Ex-Home Sweet Ex-Home: An nrI in Bangalore
Having lived outside India for more than 8 years now, going home is recharging and stressful at the same time. A list-maniac, I’ve tried to break down the experience into the following stages.
- Nervous excitement: Before I leave Seattle, I fret a lot. Will they say I’ve become fat? Dark? All relatives happily tell you (repeatedly) if you’ve fattened up or darkened, but never seem to notice the opposite. So one month before my India trip, I hit the gym like a podgy bride-to-be and avoid the sun like a vampire. I also abandon my meticulously prepared gift list and hit all the sales in town, grossly overspending and over-packing.
- First impressions: Three things grab my attention when I step out of Bangalore Airport—Girls, Gold and God. Indian Fashion is forever in the Spring mode, and the bright clothes on the local women wake me up pleasantly. Gold dazzles everywhere. Everyone wears at least gold earrings and a chain, and the billboards scream of new gold designs, gold loans and gold shops. And Oh my God! Right from my taxi’s dashboard to tens of temple gopuras/churches/mosques to every home’s gate, I see images, idols and chants of a multitude of gods, in all forms and colors. But who am I mocking? As soon as I get down from the airplane, I wear my gold mangalsutra and touch the Indian soil. Really.
- Bewilderment: It’s only been six months this time, but life in Bangalore still bewilders me for the next few days. It’s expensive! It’s chaotic! It’s crowded! It’s polluted! It’s even more stressful because I’m trying hard to fit in and not be that NRI. I’m a closet NRI, remember? So I quietly cringe when the cashier coughs into my bill, and quietly cringe when people huddle so close in queues that I can smell their deodorant (or the lack of it). I try to look cool when I ride along in a car, closing my eyes and trying hard not to shriek every time a vehicle does something unexpected and risky. I either fall asleep or end up with jaw tension. I hold dad’s hand, ostensibly with love, when we run across the road, avoiding vehicles like an obstacle-course video game. I wistfully wish for my quiet, sleepy town from years ago. Culture shock hits me too. I blink when relatives brag about their expensive shopping sprees, and surreptitiously move my Old Navy slippers under the sofa. I’m aghast at youngsters like me blowing up their paychecks and their fast dating lives. I feel a generation older than my peers and my unconventional love-story seems as daring as a 1950’s movie.
- Adapting and swalpa adjust madi-ing: That’s week 1. By week two, I’m again a Bangalorean. I reassure myself that I’m not an N.R.I, but an n.r.I. I talk and cuss like a Bangalorean. I fight with autorickshaw drivers and use three languages in the same sentence. I chumma say chumma. I’ve arrived.
- Soaking it all in: Then comes the richest part of my experience, the part that keeps me going until the next vacation. I absorb my world like a sponge. I happily play with street dogs and hug cows. I visit temples. I pig out at my favorite eateries. Through it all, I observe. This year’s observations:
- Money is the mantra now. Although there is an overall increase in wealth, I see tailors, cobblers and vegetable vendors working hard all day for appallingly low incomes while my generation does as little as they can do for appallingly high salaries. The gap is growing, and that explains the crime rate in my previously safe city.
- Despite their fast-paced lives, I appreciate that a majority still have a dormant grounding force—that anchor for our souls. Be it religion, tradition or blindly following ‘culture’, they have a grounding force that will rescue them in times of crisis. I make a note to reinforce my anchor.
- I see the hassled senior citizens, trying hard to catch up to the traffic, the inflation and the change in public attitude. I hope my generation, charging on with brash confidence, will notice them too and slow down every once in a while.
- I see the huge gap between the modern and the conservative, even in my own generation. A part of the society has evolved, a part has retrogressed and the rest straddles both precariously.
- I curse ‘outsiders’ for coming into my city and ruining it—they use my city for wealth and a good life without even trying to adopt our culture and our language! And then I realize why other countries resent Indians. This is immigration on a smaller scale.
- I appreciate how societies are self-balancing. We have managed to prosper and grow even in this chaos. But it’s not been easy, and I know I took the easy way out.
It’s a lot of observation and introspection, but in the end it recharges my soul.
- Withdrawal symptoms: Vacations always end. At the airport, I take a lungful of the damp, earthy air and memorize the scenery with coconut trees (conveniently erasing the omnipresent pollution, mismatched buildings and noisy vehicles from my memory) one last time. I manage not to cry at the airport, but when the airplane takes off, I feel an overwhelming sense of loss. I sigh at the thought of returning to my picture perfect world. For even though my world is clean, pretty and orderly, I will still be on the outside, looking in. I wonder whether I’ll ever be able to move back home to Bangalore; I’ve become such a comfort-bug. The answer leans toward No; I’m not tough enough for this life anymore. I wonder if I’ll ever be able to truly be a barbecue-loving, football-fanatic American; the answer is unequivocally No. I cringe at the thought of having ABCD kids. I wonder whether I’ll find peace 30 years from now. What use is an anchor when it’s 10,000 miles away? I think I already know what my mid-life crisis will be about.
I’ll cross that bridge when I get to it. For now, there’s living to be done and bags to be unpacked.