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Of Pretzels and Pakoras

May 2003
Of Pretzels and Pakoras


Glimpses of the the NRI's relationship relationship with the motherland: how are they perceived by resident Indians? What are the experiences of those returning back? What are the pros and cons of life as an NRI versus that of the resident India.

What does an average Indian think of an NRI (Non Resident Indian)? Not much. But then, it's no offence meant to the NRI. The average Indian, caught as he is, between the dust, the grime, the pollution and the pressures of living within the much touted richly textured fabric of a multi-layered family, has very little time to think of anybody besides himself. The only time he is not thinking of himself, he is probably thinking of Aishwarya Rai.

The not-so-average Indian is marginally better. The only difference is that when she is not thinking of herself, she is hobnobbing with Ash or others of her ilk. The times that she does think of NRIs is when she is striking business deals with them or when NRI relatives come into town wanting to experience 'the real India'.

The only other times resident India is aware of the strong NRI community is when a filmmaker like Subhash Ghai or a Karan Johar makes an abominably bad film and says it is for the NRI market. Then they begin to wonder just what this NRI market is all about? because, while the film bombs at the local box-office, it sends the firangi coffers into a tizzy.

Clearly then, the relationship between the NRI and his motherland seems to be a one sided love affair. The expatriate anchors so much of his identity on his Indian roots and is concerned - even in the foreign lands - of retaining and perpetuating Indian culture and traditions. The average resident Indian, on the other hand seems to be too consumed with the harsh ground realities of working for roti, kapad aur makan (food, shelter, and clothing) to register on her radar, much less care for, her thoughts about the NRI.

The one exception to this apparent NRI apathy is seen in the business community. It's the shopkeeper in India who smiles all the way to the bank on seeing them. Shopping in India for the dollar or pound rich is much easier than it is for most, if not all, locals.

The humor, often, is in how the expatriate tries hard to conceal their NRI identity, lest they be quoted higher prices. But, if it is one thing that the Indian merchant has learnt, it is to always stay two steps ahead in detecting the NRI through all their concealment efforts.

According to Devjibhai Kutchchi who owns a number of clothing stores in Kolkata, Mumbai, and Gujarat, "It is actually a fun sport that our salespeople get into - to see whose NRI sensors are the best!" Vasant Thakor, who is regarded as one of the best NRI spotters in Devjibhai's shops says, ?The accent - whether they are speaking English or local languages - is usually the first clue. But sometimes the old timers are pretty good at talking in native languages like Gujarati, Hindi, and Bengali, with its original flair intact. What they don't realize, is that years of living in foreign lands results in subtle hints that are nevertheless dead giveaways - a ?yep' here and a ?ya' there is enough to clue the alert Thakor that they have an NRI on hand.

Devjibhai is quick to add, "ts not that we want to overcharge them, but it just brings an element of fun for our guys. Once comfortable with the revelation, the NRI customer is good to chat with. They are often good buyers too. While we treat many of our customers with colas and teas, the NRIs feel we do it especially for them. And they really appreciate such gestures because it is a total different experience from their flashy Bloomingdales and Macys."

These expatriate shoppers are eager to take home a smidgen of India. Dhurries and kabris are a hit with most Indians from abroad, say the people at Shyam Ahuja. A sales person at Fabindia reveals, "NRIs are always looking for Indian prints and garments like salwar kurtas for their children. But they really don't spend much more than our local customers. Occasionally you will find someone who will spring big money on an outfit."

Satish Sojwal, General Manager at Sheetal Design Studio, which carries the celebrated Hemant Trivedi and Manish Malhotra lines, says, "Our NRI customers are usually looking for bridal or festive outfits. Most Indians living abroad celebrate Indian festivals with more gusto than us. Even if they pick up a contemporary outfit it would have to have a strong Indian slant to it. The western bride, marrying an Indian, will also pick up an Indian ensemble for the wedding." And do they have the urge to splurge? "Yes," says Sojwal, "they spend around 20 to 30 percent more than the locals."

Though, not all efforts to woo the NRI money are successful. The City and Industrial Development Corporation of Maharashtra limited (CIDCO) had planned an entire glamorous complex with the hope that NRIs would come and settle here. The total area set aside for the Seawoods Estate is about 15 hectares (37 acres) facing the Arabian Sea. The 1,536 apartment mini township has been designed by acclaimed architect Hafeez Contractor. The idea behind the plush NRI residential complex was to develop a living area in the city where the NRI would feel at home. The only way to make this possible was to recreate the streets and boulevards of the US complete with malls, swimming pools, recreational areas, and even a 2.5 crore rupees (over � million dollars) club house. Sadly the project hasn't received the expected response, much to the dismay of CIDCO. And not many seem to be in a hurry to put up in a replicated city when they already have the real thing.

Resident Indians, however, take very kindly to NRIs who have shifted back. It is as if the loyalty towards their motherland has been re-branded again. But it's not easy for them to come and settle in a country that may have given birth to their values but not fostered them. The lure of success, a good life and a higher education among other things were just too appealing for the ambitious Indian. Some went to seek a livelihood, others an education and many simply in search of a fresh start.

With the influx of expectant, eager Indians, the NRI community abroad steadily grew, creating for itself a home away from home. While many willfully assimilate to the foreign way of life and absorb the local culture, others hold on doggedly to their Indian identities and look back with longing for the India they left behind. Some come back.

Like Dr. Vijay Papa Rao, the founder of Amma Lines, a port construction company. Dr Rao is a nuclear scientist, who spent seven years in the U.S. doing his PhD in Controlled Fusion. On completing his studies, he decided there was a lot more he could do in India than if he stayed on. "t was certainly not patriotism that brought me back to India...that's bull****," he says. "At the time there was tremendous professional pressure to remain in the US. But right from the start I was constantly convincing other nuclear scientists of Indian origin to return to their own country in an attempt to curb the brain drain and it would seem rather hypocritical if I stayed back." In all fairness, Rao willingly admits that he loved the country he was living in. "The work culture was great. The place was great and so were the people with their accepting attitude towards foreigners."

Rao nonchalantly shrugs off adjustment problems in the process of coming back. "We were Indians and always will be. When coming back, we were totally prepared for life here and made a conscious attempt never to start any conversation with ?When I was in America'," he laughs.

Then there are others such as suave actor Kabir Bedi who have opted for a lifestyle that offers them the best of both worlds. Bedi lived in the U.S. for eight years during the eighties and for a shorter span of four years in the nineties. More recently he stayed on in England for three years with his wife Nikki. ?India is my base. Primarily it is the need to be closer to home that has influenced my decision to live here. I also happen to have a slew of Bollywood films lined up, so living in India certainly is more convenient.?

Also, Bedi comments, ?Life abroad calls for a lot of looking after yourself. Of course there are plenty of wealthy Indians abroad who can afford domestic help, but this is a luxury that doesn't come cheap. There isn't anyone to wait on you, nor are there runners or gofers to take care of your needs,? he says with typical unapologetic desi chauvinism.

Like most jet setting NRIs, Kabir made it a point to keep in touch with family and friends. ?I have been in continuous contact with India. So I never felt distanced from my family. My son Adam from my second wife has been living with me in Mumbai. He is all of 21-years-old and so very busy with ad campaigns and modeling assignments. In fact my wife Nikki who lives in London is also visiting. But a transcontinental marriage such as ours does have its advantages and disadvantages. One of the advantages being that I'm always happy to see her,? he says describing the long distance relationship he shares with the people most important to him.

Ruby Bhatia, popular veejay-turned-television actress, was born and brought up in Toronto, Canada. It was only after she bagged the Miss India Canada crown at the age of 20 that she imagined moving to India as a good career move. But Ruby was no stranger to the country. ?My father is from Uttar Pradesh and my mother is from Punjab. So as kids we made constant trips to north India, especially UP. I always thought of India as my country and it was like coming back home.?

However once here it did take some adjustment. ?The city was too crowded, the people too interfering. Plus, there are no open spaces. This got to me initially, as back in Canada, ours was the last house at the end of the block, so my room overlooked extensive fields.?

?It took me around two weeks to get used to the city and after that it simply became me.? Ruby still has her share of grouses. ?There is no concept of customer satisfaction here. If the customer didn't get his money's worth nobody cares. There are still a million other potential buyers and one unhappy customer doesn't really make a difference. I also noticed that we Indians do not value another's time. To fix a simple leakage I'd have to run after the plumber for days. He'd give me a time, I'd cancel my appointments for the day and he wouldn't show up,? she laments.

The culture didn't exactly impress Ruby either. ?When I stepped into Mumbai it was a culture shock of sorts, especially the television industry,? she says. ?I was shocked at the night life, the clothes people wore. While in Canada I was always dressed in loose, baggy clothes. Here I was told to wear revealing, tight western outfits. They said I had to learn to capitalize on my western image which was equated with being cool. I had also to do away with my nath (nose ring), which I had on since the age of 15, and crop my hair short. Over the years, I have found myself trapped trying to maintain an image that isn't me at all.?

Ruby comments also on the misconceptions about NRIs, ?Some people here in India think of NRIs as high-flying, sophisticated, educated individuals. But this isn't always true. Apart from professionals, there are also cab drivers, chefs, production-line blue collar workers, many of them don?t even speak much English. And life abroad isn't easy either. My parents struggled a lot. Buying your own house takes years. There's the house mortgage to be paid for years and you are virtually living in debt.?

Sony TV's Deepak Sadrangani who had lived a few years in the U.S. comments on the NRI?s traditional and perhaps even somewhat orthodox bent, ?There are the highly qualified professionals like doctors and lawyers - first generation immigrants - who have established themselves and are now trying to rediscover their roots. To do so they turn more conservative and cling to what they perceive as Indian culture, very often forcing their children to accept it too, irrespective of whether they understand and appreciate it or not.?

Hemanth Rao, son of Dr Vijay Papa Rao, who has experienced life at both ends of the spectrum, feels the change in social dynamics is only natural when one comes back to one's country after a long hiatus. ?You've got to prepare yourself for this change and the adjustment involved. Comparing life back in the US and in India is like comparing apples and oranges. We can't all come back and complain about the way things are. We've got to do something about it and help improve the conditions here.? And that is exactly what he is doing. Hemanth has started an NGO called Reviving Bombay which is around a year old.

The pace and mood of metropolitan India does evoke different reactions from different people. Hemant says, ?Life in the U.S. is too structured and predictable, not to mention stressful. Here, on the other hand, life is more relaxed. You don't have to wait till the end of the week to take a break.?

Model Viveka Babaji, who was born and brought up in Mauritius didn?t initially share such excitement for the country when she first moved to Mumbai. ?Sometime in 1991, my wanderlust brought me to India. I had heard a lot about the place from my two sisters who have married Indians, but nothing prepared me for life here. During the Mumbai riots, I couldn't step out of the house, there was arson and curfew all over the place. It was a shock to my senses. I guess I had picked the wrong time to visit and I decided that I would never come back,? she says.

Many, who have lived at both ends of the spectrum, are often caught in a paradox and end up missing what they had experienced at the other end. Nirali Sanghi was so seduced by the tug of the motherland that she sacrificed a successful career as Assistant Vice President of Citibank in the U.S. After nine years here, she chose to go back home. ?I was very certain that I didn't want to grow old in the U.S. There, it took an effort to socialize and keep in touch with friends. Here in India, if there is a wedding in the family, you are invited even if you aren't a close relative. Basically, such relations and family ties is what brought us back?

Her return has been a mixed bag. ?There is the maid to do the laundry; meals are prepared and dishes done by help. It is so much more convenient. I am free to work late hours, since I work from home and my office also doubles up as the kids' nursery,? she smiles.

But not everything was how she expected it to be. ?I had planned that once in India I would visit my relatives and friends constantly. But that isn't exactly feasible due to the heavy traffic and work schedules.? Nirali admits, ?Adjustment was involved but it was for the better. I have absolutely no regrets. My friends in the US had warned me that we would be back within a year - but that hasn't happened yet.?

She however, realizes that not all NRIs have it as easy. ?A few of my NRI friends have nothing to come home to, while in the U.S. they have a good house, a car, a good job. They are naturally reluctant to give up that lifestyle and come back here where a spacious home with all the luxuries does not come cheap.?

Nirali today has her own website, India Parenting.com, which has been labeled as one of the most popular websites with NRIs in the US. It has been seven years since the Sanghis returned to India, and it looks like they're here to stay.

Often, time is all that is needed for such a drastic shift back to the motherland to grow on you. Viveka Babaji, the Mauritian, claims she found it extremely hard to adjust to the city. ?I kept falling sick; I was constantly depressed and lonely. Coming from a place as beautiful and unpolluted as Mauritius, India did not appeal me at all. So I kept going home every other month and came here only when there was a modeling assignment happening. But eventually the fast pace of the city grew on me and I made friends. It is this people link that has held me back. Now I find Mauritius too quiet and boring as there's just nothing to do and the day winds up by seven o'clock. My stay in India has helped me grow and changed me as a person.?

It is this people aspect as well as the informality of the country that has Ruby Bhatia smitten, ?There's God here. Almost every second day there is a festival being celebrated and it's a holiday. The people here are more easy going and relaxed. I have turned into a bubblier, more cheerful person. I sleep in the afternoon which is unthinkable in Canada and frowned upon as a terrible sign of lethargy. There, everybody is busy; and even if they aren't, they say that they are - because sitting idle isn't done. At the moment I cannot think of life away from the beaches of Mumbai, the coconut water. I could write a book on this country,? she laughs.

Living away from the land of their origins, most NRIs tend to romanticize the India they remember. More so if they haven't been able to visit friends and family back home. Nirali comments, ?The NRI community living in the US has managed to create a mini India in their adopted country. They are very traditional. They send their children to Hinduism or spirituality classes, and teach them Kathak. Basically they put in the extra effort to hold on to their roots. They value things that resident Indians take for granted.? The longer they stay abroad, the greater the yearning for India, it seems.

Bedi adds, ?It is interesting to note that NRIs all over the world have chosen to present themselves as a clearly defined community, by organizing themselves into various associations. Their determination to cling to their roots is also heartening.?

But there are others who simply can't make up their mind when it comes to settling down. Like singer-actor Lucky Ali, who has been shuttling all his life between India and New Zealand where he has a home with his New Zealander wife. ?My work brings me to India, where things are far more accessible and comfortable.? Lucky philosophizes the diversity in cultures, ?There are massive differences. We have our own set of traditions; they too have their own set of formalities. I just haven?t cared much for their individualistic lifestyles.?

Vijay Rao however, believes it is possible to appreciate both cultures without favoring one over the other. He commends the NRI community in the US for playing a vital role in turning Americans pro India. ?Like anybody who tries to settle in a new environment, the NRIs are motivated to work harder and do well - better than the locals. Hats off to them!? Ruby agrees, ?NRIs have a passion for India that is missing in the Indians!?

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