They have left their motherland and settled abroad at least for some time. But NRIs are still Indians at heart. However, given the foreign ambiance, it often becomes difficult for them to maintain their complete Indianness like they would do back home. However, Indians in India already have a composite and cosmopolitan make-up. Therefore, for them living elsewhere does not amount to a bad experience. It is interesting to note how they still get involved in Indian music and dance in some way, while celebrating our festivals, traditionally. The two people spoken to say that their family and lifestyle are no different from what it would have been if they had been living back home, in India. Though parenting could become a difficult job, with external influence and cultural conflicts, they all want the best for their children.
Having born, raised and spent his first 24 years of life in the hot city of Chennai, Nagarajan Gopalakrishnan (he had to shorten his name to Nag so that the people abroad could be able to pronounce his name) speaks a multitude of languages including Hindi, which in his own words, is not typical of a Chennaiite in that sense. He introduces himself, “I did my Bachelor’s in Physics from Madras University. Without an engineering background no matter how good you are big IT companies don’t hire you. Sounds ridiculous to me even today – Bill Gates or Steve Jobs as a student would never make it to an Indian IT company even today. I finally reached the US in 1999 and after a year of hard struggle and persistence I got myself well established in the US. I lived there for almost 11 years before moving to Canada. Waiting for GC exasperated me and embraced Canada instead. Although, US is still a country I fondly cherish in my memories as lots of milestones are linked to US including my daughter’s birth.”
He adds, “On the personal front, I and my wife, Deepa, met at work through common friends in India. We met at work place and decided to make the rest of the journey of our life together. Eventually she landed in US in the same New York City where I worked too. Later we got married with both of our parents consent. She is originally from Kerala, so not my Dad and Mom’s choice, in fact I had to convince them that she is the right one for me. Yes she is still working and very career focused. I am happy to help her in whatever ways possible.”
He currently lives in Mississauga (greater Toronto area), Ontario, Canada, with his family and works as a Project Manager for an IT consulting services company that specializes in the Healthcare Industry. On the other hand, Anuradha Warrier hails from Kerala, but brought up in Chennai and Bangalore. She returned to Kerala for college and went to work in Mumbai. Anuradha is a BA-English Literature and initially worked as a primary school teacher, then as an accounts executive in a Garment Export firm and then finally as a journalist in Mumbai. She grew up with her husband and he was not chosen by her parents. Then she started freelancing while her older son was little. She now lives with her family in Massachusetts, USA and works as a Media Consultant.
Call of the Foreign Land: Anuradha came to the US in ’98, 7 years after getting married, decidedly for a year and a half. She and her family did not have plans of settling there. At this point she quotes Lennon, “As Lennon said, life is what happens while you are busy making other plans.” Further she clarifies, “I came to the US because my Engineer husband was planning to set up a company. Neither of us had any ideas about living here this long. My husband was based in India, though he had been in the US for a couple of years, a couple of times. Shifted to the US because my husband was planning to set up a company there with his friends; we were going to be there for as long as it took to get the company established, and then we were going to come back so he could head the Indian operations. It didn’t work out, and circumstances forced us to stay longer than we planned.”
Nag had decided very early, when he was in 12th standard that he would work there. This was when his elder brother had left for the US. Nag recollects, “I certainly wanted to get out of India but landing in US just happened my brother’s help. When I started my career I had a chance to go to Germany or Malaysia but gave up and waited. I wanted to go to the US. But now I live in Canada. My Indian company sponsored my H1visa to the US.”
Difference in Lifestyles and Cultures: Living in India, we may feel that the life in the US is different. Nag finds difference in certain areas. He says, “In some areas, things are fine, but in some other areas there is an ocean of difference. Here friends are your family. My daughter, Anannya, who is 4 years old speaks mostly English with us. But living outside India widens your perspective of who you are and makes you a better human being I guess. I am not saying this is not possible in India but here it is a natural evolution whereas in India it would be a conscious evolution.” Anuradha begs to differ. She does not find the life “very different that I can see.”
Difference in culture might have caused conflicts, too. Anuradha negates any conflicts, “Yes, the culture is different, but no, there was no conflict. And no, I didn’t have any help ‘settling down’. What does that mean, anyway? There were people here who gave us an enormous amount of help in getting things done – shopping, setting up bank accounts (you need an introduction) and showing us different locations for our requirements, but other than that, did I have any help bridging the cultural divide? No, not really. Both my husband and I are pretty comfortable in most situations, so it didn’t really matter to us whether we were in Bombay or the US. So, no, there was no real culture shock here.”
The culture of the place you live in has some effect on your family and lifestyle. Does that make their family in any way different from an Indian family based in India? For Nag, it is jaisa des, vaisa bhes. He adds, “Culturally, every country is different and so you need to adapt and embrace where you live. The extent to which you embrace is up to you as big cities in both Canada and US welcome outsiders well. The place where I live now is a mixed community of Canadians, Indians, Sri Lankans and people from all over the world. Deepa wanted to go back to India when we were living in the US so yes even though she was very modern she did not like US. However she finds Canada a better place than US to live. So I had to coin this line – ‘Warm people in a cold country’. Canada is a very cold country but people’s warmth and welcoming nature makes up for everything.”
Nag adds, “The reason you need to adapt to where you live is that otherwise you feel very isolated. In a sense it makes you a better human being, I guess. One of the reasons, why you become a better human is that your strong identity of being an Indian fades here and your sense of humanness blossoms. Personally, I miss the joy of driving my motorbike in Chennai, having a nice Indian food, leisurely reading news paper with coffee, etc. You live your life only in weekends here, but having said that I see this trend in India too with at least the IT folks.”
Anuradha says regarding effect of the foreign culture on her family, “I don’t quite know how to answer that. Because all Indian families based in India are not the same, are they? There is no generic ‘Indian family’. All I can say is that my family would be like this whether we were in India or anywhere else. As far as the culture of the place affecting how we live – umm, I suppose it does? I haven’t thought too much about it. We have our values in place (and I don’t know whether we have emphasized ‘Indian’ values, whatever they are) but there is no conscious effort either to be ‘American’ or remain ‘Indian’.”
Following Traditions: The work schedule there seems to be more hectic than in India, with less festival holidays. Nag has it all planned. According to him, weekdays are for work and weekends are the catch up time for personal life. He says, “So any festival or cultural programs happen for us only on weekends here. It’s nice to visit the Indian temple here during the weekends.”
Anuradha counter-questions, “What does ‘Indian culture and traditions’ mean anyway? There isn’t some template for that. I have the same household I would have had, had I been in India. I celebrated Indian festivals there, I celebrate them here, but that is because I like celebrating festivals. If I didn’t, then that is not something I would have done, either in India or here. I’m agnostic-veering-on-atheist, but I taught my children the same prayers I said in childhood, but again, that is something I would have done in India, too. I am Indian and that is not going to change (whatever my passport says). I have 2 children. The older one is 19. He has lived in the US far more than he has in India. The younger one, is 7 and was born here and has never ‘lived’ in India, he visits every year. They are Americans of Indian origin. But they eat Indian food at home, they have no issues coming to India, or travelling by public transport in India. They don’t think twice about walking around the place when we visit, and are not bemoaning the ‘lack of facilities’ there. They are as comfortable there as they are here.”
Away from India but not away from Indianness! Though there are so many factors that keep you from being an Indian in a foreign land, with the development of technology, the NRIs can still follow Indian dance, music and last, but not least the movies. Anuradha and her husband love movies, music and books. Thus, they watch many movies, listen to much music, whch includes Indian. They manage to take in concerts when they can, if it interests them. She usually returns from her annual trip in India with a lot of DVDs, CDs and books each time. For Nagarajan, watching Indian movies, going to temples, getting together with Indian friends makes him feel at home, but this can happen only during weekends.
Bringing up Children: Most parents plan the bringing up of their children. Some take it in their stride. As far as Anuradha is concerned, “‘Planned how to bring them up’? In what way? Other than every parent, who has certain ideas, which fall by the wayside when the children grow up? Did I plan to bring them up ‘Indian’? No, I didn’t. Other than wanting them to be behave well, and yes, study well (and that is not a particularly Indian trait) and grow up with some connection to their roots, I have no plans (on how to bring them up).”
Nag says, “Ananya has a choice to be whatever she wants to be, as long as she is happy doing whatever makes her happy.” Further he finds that the challenges of raising a kid is different here than in India but is it better or worse is a subjective comment based on the individual. He adds, “It’s a good challenge for parents here to give a good mix of Indianness and local culture. Kids tend to sway over the local culture so it could sometimes be a challenge for parents here.”
Do the NRI children need different treatment than Indian children living in India? Anuradha voices the concerns of all parents, NRIs and locals, “We all want the best to happen to our children. We don’t want them falling into the wrong company. We hope they will study well and do well in life. We hope they will be well-behaved – doesn’t all that cut across boundaries? Speaking for myself, no, I don’t think I would deal with my children any differently if I were in India. These challenges are the same everywhere. That said, there are some obvious differences – my older son did not have to face the competitiveness of the Indian education system (yet I was tense when it came to college applications). A nineteen-year-old boy from a middle-class household in India would be travelling to most places by public transport – here, he is either driven or he drives himself. A car becomes a necessity here after some time, unlike in India.
Our challenges as parents are also different from parents in India, because our children are growing up in a different environment and they are interacting with different people. It is like living in a cosmopolitan city versus a small town, just on a bigger scale. The things that influence them are different. The whole ethos of growing up in America is different. Academic excellence and sporting excellence are treated differently here. The way children here are taught to be confident in the absence of other things is different from India. So these things make a difference as to how children view their parents and how parents view their children. But if someone wanted their child to grow up ‘Indian’ even though they live abroad, I think that is a challenge in and of itself. You cannot take the effect of culture and environment away and expect your kids to grow up like you did in India. For that matter, the kids in India aren’t going to grow up like you did in India, either.”
Besides the role of NRI mother is no different from that of an Indian living here. Anuradha’s take, “The same as that of a mother in a home in India. Why would it be any different?”
Nag sighs, “A mother is always a mother no matter what the dad does. Now I sound jealous of my wife right (smiles)?”
Children’s Education and Career: Anuradha recollects her childhood, “I am the daughter of a father who, twenty years ago, did not insist I go in for engineering or medicine; a father who allowed me to choose Literature despite the fact that I could have walked into any engineering or medical college if I had so wanted it. My husband chose engineering (after getting his degree in Physics) because he wanted to study engineering; it had nothing to do with his parents wanting him to be an engineer. Why would I not give my children that liberty? And that has nothing to do with my staying in the US. I would ‘allow’ my children to choose what they wanted to do with their life. And I put ‘allow’ in quotes because I honestly think that my ‘permission’ is not really necessary. It is their life. Not mine. As much as I chose my education and career, I would be happy for them to do the same thing. My husband and I are happy to guide them, to talk about the pros and cons of what they choose to do – the final decision remains theirs.”
Nag says, “Kids in India or outside India will always choose the life they want. The only question is, are their parents with them or not. In our case, I and my wife want to be with our daughter every step of the way.”
No Frequent Trips Home: Living so far away, if your parents and siblings are located in India, making a regular trip itself is problematic, since you live in a different time zone and due to the travel distance and time required for travel. This becomes a short-coming during emergencies like bereavement of a close relative. Anuradha affirms, “Truthfully? Yes. While we make it a point to come to India every year, the distance and expense does make it difficult for us to make trips frequently and why just bereavement? There are weddings we have missed. Just the opportunity of going away on vacation with siblings is impossible because the time we come down is not the time anyone can take a vacation there, etc.”
Nag particularly could not be here in time for his father’s funeral. He is still going though the same sadness that a typical Indian, who loves his father, would go through in such a situation. It took him some time to come out of that sadness. Nagarajan finds this a hard question to answer. He says, “Emotions overwhelm me and a big void is felt. The only solace I give myself is that I got to spend some very quality time with him during the last few days. My dad is always special to my heart, every time I draw something or play a game of chess my Dad’s memories bubble up. May his soul rest in peace.”
Future Plans: Anuradha would like to continue as a consultant, since it gives her the flexibility she needs. She adds, “I’m also exploring other avenues that will keep me challenged, but it is not something I want to talk about.” Nag does not have big plans but to take life as it unfolds.
Regarding returning to India, Anuradha says, “Eventually, yes. Definitely.” While Nag says, “Yes I would love to come back to India. Hopefully when I go back, I would like to travel to the nook and corner of India especially to historic places.”
This article was first published in Eve’s Times magazine and has been reproduced with the permission of the editor, Swati Amar.