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.
Remember those NRI relatives who would only drink Bisleri water, incessantly complained about the unclean streets and took vaccinations before they travelled to their homeland?
Now it’s quite the opposite. Most of our generation is more grounded, takes more pride in our origins and actively tries to preserve our roots. We were cool even before we set foot on a foreign land, and we took to our new world like dolphins to the sea. We don’t need to flash our international baggage tags and complain about jet lag for two weeks to feel cool. Instead, as soon as we dump our bags we head to our favorite roadside vendor and have that vada pao (vada sambhar in my case) like it should be had. Our accent disappears on its own on the flight into India and returns on the flight out. We make mental notes to change the units in our head (km, not miles. Kilos, not pounds) just so we don’t accidentally come across as being a showoff. We do everything to ensure that living in India for only a few weeks of the year hasn’t changed us a bit. We are the generation of closet NRI’s.
But after 8 years of living abroad, I’m dismayed to realize that NRI is not just an attitude problem. It is as real as your fear of ghosts. Never mind if ghosts are real, but the fear is.
Here are a few signs that you may just be a closet NRI, and tips to stay safely in that closet.
Ettu, Tummy? After landing in Bangalore, I eagerly run to the nearest Adiga’s and order my usual Mysore Masala Dosa, Vada Sambhar and filter coffee to satisfy my South-Indian cravings. But I sniffle through the dosa and weep my way through the vada because they’re too spicy, painfully aware that they’ll make me cry on their way out too. Ouch.
A delicate stomach is the biggest symptom of NRI-hhea. Your tummy and palate have gotten used to the blander food you eat every day. And the germophobic society you live in doesn’t help your immune system either. I order a lassi or a sweet along with my food so I can eat in a more dignified manner. Yoghurt is also great for the digestive system. And when I return, I add an extra half teaspoon of chilli powder to my normal cooking, just to keep up with the spice levels of my vacation.
And the germs? You don’t have to apologize for your stomach having turned an NRI. Just don’t baby it and make it more complacent. If you have to, secretly take a course of mild antibiotics after you land so your body has a little help in adjusting to its new environment. And then get back to living it up, for the best chaats aren’t made in five-star hotels.
- You’re dumb without your smartphone. You stand on a street full of restaurants, biting your nails and lost on which one to eat at. Your smartphone is probably not unlocked to be used with an Indian SIM, and you’re using your mom’s Nokia 1100. That means no Yelp or Open Table or Trip Advisor. Even if you do have a working smartphone, there aren’t enough Burrp reviews and the few that are there look fake. You’re incapable of making a decision and you freeze up.
As a safe option, I visit my old haunts unless I know better options. Nostalgia’s a good excuse for the unadventurous. Better still, I let my friends decide where to meet. And I always make sure mom’s kept some food in the fridge, just in case.
- You get cheated because you’ve become naïve. That auto driver didn’t reset the meter when you started, and gave you lesser change. People cut in on you in lines all the time. The supermarket cashier billed you for the chewing gum but it never came home. You’re outraged that some random stranger wasn’t honest when you trusted him for no reason at all.
Remember your mom’s words when you were ten? Check the bill, check the items and count the change. Take nothing for granted. Naïve is another word for dumb, and you don’t want to be that. The next time someone cuts into my line, I’m speaking up, because trying to stare them down doesn’t work when I’m staring at their backs.
- You’re always the first one to arrive. You remember how Indian Standard Time works, you even worked it yourself once. And you know that your friends aren’t really going to arrive at 8 PM. So you play video games, read the newspaper for the third time, take a little nap, take extra time getting dressed and still land up only 15 minutes past 8 PM and spend the next half hour alone and overdressed.
If you don’t want to be early, be late. Simple. I plan to reach late not for an 8 PM table, but for an 8:30 PM table. That way my fashionably late is fashionable. If you’re too late, you can always blame it on that old friend—jet lag.
- You’re dehydrated because you don’t drink water. What else do you do when you’re travelling out of the city and don’t want to step into dark, smelly public restrooms?
But it’s unhealthy. Being a guy is only slightly better when you’re travelling.
So what do you do?
Yoga, baby! Remember chair pose? Oh yeah. Learn to squat in mid-air, and girls, learn to aim!
But seriously, I plan my day so I’m going to be at a restaurant which has relatively cleaner restrooms. I also drink lots of water an hour before my lunch break and before heading to bed to stay hydrated.
After you return, visit your local highway gas stations to see that West isn’t always the best. Ever hiked? If compostable ‘honey bucket’s don’t make you start squatting, nothing will.
Enjoy your vacation, my dear NRI’s. And stay in that closet.