A conflicted Indian abroad: Of identity and being a misfit

Ramya SriramThe Reluctant NRI, WritingLeave a Comment

Part 3 of the series A Conflicted Indian Abroad: The Reluctant NRI, in which I write about my experiences as an Indian living in the UK. Here, I explore my unreasonably strong attachment to identity and navigate ways to dull the guilt that comes with being abroad. Read Part 1 and Part 2.

Huh, what. I’m brown? 

I was introduced to the word “brown” in its usage to describe someone only after I moved out of India. I’ve never thought of myself as South Asian or brown-skinned. I’ve never really been aware (or should I say, been made aware) of my race and ethnicity. Even after I moved abroad and settled into life in the UK, it never struck me that anybody would perceive me as different. I didn’t have a work circle or a social circle, and mostly spent my time in the park. This left me quite unaware that I was an outsider. I went to the pub, I ate scrambled eggs for breakfast. I planted daffodils and said hello to my neighbours. I assumed I was just like everyone else. I’d simply never used those words to describe people: black, white, brown. (In India there’s a different sort of  skin colour racism… but that’s a story for another time.) 

After a few years of living in the UK, I was invited to speak at a conference in Leicester about diversity in travel writing. One of the talking points was my experience as a South Asian woman living in the UK, the challenges I might have faced, and what I think of other South Asian women writers in the UK. I was quite startled by the theme as firstly I had never been conscious of this identity as a South Asian woman writer and I had never paid attention to any unique challenges I might face. 

I had assumed that my challenges were like anybody else’s in the writing space: you pitch, you win some, you lose some.

I didn’t consider myself unequal in any way – the thought simply didn’t cross my mind. When I look back now, I figure maybe that was because of some kind of privilege? My hairdresser commented once that she had never cut such thick, long, dark Indian hair, and I wasn’t sure if that was a compliment or otherwise. I gave everyone the benefit of the doubt. 

When I pursued a nature writing course online, my tutor remarked that I was a rare person in crossing boundaries, as an Indian woman living in the UK with a love of nature and comics. I read that over and over again and accepted it as true, though I wasn’t quite sure what it was that made it rare. I am Indian, I am a woman, I live in the UK. I love nature and I draw comics. Surely it couldn’t be that rare? 

But after some more years of living here, I understand what makes it rare. In fact, sometimes I get a bit worried about the variety of influences that I’ve had – it all seems so overwhelming somehow. I know the beat of the drums played in the temple next door at home as well as the rhythm to Dave Matthews’ Stay. At an event in the Loughborough market, I was surprised when I recognized most of the Salvation Army’s brass band marches as I’d marched to them in school. I’d grown up wearing jasmine in my hair and smelling marigold, but words that were deeply embedded in my vocabulary were foxgloves and snowdrops and bluebells – though I’d never seen any of those flowers back in India! I grew up with (what I thought was unlimited and unrestricted but later found was carefully monitored) access to the Internet, which helped me get some (limited) understanding of the world outside India.

Culture shock

But no matter how much TV you watch or how much Queen or Deep Purple or Alan Parsons you listen to or how much of George Orwell or Zadie Smith you read, you simply can’t know what everyday life is like in in the UK unless you actually live here. I also realize the definition of “everyday life” varies in different parts of this small country – and it can’t be generalized – just like it can’t be in India. 

The culture shock comes in so many forms. One of the things that I still can’t wrap my head around is the easy access to hot water. Every time I turn on the hot water tap and hot water comes gushing out, it takes me by surprise for the initial few seconds. What a luxury! What a comfort on a cold winter day! And every time I can’t help feeling overcome by guilt about others not having access to water at all, of any temperature. Ah, good ol’ NRI guilt. It’s starting to get real familiar. 

This evening a dog barked for exactly 3 minutes on the street. Later I opened Facebook and saw a massive conversation on the residents association group  about the dog barking. Perhaps the owners left it alone at home, they said. Poor thing. Maybe it’s in pain? Someone should go find out. What a tragedy.  

People were really upset about it. There was a big discussion. There was talk about calling the council. Or the RSPCA.  I don’t mean to say that we don’t share the same kind of compassion or concern for animals – it’s just that in India, people are simply used to focussing on bigger problems. My neighbourhood in Hyderabad is full of dogs that bark and howl into the dark hours of the night. Most people cuss and stuff their heads into their pillows and try to go back to sleep.

In India it’s true that we have to choose our battles because there are way too many to fight. We have to ignore half the problems just to survive and keep ourselves sane.

In a nutshell, the culture shock came in the form of realizing what people meant by “third world country”. It came to me in the realization that the true injustice is in this world is really about where you are born! People are always talking about not letting your birthplace, your country, define your progress or future but the reality is that the world is skewed and some people live and die in the unfavourable circumstances they are in. I also thought about how poverty is always on display in India. It is inescapable. I thought about Naipaul’s An Area of Darkness, a book that made me cringe and made my heart bleed for the India that he saw.

Well. Here, the world seemed more sanitized. The beautiful meadows and lovely cottages with their chimneys smoking, the hot water gushing from the tap, the access to cleaner air (at least in the places I’ve lived in), the public footpaths, the National Trust properties, people standing aside to give way to you on the footpath –all of this seemed like a fairytale. And I thought to myself – wow, what a place! It’s only after spending a few years that I’ve come to realize that the UK has its own share of problems and the picture isn’t as rosy as it looks.  

Misery is not a contest 

I’ve always struggled with guilt about having something that someone else can’t afford. It’s a unhealthy way to look at things – and in my adult life I think I want to move away from that guilt so much that I’m occasionally reckless with spending, as some sort of rebellion. Having gone to a Catholic school back home that had us “pray for the sick and the suffering” everyday and often reminded us of our privilege, I think that guilt was instilled in me at a very young age. 

But with time I have realized that misery is not a contest. I used to find it absurd that with clean air, clean water and somewhat enough to go around (at least in comparison), people still found so many things to be unhappy about. But now I see it differently. I realize that a kid starving in Africa didn’t mean that the intensity of hunger is not felt by someone who skips a couple of meals. You can only make measurements based on your understanding of dimensions, based on the extremes that you have experienced. It’s also unfair – it’s like saying that you shouldn’t complain about a headache because someone else might have a fractured bone. The problems are real. The pain is real. Poverty is very real – as real in the UK as it is in India. The NHS queues are real, the cost of living crisis is real. The problems are different – but they are real. 

Where do I fit?

Growing up I dreaded being an NRI. Like many other Indians, I treated NRIs with contempt and suspicion: they were a strange breed that romanced India yet didn’t seem to love it enough to live in it. An NRI, especially one that had spent some part of their life in India, would grumble about the lack of infrastructure, the scorching heat, when they only had to spend a little window of their lives here before they went back to their cushy lives (or so I assumed) in a fancy country.

I wasn’t even aware of my bias until I became an NRI and realized that many NRIs, just like Indians and everybody else in this world, are struggling to make sense of life, make money, have a sense of security and safety. I fought with my own biases. I redefined how I look at the world. I changed, over and over again, with every experience. 

So, as an Indian woman in the UK, with a love of nature and comics, where do I fit? As a guilty, reluctant NRI who wants to give back to India yet has made the choice of living here, at least for now, how do I live life? How do I turn that guilt into something useful? How do I split myself into two people and send one person back home and keep one person here? As a friend who wants to be accessible to friends and family back home yet wants to build a life and carve a space for myself here, how do I keep myself sane? As someone who identifies with old Lata Mangeshkar songs as much as I do with Jacob Collier, who can recite Wordsworth as well as appreciate Premchand, who has poached eggs for breakfast and khichdi for lunch, can I really box my identity into a geography?

And that’s maybe where I can find some comfort in the answer. Maybe all this talk about identity is slightly overrated. But maybe the attachment to identity itself is a fundamental problem: possibly even the root of “otherizing” and divide. We love boxing people into categories – brown, black, white, NRI, Indian, British, British Indian, BAME, ethnic minorities, Asian, etc.

But we are after all inhabitants of the same piece of rock, made of the same stuff. Our contexts are different, our influences, our cultures, our access to necessities and luxuries, the lines on the map around where we live. Maybe I don’t have to agonize over being called brown or an NRI or anything at all when I’m just, in the words of Pink Floyd, an “earth-bound misfit”, like  others. Maybe I can find ways to give back to where I grew up, where I spent a happy 28 years of life, without attaching so much emotional baggage to it. Maybe I can celebrate having multiple places to call home. Maybe I can accept that while I define myself as Indian, I need not stop there.

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