“Oh! How good he is with Maithili!”, “Despite staying in America, they are so well versed with their culture”, “Children here are not half as ‘Indian’ as the Indian children in foreign land.”

Just some examples of the sentences I came across as a ten-year-old Indian child staying in India and the recipient of those glorious sentences were my NRI cousins!! They could express themselves so well in a language that is not spoken in their adoptive country. And they were good at everything Indian, like Indian dance, music etc.! I remember, one in particular, was appreciated for reciting ‘Gayatri Mantra’ every day. Also, he would touch feet of all elders before he began his day! Thankfully, I have never been much sensitive about these kinds of judgement (had I been-“children here in India are not half as Indian as them” jibe would have hurt me , you see!) and it didn’t bother me even then, though I did sense that suddenly my mom was imposing ‘Maithili only at home’ rule on me. Maybe she too wanted some appreciation directed towards her son’s way. That seemed important to her.  I had felt bewildered. I didn’t understand why suddenly Maithili had become that important. She had inculcated in me the belief and understanding that the language not withstanding, it was more important to articulately convey one’s thoughts .  She always had been an advocate of ‘survival of the fittest’ ideology and languages, cultures, traditions fell in that ambit for her. She believed that whichever culture had the strength to provide good living to the human race, shall survive . It made sense to me. Then why this contradiction now!  Slowly though, this dictate of ‘Maithili only’ died its own death, to my relief.

It has been some years since and I do understand quite a few things about life and culture now but still find myself at a loss about certain things, especially about the two extreme behavioral patterns- one by the NRIs and another by the resident Indians!

The first one is, why do NRIs become so obsessive about Indian culture! What is it that makes them enroll their kids for kathak classes or Ramayana recital classes on the weekends! Why, despite living off the benefits of their adoptive countries, they continue ‘yearning’ for the ‘Indianness’! Incidentally, they want their children to have the same set of values that they themselves grew up with, sans the same surrounding!  Is it their love for their country? But if that was the case, why did they leave it at the first place! Why didn’t they lend their expertise for the benefit of their ‘motherland’! And even now if they see such merits in the ‘Indian culture’ and its way of thinking, they should rather pack off and head back home.

In reality, this ‘Indianness’ has got nothing to do with India, has never been! As it turns out ‘the foreign social status’ gets too big to consider that (coming back).  Stuck in the vicious cycle of money and social pressures, they are not able to break away from the social barriers to return back home. Instead, they look for ways to imbibe Indian culture and traditions into their kin and tell people back home that their kids are more culturally inclined than any Indian kid could be. While in some cases this might be true, in most of the cases these are statements to satisfy the self from the guilt of not being able to return to their roots. Also, it provides them a kind of moral strength to survive in a foreign land.

Now, one cannot expect to have the cake and the cherry both. But then that’s their battle to win (or lose).

Personally, I feel alright about this whole ‘move’ to a new country for better prospects, life style, professionalism. Since time immemorial, people have been explorers, moving from one place to another in search of food, shelter, good living! And hey ! Who wouldn’t like to go and work at a place where one can earn enough even at the entry level to visit different countries and explore the world, who wouldn’t like to go  to a place where ones work is the only criteria for promotion, where one gets an opportunity to experience different cultures !

What I do not feel alright about is, the baggage of forced cultural notions for reasons that’s anything but organic!

The second one that I still am to figure out is, why do Indian people start behaving differently in the presence of their NRI relatives! My mom suddenly bursts into her fake ‘Priyanka Chopraish’ American accent while talking to my cousins or will start using her chaste Maithili. It’s her ‘Dude, I too care for my culture’ look- more for the benefit of other listeners than the cousins!  Also, increasingly I am getting the invite to Halloween parties! 'Baby shower' pics on my timeline is a regular now ! Some of my friends are planning to be a part of ‘Tomatina’ in Bangalore! Wonder if we didn’t have enough festivals, rituals already!

Interestingly, the answer to both these extremes lies in one explanation- We all are in a constant search for something that exhibit us in a certain way- a way that makes us feel secured- sometimes at emotional level and sometimes at aspirational level.  While the NRI set is constantly in search of ‘emotional anchoring’ and finds that via ‘cultural activities’ in their adoptive country, we in India follow our aspirational needs and imitate all things that’s a part of ‘developed world’. It’s so not misplaced to notice that this trend is increasing at the same rate as the rising income levels of the people here. Our ‘cultural- emotional needs’ well taken care of, it’s the ‘aspirational needs’ that we long to fulfill and prove to the world that we are at par, by hosting and attending parties that’s completely out of sync- no one is complaining though!

But to me, this seems as forced as the NRIs carrying the baggage of ‘Indianness’! Clearly I have to walk a long way to understand more about these things.

Copyright © Aradhana Mishra