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Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
From the publishers of THE HINDU

TRANSITIONS : September 12, 1999


Back home to roost

Seetha Srikanth

I looked in the mirror. The nose has, perhaps, an Aryan touch, I thought. The eyes may be Dravidian. If those ancient forefathers had found fulfilment in walking horses in the Eurasian plains or contentment in tending the baths in Sind rather than seeking survival, then I, a happy descendant, wouldn't be here to gaze in the mirror. It struck my husband too - as he looked up at the sun and offered ancestor worship - that you could go a long way, climbing family trees. Anthropologically speaking, even Hanuman worship, was ancestor veneration. Though we didn't quite believe in growing tails, we felt it was part of our biology, to seek, move on till we found fulfilment.

After that, filial, nationalistic and social bonds seemed parochial fetters. Quite painlessly, we gave up appa and amma (especially his), murukku and cheedai, Deepavali and Tirupati. I cut my hair and strapped on my infant girl. My husband put in his papers and looked Gulf-ward. The plane took off with our euphoria. The Arabian Sea looked bluer by the Gulf than at Mumbai harbour.

Off the plane, heat struck like a lash. Dubai duty-free was like a consumerist dreamland, but touchdown wasn't all dreamy. There were different immigration counters for Arabs, Europeans and Asians. An intimation that you had a label and that you could never aspire professionally or socially to the same level as the local population.

At first, of course, you don't worry about that. The creature comforts are heady. A lovely centrally air-conditioned villa in Jumeirah, club membership with pool and gym facilities, the best four wheel drive in the stable. No worry about petrol costs; you can fill up without feeling the pinch. No haunting images of street children that eat into your sleep. No cribbing about monsoon, bad roads or crime.

Life for the families of well qualified expats is plush. Most Indians try to wear as much gold as they can manage. Supermarket shopping is an outing for the vegetating housewife. For the first few weeks it is a little heartbreaking as you are paying nearly Rs. 150 for one cauliflower, whereas you would have bargained if the vendor back home had said Rs. 15. Later you learn to do it in style.

Children drink Pepsi instead of water and wear global labels on their sports collars and tennis racquets. Of course, they struggle with Arabic and spend a lot of time indoors. If the mums, also work, they become latchkey children. Daddies drive fast cars, use the latest computers, look forward to incentive tours in other parts of the world. They realise that you can never equate yourself with the locals or please the white intermediary. (Life for the menial or the clerical class immigrant is very tough.)

The vacation back home is a treat for the first generation expatriate. Family loves you and all the gifts picked up from the gold souk and the electronics bazaar. Friends make an effort to stay networked. Snobs send party invites. The bank manager asks you to have tea in his cabin. You can feel sanctimonious and philanthropic, donating a meal to all the children at an orphanage on your child's birthday. You don't feel the need to argue if the auto fellow fleeces you.

Kamal Sahai

For ten years these things kept us happy. Then the urge to move again began. He experienced a stasis at work. I called my problem cultural aridity. We wondered if we should move to the Far East, Africa or the U.S. The Far East is under recession, Africa never looks as good as it does on National Geographic and mid-forties is too late to start out in America. Too much comfort had killed our desire to take on foreign challenges. Perhaps we should pass on the quest to our children, if they will have it. And that meant coming back to India, trying to get them into a good school and later a professional course, or have them appear for the SAT.

Now that the thirst for great adventure was neatly gift-wrapped for the next generation, our middle class concerns returned. Perhaps our life would be more meaningful in India?

Jobs don't come easy, but our savings gave my husband the confidence to try floating an independent outfit. His own boss at last, we could stay close to ageing parents (especially mine). My daughter could find a decent Bharathanatyam guru, instead of paying obeisance to a novice with more access to MTV than Pandanallur. My son could join the various concentration camps for IIT test preparation.

So, here we were, Back Home! But the enthusiasm wasn't catching. The returning non-resident Indian is like Samson with a haircut. He has no electoral identification card, no ration card and is, therefore, persona non grata. He has to run around (and wait endlessly) for gas and phone connections, school admissions, licence renewals. A sullen bank clerk gives him a form to close his NRI account. As he meanders in the greasy bureaucratic maze, he is inclined to say with indignation, "Back there the system is so efficient." And people are ready to slap him for saying so.

A good school seems like the promised land. Admission procedures are like a weary and uncertain trek in an unfriendly place.

The children have the worst of it. Life, they realise, cannot be airconditioned always. Loving thatha-patti over ISD calls is quite different from sharing the TV with them. They have to fit into an education system which they have scorned. It is easier to get hangers-on who admire their clothes and gadgets than interesting friends. Some teachers feel they have to be put in place. They are clueless about India beyond the urban crust.

Indians come back for various reasons. A few return for reasons of the soul. They exchange corporate ladders for the spiritual. Contact with a visiting sadhu, or a philosophy, shows them life beyond the dollar. Resettling in India makes for rediscovery of India.

Many return because they cannot get permanent residentship or jobs, or because they have been discriminated against. They leave a little bit of their hearts behind as they come back. Their views are coloured by their stay abroad. Resentment froths up at every snag. They are caught between two worlds.

For the rest of us, it is simply home. Grubby and infuriating, but home, nevertheless. A place to return to when the travels are done. In every case the transition, the relocation is difficult. But the problem is in proportion to the baggage one brings back. This is an old, slow civilisation, burdened by its numbers. It is frustrating that despite all its advancement nothing much happens at the push of a button. But its complexity, strife and resilience give a glimpse of a quality that does not relate to push-buttons.

We are glad to be back home. Now we do not hark back to racial antecedents. In fact, we leave it to a muddled anthropological past. We try to discover and bond with relatives and friends who can help us get on with it here and now. A great uncle (incidentally, on a school board) is invited to lunch. A second cousin, a civil servant, is taken out for cocktails. We take little gifts to certain corporation employees. I give away a phoren saree and hair clips to the neighbour's maid in an attempt to entice a dependable one for myself.

We speak only in the local language. And when required, in slightly shaky English. The man in the street will tell you that we have no airs or accent. We learn to "talk the talk", sweetly, with telephone linesmen, fault fixers from the MES and conservancy workers. We may eventually find meaning in our life back here, but right now we need to find good plumbers, electricians and carpenters.


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