The devalued NRI

When Shatrughan Sinha was Minister for Health in the Atal Bihari Vajpayee cabinet, he had in course of an official tour landed up in New York. I got a call, asking if I was free to go across and meet him. ‘Shotgun’ is always great fun, so I landed up at the Waldorf on a Saturday morning — and was met by an apologetic minister who said his schedule had been shot to hell, he had a roomful of folks waiting to meet him, and would I be okay with coming back next day, for lunch.

So back I went, on Sunday — and in his typical style, he began talking nineteen to the dozen before I had even settled down. His grouse? Indian American ‘community leaders’ who take themselves too seriously. His words: “Arre, yahan to if three Indian Americans meet in a coffee shop they form an association; the man who is paying for the coffee becomes president, and his best friend becomes the secretary. And the next thing you know, they come to us demanding time, saying they are the president of this or that association, and then sit here taking up our time, talking endlessly about all sorts of irrelevant things…’

There was much more in that vein, all centered around the point that the ‘community leadership’ in the US comprised of first generation folks who, for all their success, found themselves little fish in a very large ocean and thus formed these associations in a bid to carve out some relevance for themselves. [He took pains to suggest that he held the second and third generations in far greater respect, because they pinned their identities on their achievements and not on various titles they had conferred on themselves].

Once he gets started on subject, he rarely lets go — through most of that lunch, he talked of how this was in fact detrimental to the community — too many voices, not enough sense, so the mainstream tends to tune out, was the thrust of his diatribe.

All of this came back to mind while systematically deleting Rajan Zed’s avalanche of emails, and while reading Swapan Dasgupta’s think piece in the ToI just now. Here’s the crux:

The average NRI’s fall from grace in India has been precipitate. The vacuous condescension that marked earlier attitudes has been replaced by desperation to find some accommodation somewhere. The big NRI players have no problem — they have seen their social worth in the West keep pace with India’s soaring reputation as a rising power. But the small fish whose tie and a twang once enabled him to lord over his less fortunate brethren in India has seen envy replaced with disinterest.

To the NRI confronted with a precarious descent into obscurity, there is only a small solace: interventions on the net. Taking advantage of a more connected world, the professional NRI (who knows no other identity) has stepped up his battles to cast India in his own confused image. No Indian website is free from the voluminous but pernicious comments of the know-all, ultra-nationalist NRI banging away on the computer in splendid isolation. From being India’s would-be benefactors, the meddlesome NRI has become an intellectual nuisance, derailing civil discourse with his paranoia and pseudo-superiority. It’s time he was royally ignored.

Lots of NRIs among the Smoke Signals regulars — curious to know what you think, of the leadership, the spokesmen who profess to speak for you, and related issues.

PS: I could inflict on you another flood of Flintoff stories — which seems to be all that the British media can talk about, a day ahead of the final Ashes Test. But I won’t — too boring. And not much happening in the cricket world otherwise [plus another episode to write for tomorrow], so blogging apt to be sporadic today. Later, folks…

15 thoughts on “The devalued NRI

  1. Interesting read.
    I am not technically an NRI, neither do I live in India, so you could say thatI have a foot on both worlds.
    With the growth of the IT & ITES industry, India’s economic progress, and further globalization over the last few decades, there has been a big demystification of the NRI or the rich uncle who lives in Phoren land and struck gold. Almost all people living in India have some family or acquaintances abroad.
    As a simple example, there are very few things that a NRI could buy for you from abroad that you won’t get for a similar price in India.
    The NRIs also have less and less reasons to crib about the “quality of life” in India. I won’t say that the quality of life in terms of practical aspects’ is the same, (for e.g. public transport when compared to London / East Coast / Europe, pollution, etc are still a few sample reasons why many would prefer to live abroad), but the gap is shrinking. In fact, there are many things that are fare better in India, and I have noticed a trend of NRIs flocking to India on cheap flight tickets for extensive medical check ups at much lower costs.
    So this demystification of the fancy NRI amongst the common Indian man means that he / she holds much lesser clout in India.
    While abroad, things are generally better for him / her, but it could reach an inflection point where things start getting worse.
    Folks who moved to U.S a few decades back, were forced to form these clubs, try and learn local customs, suck up to the goras, and generally go through a lot of pain to blend in / settle down.Most Indians traveling abroad today have an acquaintances ready to help them, get to bump into loads of Indians at university/ work / clubs / on the streets, the Indian stores selling everything from bollowood DVDs to home made food is there everywhere, and as a result, they leave a very “Indian” life, physically located abroad.
    This state today is a comfort zone for many. But it could get worse when the Indians in a community outnumber the locals, as its happening already in many parts of U.S, Canada, and U.K. Depending on how well blended they are with the local ways, & other factors like how the job market is doing at a given point of time, & the presence of right wing parties in their countries, the locals could start resenting this Indian growth story and things could get ugly if not well managed.


  2. i am 36 years old. i have finished diploma in film technology in chennai. now i am going to make a film. any body willing to produce for film. preferably nri’s.

  3. Background: I am an NRI of 10 years in the US.
    I don’t know if this is necessarily an NRI/RI problem. It is a mindset problem. Same sh*t, different john. People need to assert their superiority by some parameter or the other. Its a mindset, a complex, a hangup – the us and them. Regardless of where they are, they will have the same argument. You can ascribe a superficial layer of NRIs/RIs to these groups, but that is a red herring. You can equally convincingly (and speciously) attribute this to religion, language, color, and any other basis for prejudice. There is no empirical data which proves anything, so its a free for all.

    Just visit any of the Rediff discussions following to a movie review or the latest perceived celebrity insult. You will see a democratic degradation of civility there.

    There are people in India and elsewhere who will behave similarly. They choose to be condescending because that’s what they want to do. Their situation may lend a different context, but the source is still the same.

    And what is the reason to be ashamed of for being in India or outside India? Is that what matters, or what you are as a person?

    Prem, nice work pointing out the difference between “Hindus/Indians think” and “Rajan Zed thinks”. No one speaks for me but myself. Thanks.

  4. Did we have any value before for it to be devalued now? 🙂 In fact it’s very nice to see all Indians – NRI’s and RI’s – achieving parity in social spheres. Long may this trend continue so that Indians “looking up” to the west or NRI’s etc etc will stop.

  5. “a precarious descent into obscurity” ….what descent ?

    THis guy Swapan Dasgupta must have been one of those Jadavpur University English grads ….. hating the Engg students for “taking away” the girls from his department ………while him and his fellow English students looked on in envy….LOL ….

    And no sir there is no disrespect or disinterest …. most of my frineds in India are there by choice ….and I’m here by my choice …we all respect each others choices and treat everybody as equals …….

    AND @Kalki ….when I land at the Netaji Subhash International … of my cousin brothers is always there ….with a pack of Filter Wills and a lighter …..even though none of them smoke …..

    • do these folks receive others as well at the airport or railway station – others who reside in India? If yes, then it still means what I say. No special treatment.

      If no, then probably I am talking about a trend that is yet to catch up in that part of the country. 🙂

      • Well this treatment is usually reserved for me primarily because I am one of the more popular cousins 😉 …not because I live abroad ,….and they know that I havent smoked for over 20 hours !

        No, everybody else take the cab ……. unless its an older uncle or aunt ….

  6. Opinionated, filled with superiority group of people is not an exclusive trait of NRI’s, as long as I can remember, upper middle class “uncles” (I think I am one of them now, uncle I mean, hopefully not the other traits), always were pretentious and supercilious with respect to their opinions.

    The difference I would guess is that if you look at the age group of NRI’s who participate in various discussions online will be 30~40 as opposed to the home grown junta which probably would be 20~30, the reason in the age difference being, the explosion of technology in India is a more recent phenomenon.

    So there is an indirect generation war that goes on between these two sets of people.

    Personally I never felt proud of the fact that I am an NRI, so there is nothing for me to feel bad about now either. My social standing as an “IT tam brahm” is probably the lowest in the tam brahm society without an IIT or any gold medals.

  7. Interesting to read these comments.
    Here is a disjointed POV.
    Nope, I’m not an NRI. But I have close friends and immediate kin living abroad, mostly in the States.
    Barring a rare few, the rest are more cued into what is happening here in India than many Indians are – the web allows them to do so.
    That includes movies, songs, news, sports, politics.
    I don’t find them ultra-nationalistic – yes they do have their point of view on their country of origin – rightfully so.
    I do tend to agree, the importance attached to the NRI status has gone down. Comes with our own economic boom and affluence.
    Our friends abroad have a bigger employment crisis on their hands than we do.
    “From being India’s would-be benefactors, the meddlesome NRI has become an intellectual nuisance, derailing civil discourse with his paranoia and pseudo-superiority. It’s time he was royally ignored.”
    Overstatement, IMHO.
    I think we, sitting here at home, beat anyone hands down when it comes to being intellectual nuisances and derailing civil discource with our paranoia 🙂

  8. I wd agree to some extent with Swapan although I am a newbie NRI (just 5 yrs old outside the country, so what do I know abt what happened before that!). I do feel though that once we are outside the country, however often we go back to the country, somehow the India that we left seems to be etched in our minds. And the pace of change in India is such that sometimes it becomes difficult to understand it. so the longer you stay out, the farther back you fall.
    I agree though with zrahul when he says that one area that i sorely feel that NRIs are (unnecessarily) still pandered to are in movies (wonder why that is though, given tickets in India are almost as expensive as they are here in Singapore for e.g.). Why was Love Aaj Kal set with Londoners as protagonists, when with a little bit of effort, it cd have become much more palatable. Personally too I am tired of all these NRI movies and want to see more of movies based in India (Dev-D, Kaminey, et al) about Resident Indians.
    Reasons for staying out of India are not that straightforward as money (the financial industry in India is more lucrative than here for the average guy for e.g. which may come as a surprise but is true). The fact that things work easily, less hassle (less commutes, I was workign in Mumbai earlier) are certainly factors.

  9. I don’t agree with Swapan’s conclusions. I feel that there is too much of a generalisation here. The meddlesome, know-all variety is not restricted to NRIs surely.

    From the tone of Swapan’s piece I sense the vacuous condescension emanating from the residents, or, is that a pernicious comment made by me banging away on the keyboard in splendid isolation? 🙂

    Anyway, most NRIs I know and interact think India is a big deal and we are proud of our country…warts & all. So why are we here? I can speak for myself – the comforts and the financial rewards it offers – no apologies there.

    Well, I have lived in Bahrain for the last 10+ years…so my fall from grace was complete 10+ years back. After all, how much of a social standing can a “gulf mallu” have? No regrets there as well…

    Coming back to the article, do I sense the author having an axe to grind against some individual (or group for that matter) NRI? Maybe its your Rajan Zed varieties that gives us NRIs a bad name.

    • Swapan’s piece was thrown up there merely to get people’s juices flowing, do note 🙂

      Anyways, will wait for more people to weigh in, and then see what the consensus is.

      • Am happy for people to have their opinion just as I do for myself.

        Most of the time I spent here I have been connected with the financial services industry. In the earlier years, I had this tendency to benchmark financial products I am exposed to here with what could have been in India . Perhaps it was a justification of sorts for getting the NRI mallu “stigma”. Now? Suffices to say I am very happy doing what I am doing. And I try wholeheartedly to be very good at what I do.

        That said, the heart is firmly in India. Parents still love me the way they always did. Friends, of which there are few, hold me in the same regard that they always did. Most relatives didn’t care when I was in India; thankfully, glad to note nothing has changed there 😀

        Someday, sooner or later, I will come back. Until such time, let me do what I do 🙂

  10. Not to offend any NRIs who read this, but I heard someone recently joking that nowadays people try to hide their NRI status while in India. The reason being their social status in India being lower than the home grown guy! 🙂

    Jokes aside, even within family circles, nobody really cares for their NRI brethren. While earlier an NRI relative (cousin, uncle, etc) was looked up as THE EVENT of the week/month, when all else stopped to pander to the needs of the visitors, when the house would begin to look like a bus stop with so many visitors queuing up outside to meet them (and see if they can take home some goodies 🙂 ), all that has stopped. Today, the same guys come home from airport in taxi by themselves. Nobody takes the pain of going to the airport to receive them. And when they come, they get to receive the same warmth and welcome as any other relative living in India would. No special treatment.

    And, the same is true among friends too.

  11. The role of the NRI has changed since the early 80s when the term NRI was first coined. I still remember the first time I heard the term NRI was in a RK Laxman cartoon which showed a politician introducing a suited gentleman to crowd with this line ‘He is a no ordinary India , He is a Non Resident Indian..’.

    In those days no foreigners were willing to invest in India so Mrs Gandhi tried this tactic of appealing to the Nationalistic sentiments of NRIs to attract investments. Now NRIs are not needed for this role.Then are other factors like the IT boom that allowed lot of Indians to travel all over the world , the call center industry and the internet has now lessened the fascination of anything ‘Foreign’ to Indians.

    Speaking for myself I do not feel any ‘precarious descent into obscurity’ as Swapan Dasgupta describes. When I visit India I am still loved and welcomed as before by my friends and relatives. If anything has changed I don’t have carry lot stuff as gifts to India since many of things are now available in India anyway. Dasgupta is also overstating the influence of ‘ultra-nationalist NRI ‘. These NRIs has no influence in India as nobody cares about them. In the US as stated by Shotgun these ‘leaders’ are so fragmented that do not have any kind impact.

    Finally There is one area NRIs continue to dominate that is in the script of a Bollywood movie.It is now very rare to have a big budget bollywood movie that is set in India. The hero or the heroine or both are NRIs. In many of these movies there is no need for these characters to be NRIs ( for example Dostana or Kal ho na ho) or set outside India . This was done so that the movie could be shot in a ‘clean’ location outside India.

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