From Surabhi’s Notepad – A column that brings us personal essays and stories, frivolous and serious, inspired by real-life events and encounters of navigating the world as a young, Indian woman living outside India.
Sitting beside a window in my house in West Singapore, as I stare thoughtlessly at the view of lush green trees and a verdant Bukit Timah hill, I see a family of yellow parrots playing around enjoying the tropical weather. When we moved to this house two years ago, they were a family of two. Now, they are three- mom, dad, and baby parrot. The sight of this lovely playful family makes me nostalgic, it makes me sad. It makes me miss my family back in India even more.
Where I come from, living in a foreign country is considered fashionable and glamorous. While I don’t deny the better lifestyle and surplus savings, the fact remains that living abroad comes with its own set of challenges. You can feel displaced and lonely. With a pandemic imposing travel restrictions, it can very easily cause anxiety, stress, and even depression.
Pandemic or no pandemic, the realities of living away from the Motherland are not necessarily that glamorous and fun as portrayed in popular culture. In Yash Chopra and Karan Johar movies, we see Indians abroad in big landed homes, driving fancy cars, and living a life of luxury. What is rarely depicted in pop culture is the other side of the coin. Living away from India can take a toll on you emotionally and psychologically. The lack of a robust community support system, similar traditions, and enthusiasm for festivals and important occasions can be very alienating and daunting. However, in many parts of the world, Indians have managed to build a community for themselves.
It can take some adjustment and a lot of patience to “settle down”, especially if you are a new immigrant. One tip I can give to my readers planning on moving abroad soon is to seek help. Start looking at online forums and groups based out of the place where you are moving, connect with people, and be open to putting yourself out there.
Having some connections and being open to new relationships always helps. But in your head, be prepared. Even something as small as different weather at a given point of time of the year can take some getting used to. For example, when I moved to Singapore, initially, it took me a while to adjust to summers round-the-year as I’d grown up enjoying four lovely seasons in India.
The blind race to marry an NRI and its ugly consequences
For me, the struggles have been more on the psychological front caused by the displacement and lack of a sense of belonging. I have been lucky to have a supportive and loving husband and some great friends.
For some, unfortunately, the repercussions can be worse, even life-threatening. That is why, people, especially, women should think twice about how badly they want it and for what reasons. I know a lot of girls who specifically seek NRI husbands just for the sake of the coveted label of being foreign-settled. In this blind pursuit, sometimes, women end up marrying the wrong guy landing themselves in abusive families – sometimes they are subjected to mental torture, sometimes they are abandoned, and sometimes they even end up dead.
In a case that came to light in 2017, highly-educated and well-qualified Usha Parikh left her lucrative job in a top-drawer IT company in Ahmedabad to marry a US-based NRI engineer only to realize later that her husband was an unlettered ordinary mechanic and an alcoholic. In another case the same year, Rekha Shah, daughter of a silk-stocking Surat diamantaire, married a Singapore-based doctor and within three months, the 29-year-old pregnant woman was desperate to come back to India from the physical abuse she faced from her husband and in-laws for dowry.
In the first seven months of 2017 alone, the Indian Ministry of External Affairs received over 300 SOS complaints from Indian women stuck abroad in fraudulent marriages. According to a 2020 report, there are over 30,000 ‘honeymoon brides’ in Punjab who have been deserted by their NRI husbands within days or months of their marriage this year alone.
According to a 2018 article by Reicha Tanwar, Former Director of Women’s Studies at Kerala University, there has been a steady rise in cases of Indian women being deserted after marriage or tricked into fraudulent marriages by husbands and their families who are residents of a foreign country in the past ten years. She writes that between January 2015 to November 2017, the MEA received 3,328 such complaints. Most of the complainants were from Punjab, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana followed by Gujarat. This year, amidst lockdowns and stay-at-home impositions worldwide, cases of domestic violence- both mental and physical- surged.
What’s worse is that these NRI husbands leverage the gaps in the laws and policies, and generally go untouched. Fraudulent NRI marriages are also cases of rape, torture, human trafficking, violence, and extortion. Between September 2009 to November 2011, around 800 cases have been registered in India’s National Commission for Women but not a single NRI husband was extradited back to India as of July last year.
The problem lies in the implementation of Article 498(a) of the Indian Penal Code wherein cases of domestic violence, the presence of NRI husbands cannot be secured in Indian courts. There is no strong law to help bring them back and that is why most of them go untouched.
Know your rights and weigh your options
It is important for every adult woman to know their rights, weigh their options, and seriously consider if they want an NRI husband at the risk of not knowing enough and going in blind. Generally, there are some red flags and patterns that can help catch the trouble early in the process of meeting the families and the boy.
Are they in a hurry? Is the boy not around and will directly come over at the time of the wedding? Have you seen the legal documents like passports, visas, etc? Are you in touch with any relatives, friends, and foreign acquaintances of the groom’s side?
Living in a foreign land seems dreamy and glamorous but at what cost?
Women and their families must do their due diligence and think twice before entering into a union with a foreign-based boy. Having said that, I completely understand that there are many scenarios where the person is smooth and there are just no alarming signs ahead of the wedding and a woman can find herself in trouble after landing in a strange country.
At that point, it becomes crucial to know where and how to seek help. Reach out to the Indian embassy or High Commission in your country. Go to the Ministry of External Affairs website or Twitter handle and reach out to them. Reach out to government organizations like NARI or non-government organizations in your area.
Here are some relevant links for readers in California:
- Check India Currents’ two-part expose on domestic violence in South Asian populations during COVID.
- Do you need help in San Francisco, California?
- Marriages to Overseas Indian Guide by MEA, India
- NGOs: NARIKA, Maitri
I am saddened by the lack of family visits this past year amidst the pandemic and as we usher into the new year with uncertainties and bleak hope, I feel even worse. However, my struggles are nothing like these thousands of women who go abroad with dreams of starting a new family, a new life, and are faced with such atrocities. It is important for us all to remember that life is not about the material side of things but in the end, it is the people and the relationships that matter. If anything, this past year we have all learned the value of having loved ones in our lives.
I wish and pray that the new year only brings happiness and health for all of us- in India and abroad. Happy, safe, and healthy 2021!
Surabhi, a former Delhi Doordarshan presenter, is a journalist based in Singapore. She is the author of ‘Nascent Wings’ and ‘Saturated Agitation’ and has contributed to more than 15 anthologies in English and Hindi in India and Singapore. Website | Blog | Instagram