Thursday, June 07, 2007

The reek of India 6th May, 2007

There is something a little sad in my encounters with non-resident Indians. I don’t quite know why this should be. They are invariably successful. They have lovely homes and bright children who go to the best schools. Most have fitted in confidently and some have assumed positions of leadership in their adopted countries. But there is something missing at the core.

I often lecture abroad and I run into Indians in the strangest places. The more exotic the city, the more we are drawn to each other. They invite me generously to their homes where they only want to talk about India. They ply me with samosas and hungry questions about our recent economic rise. I discover that their memories are frozen, and they hide a shame of a fearful past that forced them to leave home. India has, meanwhile, moved on. Their poignant heart-weariness for their lost homeland leaves me in gloom.

I recently read the biography of Princess Sofka Dalgorouky, and it seemed to throw light on this cheerless subject. She left Russia to escape the Revolution in 1919 and lived all her life abroad in the long grief of exile. Nobokov called it ‘the animal aching yearn for the still fresh reek of Russia’. Yes, that’s the phrase that I have been seeking. The sadness of the NRI’s world is the painful yearning for the ‘reek of India’. Strong, traditional cultures like India and Russia are not easy to forget.

Princess Sofka lived in interesting times. She began life as scion of one of the great ruling families of Russia. She played with the Tsar’s daughter. Her grandmother, like the Countess in Pushkin’s The Queen of Spades, did not know how to dress herself. But Lenin cut short Sofka’s childhood at 13, and she grew up abroad into a beautiful, vivacious woman. She loved parties, conversations and books. She took lovers, enjoyed herself, married and remarried. Then she did something shocking. She became a communist and a social pariah overnight in her Russian émigré circles.

Indian NRIs, alas, don’t live such lives. They are bourgeois to the core and if Sofka were to appear in their midst, they would simply dismiss her as ‘promiscuous and irresponsible’. But their nostalgia is the same as Sofka’s. It not for an abstract India but for a definite place and time, and Jhumpa Lahiri catches it nicely in her stories. Mira Nair has portrayed it with panache in her recent masterly adaptation of The Namesake. The hero says that to be an NRI ''is a sort of lifelong pregnancy -- a perpetual wait, a constant burden”. Even in the second generation, his son feels a sense of apartness, a detachment. Others like him-- heart weary Bengali expatriates--are oppressive.

Babubhai Katara will never comprehend the distress and guilt in The Namesake. But what about those innocent boys from Jullunder, who take such risks in escaping from India? It must be worth it, I suppose, when lives at home are even more oppressive. The prize, even of a lovelorn NRI life, must seem like liberation. There was a time I used to believe like Diogenes the Cynic that I am a citizen of the world. I used to say that a blade of grass is the same anywhere. Now I think that each blade of grass has its own spot from where it draws its strength. So is a man rooted to a land from where he draws his faith and his life. Yet, there is struggle to extricate oneself from one’s past--from family, obligations and the “curse of history”.


Anonymous said...

I think this applies to NRIs who left india prior to the 90s. The larger group of Indians today are comfortable for 2 reasons: 1) they are aware that coming back to india is a definate possibility 2) it's a small world, with the internet and software that allows internet voice chat.. interaction with people back home is both cheap and easy. A lot people in my generation find movies like Namesake infuriating. It gives a wrong picture of home and of the mindset of Indians abroad. Today it's a matter of choice.. you live in the States if you choose to, else you just move back.

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