An Indian expat Usha Sankar, part of a vocal, visible, and successful immigrant community, pens moving memoirs tinged with intense longing and yearning for a lost way of life…built on a strong sense of community and emotional warmth
I never know what it is that brings back memories of my childhood and youth, memories of an India that I left three decades ago. Is it the chance hearing of a strain of an old Bollywood song? Perhaps a fleeting glimpse of the Tricolour in a movie? Maybe the smell of wet mud, or even the taste of a long-forgotten dish. But these memories always hit out of the blue.
My first overseas stint was in Germany, where I went to join my husband a year after marriage. In those early years as an NRI, home always meant India. Family connections remained strong, anything I bought was always having its price converted into Indian rupees and so everything was frightfully expensive, and the dream was to save up enough for that coveted 3BHK flat in one of those newly emerging so-called luxury condominiums. Life abroad was all about preparing for life ‘back home’.
Then came the move to Singapore, and later Malaysia and, with kids in tow, the true NRI began to emerge. Both Singapore and Malaysia felt more like ‘home‘ but despite the many parallels with India, not least the dedicated ‘Little India‘ neighbourhoods, comparisons with how things were done in India were inevitable. This was particularly evident when festivals such as Diwali were celebrated. Nothing felt genuine, particularly the Diwali ‘open houses‘ which ran for over a month! I craved the simple excitement surrounding Dad’s ‘Diwali bonus‘ when we would get to go shopping as a family. The thrill of donning new clothes after an early morning ‘Ganga snaan‘ (head anointed with sesame oil by family elders) and heading over to friends’ with homemade sweets was something I missed sorely all those years in Southeast Asia.
The separation from India was the strongest when I moved to Beijing, China. I began to use less and less of my mother tongue in my expatriate neighbourhood. My children went to an international school and slowly but surely their separation from a culture that had shaped me began to occur. We travelled the world together and I became increasingly aware of how globalised they were becoming. I worried about their lack of rootedness in Indianness but at the same time was proud of how well they fitted in wherever they went. I somehow managed to keep them hooked to Indian food by teaching my local domestic help Indian cooking. Despite being a committed pescatarian (son #1) and a committed ‘chickenatarian‘ (son #2), both crave their sambar, avial, pav-bhaji and samosa chaat. But I had far less success with religion and both my children are atheists. While they like celebrating Diwali — ‘a social festival‘ — with friends, they have little patience with my ‘no non-veg/no alcohol‘ injunctions on other ‘auspicious‘ occasions such as Dussehra or Janmashtami.
We now live as American citizens in the US and this is now ‘home‘. My children study and work here and haven’t been to India in many years. It is hard to miss India in the same way as when I lived in Beijing, now that I’m part of a vocal, visible, and successful immigrant community. I now also have unfettered access to social media — WhatsApp, Facebook, etc. Yet, there are days when I think, ‘I wish I were living in India!‘
No, it’s not the food! In my neck of the woods, we are spoilt for choice. It’s not avenues for cultural engagement, of which there are plenty. It’s not even the social circle — we have plenty of friends of Indian origin.
The thought hits when you are walking down the street and happen to stumble and most folk just walk past you. It hits when you catch an eye in the crowd at an event and smile but are met with a cold stare back. It hits when you are out collecting mail, run into a neighbour, and crave small talk but the neighbour hurries away. It hits when you suddenly remember to buy something that can only be bought in an American store, and you feel constrained to change out of your ‘Indian clothes‘. It hits at all those innumerable times when you make all those small but conscious changes to ‘fit in‘ because you will always be the ‘other‘.
Most of all, it hits when I happen to hear the Indian national anthem. Maybe I have tuned into an R-Day or I-Day celebration on YouTube. It’s inexplicable but a lump rises in my throat, and I feel a tear drop!
The author lives in Cary, North Carolina, US. She worked with The Indian Express in Hyderabad and Chennai.