A conflicted Indian abroad: Missing family and friends, being absent

Ramya SriramThe Reluctant NRI, WritingLeave a Comment

In this article, part of a series called The Reluctant NRI, I write about my experience moving abroad and missing friends and family. It’s  not as simple as “missing” people and places though — I think it’s more a case of being absent from a scene you want to be present in. An NRI is a “Non-Residential Indian” — an Indian living outside of the country. Though this is written within that context, I suspect it might be relatable for students, expats, and anyone who has moved overseas. *The cover image is the festive celebration Pongal, a harvest festival, in which the milk boiling over represents an abundance of all good things. 

One of the things that really sucks about moving out of your home country is being absent from events relating to family and friends back home. There are a dozen arguments that can be made about staying connected, regular calls and catch-ups, how distance doesn’t define closeness, how geographical boundaries don’t cage friendships, etc. And I agree with all of them. But sometimes it just sucks to be far from (what you’ve known as) home. And I think it’s great for people to acknowledge that it sucks. When I moved abroad I struggled with being homesick and lonely and was too embarrassed to talk about it or accept it as completely normal. How uncool, Ramya! I’d tell myself. Pull yourself together and enjoy the here and now! But that was easier said than done. It was only when I found out that a friend of mine was going through something similar in another country did I think that maybe it was OK to feel what I was feeling. 

Life goes on without you

What really drives home your glaring absence is when you can’t be there for someone who needs you. In the initial years of my being away I had close friends go through illness and loss, weddings and divorces. I saw friends go through happy childbirths and traumatic miscarriages. While you can find ways to support your loved ones from a distance it also sucks to not be able to physically be with them even if only to spend a few minutes in silence or have a cup of tea together. Unless you’re super rich and can afford to make quick trips back home with minimal disruption to your bank balance, health, and work life, it’s really hard to be there in person even if you really want to.

Sometimes when my mum calls and tells me she’s feeling low I start feeling low myself about not being there in person. I’m not sure how much that would change if I lived in the same country but at least I could take a 2-hour flight instead of a 12-hour one. And oh the fear and guilt and baggage that comes with being so far, of being inaccessible. When someone is ill, it’s terrifying. In some cases it makes you feel so helpless. 

One of my close friends who went through a tough time recently mentioned (unwittingly) that if I’d been closer to her I would have been of more help. I felt my heart sink, break a little. But life goes on, ignorant of your absence. People move on, just like they should, just like you should. It seems almost cruel, how life carries on relentlessly even without you. 

Sometimes when your own life seems to be on pause for a while, look around and notice how others’ lives continue as though nothing happened. Makes you think. 

Rediscovering home, in people and places 

As someone who lived with my parents after university in the home I grew up in, I think the definition of home was always a concrete, tangible, solid thing. Pressure cooker whistles from the kitchen, the neighbourhood squirrel chirping, the apartment lift beeping. That was the soundscape of home. Though I travelled frequently, I always had a fixed place to come back to, a point of return. A place of permanence that anchored me. 

But now home has become a moving, fluid, flowing concept. Maybe it always was? Maybe the definition I had for it was too narrow before?   I long for the Western Ghats forests and waterfalls that I’ve known so well… as much as I long for the pressure cooker whistles and the monkeyspeak. I miss the birds in my garden in Loughborough (where I lived earlier) as much as I do the beeping lift back home. Maybe I always had multiple definitions of home and just didn’t know it back then. I’ve realized I tend to form quite intense bonds with the places I’ve lived in, having known them intimately. The know the feeling of running my hands along the bark of the trees I’ve loved, or the feeling of grass beneath my feet. It’s like a place is submitting to you, saying hey, here’s a piece of me. It’s a complex relationship, a kind of romance. I like the comfort of having one fixed place to call home but also be able to afford the romance of exploring other landscapes and what the earth has to offer. Maybe it’s like being in a polyamorous relationship, in which you have a primary partner. But I digress… 

Growing up I was determined to not go abroad, so much so that I didn’t pursue in career in biotechnology because of it (thank god, or I probably wouldn’t be running a comic strip now). I always told myself I’d be around back home, being easily accessible to my parents, maybe even teaching or being part of an NGO/charity. But that has now changed, and now there’s a gaping gap between the envisioned me and the real me. And that becomes a part of my everyday struggle. But what I’ve realized is that I cannot be in two places at once — a very obvious thing to state, but putting it down in writing makes it more obvious. 

Before I moved, the people I surrounded myself with were real, present. Though I had a plethora of virtual/online friends, I had “real” friends whom I knew in flesh and blood and whom I could hope to meet, if not in a day, in a week or month or couple of months. Friends who knew me. We had an idea, even if vague, of what was happening in each other’s lives. With friends spread out now all over the world it’s even harder to be clued in on what’s happening with everyone. The distance, timezones, general everyday stuff that we’ve got to do, the tiring routines, new anxieties and worries… all of these turn conversations into “nothing much” responses. People are busy, everyone’s short on time. We’re more guarded about what we share, for multiple reasons (more on that here).

The first time I met someone whom I suspected would become a close friend in the UK (and she did), I remember the thrill I felt. A real person! With a physical shape and form! In the same city! We could even meet for a cup of coffee and talk face to face! Aaaa the excitement was dizzying. It took me a good four years to get to that point though. 

Festivals and homesickness 

Growing up, Diwali was one of my most disliked festivals. I hated the noise and the smoke, the whooshing rockets that just about missed my nose while I stood in the balcony, the howling dogs, the frightened, chattering monkeys, walking in the street the next morning wondering what was going to explode beneath my foot, the litter from the ladis. But every Diwali I tear up thinking of the diyas and rangoli and food back home. I’ve now found ways to battle that by creating my own version of a Diwali celebration — we all work this out eventually, of course. 🙂 But it’s still OK to miss home and miss that atmosphere. I’ve always pushed myself to do something because I thought moping around on Diwali was inexcusable. But now I know that it’s OK to mope (only for a few minutes though haha). 

Keeping the bond alive 

To sustain a relationship for a long long time, I think it’s important (at least for me) to meet at least once in a few years. And I believe that applies to places as much as it applies to people. Just like in friendships, individuals change and you have to invest in catching up with the new avatar, how a person has evolved or “weathered” under new influences and change, you have to invest in catching up with a place. Every time I go home, the place I grew up in, I notice something different. That old shop has now shut down, that bumpy road has been repaired. I find comfort in the mango and neem trees that are still going strong, complete with their resident monkeys and bats. The neighbourhood squirrel (or rather, its descendant) chirps on a hot afternoon, the beeping lift is still as annoying as ever. I wake up early and take in that early morning freshness — of a city waking up as women wear flowers in their hair and go to the temple, of the chaiwalas setting up their stalls for the day, of aunties in salwar-kurta and white sports shoes going for a brisk early morning walk. 

I find a huge sense of relief in how accessible I am to the people I love. If someone is ill, I’m right here. If someone needs to have a chat, here I am on offer! Woohoo! All of me, body and arms and face and skin. Call it self-importance, but I feel great  going back to a scene where I want to still be wanted, still be needed. Please don’t cut me out, old home. 

I meet old friends (or what’s left of them) in town. We get coffee, we go for a walk. We sit down and have a meal. We’ve changed. We talk about how life has moved from point A to point B (after going around to Z and M and others in between, as it always does). We talk sitting across the table, we swap stories and smile and laugh and joke and sing along to the bad songs that the restaurant is playing.  

I’m talking to someone in 3D, not on a screen. There’s no red button to press to end this conversation. I’m here. I’m keeping up. 

IRL, I tell myself. What a magical thing. 

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.

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 most favourite picture I’ve ever taken in India. It was peak monsoon season, I was in Lonavla with a friend. Look carefully and find the chaiwalla in the raincoat in the bottom left. What a dude. 🙂 

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