Monday, November 14, 2005

Bigotry and confusion in NRI-land

Something that never ceases to amaze me is how single-mindedly insular large pockets of London’s NRI community can be. Not to mention confused and deluded. There’s more truth than one realises in the clichés about these people being stuck in a time warp.

I don’t usually need to look much further than my uncle and his social circle of rabid right-wingers. During my visit last year I was amused to see the dismayed response of this group to the news that a Congress-led government was coming to power in the home country. Some of us had gone for dinner to an Italian restaurant around the time it seemed certain Sonia Gandhi would become prime minister. There, my uncle clowned about with the unfortunate waiters. “You must be very happy-o,” he sing-songed, “now that an Italian-o is becoming prime minister-o of India-o?” The waiters grinned uncomprehendingly. It might have been possible to dismiss the whole thing as a joke (albeit a sad one) if it weren’t for the genuine angst in the conversation that followed, about this terrible thing the Indian voters had done in ejecting the BJP. “A foreigner becoming prime minister,” they shuddered. “What has gone wrong with the country we loved and left?”

And then, after dinner, this same bunch came back home and sat about until past 2 discussing a fund collection to help canvass for a gentleman (I forget his name) who was in the running to become London’s first mayor of Indian origin. Now while I appreciate that the role and responsibility of a PM is very different in scale from that of a mayor, there was a definite parallel here, and it was interesting that no one noticed the schism between what they were saying and what they were doing.

It’s difficult to understand how people like these – citizens of the world, people who have lived and worked in another country for years – can be so small-minded. Sure, they’ve probably all taken hard knocks, especially in the early years of their life here – faced racism, discrimination, loneliness. But on balance their adopted country has been very good to them – good enough for them to want to stay on for decades. One would think it would be easier for such people to look beyond the narrow domestic walls that Tagore lamented. Unfortunately, they seem more shut in than the rest of us.

When you’re bored of being parochial about your country, you can always turn to race or community instead. On the same trip, I was in a car with another uncle when he made an inadvertent wrong turn, causing a black driver to make angry questioning gestures as he passed us. For the next 10 minutes I was treated to a fuming dissection of the “negroid race”. “The trouble with these people is, they have small brains which can only accommodate a limited number of thoughts,” uncle said, speaking with all the force and authority of the 1864 edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica. “They’re not civilised, like us.”

Last week, during my just-concluded visit, it was a time of much Gujarati-baiting by the Punjabis. To cut a long story short, earlier this year when my very-eligible cousin announced that he wanted to marry his girlfriend of many years, a girl from a Gujarati (and vegetarian) family well out of my uncle’s social circle, it caused more than a flutter. After weeks of emotional blackmail, threats and tears, the elders finally reconciled themselves to the fact that there was no stopping the young couple. To be fair, the wedding was a nicely organised affair with much bonhomie from both sides, especially when there were cameras in shooting distance. But within the groom’s father’s clique of friends and relatives, the “Gujju” jokes still haven’t stopped. I’d repeat some of them here, but everything else apart they aren’t very good jokes.

Our aarti can beat up your shlokas

I’ve never seen a more comical instance of religion being used as a tool of one-upmanship than at one point during the wedding ceremony. After most of the rituals had been concluded, the MC (yes yes, there was an MC!) announced that a lady would now recite some Jain shlokas for the benefit of the girl’s family. The recital lasted maybe a minute, during which time the guests on the bride’s side maintained a respectful silence, hands joined and heads bowed. But this threw my dear uncle into a frenzy. “If they can have their bloody Jain chants, we’ll have our Arya Samaj too!” he bawled, and next thing I knew after a quick conference between him and the MC, our entire side of the hall had risen as one and commenced singing “Om Jai Jagdish Hare” in robust Punjabi style.

It was loud and boorish, and it didn’t sound like a prayer at all. It sounded like defiance. Above all, it sounded like a counter-attack.

Update (a part-response to some of the comments on this post): One of the things I didn’t mention is how internally confused some of these people are, despite being such confident, swaggering types on the surface. While they do go on about Indian culture and traditions, when it suits them to they spend an almost equal amount of time extolling the “civilised” western way of doing things. For instance, one of them was lecturing someone else about how we must all be dressed in traditional Indian clothing for the main ceremony; but then, a mere 10 minutes later, he was holding forth on how the seating-arrangement system at formal functions in the UK was “the right way to do these things. Everyone has a fixed place with a name-tag. It isn’t like bloody India where if you want to talk to someone else on your table you can casually get up and change your seat”. Ha.


  1. Well said Jai!
    No logic seems to work in such cases.
    Case in point: 'Liberal' mother saying "I will marry off my daughter to anybody but a muslim or a negro".

  2. Quite shocking.
    On a different note, did you get to buy any CDs from the fabled HMV store?

  3. Welcome back! And what a great way to start off! Looking forward to your bandhgala photos!

  4. Exactly, exactly, a lot of NRIs in the UK are exactly like that. Have had experiences like that with my own uncles, but in the US.

  5. Precisely because they aren't "citizens of the world" in any meaningful sort of way. The mere act of being transplanted to a foreign land would not make you revise your worldview, unless you engage with the altered socio-cultural space in an open and receptive manner.

    Also many NRIs (at least in the US) come from relatively privileged backgrounds (educated middle-class) and confining themselves to an exclusively Indian circle and maintaining status quo is one way of holding on to that sense of entitlement.

    And before I forget, welcome back! I send the bandhgala photo motion, bring on the uploads!

  6. I suspect there's a little more at play here than mere insularity. My theory is that the fact of having to interact with people from other parts of the world makes national 'culture' a more salient part of how people define themselves. This means that NRIs are more rigid about their identity (to the point of being bigoted) because they are hyper-conscious of deviations from tradition, which they see as attacks on their own self-image. This is narcissism of small differences - NRIs are more inflexible about their Indian-ness precisely because they use it to differentiate themselves from everyone else in ways that those who live in India can't and don't.

    P.S. Good to have you back.

  7. all very true. my recent experience in this small mexican town with 10 Indian families is revealing. At the recent diwali celebration I did not perform arati when the diya was handed to me. I thought that to be a bit too much for a lefty bong like me. the diya continued on its round and was passed from hand to hand. Within a few days a senior member of the community enquired on my religion. On hearing that I do not practice any, he wanted to know whether I was a Brahmo. So thats the diaspora in latin america for you

  8. I'm more worried about that girl being disowned by her parents. We all get to be model minorities outside but we get to keep our prejudices as well. And that's the way it is.

  9. well said.

    hope your uncle does not read your blog....or the next time u visit london check in at the youth hostel !!!!

  10. there's so much going on with british NRIs that i could write a thesis about it (actually my friend is). but anyway. so on the one hand, our NRIs try to be 'whiter than the white folks'. and so the disgust for the 'negroid race' and the aping of the white middle class. on the other is the nostalgia for the home they've left behind and this creation of a mythical homeland. the india they remember is not the india they left behind. they're anachronisms wherever they go.

  11. this insularity is something these NRIs need to sustain themselves and their identities without which it is very difficult to survive in the alien land.

    btw, good to see a "political" post on this blog :)

  12. jabberwock, what u have pointed out is precisely the cause of much problem in the world, particularly in the uk in relation to the bill some leader tabled few days back. it says that immigrants have to prove how british they are. maybe others can throw more light on it. on one hand, if u try to assimilate to the host culture, u might feel ur identity is being threatened, multiculturalism should be replaced by a single yardstick for all and such jingoism. on the other hand, u maintain ur own identity (of course more forcefully than u would in ur own country) at the risk of being labelled a bigot and narrow minded. maintaining the fine line between protecting one's identity while being tolerant of others' is indeed tough, more so for the minority in a foreign land. i am not condoning this behaviour, neither do i have any idea for any solution. what ho!! the world will go on as it always has.
    and yes, welcome back.

  13. thalassa_mikra says
    "Precisely because they aren't "citizens of the world" in any meaningful sort of way."

    To the point mate. I think most of the people actually got transplanted, not assimilated into different lands. It is not possible for transplanted generation to become "englishmen", but almost always the next generation is. I think that is good enough. Change aint too easy. Probably we will all understand that once we are in that age bracket :)

    On the point about Sonia Gandhi and NRI Mayor. The difference is between someone from community and an individual who happened to got married into the right family.

    PS: How many people were thinking of Goodness Gracious Me while reading this post?

  14. Sir,

    To think about an Italian, who only applied for Indian citizenship on 1984 due to a contingency, becoming the PM of India is definitely not a liberal thought. The fact that such a scenario was going to be a reality should drive all Indians to think about a legislation, which prevents such emergencies to take place in the future.

    I think most Indians would be fine with Italians, Chinese, Japanese, Arabs and the whole lot of them running for the office of the mayor, municipality, public utilities and other such offices, provided they have been residents of India for a substantial length of time.

    But it is very crucial to understand that certain offices are sacrosanct. They are sacrosanct because India is a rising power and not a Sub-Saharan banana republic. To think about a lady who lived 22 years of her life as an Italian and took Indian citizenship after 16 years of residence in India, as the PM of India is definitely something of deep concern. Those who think otherwise are either imbecilic in their thinking or consider India as being no better than a bloody banana republic.

    1. "...because India is a rising power and not a Sub-Saharan banana republic" ... Ahhh! At least try to couch your bigotry... I'd hate to think what you think anyone of a darker hue than you.

  15. Fool on the Hill: DVDs. Will post a list soon.

    Rumman, Swati: I’ll have to wait until someone mails me photos. Took hardly any with my own camera. These were enormous, busy functions with 600-odd people and not many opportunities to get pics taken apart from the official ones.
    Will try to post a couple though, if they’ve turned out okay.

    Arzan: yup, am taking a bit of a risk here. Some people from that side of the family do know about the blog, though they aren’t too interested in it!

  16. in my experience, i find much of the same sort of conversation in india as well. some pretty much identical conversation, in fact, from people in bombay who have never even left the country. also, i don't think it's fair to paint all NRIs with the same brush. i had a pretty dim opinion of them as well until i hung out with quite a few and found that they're pretty much the same as us here. their lives are the same, their conversations, their thoughts and ideas, their problems and their worries; it's all pretty much the same. just in a different place and different context. i ramble, but the point i'm trying to make is that NRIs aren't really a bad sort.

  17. So what's your point? The farther you go, the closer you hold on to your prejudices. Or something like that. There is no hope in this world. Everyone's pimping. Everyone's a whore. And the only salvation is in blogging. such are the cathartic joys of blogging. Umm...where were we. Ah yes, lovely blog.

  18. Very well said. No wonder (some)Indians don't get/deserve respect outside their country....

  19. very interesting... i've been in London for just over a year now and as most of our friends have been here for just a few years themselves it's nice to get an insight in to the minds of long term residents. (note to self - what not to become)

  20. This is an execlletn write up... I use to think that most people accept these things(it is just me being unusual)

  21. No wonder Indians are a separate species: homo hierarchicus.

    "i don't think it's fair to paint all NRIs with the same brush."
    He isn't painting all NRIs with the same brush. He is just asking how well educated "citizens of the world" can be so bigoted; or how difficult it is for us to spot ironies in our own behaviors (case in point: "negroid race" and "seating arrangements").

  22. What can one say about all the so-called NRIs. Most of them belong to sudra caste or even Untouchables.
    The Gujarati Patels are all Sudra but make out they are higher caste. The English being stupid don't know that they have a lot of Gujarati country-bumbkins with no culture. Gujarati has produced no art or culture. They don't have a single writer worth his salt. They are nothing but parasites.

    But you have to admit Gujarati is a Hindu fanatic giving money for burning and killing non-Hindus in India. They gave money from Kenya and London to bring down the Muslim mosque in Aryodhya.

    NRIs are all low caste fools and bigots. The Punjabi Hindus are mostly low-caste too but will always claim to be Brahmin or Rajput. Sharmas are sudra but got themselves classed as Brahmin! They did this when some of them got to British Africa working as railway labourers for the Africans and English.

  23. Reading this was like hearing someone say my inner thoughts out loud. Very eloquently put and a very well written article about a really important issue. I have been over this countless times beating my head against the wall just wishing people would just shut up about racial and cultural prejudices and irrational bias and learn to live a little and love a little more.
    Very nice read. Thank you!

  24. stupidity has no boundaries i guess.

  25. Compliments first: Jai, I really enjoy reading your blog and get lots of "What? That's happened to someone else too?" moments when I do.

    On the bigotry of NRIs -- I think it is just the bigotry of Indians brought to the fore by actually having to interact with lots of different races and cultures. People in India think obnoxious things about Africans too, but they may not feel compelled to vent as freely since there's no black driver in the next lane.

    Just to go by the papers in Delhi, we only see Africa(ns) through two prisms. One is the drug dealer - "Three Nigerians arrested with cocaine" is a headline every other day. The other is Africa as a monolithic backward place that exists to make us look good by comparison.

    The other day I read an article on street children in India called something like "Africa at the traffic lights." I wonder if over there they read articles entitled "Calcutta at the traffic lights"?

  26. Lunatrip: That's an interesting perspective about bigotry being generic to Indians - if true, it might well have to do with notions about how rich and superior our culture and tradition are, and the consequent close-mindedness towards others.

    BTW, I didn't mean to suggest that NRIs are the only Indians who have such beliefs. Living in India, one gets to see firsthand (even among members of one's own family) the revulsion for black people, the pejorative use of the word "habshi", even racist terms in newspapers when there's a story on the cocaine underground in Delhi etc - and much else in terms of religious and casteist discrimination. And I've always found it amusing the way people in this country go on so self-righteously about racism in white countries when they themselves treat browner people like cockroaches.

  27. I just saw this posting through a link on your home page. Dude, right on on all things except the PM-ship stuff.

    Come the heck on -- yes, it was legal, but when someone takes on citizenship for the sake of expediency, years and years and years after they qualified to be a citizen, what right do they have to the premier position? That aside, are there ANY qualifications, beyond having married into the family?? No, absolutely none (on that note, though, I'd have to admit that almost no other politician is qulified either). But my point here is there is NO extenuating circumstance that calls out that she deserves it.

    The US and many other countries require the President to be born in the country to be able to be eligible. Do you think that even for a moment that they'd consider electing someone who was born somewhere else?? Forget the US, in almost any other country on earth, it would be unheard of. Let's not extend the term "liberal" to the acceptance of *everything*.

    Finally, in hindsight, she's completely in charge any way. All upside, no downside. Sad that a man of Manmohan's quality is reduced to a dumb, nodding puppet.

  28. Excellent post Jai. Not sure what kinda people would want to spend their life being a "colour". Yeah that's what these NRI's leaving in the UK/US are classified as - BROWN. So if you're brown you'll all be treated the same & it doesn't matter if you went to some top notch college in your country and someother dude with no education whatsoever who got in thru one of his relatives. To the locals all brown people are the same. Next time some NRI brags about living abroad just show him place - which is nowhere.

  29. Good points, except for the Sonia Gandhi one. Why should she be allowed to become the PM when she didn't take the citizenship for so long? That doesn't show her love for India, and all she's doing right now is to make sure that the gaddi is there for her son. Nehru-Gandhi dynasty continues. I'm also wondering if you and others would be so "liberal" if Sonia Gandhi was black. I highly doubt it.

  30. “What has gone wrong with the country we loved and left?”

    I cracked up after reading this line :)

  31. was a predictable rant dude. i wonder whether what you saw was more placed in the earlier generation, while the later NRI s do not necessarily come from the same stock. much like in india itself. you almost if not actually, fell into the us and them trap.