"It's so hard living here! How do you guys manage it, with the terrible roads, pollution, corruption at practically every nook and corner?" complained my friend as she scooped up some hummus with a piece of pita bread. We were meeting each other after almost a year and a half. I tried to hide my irritation as I took a bite of my egg salad sandwich, a big bite to help comfort and motivate me to listen. It's difficult to stick to a diet when you've got a debate coming your way.
By acting like I was a temporary guest, I was trying to extend our NRI status as much as I could.
"Actually, I am loving our move back to India a little bit more than I had thought," I told her. "I am especially proud of where India is headed." At this point, she gave me an "Oh! You're-a-bhakt-now" look. She looked alienated and a bit hurt. She clearly did not agree one bit. After all, for most NRIs, criticizing the Indian lifestyle and praising the West's super-clean infrastructure is like a soup-and-sandwich combo -- they make delicious companions. What's not to like about that? My friend's alienated feeling came from the fact that once upon a time both of us played for the same team -- Team NRI. While we proclaimed our love for India, we critiqued the nitty-gritties of the Indian life in the company of fellow Indians, in India. When you live the NRI life, you end up feeling oh-so-important. She reminded me of myself, of who I was just few years ago
You see, I consider myself a born-again Indian. After living in the US for more than a decade, when we decided to move back home, I had plenty of reservations. I had given us six months (at the most) to hang in there before packing up our bags and going back. I was fearful of how my children would cope with the education system, and fretted over the overall state of the traffic, pollution, corruption, and other what-have-yous that many NRIs like to complain about in general.
During our first year here in Pune I remained dogged about making sure my kids only drank boiled water. I made sure to carry my small bottle of Purell (sanitizer) everywhere. I avoided driving the car, blaming reckless traffic and no tolerance for rules. By acting like I was a temporary guest, I was trying to extend our NRI status as much as I could.
Is India a 100% perfect country to live in? No... but it's really up to the citizens to find their perfect spot in an imperfect setting.
The first year came and went, and with it took along with it my insistence for boiled water. The kids were doing more than fine with regular filtered water, and no one fell sick with cholera or malaria. Six months down the line, our driver quit because he got a 30% raise somewhere else, so I had no option but to take to the wheel; that went well too and I survived (even enjoyed) driving my small car in and around the bylanes of Pune. The traffic was as bad as before but I made room for myself in that mayhem and I felt good about it.
By year four, I stopped going on about "how cool it was in the US", even in my head. Oh yes, the good old life in the US was fantastic, but the more time I spent here, the more I felt like living in the US was like a test. Here, I seemed to exhale a bit better... as if I had been holding my breath before. For me, the daily din that even an ordinary day entails makes up for the comparative lack of infrastructure and cleanliness. During the past almost six years, I have developed a redefined sense of patriotism, I revel in small pleasures such as waving out to the vegetable vendor around the corner who gets me the freshest fruits and saves for me my favourite vegetables. The education model could use a rev up but that is a discussion for another day.
Is India a 100% perfect country to live in? No, but I doubt that any place in the world is perfect and flawless in the eyes of each and every citizen. Also, like in any other place in the world, it's really up to the citizens to find their perfect spot in an imperfect setting. When education or career opportunities take us to foreign lands, we concede and compromise on some other variables.
For me, patriotism is feeling enough pride in where I come from to not belittle it.
When I was 11, I experienced my first feel-good patriotic moment when I watched the first Indian in space, Rakesh Sharma, on TV replying to Indira Gandhi's question on how India looked from space with, "'Main binaa jhijhak ke keh sakta hoon... Sare Jahan Se Achcha (I can say without a doubt... better than any other place)." Today, when I am much older, I understand that patriotism comes in different forms for different people. For me, it is feeling enough pride in where I come from to not belittle it. I have reservations about our national anthem being played in cinema theatres, yet I happily stand up when I hear the strains of Jana Gana Mana, and find the instrumental version a treat to listen to each time.
Consciously respecting my home turf, my motherland is the new me. I don't find myself decrying the imperfect ways of life here anymore.
I reminded my friend of the funny, catchy line from the Juhi Chawla-starring Kurkure advertisement. "Tedha hai par mera hai," says a mother of her son, whom she loves despite all his imperfections because he is hers. I couldn't have had a better way to rest my case than this cheesy, masala-sprinkled retort, and with that I sent back the half-eaten egg salad sandwich.