A conflicted Indian abroad: Homesick in the UK

Ramya SriramThe Reluctant NRI, WritingLeave a Comment

A long rambling about being homesick in the UK, and missing the sights and sounds of India. Part 2 of the “Reluctant NRI” series. Read Part 1 here

The first thing that used to come to my mind when I’d hear the term ‘NRI’ was someone holding a bottle of Bisleri water. I was prejudiced for a bunch of reasons. An NRI to me was someone who came back to India to constantly grumble about the heat, dust and inefficiency. An NRI was also someone who was given preference during room allotments in our college hostel, and always got the one I was eyeing.

Six months ago, I found myself stepping into a little-known town in the UK, remembering that word just the way it came out of my bank manager’s mouth — you need to convert your account to an ENN-AARR-EYE account. What a dreaded term! Over the months that followed, I found myself wondering what exactly it meant to be Indian, resident or not.

I’ve lived for half a year in a village/small town in England, and I’ve got some more time to go. A few months isn’t much, but it’s been packed with an unusual number of questions, answers, more questions, confusion, seeking, wanderings and ponderings.

The absence of people was the thing I found most difficult to get used to. Suddenly there was no watchman, milkman or paperman; there were no autowalas, maids, grocery shop uncles, kolam-drawing aunties or friendly neighbours; no people spilling out of buses, no people on Scootys, no people at petrol bunks. No people. The lack of human interaction was stark. And then there was no ‘noise’. The soundscape changed entirely. Where I live in the UK, I hear the birds and the whooshing of cars in the distant motorway. Where I live in India, I hear temple bells, the mosque prayers, the raddi-wala chanting ‘paypaaar payyyypaaar’ every morning, somebody fixing a door upstairs, the elevator beeping as it waits for the door to be closed, honking (so much honking), dogs barking, kids playing cricket outside, and that general “India” sound which is never silent, even when everything is quiet.

An Indian homesick in the UK

When I felt the waves of homesickness wash over me, I would imagine myself landing in India and kissing the ground at the airport dramatically, and bursting into a song about mere desh ki dharti. (When I actually went back home, what actually happened was that I walked grumpily, sleep-deprived, in the most non-dramatic manner, towards the serpentine immigration queue.) I would drift into daydreams of chana chor garam and pani puri, and think how terrible it was that in a country where it rained so much, people didn’t eat freshly roasted bhutta (corn on the cob). I would think of all the dahi-borrowing aunties of my childhood and recall how easy it was to make friends in an apartment. I longed for the simplicity of India (a simplicity that no longer exists in urban India, anyway).

There, I was also suddenly consumed by a passion to know what was happening in India — I followed every news story religiously. Earlier, I lived in a nice little bubble of my own, with selective news filtering through to my head occasionally, but never quite evoking the response that it’s managed to in the last few months. There, I started to look at India as some sort of organism that I had to dissect, pull apart, and understand the workings of.

Reinforcing stereotypes

Another thing I realised abroad — the news that filters out from India to the world is terrible. It makes you feel like it’s this awful country full of bizarre, unreasonable people and it’s very, very disheartening (like most of the news today is). The headlines that perhaps sparked the most outrage there was the incident of the two Chennai guys flinging a dog from a terrace and another bunch burning puppies in Hyderabad. I cried in misery and thought that maybe India is a country full of terrible, heartless people. It’s quite something to move abroad and marvel at the way your country is represented to the world. The stories that make it (and the ones that don’t) define a reality that may exist but alongside so many others. (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s talk says it all).

But some stereotypes are true. It’s true that Indians litter everywhere, anywhere. I read that the council in Leicester (a city full of Indians) has been actively trying to discourage Indians from spitting paan on the streets. I visited Coventry (again full of Indians/Asians), and I was shocked to see that it was full of trash — at least, considerably more than what I’d seen in other places. I don’t think India is the only country with cleanliness problems — but it seems we’ve attached ourselves to that image rather affectionately. What is it that makes us want to throw things everywhere? Is it something in our system? Is it in our genes? I remember during a visit to Cambodia, the tour guide said, “I want to go and be a guide in Benaras one day. But the Ganga is very dirty, no? They are trying to clean it, but I hear that something is still ‘stuck’?”

I had been outraged by Naipaul’s ‘An Area of Darkness’ in college. But now I feel that India has Many Areas of Darkness. How on earth do we bring light to these areas? (Aaya naya ujala… OK bad joke.)

And then this conversation about returning to India continues. I meet people who ask me why I would consider going back to that ‘dirty, unhygienic place’. I meet others who feel that they can contribute a lot more to India, being overseas, and some of them are doing spectacular work. And I meet those who are completely detached, who feel that countries are just boundaries. “The world would be happier without all these borders,” someone tells me, puffing on his cigarette.

I meet an uncle who’s served in the Special Task Force for over twenty years. He tells me where I can get the best dosas. (If there’s anything that unites Indians, it’s food.) I love how we can instantly feel at home anywhere in the world if we can access the food we grew up eating. I meet a British Indian, who’d visited India aiming to explore his roots, and got swindled in Agra. Of course that put him off any future explorations. “Scary place,” he says. “I’m not sure I want to visit again.”

I speak to a friend in India who’s been trying to get abroad with his wife and kid as quickly as possible. “Wahan pe future hai, future,” he tells me. I speak to another young working couple who are moving abroad. “We’ve hated Gurgaon and Bangalore,” they say. “We want a better quality of life.”

And here I am, an Indian abroad, homesick as ever, romanticizing a place that many seem to want to leave.

Revisiting home

When I go back home, I notice things a lot more than I used to. I see the wrinkles on the hands of the guy who’s helping us park. I hear the raddi-wala, the temple bells, the mosque prayers — and suddenly, I’m overcome by emotion. I consider recording this ‘India’ sound to take back with me. I smell the neighbours making biryani. I admire the resilience of my maid, whose advice when I got married was to ‘be the stronger person’. I watch the smileless man at the hotel taking orders — I wonder how many people have spoken rudely to him today. I see the lady cleaning the loos at the mall, not protected by a minimum wage. I see the long queues at the doctor’s clinic. I hear stories of corporate hospitals swindling people, asking for unrequired tests and scans. I think fleetingly about the NHS. Our maid (it’s great exchanging stories after so long) tells me about her son, who wants to go abroad to study (he’s even done a whole lot of research on loans and exams!). “I have no idea what he’s saying,” she says. “How are we going to afford to send him?”

I see the dhobi’s family, in the same spot under the tree as they’ve been in for years, now with even a pet dog. The banana-seller is in his same place too, and the ice-cream cart is patiently parked beside him. We’re a tough, enterprising lot.

The doorbell rings a hundred times a day — I welcome the milkman, paperman, maid, courier guy, post office uncle, neighbour, dhobi, watchman (“Is it your tap that’s leaking?”). I don’t get quite as cross as I used to.

I don’t feel like I ever left. I feel completely, utterly at home. I once met a Sri Lankan man in Switzerland, whose spoke about the war— “I don’t know what’s happening to my country,” he said, his eyes filling with tears. Once, on a flight, I once sat next to a man who’d just moved to Singapore and missed India terribly. “You can never have the freedom that you have in your own country in any other,” he said. “Do you agree?”

I still don’t know if I agree or not, but one thing’s for sure. Whether I reside in India or not, India’s definitely made me her home.

Read Part 1 – A Conflicted Indian Abroad: Musings of a Reluctant NRI.

A Conflicted Indian Abroad: Musings of a Reluctant NRI

Ramya SriramThe Reluctant NRI, WritingLeave a Comment

This essay was first published in The Better India.

The cover picture is possibly my favourite among all the photos I’ve ever taken in India. It was peak monsoon season and I was at Bhushi Dam, Lonavla with a friend. Look carefully and find the chaiwalla in the raincoat in the bottom left. Embodies the spirit of India like nothing else. 🙂 

When I moved abroad, I did so with the intention of spending a glorious few years travelling to exotic places, exploring new cultures, and eventually returning to India. Ok, that’s not true – given my reluctance to move overseas and the fear of the unknown, I thought I would run back to the safe warm embrace of my Indian comfort zone as soon as possible. It’s surprising how many people laugh at me when I say I will go back to India – “Give it some time,” they say, “You’ll never want to go back.” I usually respond with a “hmmm”, not wanting to get into an argument. Some people, who like a good debate, have insisted I explain to them why I want to return: “Isn’t life here easier?”, “Don’t you feel safer as a woman here?”, “Why would you want to go back and live in that squalor?”, “You really want your kids to have an Indian passport?” The more I think about it, the more I am unable to come up with any practical arguments. A simple “Because it’s home” is met with silence and a raised eyebrow. The truth is, I am madly, wildly and even unreasonably in love with India – the kind of love that cannot be boxed into a neat logical explanation.

The first month I’ve spent in the UK has been one of delight, frustration and guilt. Delight at how beautiful the country is – I had expected it to be rainy and dull and grey – but all I see is just never-ending green, daffodils in bloom and long hours of sunshine. I’ve been blessed to have moved to the countryside, where people talk about the weather with strangers, dogs run about gaily and swans sail peacefully in the lakes. Frustration at having to start from scratch as a writer, cartoonist, spouse, as a person finding herself alien to a lot of what she thought she already knew. Guilt, simply because it breaks my heart to see how clean and organised this country is, in comparison. My eyes filled with tears when I saw a kid near Tesco carefully pick up a wrapper that had fallen out of his hand. I thought of the father who had taken his son’s Maaza packet and flung it into the sea in Bombay and I suddenly felt dismayed and ashamed. That word, ‘squalor’, a word that had angered me, suddenly flashed in my head. Guilt because moving to another country suddenly birthed all sorts of questions about what my moral obligations to my home country were and what on earth I was doing here.

Many of my friends and family live abroad and proclaim themselves to be ‘global citizens’. I too had expected to deal with the transition very easily – I had expected to blend seamlessly and smoothly into the fascinating mix of people that make up UK’s population. After all, I grew up on Enid Blyton, Gerald Durrell, Wodehouse, and I devour Bill Bryson’s work. I knew the language, I had travelled abroad before, how difficult could things be? Nobody tells you that moving abroad is tough – they say it’s going to be wonderful and rosy and that you can drink water straight out of the tap. Of course, it’s all wonderful but nobody tells you there will be days when you just want to bawl for hours thinking of roadside pani puri. Nobody tells you how far the UK is (I can’t even imagine what might have happened had I had to move to the US – I would probably have not made it past halfway). Watching the world from a window seat for ten-and-a-half hours was my ICSE geography world map come alive – there, the Ural Mountains, oh that’s the Aral Sea, and that’s almost the whole of Europe, and finally, we land at LHR.

Sitting here in Oxfordshire, looking at our lovely cosy garden, complete with shed and hedge and fence, I can see why India can be so difficult to digest and understand for foreigners. What it offers is of larger-than-life proportions. Its crowded streets, its brightly painted trucks, its intrusive hospitality, its unabashed eyes that bore into you even if you look away, its gazillion festivals and languages and cuisines – it can all be overwhelming in a way we do not realise. I can now pinpoint what exactly it is that I miss about India the most – the drama. A good friend once told me that I cannot seem to live life without drama – I always seek some sort of relationship or activity that challenges my emotional (and sometimes, intellectual) stability – I love to exhaust my resources in figuring out (mostly unnecessary) whys and whats and hows. And that’s precisely what draws me back to India – the drama. Everything about India is dramatic – its landscape, its people, its cultures, its movies, its art, its traffic, its general chaos. India can at once confuse and bewilder and frustrate and thrill you – and I believe people in India are in this conflicted state perpetually without even realising it.

Another thing I miss, strangely, about India is the chaotic burst of colour the country is. Oh, dupattas, stoles, kurtas and jholas! While I am all in for the classiness of Burberry scarves, my mind keeps conjuring up images of indigo bandhni dupattas studded with sunlight-reflecting mirrors, patchwork bags from Dilli Haat, shiny mojaris, silk temple-border sarees. Spice markets, rangolis outside houses, tacky decorations on auto-rickshaws. Haldi-covered faces, mehendi-featuring hands, glass bangles, gold earrings! Kalamkari art, warli work, madhubani and tanjore paintings! India is a bird that wants to show off its iridescence.

Diwali lamps back home – my mother and I painted the floor outside our house every year

I met a lady today who knowingly told me that India is all about spirituality. While I was amused at this stereotyping, I also saw where she was coming from. One thing that I learnt after moving abroad is that many of the cliches about India are true. A lot of people think India is a land of elephants, snake-charmers and cows on roads, and, while it is much more than that, it is also that. It’s the land of gurus and fakirs and chanting and yoga. Much like the mist that shrouds the Western Ghats in the monsoon, there is an aura of the mystical and mysterious that hangs about India. And it’s true. We still don’t know many of the tribes that live deep inside forests, we know but little of the life the naga-babas lead, we witness unexplained miracles on a daily basis without batting eyelids.

Before I left India, someone told me that living abroad will help me look at my life in India in an objective way. And while I do think of life here versus life there in a more balanced manner, I also feel this wild desperation to go back and walk down a busy bazaar, to get my hands dirty, to feel at home, to feel some sort of redemption. That word, ‘squalor’, rings in my head over and over again, making my cheeks burn. There’s this sweeping, desperate desire to do something for this country, a country that could win so much respect, but is going crazier by the day. With every other party screaming intolerance, with people still mindlessly chucking things into the water bodies, the very arteries of their beloved ‘Mother India’, with the state of women’s rights becoming increasingly alarming, India needs its people, its ‘global citizens’, more than it ever did, from all around the globe.

Everyone develops relationships with places in different ways. I believe I carry my roots around with me, ready to grow and sprout new trees wherever I am. But I also feel there’s no better soil for this tree than in India, where the atmosphere is confusing, bewildering, frustrating and thrilling enough for it to flourish, and flourish dramatically.

Read part 2 here: A Conflicted Indian Abroad: Homesick in the UK