We live in that dreaded zone called no-man’s land; not Indian enough, not foreign enough, not anything enough to really belong. And we desperately want to. Especially first generation immigrants like me. As my perceptive daughter once pointed out, ‘Mum, you behave like an expat, not like an immigrant’. She is right. I behave like the self-exiled citizen of a country that I am proud to belong to — even after 30-odd years of global meandering.
I am an expatriate in the sense of self-identifying as Indian. Like a Brit in Dubai, or an American in Paris or a Korean in India. The Brits and Americans embrace life in their adoptive country, sometimes pick up the local language but never forget their own way of life. The Koreans and Japanese don’t even bother with that; they have their own community, their own food and an amazing succession of new Karaoke Bars.
Drive along the National Highway from Delhi to Jaipur and you see exactly what I mean: an array of Japanese schools and Japanese restaurants all fitted neatly into the Japanese factory belt. Do the Japanese expats feel they belong in this little enclave — not sure, but do I feel I belong when I go to an Indian area in London? No. Not Bengali enough for Tooting, not Gujarati enough for Wembley, not Punjabi enough for Southall. Sure, I like the shopping and the food and feel broadly Indian but I still don’t belong.
However, beyond the self-identification, it gets a little complicated. How does the person at passport control identify me? As British I suppose, because of the passport I carry. How do Indians perceive me? As an NRI I presume because I have not really lived in India permanently for decades. Indians (real Indians who live and belong in India, like I used to long years ago) sometimes pejoratively refer to Non-Resident Indians as as Not Really Involved or even worse, Not Really Informed.
Being me (desperately seeking to belong) I try harder. I do not want to fit the stereotype NRI label. ‘I AM INDIYAN’ I want to shout, like the hawker selling fresh carrots on his cart; like the man roasting peanuts on his quaint little charcoal fire; ‘look, I am like you, le lo , le lo’. Nobody hears me. India is busy, India has moved on. I don’t belong anymore. My immediate family treats me with loving indulgence: taking me to all my favourite chaat places, dosa joints and cold coffee kioks in Connaught Place, a Delhi that was once central to my life and world but has now dwindled to a place on the metro map where people change trains.
They buy me Indian clothes, get my saree blouses stitched and collected. Tell me that I haven’t changed. I feel loved and pampered but still don’t belong. I wear only Indian clothes in India, speak in Hindi to waiters who reply in English (they are equally desperate to belong to the elite English speaking class). I look like the sad lady that still lives in the India she left behind 30 years ago — my cousins are wearing short skirts and tall boots at a fashionable family party on the lawns of Delhi Gymkhana while my toes freeze in open gold sandals under my fluttering saree.
I feel uncomfortable, inappropriately dressed and I clearly don’t belong: the strange cousin from overseas who tries to be more Indian than the Indians. I recall an instance when I was with my mother buying a pressure cooker in Sarojini Nagar Market wearing an old Salwar Kameez (I keep a stash in my parents’ home). You cannot get more Indian that that (remember, it is not Khan Market, nor am I buying a Sous Vide Cooker).
I ask for the price in Hindi (shudh, unaccented), we haggle in Hindi (shudh, unaccented: zara daam theek kariye bhai sahib), we discuss the price of gas and petrol in Hindi (shudh, unaccented ) and suddenly at the cash counter the shopkeeper asks, ‘Do you live in the US or the UK?’ It troubles me that he can guess so effortlessly that I am an NRI. What have I said or done that is different? I dive back into the shop and confront him. He laughs out loud. ‘You have impeccable manners, sister, always saying thank you and sorry; all NRIs do it’, he answers knowingly.
Aha…I get it. I am too well-mannered to belong. As I belt up before the flight takes off, I feel a tap on my arm. It is an old college friend — on the same flight. Going all the way to Canada. We talk of the world we left behind and the new one we have built far away. She talks of shovelling the snow, I talk of the London rain; she talks about her Frenchspeaking children and I say I cannot understand mine, even when they speak English! We both laugh. She talks about the toll her father’s Alzheimer’s has had on the family, I talk about my father being in the ICU after an operation recently.
The heartbreak of leaving ageing parents hangs in the air between us. As I settle in to sleep on the long flight ‘home’ I feel I am not alone. I belong to a large group of people like myself. Neither here, nor there, always in-between. Doing our best to fit in everywhere — sometimes succeeding, sometimes not — but maybe the richer for trying? I understand finally that home is not a static unchanging destination and that going home is a journey.
(The writer lives in London and is the author of East or West: An NRI’s manual on How to Bring up Desi Children Overseas)