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Desi Transmissions

Desi Transmissions

September 18, 2010

Indian culture abroad seems stuck in a time warp compared to what is going on back home.

Have you ever played the game "telephone" as a kid? If you grew up in North America, you definitely have: it's a staple of school picnics, in which everyone sits in a circle. The first person whispers a word into her neighbour's ear, who in turn whispers it into her neighbour's, and so forth, until it comes back to the original person. It's amazing how often the word that comes back has little connection to the word that went out in the first place: "book" becomes "cake" or something like that.

I can't think of a better metaphor for the transmission of culture: the further it moves away from its home, the more it gets modified, step by step, until, in some cases, it's almost unrecognizable when compared to the original. Indian culture in the West Indies is a good example, and for obvious reasons. When Indians arrived in the Caribbean as indentured labour, they had no contact with their home country's culture, and had to rely on collective memory over the generations to preserve it: what exists today is rich and interesting, but has little to do with anything going on in India.

While we may not want to admit it, Indian culture in North America is not that different. The bulk of Indians here today came in the 1960s and 1970s, or are children of those original migrants. In our electronic age, it's easy to forget that, in those days, keeping in touch with what was going on back home wasn't easy. There was no cable television, no internet, not even direct dialling: I still remember my parents having to book a call with the operator and waiting to see if they could get a line! Not to mention the fact that those calls were expensive, as were airline tickets. Indian spices were almost impossible to get hold of, even if you wanted to cook desi at home. If you were raised vegetarian, as I was, it was well-nigh impossible to get anything in the school cafeteria. The end result was that that generation, and their kids, quickly lost touch with developments in India, and cultivated, and nurtured, a cosseted and at once dessicated Indian culture in North America.

Part of this involves accommodating Indian culture to local conditions. Let me give you a trivial but telling example. Indian meals, as you know, are not served in courses: everything is served at once on a thali. Proper North Indian restaurants in India, therefore, don't have snacks on their menu. At the very most, you will order some dry tandoori stuff with roomali roti to nibble on before dinner. But Western-style restaurant meals typically start with an appetizer, move on to a main course, and finish with dessert. So what we see in Indian restaurants here is the spectacle of diners munching on samosas and pakoras, even chaat, before ordering dinner, having a full meal of naan, sabzi, and so on, then having their gulab jamun afterwards. Equally annoying, you have to tell the waiter whether you want the spice level "mild, medium, or hot". This makes sense, maybe, for a non-Indian, but to ask a desi? Please!

That was a trivial example. For a more serious one, it's striking how Indians here are way more socially conservative than the folks back home. That includes the prevalence of arranged marriage, even amongst the second and third generation. A fixation on religion and caste is another feature. I went to a dinner party in Ottawa a while ago, and it was like being thrown back, almost atavistically, to life in the village: the women dutifully fed the men, who ate first, and the men and women sat separately. I was at a fancy dinner in Mumbai a while later, at which the scintillating society women dominated the conversation and their meek menfolk played second fiddle! The two groups of people would have had nothing in common, except for my presence at both events.

There is nothing particularly unique about this, of course. Italians in North America are stuck in a conservative, Catholic culture they brought with them after the war that resonates little in contemporary Italy, and so it goes with many ethnic groups.

Technology may be our saviour here. I notice that recent immigrants, especially those who come as adults, are savvy about keeping their options open in India while they pursue education or work opportunities here in North America. An increasing number even return to India, contributing to what economists are calling a "reverse brain drain", but which is more appropriately termed "brain circulation", as they don't park themselves either here or there, but rather keep going back and forth. Whether this sort of thing will eventually create a truly hybridized global culture, or instead will accentuate differences in subtler and less easy to quantify ways, is something to speculate on.


  • Mansolaris
    03.12.10 09:19 PM
    An observation before I put in my two pennies' worth: "Indian meals, as you know, are not served in courses: everything is served at once on a thali." This is not entirely true, largely because there doesn't - yet - exist anything known as an "Indian" meal. While in much of north India, meals have long been grab-all affairs, in eastern India - for example, in Bengal - meals have traditionally been served in punctilious, often inflexible, courses, and continue to be so served: they start with what is called "tento" (bitter), meant to cleanse the system; they move on to pulses (dal), veggies and fries; then on to the hard proteins - fish or meat (very often, both); and the gorging ends with a sweet. This linearity is codified; and when the rule is broken, as it was (and still is, for all I know) in Barisal in what used to be East Bengal (Bangladesh), where the dal was consumed after the fish/meat, it became the target of benign derision.

    Right: enough of this gastronomic lecture. As for the rest of what you say, it's a truism that anything that travels through time and space ends up being a little, or a lot, less of what it started out as having been. Keralites settled in New Delhi are culturally stultified compared to their counterparts in Kerala; as are Bengalis settled in Uttar Pradesh, who continue with the 'ghunghat' long after it's been largely discarded in Bengal; or, indeed, Sikhs settled in Kolkata, who've forgotten - or, in this generation, never learnt - Gurmukhi. An Estonian friend of mine long settled in Goa has forgotten virtually everything about the 'Kalevipoeg'.

    This sociocultural distancing from what were once one's roots - but, really, no longer are - is a global phenomenon. With regard to the subcontinent, NRI's are hardly its only victims, but they are, probably, its most conflicted.
  • prasanna raghavan
    prasanna raghavan
    21.09.10 02:14 AM
    I think, Indians are willing to accept changes for the sake of their economic advancement. But, when it comes to tradition they are some how blindly attached with them that they often get isolated in their adopted countries.

    Not only that , the elders often do not realize that youngsters do need assistance from them to adjust to the new world. A lack of this initiative often leads to many conflicts.

    Also Indians in my opinion are very racist. In South Africa, I have come across many Indians who enjoy a sense of pleasure when they narrate how in the past they used to discriminate against their own Indian fellows who did the manual jobs.

    In the foreign lands, this is coupled with the we and they syndrome.

    Indians in India on the other hand are willing to change because they think change makes them look modern or even western.In many cases this is still a peripheral thing. The matrimonial agents are now busy offering caste base information to the prospective grooms and brides. That alone tells how much have they changed inside in spite of their run to accumulate all kinds of modern gadgets of technology as well as lifestyles.

    So i believe, that the Indians in their foreign lands as well as in India, except a minority, are more or less the same when it comes to positive changes.
  • Vivek Dehejia
    Vivek Dehejia
    20.09.10 08:10 PM

    Many thanks for this observation - I think Zephyr had also made a similar point about moving within India.


    I quote you: "I think behavior comes from Values and beliefs which in turn drives ideas and thoughts. Right?"

    Partly right, in my opinion. Behaviour is also shaped by one's environment, the point I was trying to make in the piece.

    To quote you again: "I think the question that you should be asking is that what skill-sets and experience do NRIs bring to the table that homegrown Indian talent cannot. Probably if you help in answering that question, Indian corporates will take note of your research and be interested in exploiting those efficiencies."

    Maybe that's the question you should be asking, David. It's not the one I was asking. Nor am I interested in developing something that can be sold to corporates or anyone else. I'm just a writer who comes up with ideas. If they resonate with my readers, terrific. Perhaps you can convert it into something useful to sell to a corporate! :)


  • David DSouza
    David DSouza
    20.09.10 11:31 AM

    Firstly, I would like to point out that Indians as a class of people who are probably the most "adaptable and adoptable" race of people worldwide.

    I am quoting what you said ... "I’m really comparing young people in North America, whose parents migrated here, who tend to be quite conservative in my experience, with their confreres in India, who are more socially liberal in an evolving Indian ethos."

    I think behavior comes from Values and beliefs which in turn drives ideas and thoughts. Right?

    So, what has changed ? Their outlook on life ? or the way they are perceived by the world ?

    Well, until very recently, India was a very inward looking country with a socialist mindset and still clinging to its friends from the soviet-bloc. Things have changed in the last 10-15 years or so. But how much is real and how much is fake and make believe?

    And what class of people have changed ? Middle-class ? and what is the yard stick you are trying to use?

    By any stretch of the imagination - the Indians who went to the US and Canada in the 1960/70s were themselves "change-agents". They moved out of India that was atrophying and decaying and took with them their "behavior syndrome" for an almost failed Indian state of Gandhi and Nehru. So they held on to a belief system that was not going anywhere which they carried from India. A lot of those Indians did not "integrate" with the societies of the US and Canada because ask yourself what they had to offer in terms of family values? The Hippie culture of the 1960s with all its crashing family social infrastructure ? So I dont blame the generation of the 60s/70s for being conservative. Perhaps, its what kept their families together and helped their kids outshine and excel at school and University. So, in my opinion that was the generation that was "pulled" out of India.

    OK, lets compare the young people in NA with those in India. What is so "socially liberal" and advanced about young people in India? Just because, every lifestyle food and clothing and music company has entered India and is selling their way of life, do you think that the Indians who are consuming it have become more socially liberal and advanced than their western counterparts? I dont think that values and beliefs change in one generation, it takes a while specially for an Asian culture like India that is heavily laden with deep seated cultural issues like caste and creed and class. Open the India classifieds and nothing has changed in terms of young people looking for wives or husbands from the same caste or class, or even village.

    Infact, the NRIs from NA have probably more mixed marriages just because they have to pick and choose from a small pool of availability in NA or else "import" the boy or girl from the home country! I would say that they have adjusted to their reality and have moved with the times compared to their counterparts in India !

    So, is the change real or cosmetic?

    True, some things have changed but you will have to do a real study and try to understand this on a population basis rather than just anecdotal evidence.

    The most westernized society in Asia is Japan and how LONG did it take them to change? And that is a homogeneous culture that is 20 times more conservative than Indians who are atleast open to speaking more than one language!

    So, I think the question that you should be asking is that what skill-sets and experience do NRIs bring to the table that homegrown Indian talent cannot. Probably if you help in answering that question, Indian corporates will take note of your research and be interested in exploiting those efficiencies. But to just typecast or blockade people into NRI versus home-grown Indian based on values and beliefs has no meaning or use to anyone ..its like studying primates who habitat has changed, thats all.

    David DSouza
  • Nalini Hebbar
    Nalini Hebbar
    20.09.10 09:46 AM
    It happens in the reverse too...I have lived in cities for my first 25 years in the North and in a town in the next 25 in the South...the adjustment is tough after being so detached from traditions during the formative years of life.
  • Vivek Dehejia
    Vivek Dehejia
    19.09.10 04:46 AM

    I'm really comparing young people in North America, whose parents migrated here, who tend to be quite conservative in my experience, with their confreres in India, who are more socially liberal in an evolving Indian ethos. Comparing the older folks, the same is probably true, but of course all of these claims are subject to the usual caveats of comparing like with like and "small sample bias" as economists would say.
  • BB
    19.09.10 03:03 AM
    Indeed, spot on. Perhaps art of the explanation lies with age, though. By which I mean comparing people who are in their 60s now to young folk in India, you certainly conclude that the previous generation failed to evolve. But the real question is how does a 60-something abroad compare to someone of the same generation at home?

  • Jal
    18.09.10 06:31 PM
    Very true.
  • Vivek Dehejia
    Vivek Dehejia
    18.09.10 05:45 PM
    That is a good point, something I alluded to in my previous post in the different context of comparing Canada and the US.

    I do think, though, that the sheer difficulty of keeping in touch was a factor in those days as compared to today.

    As one example I didn't mention in the piece, even getting Indian news was tough, to the extent that in the "old days" my dad used to go to the Indian High Commission here in Ottawa to read last week's Indian papers that came in the diplomatic bag - hard to believe today!
  • A Singh
    A Singh
    18.09.10 05:39 PM
    Absolutely, it is a case of clinging onto one's culture for fear of losing it in a new land where you are a minority.

    In the UK, and Canada I guess, it also comes down to the nature of immigration in the 50/60/70s. The migrants were by and large Punjabis coming from small villages who were relatively less educated and literate. With this group the fear factor of losing their culture was much greater than say with the wave of mainly skilled professional Indians.
  • Vivek Dehejia
    Vivek Dehejia
    18.09.10 05:30 PM
    Many thanks for that observation, Zephyr, and I will check out your blog! Thanks for dropping by and commenting on mine!
  • zephyr
    18.09.10 05:26 PM
    This is something that happens even in India, especially with the conservative South Indian communities settles in northern cities. The rituals and customs are archaic, something those in the south have long ago given up or moved on. And here there is no excuse of not being in touch or having regular interactions. It is more of ghettoism, where one wants to hold on to one's distinct culture in an alien land! Do visit my blog and read my take on this

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