that the points made in the essay actually refer to a painful truth.

    Would love to hear what you have to say on the topic too.
  • Curmudgeon
    15.11.11 12:30 AM
    Interesting piece, though unless I didnt read it properly, it seems to be basically agreeing with points made in the original newspaper article and saying that this is simply 'how it is', but objecting that people might think this is the norm, even though the author apparently thinks it is anyway!
  • Writerzblock
    14.11.11 04:44 PM
    Harry - Always happy to see a mature and intellectually stimulating discussion!

    Coming back to your question, my take remains the same, that technology only 'facilitates' the attitude of people, not 'causes' it.

    For example, a person with money CHOOSES whether to spend it on himself or give it away in charity. He chooses to improve his own life, or that of someone else!

    Harry, your 14-year old wants an HTC? I know of someone who bought her 2-year old an iPad!!!!!!

    You see, it is we who make the CHOICE. The cost of that iPad would have covered the entire year's school fees for a couple of poor children in India.

    It is the same on a larger scale. Consider the money flushed into the IPL. And I'm not talking about the millions spent buying players! An ordinary ticket costs anywhere between Rs.300 to Rs.2000! Ever seen an 'empty' stadium?

    To me, the answer is simple. 'Choice'. Money/power/technology are only means. It does not dictate what to do, but only lays out options in front of us, after which, the human mind takes over!
    14.11.11 01:14 AM
    Am I over reacting ? or is this the way of world now, and I am too old to realise this.

    14.11.11 12:44 AM
    Dear PALLAVI

    I agree when you said that power struggle in mankind is eternal, but isn't wealth and the money fuel and the driving force behind this power. From your post/answer you seem to suggest they are not linked, or may not be.

    Since dawn of time, power is only possesed by those who has wealth = money = gold = all thing material = technology in modern times. If above is true to my understanding then technology is = wealth in modern times.

    By looking at the equation above, why can't we blame tchnology for the attitude of people.

    I will give my reasion why I came to this conclusion. My 14 years old brat gets home after school and says to me he wants HTC=£575 phone, so I said why ? bearing in mind he has allready lost three handsets with in a year and it's not finished yet. He said because I can afford it. So if the technology gives this attitude to 14 years old what make the india and indian exempt from this. Do you understand the point I am trying to make PALLAVI.
  • Writerzblock
    13.11.11 09:21 AM
    Dear Harry,

    Thank you for your observation and feedback.

    You are right, no matter which country one lives in, one is always an Indian at heart! You evidently seem proud of your Indian heritage, which is wonderful, because one often comes across people who try so hard to 'not' be recognized as Indian, which I think is a shame!

    My initial reaction to your extremely thought-provoking question about technology is: I would not blame Technology for the deterioration of human values. I believe the power struggle in mankind is eternal .. so if not money and wealth (assuming it is a result of technological advancement), there would be some other criteria! Yes, the rich become richer, and the poor, just poorer! But the callousness that we see perhaps always existed, and is just more overt today, as we get caught up in the mad rush to inch up the social ladder?! Therefore, I guess technology facilitates it, not causes it.
    13.11.11 01:17 AM
    Dear PALLAVI

    I liked the way you sugar coated the article by not going in to too much details of one man's obesrvation of india.

    One essay is not a view of all india and indians especialy from a NRI who has not a clue how things work in india now. The comments he made are some what true, and the way things are in india.

    This would a been a stoning offence if this was a view of our indian prime minister or some body important, who truly represents india.

    As much as uppsetting it is, it is still truth, on what you said and he wrote, about the pay diffrence, and the way people are treated in daily lives in india. This is not going to change any time soon as we want it, because of our attitude toward our fellow indians.

    What ever the nationalty we have and adopted, our motherland will have special place in our heart for those who were born in india. This will always be true for most NRI.

    I have lived in UK most of my life, but I will always be recognised as indian on street of UK regardless of the passport I carry, and I know and you know this also applies to you as well.

    The poor people in india know's that their life's not going to change overnight regardless of the progress of technology.

    One thing is certain about the progress in india technology has made. This has made many rich but in reality they have became poor inside as human being due to thir attitude toward others.

    So my question to you is this, is technology a blessing in disguise or death of our civilisaton as we know it?


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