“Indian” I answered simply.
“You don’t sound like one,” was the even simpler response.
It was a fact, though. I didn’t sound Indian. I didn’t dress Indian. There was nothing Indian about me except a little entry in my passport and a set of cultural values which felt somewhat irrelevant at that moment.
When I returned to India, I had spent over 20 years in the Middle East. I had moved to Dubai, the financial capital of the United Arab Emirates, when I was four years old. My family settled in this foreign land. My father worked here, my mother was the quintessential housewife. My siblings and I were educated in Dubai, albeit in Indian schools and, later, Indian colleges. Our friends were Indian children; our social circle consisted mostly of Indian families. We celebrated major Indian festivals like Eid, Diwali, Holi, and Onam. We wore traditional Indian dresses without feeling out of place. We ate Indian food, communicated amongst ourselves in Hindi, and lived exactly like Indians in any metropolitan Indian city.
We didn’t, however, travel in trains, buses or auto-rickshaws. We had cars or cabs to get around. We were accustomed to smooth roads, sensible driving, and clean cities. Our clothing choices were, naturally, influenced by local styles as well. For instance, our kurtis were arabesque in design. Our accent and dialects were different from those spoken in various Indian cities. We didn’t follow the jargon used in day to day conversation “back home.” These were just a few things that made us different from resident Indians. The full measure of how much this difference impacts a person returning to India can only be ascertained once you actually experience it.
When I returned to the Indian city of Bangalore, aged 24, newly married, this is what I experienced:
The first two months of my return to India were spent shopping for things with my husband, and setting up my own little apartment in Bangalore. We would eat out a lot, and he would take me to popular city spots to keep me entertained. I got stared at a lot! I would often ask my husband if there was something wrong with my dress, if I had something on my face, or if I had something stuck in my hair! He would smile and say I just looked “different.” I took a good look around and realized that this was true. People around me wore jeans and kurtis but the colors and designs were radically different. Even when I wore traditional Indian wear like a salwar kameez or churidaar, I ended up looking very different from those wearing similar attire. With my skirts, tops, trousers, and coats being bought from stores like Zara and Mango, I ended up looking more British than Indian in this new setting. Even my footwear drew stares!
A couple of months into my return, I got a job in a multinational insurance company. While handing me my appointment letter the HR manager commented that I had a “killer accent.” Was I flattered? In fact, I just became conscious of yet another thing that made different. If I complained about how bad the roads were or how dirty the pedestrian walks were or how disgusting it was for people to be urinating in public, the most common response I got was “This is not Dubai madam,” with extra emphasis on the “madam.”
Things became tougher once I started working. Colleagues would not understand what I said. Some were genuinely baffled but a lot of them just pretended, with smirks on their faces. I was often made to repeat my words, slowly, clearly. Heads would turn in cubicles when I walked past. Some people seemed to be in awe, others were resentful, very few were accepting. And when you move back to the country that is supposed to be your own, that is all you really want—acceptance. My experience taught me that acceptance, however, needs to be earned.
My conversation with the colleague who told me I didn’t sound Indian made me decide that I needed to change if I wanted to be accepted, because I had already been here for over a year.
Today, I have changed enough that I look and sound Indian, and no one stares at me anymore. I wear a batik or bandhini-work kurti over jeans instead of my usual Zara fare. My cardigans and turtle necks have been replaced by cotton salwar kameez in earthy colors. I wear flat shoes with sequined Indian designs instead of six-inch stilettos. Short skirts and long leather coats are a strict no-no. I avoid making references to Dubai while conversing and talk of cricket instead of football. I’ve even altered my accent to sound more Indian.
However, one thing that I cannot change is what I think is right and what I think is wrong. I will not approve of all things Indian just because I am one. I still don’t throw litter on the street just because there are no dustbins around. I report corruption whenever I face it. There is nothing more non-Indian than pretending that everything is fine with my country when it isn’t. Do my fellow citizens share my views? Some do, some don’t. One thing is certain though, NRIs returning to India face a real cultural change at home. Despite having spent four years in India, I still feel more at home when I vacation in Dubai. I wonder if it will take a life-long NRI another lifetime to be feel at home in India.
Afshan Mujawar is a Bangalore based NRI (Newly Returned Indian), independent author and social commentator.