My Life Is Desi

Like the header says. Enjoy.

NRI, redux

Apropos the earlier post, Tunku Varadarajan just emailed me a link to a piece he has done in the Independence Day special issue of Outlook. The core of his argument:

India’s economy has emancipated the Indian abroad in other, smaller ways, too. Who has not travelled back to India recently—from New York, London, Vancouver or Dubai—and scratched his head over the question of what to take back to relatives in Delhi, or Chandigarh, or Thiruvananthapuram, or Nagpur. Once upon a time—and I speak from personal experience—one needed to do no more than go to the nearest supermarket and fill up a shopping cart with chocolate, cheese, ham and biscuits, all bought in bulk packs, to be lugged back home to people starved of exotic foreign food. The same was true of jeans and T-shirts, bras and sweaters. Not anymore. The clothes are now all made in India (or Mauritius, or Sri Lanka or Bangladesh—imagine taking home to your brother a shirt made in Bangladesh!). The foods are all available too—at a price, but available. No longer exotic, they’ve ceased to be gifts that enhance the status of the NRI giver.

In these ways—micro and macro—the Indian immigrant abroad no longer feels protective of, or patronising towards, the Hick at Home. This liberation has had intriguing consequences: it has allowed the unburdened immigrant to integrate himself more fully into the political life of his adoptive country (something Indian immigrants have been notoriously poor at doing). And in doing so, they have become—paradoxically—more effective in the service of their country of origin. Witness the role played by Indian-Americans in the lobbying for the recent US nuclear deal with India. American lawmakers (and an American president) paid them careful heed not because they were Indian, but because they were Americans who were pulling for India because the deal was good for America.

Comment, on this and the previous entry?

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…