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India on My Mind

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December 2004
India on My Mind

By REETIKA KHANNA NIJHAWAN

With passing years immersed in Americana, our very identities as first generation immigrants are transforming. As a result, we face the ever-so-slow but sure fading away of our cherished memories ? of where we come from and how our lives were once upon a time?

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It is 9:00 a.m. and the blistering sun is already working overtime. The rambunctious city of Mumbai is a mesmerizing collage of sights and sounds. Indeed, the cacophony of car horns (sophisticated and electronic), rickshaw horns (crude and endlessly redundant), and bicycle rings (a shrill alter ego of the hoarse but loud rickshaw horn) compete with a thousand human conversations at a packed bus stop. The innocent giggling of impeccably dressed school girls contrasts sharply with street urchins with defiant looks and mud-caked legs.

The ubiquitous, red BEST (Bombay Electric Supply & Transportation) buses stop by every few minutes, each time creating a fervent furor of entry and exit routines that invariably leave behind a few who are faint hearted and feeble bodied. (Nothing like Indian cities to demonstrate the theory of "Survival of the fittest.")

When I finally get onto "my" bus, I am drenched with perspiration but happy about being on board to my destination ? never mind that I am packed with the others like sardines. Wet bodies sticking together.

Having endured many days of such grueling routine for something as simple as one's daily commute to work, I am surprised that I stand today in one piece. Chasing behind speeding buses to step onto its door-less entry was a scene more common than fender-benders in Atlanta traffic.

Speaking of which, I am often awed by the stark contrast in my daily commute here. From breakfast table to garage to car to office takes all of fifteen minutes. Driving smoothly in the deafening silence of my cocoon, I have nothing for company save the chatter on the radio ? contrived human contact in absence of a real one.

By any standard, this is many notches up in comfort and luxury compared to my commute in India. Not surprisingly I cherished my early days in America for such material comforts. Surprisingly though, I am coming around in a full circle. I actually yearn for the teeming humanity and the full-bodied life of those times that now seems like a dreamy page from a distant past."

*******

The above was a narration of a typical day of Sunil Hegde when asked by Khabar to contrast his life here from back home.

In a country where sugar looks like salt, we have, for the most part, succeeded in making a happy souffl� of east and west. Despite the aches and pains of cultural dislocation, the adaptable beings that we are, we succeed in reinventing our lives within the sanctions of a foreign culture ? which we work towards making our own with passing years.

Yet, when faced with the matter of moving a sofa from one room to another, we search in vain for a helping hand. At times like that, and of course when Shahrukh Khan hits town, we fondly reminiscence about India. All the good, the bad and the indifferent.

Nostalgic about India

While we may have uprooted ourselves to traverse the proverbial seven-seas in search of greener pastures, it should go with saying, that our migration is a mixed bag. The fact that one's roots are an integral part of one's identity is enough to color even the hardships that we left behind ? so much so that we may see them fondly! Add to it the fact that our Indian lives indeed had so many real pluses too, compared to our neoteric ones here ? and nostalgia is only natural.

When the mood is nostalgic, even the mundane becomes sacrosanct. Take something as simple as sounds. Sounds are so much a part of daily life in India. It just seems that even the chirping of birds and the barking of dogs is much more vigorous ? and certainly more prolific there. Houston-based Priya Sankaran misses "the constant ringing of the doorbell," followed by the clamor of opening and closing of the front door. From the doodhwala (milkman) to the dhobi (laundry-man), to a multitude of other vendors, keeps the doorbell working overtime.

Priya yearns for the action-packed morning hustle bustle in which the ringing door bell competes with a multitude of sounds: the chatter of a bee-hive of humanity (neighbors, pedestrians, vendors of various wares), the traffic (bicycles, bikes, auto rickshaws, cars, buses?), the incessant and intense chirping of sparrows, the periodic punctuation of the horn at the textile mills, the radios (yours and the neighbors' as well)? When an Indian batsman hits a boundary during cricket season, the cheering on the TV collectively engulfs and regales all in the vicinity.

"?The silence here is deafening,' said an aunt who had trouble sleeping at night while visiting with us at our Suwanee home," recalls Ganesh, one of the many readers who shared tidbits with us for this article. It is ironic how we seek the very sounds we used to rebel against! Like the cacophony of horns, loudspeakers and pathakas (fireworks) during Diwali season. This Diwali a friend contemplated driving to South Carolina in search of sparklers. But then wondered if the neighbors would object to her revelry.

A people-rich life

Like sounds, life itself was much more porous back home. The accessibility, availability and camaraderie of people in general is what most said they missed.

Here, the very physical nature of things is designed to cocoon one. There are no basket-toting vendors attempting to lure our gaze with shiny hair clips or fresh vegetables. The absence of masses ambling along the streets is a constant reminder of how far from home we have ventured. Our homes here are designed to isolate us from the outside world. Whereas in India, more often than not, one is within the outside world even at home. The physical proximity and open doors and windows allows for continuous interaction with the outside, if one so wishes.

The abundant "personal space" in America creates a physical isolation that tends to creep into personal interactions as well. This is in direct contrast to the people-rich environment that most of us grew up with and cherished. There was always a willing lap. Someone reciting hand-me-down fables in the kitchen. Or a cousin flying a kite on the roof. Elmo and Barney cannot fill those shoes. In the absence of extended family, the burden of instilling a value system in our children falls solely on the parents. Things that were learnt without tutoring ? like titles for various members of the family (chacha, nana etc) ? must now be schooled like history lessons.

Aarti Sadasivam, a recent immigrant to Savannah highlights the people-centric life. "In India, people tend to do things together, be it a festival or a chore. Like making spices ? families pool in their resources. And while doing that, they get the opportunity to interact with each other. Especially the women."

The lack of accessibility in the individualistic society here came up often as what was sorely lamented. Dr. Om Prakash, a retired World Bank economist in Washington D.C., misses the relaxed, informal environment of the India he grew up in. "You could call upon people uninvited, and they would put their schedule on hold to entertain you. Not here." It is considered impolite to knock at anyone's door unannounced.

In contrast, "front door socializing" is a marathon event all over India. Often, the front doors of homes are open throughout the day. Housewives are known to be chatting up with each other and even passers-by at the front door. Kids are known to play hide-and-seek from one home to another.

Such informality and accessibility even spills over on the streets, where one is never too far from help, whether needing directions, or otherwise. The omnipresent paanwalla are always willing to oblige with directions, "Turn left at the broken pole and then right at the big dumpster." Ask a neighborhood child and he will give you more than the directions; he will walk you all the way to your intended location.

Mona Rekhi of Alexandria, Virginia, misses the spontaneity. "Everything has to be planed. One has to think about time difference even to make a phone call." Our calendars are marked weeks in advance with schedules; even for something as insignificant as a 20 minute play-date for our children. In India, we were often irked by the unscheduled arrival of relatives expecting chai and snacks. Ironic, how we long for situations we always wanted to distance ourselves from.

Same goes for accessibility of professionals. Last month I rushed to the doctor with my two-year-old son held against my chest. His temperature had risen to an alarming 106 F. I sat there chewing into my nails as my boy breathed heavily, urging me to make him feel better. Here I was, in a technologically superior world, waiting for impersonal medical attention. I needed reassurance; a mere pat on the shoulder would have sufficed. I pictured myself in India, sharing my panic with friends and relatives. If only I could summon the ?doctor uncle'.

Tied directly to this isolation of an individualistic lifestyle is a hectic, anxiety-ridden pace of life that was not natural to us. Aarti Sadasivam believes that even well-to-do Americans who don't need the money, work in order to be perceived as productive. "The whole culture dictates that the right thing to do is to get up every morning with a sense of purpose." Dr Om Prakash describes the quote "Time is money" as the uniquely American/Western adage that says it all.

Aarti brings to light the lack of social opportunities to make friends in a new country. "Almost everyone works and on the weekends, people are busy doing their own things, running errands. The interaction at work is very limited and work specific."

For Darshan Kaur, a software engineer in Atlanta, the workplace is too competitive to make friends. "Working in Delhi I felt the team spirit ? I was working towards a common goal. Here everyone is fending for himself. People eat at their desks to save time and leave at 5:30." Meals-in-minutes are a far cry from the group lunches she used to enjoy at dhabas in Delhi with her colleagues. "Even though we all had families there to go back home to, spending time with friends and colleagues was never considered a waste. It was that short period of relaxation during the day that kept you going. Here, you must continually work and it makes people burn out much quicker. Life is so fast."

Deepak Soni, an MBA student at Georgia State University confesses, "I miss the ?get away with murder' mentality back home. Like missing a credit card payment and not having to worry about ruining your credit. Or not having to worry too much about jumping a red light if there is no car on the intersection at 2:00 a.m. Or speeding up to a100 kph on an empty road even though the speed limit is set at 55."

Having a cocoon of people around can certainly chase away sundry anxieties. For example, I don't leave my two-year-old alone in my backyard for too long. The other day he managed to push open a heavy gate and walk down to the street. In India, someone would have spotted him standing alone and brought him in. That tacit codependence is the very fabric of our culture.

A socio-cultural longing

Given that India and America are poles apart in more ways than one, it is remarkable how well we have assimilated here. Perhaps that's why we seldom pause in our daily lives here to contemplate on the forced union of the vastly dissimilar norms of the east and the west, that we pull off. And yet it is this dramatic difference in roots, customs, and culture that perhaps creates the strongest yearning for not having to explain yourself? a longing for belonging.

Dr. Om Prakash elaborates, "Unlike many other immigrant communities, such as the Europeans for example, our native culture doesn't have much in common with the American culture. And so, even though all our material needs are taken care of, we still crave for the socio-cultural milieu that we grew up in. The freedom to behave the way we want. And even though there may not be anyone censoring our behavior here, we are always looking over our shoulder. Technically you are free, but you are always cognisant of the fact that you are an Indian and therefore must behave in a way that is acceptable in this society. You don't want anyone to say ?Oh, look at that Indian'."

The allegiance stamped on your passport if of little consequence. If you are a first generation immigrant, you are a foreigner! Shobha Narayan, author of Monsoon Diary, says "Fielding questions is a part of being a foreigner. Where are you from? Why are you wearing a dot on your forehead? Does your name mean anything? After a while, it gets to you ? being an ambassador for my country became too much of a burden."

When I arrived in this country two years ago, I felt like I was walking on eggshells with a smile glued to my face. I was extremely polite to neighbors and strangers in a desperate attempt to melt in. I wanted to be the "friendly girl from India". Now I just try not to stand out. I never wear Indian clothes except in the privacy of my home. Sure I could walk into Publix wearing a salawar-kameez but I really don't fancy the idea of looking like a Christmas tree in June. Our revamped lives leave us yearning for simple things. Conversing in our native tongue. Passionate discussions about cricket, and latest Bollywood releases.

Deepa Agarwal, an editorial producer for CNN, talks about the shared culture she is not a part of. "Because of my different background I am not always able to be a part of the fun with my American colleagues. It would be like us talking about Khaike paan Benasarwalla. They cannot identify with that. And no amount of explaining will truly translate the significance of Amitabh Bachchan's histrionics."

Mona arrived in the U.S. as a newlywed over a year ago. "Since then I have achieved the feeling of settling down, yet it is difficult to refer to the U.S. as "home". All my physical needs are met, but what about the emotional needs?" Dancing to rap music in a nightclub instead of the usual Bollywood remix numbers, she feels the alienation even when she is letting her hair down.

Rohit Chibb, an architect at John Portman and Associates in Atlanta says, "Americans are no doubt a very friendly people but for some reason I find that I do not have great camaraderie with my American friends other than those I have met at work. I keep close contact with my Indian friends settled in U.S."

Sure some of us may find succor within our communities here, but we will never be able to replicate that sense of security and comfort about our national identity. Neither will we be able to match the mass mayhem around festivals like Holi and Ganesh Chaturthi. The little Indias we erect will always remain confined within the parameters of our desi congregations.

Ironic, why we don't run back to India?

Greener pastures! Here we are.

Dr. Om Prakash reasons, "Here we get the results that we are so desirous of. And sometimes the results are absolutely phenomenal." Talking about his success as a restaurateur Narendra Patel says, "In India three generations can't earn the kind of money we make here." Darshan Kaur and Aarti Sadasivam concur with Patel's view: Hard work is duly rewarded. And one thrives in material comforts with no paucity of basic amenities. Rohit Chibb talks about necessities we take for granted. "Like running water ? hot and cold, electricity, and gas. Power outage in India on a hot summer day brings this difference home in a hurry. It is amazing how many things one can accomplish over the phone and the internet in U.S.. In India most transactions are in person. This translates into standing in long lines waiting for your turn. A small task like paying an electric bill can be very tedious and time consuming."

A comfortable life in the U.S. presents Gaurav Bakshi, an Atlanta-based senior financial analyst, the time to purse other interests. "In India I could never have reached a level where I would not have to worry about basic survival issues. When survival is the question it becomes the biggest thing in your life, you are stuck in that process. For me the purpose of living abroad was to reach a point where the basics would be taken care of giving me enough time to purse interests like yoga, music and acting."

The plight of the common man back home is no cause for envy. Let's face it, day-to-day living in a bureaucratic India poses immense challenges. Who hasn't greased palms of indolent, unscrupulous government officials? The excessive dependence on domestic help is just as exasperating. Most housewives would vouch that their peace of mind was in the hands of the servants at home. Dealing with a team of bickering bais in Bombay was an anathema. No wonder we elect the silent efficiency of the dishwasher over the constant chatter and negotiating. Deepa Agarwal recalls how her household would come to a grinding halt if a maid did not show on a particular day. We enjoy being self-sufficient ? which is possible here. We enjoy our privacy. I relish the opportunities it presents ? like baking muffins with my son, or painting his room. As a thirty-something single woman living alone, Darshan Kaur savors her freedom as well. An unmarried woman living solo would have been a hot topic for discussion and speculation in India. "Here my life is no ones business."

Not being continually answerable to family is emancipating. As much as we may miss our relatives, we have in equal measure resented their asphyxiating interference. Here we are breathing clean air, enjoying expansive green spaces, the incredible infrastructure, the common courtesy, the civic sense, the opportunities ? both for work and recreation. Rohit Chibb sums up the equation, "We have the best of both worlds." As gutsy immigrants, we must appreciate not only the heritage we bring, but the culture we are immersed in as well. We must adapt.

According to Virginia B. Wickline, a PhD student of clinical psychology at Emory University, "Immigrants who tend to do everything like their home country or everything ?American' tend to be least satisfied and most maladjusted. Rather, an integration of the two cultures seems most beneficial."

My emancipated Hindu parents in India celebrated Christmas and Id in addition to Diwali. Perhaps that germinated the ability to appreciate different cultures. Last Thanksgiving, I summoned my relatives from around the country for home-cooked turkey! It didn't matter that it was not Diwali that hadn't bought us together.

Literary gurus and desi filmmakers have regularly chronicled the stark differences between India and America. Yes, the alienation is severe and the distance is wide but the middle ground can be as wonderful as you choose. Ironic, how Indian roots can sprout American foliage!


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