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Dear Overseas Indians, Don't Confine India To Your Imagination

21/04/2016 8:27 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:26 AM IST
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Life in Mumbai city, a city which never sleeps! a city filled with lights like diamonds shining in the night

Benedict Anderson famously established the significance of 'nationalism' within the context of imagined community. People experience a sense of belonging to a nation because they willingly imagine a community that they share with others in their nation.

Imagining one's 'nation' or country as one's own community often takes on a curious spin when the diaspora does it. When people leave their country for foreign shores, they carry with them an image of the country. London-based Baldev Singh's (played by Amrish Puri) nostalgia for his Punjab in Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge is a classic case in point.

Years later, when members of the diaspora return or visit their homeland, they often find a disconnect between the image of the country in their mind and the reality of it. How they respond to the gap between expectation and reality can make or break their bond with the friends and family they visit. Social interactions can range from warm and delightful reconnections to awkward, comical and downright irritating.

When the prodigal native returns and expresses shock at how "advanced" India has become, what does one do? Laugh at them?

According to a study by the Pew Research Center, there were 3.2 million Indians in the USA in 2014. Their median annual income was $88,000, significantly higher than all US households at $49,800. This is primarily because Indians pursue higher education and obtain well-paying jobs in the most competitive industries. Houses worth high-end six-figure mortgages, the latest Audis and BMWs and umpteen Apple devices are standard status symbols.

But when these Indians visit "home" in India, their imagined country often contrasts jarringly with the real one. The Telegraph, reported in March 2015 that India is once again at a "watershed moment" as it was in 1991 when the economy was liberalized. In fact, India has begun to boom since the 2000s.

India is now the second largest smartphone market in the world in terms of its unique users.

But when the prodigal native returns and expresses shock at how "advanced" India has become, what does one do? Laugh at them? Update them on India's advancements? Get upset and dismiss them as "snooty"?

In 2008, I returned to India to attend a wedding. I was in the middle of my graduate program and I was on a vacation. Relishing the break from the self-cooked graduate student staple of rice and dal, I was enjoying multiple servings of delicious biryani.

[The NRI said]: "There was a time when on returning to Hyderabad I felt like a king. Now it's so different. Koi bhi accha lifestyle lead karta hain...

As often happens during weddings, people who had not met in years greeted each other and tried to figure out how familiar they still were with each other's lives. This is especially true in gatherings where people living in different cities or countries mingle. I found myself in such a group near the dessert table. While my eyes noted the spread on the table-- double-ka-mittha, gulab jamun and vanilla ice-cream, moong dal ki halwa--my ears caught the jubilant voice of an elderly gentleman who was talking to my relatives. I did not know him but he seemed very familiar with my brother-in-law. Dressed in an Armani suit in the middle of May, this gentleman was dropping names of the biggest multi-million dollar businesses in the United States and how familiar he was with them. He was gushing. Then came the following: "There was a time when on returning to Hyderabad (his hometown) I felt like a king. Hyderabad meri hain! (I own Hyderabad) Now it's so different. Koi bhi accha lifestyle lead karta hain (Anybody leads a good life today)." Our small group fell silent. The proud NRI perhaps felt uncomfortable and drifted away. Concentrating on my ice cream, I heard loud scoffs and the words "ki boka" (what an idiot!).

In their imagined India, people of similar socio-economic backgrounds still lack resources, exposure, and purchasing power.

This gentleman, a member of the diaspora for almost 35 years, had lost touch with how much India had advanced since he left its shores. Of course one can debate what 'advancement' really means (I reserve that discussion for another blog). But unlike the 1960s when most of the international market was closed to us and when the Indian Rupee had little purchasing power, many Indians living in foreign countries would bring back for eager relatives chocolates, perfumes, shoes, watches and other stuff that would be difficult to obtain in India. But today, there are people who own more than one iPhone and walk into Apple stores as their counterparts in the 1980s would enter a Philips outlet. However, such gaps in perception are not rare. If you have watched Anjan Dutt's 2006 film Bong Connection, you will see how the NRI Bengali crowd in Houston has similarly outdated views about Kolkata.

In their imagined India, people of similar socio-economic backgrounds still lack resources, exposure, and purchasing power. Still, one reads Indian newspapers around the world. One talks to family and friends living in India and often visually communicates with them via Skype or FaceTime. People watch Indian movies around the world. Is it so difficult to notice the changes animating India?

I accept the changes. I try not to 'imagine' my India; I embrace it.

Then there is Amit Chaudhuri's 2013 book Calcutta: Two Years in the City . He reflects on the differences between his childhood's Calcutta in the 1970s and the current scene replete with shopping malls and IT jobs. He comments on how better lifestyles and comparative affluence share the stage with the city's old charms and tedious problems. During his breaks from his teaching and research in England, Chaudhuri spends his time walking the streets of Kolkata, visiting old bookstores and music stores, feeling the pulse of a city that was much changed from the 1970s. The book is an insightful testimony to the diaspora's active attempt to absorb the phenomenal changes in a city one knows from childhood.

Of course, not every member of the diaspora should write a book. But it is possible to observe, absorb and enjoy the changes happening in one's homeland. In the early 2000s, going to Barista on Park Street in Kolkata as a college student was a rare occasion. By the time it was 2005-2006, with KFC's first outlet opening in June 2005, college students frequented American fast food restaurants regularly. I still remember treating my younger cousins at KFC in 2007 and placing two orders of what is today called Mingles Meal. I stared at the bill because a similar sized order at similarly ranked restaurants in 2004 would be much less striking. While I happily paid the bill, I realized that Kolkata's lifestyle and affordability had escalated in the three years I was away. I accepted it. I understand a comparable scenario exists in the apparel industry in which the consuming group of young working men and women has significantly contributed to robust sales.

This is the India I visit and keep in touch with today. The India I was familiar with until 2004 has moved on--I accept the changes. I try not to 'imagine' my India; I embrace it.

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