It was Sunday evening and the skies looked menacing, with the clouds threatening to pour their contents in the next hour. My husband Sai drove the little Maruti to the supermarket and, as expected, rain started pelting the car ferociously. He turned off the ignition and we stayed in the car, unwilling to run out towards the entrance of the store. The windows fogged up and Sai opened the driver’s side window by a crack. A little later, feeling brave enough, we manually locked the doors and dashed into the store. Armed with plastic bags stocked with Lay’s chips, Sprite, and other essentials, we returned to the car only to discover that we had left the keys on the dashboard. Our options were limited, given that the nearest car repair shop was closed. Soon, a curious group of onlookers gathered around with suggestions and offers of help. Finally, one ingenious man managed to get a piece of metal wire into the narrow crack in the window and pull out the old-type lock and voila, we were rescued. When we narrated this story to a friend who had also returned from the United States not too long ago, he asked us one simple question, “Did you call AAA?” And in the ensuing laughter, we shared memories of a place far away and for a few minutes, shamelessly indulged in a bout of nostalgia.
While living in the United States, I had often wondered what makes Indians who live abroad hang out with other Indians. Now I question why I don’t seem to share the same affinity for all my fellow Indians but prefer the company of other returned NRIs like myself. Today the number of returned NRIs in India is fairly large and continues to grow, especially in cities like Hyderabad and Bangalore, with the latter having formal organizations established on that premise alone.
After the initial years of adjustment to life in the United States, I had unknowingly moved to a point of equilibrium. While anticipating the difficulties of returning to India, I felt that the hardest adjustment would not be getting used to the traffic, pollution, or population, but to find like-minded friends. In theory, finding a mutually compatible social circle should have been easier since in India I am surrounded by large numbers of individuals with similar skin shades, hair color, physical traits, and cultural background. In practice, however, it is not so simple to find the few who share the same wavelength.
Whether we admit it or not, dealing with change is tough, if not altogether traumatic. For most Indians who leave the comfort of the familiar to find their future abroad, that first step is not easy. Similarly, for those like us who consciously make the decision to return, in many ways, we have mentally crossed the barrier that resists change but physically have to endure the process of reorienting ourselves to a landscape that has changed considerably from the one that is frozen in our memories at the time of boarding that first international flight. In times of stress, it is the familiar that soothes and comforts. As we try to find our place in a landscape that is at once recognizable but altered, it seems natural that we gravitate towards others undergoing the same transformation.
So we get together in groups, returned NRIs all, and discuss class sizes and extra-curricular activities when it comes to picking a school for our kids, not tuition costs or academic rigor. We talk about having switched from Palmolive to Prill, Uncle Ben to MTR, and to Lakme from Lancome. We exchange notes about how to get an Indian driver’s license, tandoori pizza, the new Subway store, the theatre with comfortable seats, or the park with the kid-friendly play structures. While the younger children quickly get over their American accents, it is the parents who watch Friends and Law and Order to take the edge out of the transition. In trying to find a term to describe the idiosyncrasies of this group, I think the term that fits best is DCBA. I have taken off from the not-so complimentary tag attached to children of Indians growing up in America. Here I propose that we are the Desis who Came Back from America. In many ways, on returning to a country where we no longer bear the tag of minority based solely on our race, we find it difficult to effortlessly blend in and find ourselves somewhat marginally situated in this vast majority. And therein lies the basis of confusion, not of the foreign-born children (as attributed to the ABCDs) but the primary confusion that lies at the heart of the immigrant experience, now doubly compounded by our return.
From the time the monsoons arrived, we have had a deluge of another sort. We have been swamped with visits and phone calls from the true NRIs, our friends from not just the United States, but also from Europe and Australia, who are on their periodic visits to India. It is strange to meet them in the common country of our origin since in most cases we had sought their friendship while living abroad. We are now at the receiving end of their largesse as they shower us with large Costco-size packs of Hershey’s chocolates and bars of Dove soap. In this role-reversal I feel like I am looking into a mirror, having been at the giving end not so long ago. I detect a touch of envy when I ask my friend to not bother with the dishes after dinner since the maid takes care of it. They mention a new Ikea store in our old neighborhood and I talk about missing driving, intimidated as I am by the traffic here. There is an odd comfort in the sharing of these confidences, like neighbors standing on two sides of the fence that divides their properties, knowing fully well that at the end of this conversation, each will return to the side she has chosen.
Ranjani Nellore, a former San Francisco Bay Area resident, now lives and writes in Hyderabad.