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The Price Of An NRI's 'Privilege'

08/02/2016 8:27 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:26 AM IST
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Plane over egyptian Desert on the Way to Hurghada with Gulf of Suez (Red Sea) and Sinai in the Background

Everyone had been talking about the new glittering international terminal of the Chhatrapati Shivaji International airport and they were not wrong. It was a lovely experience to embark on the airport and walk the posh walkway to immigration, which looks more like a museum of modern art, showcasing the essence of India through brilliant artistic talent. Departure was equally impressive. Again, shiny glittering hallways, courteous service, easily available buggy rides, excellent lighting, exotic ceiling lamps that open and close like sundew flowers.

It couldn't be more in contrast with the experience I had few years back. I remember sitting in the dull, murky, stuffy international terminal, observing people around me swatting mosquitoes in irritated impatience. The change is beautiful, absolutely beautiful. Now let's keep it that way.

NRIs usually experience India through alien eyes. It's funny how they are called aliens in their new countries of residence while actually becoming aliens to their home country.

NRIs usually experience India through alien eyes. It's funny how they are called aliens in their new countries of residence while actually becoming aliens to their home country. With the eyes of outsiders, NRIs easily distinguish one trip from another, noting the striking changes they observed in each one. One of the biggest changes observed this year was the complete absence of gangs of cops at the airport. Before, there used to be at least 10-15 cops taking care of law and order and observing people and the scene around them. No longer is this intimidating spectacle visible. The airport seems to have decided that travellers are not criminals or has become graceful enough to carry out its surveillance discreetly.

Between living in the US and visiting India over many years, we lost India forever. We have different fears associated with our stay in our motherland, fears we never had while growing up. Now we look at it like an alien landscape and try to map out all the dangers to be prepared for. We think of the alien germs our kids will encounter, the traffic, the crime, the safety hazards. We predict and we prepare for that three-week stay, the greatest goal of which is to meet family, followed close at heel by the desire for Indian food even though it is widely cooked and sold in our country of residence as well. No matter how many recipes we master, we look forward to eating in India. Culinary excellence is so commonly found in India -- the country bursts at its seams with talent as it does with people.

Warily we tread out, wary of traffic, wary of beggars... Wariness is what we get in return for leaving India.

Warily we tread out, wary of traffic, wary of beggars who seem to smell our NRI status and hound us even more, wary of germs, wary of increased crime. Wariness is what we get in return for leaving India. We are truly aliens in India because everyone from the policeman in the airport to the taxi driver on the street can tell we are NRIs and has a take on us. They have their own way of greeting us and factoring us into their lives.

The experiences are wide and varied. People conveying to us in their own way that we have forgotten our roots, the long lost relative who finds her voice to let us know that we need to do right by our parents, the taxi driver who tries his best to impress by showing off his English language skills not to mention his iPhone, the cop whose body language demands that we speak in the local tongue, those wanting to fleece us as we are supposed to have more money. Our interactions are rich with impressions, misconceptions, feelings, agendas and amidst all of that we catch a glimpse of our childhood. Talking to retired parents who don't look like they used to when we were growing up, we see them coming home from work at dinner time and asking us to "go and study". Going out with school friends who are now wives and mothers, I manage to giggle with the little girl who sat next to me in 8th grade.

Somewhere along the way we lost a home and found another... My India as it was is lost to me forever.

It is the price of privilege, if privilege it is to be a NRI. Lost is the carefreeness with which we grew up in our land. We look for familiar sights and sounds in Indian movies. Scenes involving a wedding procession on a crowded street bring a strange sense of joy. Herds of college students attending tuition classes and eating chaat (aptly named), busy vegetable and meat markets -- all these scenes are a happy reminder of home. If I live in India again will I get it all back? Will it be the same as it was before? Even if I rediscover the ability to push my car through small spaces with a staid face, ignoring the stares, irate looks or equally staid faces of the oncoming and sideways traffic, will I be able to erase the immutable changes my mind has undergone over the last one and a half decades and revert it to its pre-immigration state? Will I be at home or will I this time around look for home in American movies?

I suspect that this time around I will miss the bone-chilling cold that shocks every pore in your body into instant awareness and deadens your senses, both at the same time. I will miss the impossible spread of golden leaves in the backyard as the season turns and old man winter sends out a message about what's coming next. Somewhere along the way we lost a home and found another. Somewhere along the way my mother stopped telling me that the milkman didn't come today and I stopped telling her that the grocery store was too crowded. This we decided was too trivial for the weekly international call. My India as it was is lost to me forever.

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