When I was an immigrant in America, “home” for me was a mélange of memories that had softened with time into a happy haze, like an Impressionist painting. There were people in this painting: iconic figures like my grandmother, dead and gone long enough to be elevated to the status of a benevolent ancestor. There were others who remained like my parents, in-laws, aunts and uncles, slowed by age but resolute nonetheless, with laugh lines and worry warts, marking a life lived with character and charm; wit and wisdom. There were physical places and wide-open spaces. Most delightful of all were the scents and tastes of childhood—the fragrance of blooming night jasmine, dew wobbling on a lotus leaf, tinkling cowbells, shrieking parrots, the taste of cilantro, cumin and ginger—all of which imbued me with a powerful longing for the land that is called India, but which I call home.
My own relationship with the two countries I have called “home” is complicated. My love for India is one that a child feels for her mother, albeit a chaotic, unwieldy, harassed mother who doles out exuberant affection and unpleasant surprises in equal measure. My admiration for America is what one feels for a perfect, if emotionally detached, father—part hero-worship, part reproach. I respect many things about America, and therefore hold it to very high standards. I expect it to be more moral and more just than other nations. When it perpetrates or even tolerates injustice, I am crushed. Because I put America on a pedestal, it sometimes falls short. Because I take India for granted, it sometimes surprises me pleasantly. India’s unchanging ways frustrate me. America’s impenetrable core flummoxes me. I can’t escape India, but America sometimes escapes me.
The problem for immigrants like me is that we are equally at ease in two disparate cultures and, therefore, fit into neither. We belong to both countries, yet choose neither. Most of us end up in a no-man’s-land, neither here nor there, in an angst-filled limbo. We remain immigrants forever, unlike our forefathers who swore allegiance to one nation due to political or economic repression.
In generations past, life in the old country was a struggle. Immigrants to America were fleeing revolutions that stripped them of title and property and threatened their life and liberty. They were the pregnant women who threw themselves on boats, willing to submit to raging seas and the risk of drowning, just so that they were afforded the opportunity to be rescued by the US coastguard—and their babies, the right of US citizenship. They were the desperate refugees who begged, borrowed and paid their entire life savings to visa agents, only to be told that they should flush all their papers down the airline toilet and land in America uttering two words, “political asylum.”
My path to America did not involve anything as drastic as jumping fences, crossing borders in the middle of the night, or overstaying a tourist visa and slipping into the shadow world of illegal immigrants for years on end. Mine is not a tale populated by bloodthirsty dictators, rampant epidemics, boat people, barking dogs and blood-smeared fences. I am neither a political exile nor an economic refugee. I went to America merely as a student seeking opportunities. Yet, I believe that my journey is emblematic of countless others. My dilemmas reflect those of many an immigrant today. What is home, anyway? Is it a place, a person, or merely a fleeting memory? Can one ever go back home or is such a trip fraught with disappointment? I didn’t know the answers when I began asking these questions and perhaps, there is no one answer to questions so individual. Along the way, I found no universal truth, no personal path to salvation. But in the meantime, I discovered many things — about life and loss, about risking it all and making do, and about my place in the world.This is what I found out. This is my journey.
So there I was in Sunnyvale, surrounded by Indians, chewing a paan and driving a Dodge Caravan down El Camino Real with and old friend, Midnight. I was restless at the start of my pregnancy’s second trimester. My daughter, Ranjini had school vacations and the August sun was mellow and warm. What better place than sunny California to take a family vacation?
Strip malls lined the road and every one of them had at least a couple of Indian shops. Sari-clad ladies ambled through parking lots. Bollywood music throbbed out of open car windows. Every second car was a minivan filled with faces that looked just like mine. Harker, one of the top private schools in the Bay Area, boasted a one-third Indian population. Restaurants serving not just Indian food, but regional Indian cuisine, did roaring business. Naaz, an Indian multiplex drew a devoted crowd on Friday nights and weekends. No wonder my New York garage attendant, Chris’s cousin, Johnny, suggested that I move to the Bay Area. Not only could I run for mayor here, I could win. But I hadn’t moved; I was just visiting.
There are two ways to be an Indian in the United States—one is to live in the Bay Area, and the other is to live anywhere else. The two are completely different. I know this because I have cousins who live in the Bay Area and have visited them dozens of times in the last decade. The difference is this: Indians in the Bay Area have the luxury of socializing with their own kind. Not just other Indians, but Indians who come from their state, city and community; Indians who speak their particular dialect.Although the rest of the world lumps us as one nation, we Indians are not very cohesive. An Indian from Kerala has very little in common with someone from Delhi, for example. They speak different languages, eat different foods, practice different politics, and may be of differing religions. Even their sense of humor is different.
For Indians abroad, such distinct regional differences are awkward and unwieldy. They prevent us from becoming a cohesive diaspora. When I meet Indians at a party, I am conscious that we are from the same nation. But I am also conscious that we are from different regions. After a couple of beers, the differences become even more pronounced. Sardarji (Sikhs wearing turbans) jokes are traded; stereotypes fly; and lips are curled.
“Oh, he is just a baniya from Rajori Garden,” a friend remarked about a well-known skinflint. That was all that we needed to hear in order for us to peg the guy perfectly. We knew the type. We had stereotypes for every community: Sindhis were mercenary; Bengalis, pretentious; Punjabis, ostentatious; Gujaratis, practical; and Tamilians, bookish. Each of us dismissed each other with a “Saala, Madrasi hai,” or “What else can you expect from coarse Punjabis?”In the Bay Area, because the Indian population is so huge, the community can afford to form microcosms. The Punjabis can hang out with other Punjabis while the Tamilians, with others like them.
Indians in the Bay Area have it good, I thought with a touch of envy. Through sheer numbers, they were able to command Indian services that would have been unthinkable anywhere else in America. Even the local pizza parlor, Cicero’s, served up a sauce that was extra spicy and more suited to the Indian palate. Indian bazaars were as prolific as the minivans on El Camino Real. Women in Sunnyvale or Saratoga had no qualms about wearing Indian clothes—saris or churidars—on the streets or to the mall. They exuded the confidence and complacency that came from belonging to a well-respected majority.While I envied this, it also bothered the mother in me.
On the one hand, I too wanted my kids to have a healthy dose of Indian contact so that they wouldn’t feel like a weird minority. Yet, on the other, I had gained a lot by exposing myself to America. American meritocracy had unearthed talents that I didn’t know I possessed. My latent interest in art and writing had been encouraged to flourish. A number of Americans had taken me into their homes and gone out on a limb for me. They had touched my life in ways that were fleeting and profound. I wanted Ranjini to experience all that too. I wanted her to have a strong Indian identity, yet learn all the good American values. Was it possible?
The bottom line was that there was no easy way to be an Indian in America. There were too many equally viable choices, too many ways of being “Indian-American,” whatever that was. You could socialize just with “your own kind” as my grandfather would say, and as many did in Sunnyvale, and still be okay and thrive in America. Or you could stay away from your countrymen and still have a fine life. The problem was that there were no norms, no social mores that dictated lifestyle and behavior like there were in India. The same choices that were exhilarating when I was young became unwieldy when I became a mother and searched for the “right way” to do things.
In America, there was no right and wrong. It was all about personal choice, and sometimes, it was all too much. But choice was not all that America was about. When I had been a teenager in India, I had associated America with McDonald’s, James Bond, fast cars, and glittering shops. Only after living here for years and years, only after I had thrown myself into its midst did I really understand the true values of American society. America had dared me to dream in broad swathes rather than miniscule points. It had taught me self-reliance—I didn’t panic like my mother did if the maid didn’t show up. I could clean bathrooms, fix a flat tire and cook my own food, thank you very much. I had been mugged one dark night outside Stamford Mall by a young African-American teenager who pulled my handbag away from me as I walked to the parking lot with my friend, Sophie Constandaki. I had cut off my finger in an Osterizer, climbed many mountains and mastered American slang. After all this, I felt that I could, in effect, handle anything.As a nation, America treated foreigners better than most others. It wasn’t perfect. Many immigrants in America faced prejudice, but Ram, my husband, was right—it was the least imperfect of all systems.
My aunt had lived in Singapore for years but still could not own an apartment there because she was not Singaporean. Many of my cousins had immigrated to the Gulf countries like Abu Dhabi and Kuwait, but had stringent restrictions imposed on their monetary investments because they were not natives. In contrast, America had denied me almost nothing because I was a foreigner. I had gone from being a young girl with a suitcase and very little cash to a middle-aged mother with an awful lot of possessions. I could own a home, invest money, and indulge in most, if not all, activities. It had been good to me, this nation of 300 million people, just as it had been good to the Silicon Valley Indians who arrived as nervous students and ended up as entrepreneurs-turned-millionaires. Yet many, if not most of them, worked in American companies, bought local products and then retreated into a world that was unequivocally Indian. They combined American comfort with Indian culture. The best of both worlds, they said, and it was hard to argue with that. Had I lived in the Silicon Valley, I could see myself falling into the comfort and convenience of doing just that.
However, what was the point of living in America but shunning its culture? What was the point of living in America but socializing just with Tam Brahms?The older the Indian community, the more separate these worlds became. I had observed this in Midnight’s wife, Nina’s father. The intervening years had turned him into a rabid Hindu who frequently and vociferously preached the superiority of all things Indian. Her brother, Anand, on the other hand, had drifted further and further into the American world. Father and son had become like separate planets orbiting around each other but inhabiting parallel universes. I got pulled into one of those universes, quite by accident.
The article above was excerpted from the book, Return to India by Shoba Narayan. It was published by Rain Tree in India in October.” Shoba Narayan is a freelance journalist, writer, author and columnist based in India. She writes about food, travel, fashion, art and culture for many publications. Her new book: Return to India is available on Amazon and on Kindle. http://shobanarayan.com/