The common thread that binds all us NRIs scattered across the world is the fact that we get to answer a question about origin with “Basically I’m from India.” A response that elicits reactions like, “Oh what a beautiful country” and “I’ve always wanted to go there,” or “Isn’t India filled with slums?” Responses that you brush off with a delighted ‘Thank You’ or a bristling “Well, you obviously have no idea of what India is all about”. But what about those who can only respond with, “Ummm. I really wouldn’t know!”
As a child who grew up in the Gulf, all the NRIs I knew were mostly real life versions of Karan Johar’s filmy characterizations of what he thought a Non Resident Indian was. They were the ones that missed Indian soil and waxed poetical about homemade Dal and Rotis. The ones that pined to watch the latest Bollywood releases and had tears welling up whenever the national anthem played. And the children of these NRIs were those who waited for school holidays to head home to grandparents and cousins and ancestral homes. It was not till I moved to the Philippines that I met a rather unique breed of Non Resident Indians who do not share any of the above characteristics. And that’s not because they don’t want to, but because they can’t. I’m talking about the Sindhi community of the Philippines.
My husband and I were waiting for our elevator clutching grocery bags when we first encountered this kind of NRI. A lady of indeterminate origin was looking at us and after a minute or two, smiled and asked, “Are you Indians?” We smiled and nodded and then all of us got into the elevator. After exchanging pleasantries, she ventured, “Me too. I’m from Hyderabad.” “Oh, you’re from Andhra Pradesh? We’re from the south too!” I replied. “Oh no, no! I’m from Hyderabad in Sindh” She merrily replied as she got off at her floor. My husband and I exchanged a look. We were pretty sure that Sindh was no longer on the Indian side of the border.
We’ve made many Sindhi friends since then. All of them possess Indian passports and are the descendants of those citizens of an undivided India that fled in the aftermath of the partition. They set up businesses here and built their homes and never looked back. For by the time, they wanted to return, their kith and kin were either displaced or separated by a line that nobody wanted to cross. They decided to throw away the rear view mirror and mingle with the local population.
‘Karishma’ became ‘Karis’ and ‘Arnab’ became ‘Ben’ but the heart always remained ‘Desi’. They still get married in the traditional big Indian wedding style and even observe Karva Chauth. Though many of them barely speak a word of any Indian language, they still flock to the Indian restaurants and order the Murgh Jalfrezi insisting on the sliced onions and green chili accompaniment. They are still Indian without ever setting foot on Indian soil.
It was these special kind of Non Resident Indians that made me realize that tracing your roots need not always mean heading back to a particular piece of land on the sub-continent. You can always trace your roots back to that special place in your heart that beats to an Indian rhythm.