We initially came to the US with the idea of spending “just a few years here before we go back”. That was over eight years ago!. I remember first being aware that we were in it for the long haul while talking to my dad on the phone, about four years ago, grumbling about "the NRIs". I could hear my dad sniggering at the other end and asked him what was up. Choking back his laughter, he said, "you do realize that you are one of them now, don't you?!"
It came as a shock to me to realize that, yes, technically at that point, I was a Non Resident Indian. But, I never thought of myself in that way. NRIs were the ones who came to India in sarees which reached just to their ankles and in kurtas matched with Nike sneakers. NRIs were the ones who obsessed about the texture of toilet paper! NRIs were the ones who complained loudly about the dust and pollution in India. NRIs bitched about the lack of queues and the overwhelming number of people on the road. In short, NRIs were worse than 'real' Americans because they displayed the crassness, insensitivity, pomposity and self-inflated egos that Indians normally associate with Americans but were actually people who, till a few years ago, had been happily playing in the dust of the Indian soil!
Then how could I be an NRI?! Would I actually do these things when I visited the next time, which I, till now, have always condemned? Would I complain? Would I get out my Lysol container and wipe the seat of a taxi before I sat on it? Would I prominently display my bottle of Bisleri water and tell anyone who would listen how I had almost died of food poisoning on the second day of my visit? And, would I loudly whisper to my son not to touch any of the street kids because they were dirty?!
Now, every time I visit India, I wonder how I will react to different scenarios as I view my country through new eyes. Because, to be honest, my perception has changed. I do expect certain things that are different here compared to back home. I do expect courtesy from people on the streets. What are basic amenities here; such as a safe, well-equipped playground, a wheelchair ramp, a prominent warning sign next to a broken step; are not so readily available in India. But, does that mean that I display my impatience at the first sign of being inconvenienced?
I have lived in India for over twenty years; I have lived in the US for 8 years. How is it possible for people like me, to forget those twenty odd years? How is it possible for anyone to forget that they rode the public buses in all that 'dust and pollution' to go to college? How is it possible to forget that every evening, they used to go to their neighborhood pani puri wallah to devour 20-30 pani puris in one go? How is it possible to forget that they used to go to movie theatres and sit on torn and shabby seats for 3 hours, and that they enjoyed every minute of it? How is it possible to forget that they once gave their orange bar stick to the small beggar who was standing nearby and looking at them with round eyes? I pity people who forget some of the best years of their lives!
Every time I think of India, I pleasantly reminisce about the sights and sounds of my childhood city of Calcutta. The first rains, bringing up the smell of warm earth to my nostrils; the first sound of the dhaaks on Maha Panchami, bringing a lump to my throat every time I hear it; the annoying cacophony of sparrows and crows on the tree next to my room, which used to wake me up much, much sooner than I wanted to be woken; the sound of the Ice-cream Man in the evening, shouting "Kwo-o-o-lity-y-y- Ice cre-e-e-a-mmm!!", making me scramble to the window to see which direction he's heading and then running to my Ma to beg for money for a strawberry stick; the lights of Park Street where all the Marwari cake shops make special pastries for Christmas; the book vendors on College street calling after me, "O Didi, aaj boi neben na? (Hey, sister! Won’t you buy a book today?)".......................
Whenever I think about of my home country, it does make me emotional, at least for a few days, and I really wish to see and hear some of those familiar sights and sounds. Whenever I visit, I feel apprehensive that my kids will not like my city and my country and will turn up their noses, like the clichéd ABCD (American-born confused desi) kids. Of course, it's ridiculous to expect that two small kids will appreciate Indian culture and friendliness in the span of a few weeks! Each time, all I hope for is that it is a novelty for them, and a pleasant one at that, but that is another stressful thought that I carry each time I visit.
You may feel that such sentimentality is all fine up to a certain point, and that I am probably viewing my home country through rose-tinted glasses. You are probably right. Every time I view an Indian newspaper online, I feel the impatience and frustration of an NRI in reading about communal violence, the blatant disrespect and abuse of women, the apathy of people in general and the callousness of public servants, such as politicians and the police. Most of all, I wonder when we will come out of the quagmire of class and caste distinctions, of indulging in petty thoughts, and of our general disregard for public health, hygiene and safety.
This is exemplified by an incident in my Calcutta neighborhood. My mother, who is part of an NGO called Concern for Calcutta, was trying to motivate people to place their garbage in the proper bins at 7 a.m. daily - just before the garbage truck made its round - so that the garbage would not accumulate in the bins and overflow onto the sidewalk each day. Many of the people she spoke to said that it was not possible because their maid did not come that early. It never occurred to them that this was a task that they could perform themselves! Call me an 'NRI', but when I see people here in the USA; normal middle-class people; volunteering to go to the beaches with garbage bags and pick up trash from the sands that they have not thrown themselves, then I feel that at least this is something that we can learn from Americans!
Americans are not perfect by any means. When you listen to all the campaign speeches and the ridiculous propositions outlined in the electioneering, you wonder which century some of these people live in! But, on the other hand, being an Indian does not make you morally and culturally superior to them either, as many desis think of themselves. I believe we can take a leaf from each other's books. I just wonder though whether that will ever happen!