Why are You Here?

In the weeks preceding Aug. 15, schoolchildren in India get an extra dose of the national anthem and other patriotic songs. Aparna was no exception and came home each day proudly repeating the words to “Jana gana mana” and “Sare jahan se achcha.” She concentrated on memorizing the words without pausing to think about their meaning. It was not until she returned from the flag-hoisting ceremony on Independence Day that she asked “Which is my country?” It seemed like only yesterday (although it was three years ago) that she had learned to say “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America,” and had earnestly repeated them in an effort to make me learn the words. I wonder if reiterating those words in California made her feel like she belonged in America and if singing these songs in Hyderabad make her feel a kinship with Indians. The questions of country, identity, affiliation, and most importantly, of belonging, get complicated when you move.

The most celebrated author to write on this topic is perhaps, V.S. Naipaul. This is what he wrote on a visit to India in an essay titled “In the Middle of a Journey.”

“An Indian, I have never before been in streets where everyone is Indian, where I blend unremarkably into the crowd. This has been curiously deflating, for all my life I have expected some recognition of my difference; and it is only in India that I have recognized how necessary this stimulus is to me, how conditioned I have been by the multiracial society of Trinidad and then by my life as an outsider in England. To be a member of a minority community has always seemed to me attractive. To be one of four hundred and thirty-nine million Indians is terrifying.”

In this short paragraph, Naipaul has touched upon several aspects of the immigrant experience. For an Indian living in the West, it is practically impossible to separate the overall experience from the initial stimulus of being perceived as different based on physical attributes. However, the acknowledgement of this phenomenon comes ironically, not when we live in a multiracial society but when we are surrounded by multitudes like us. While I was surprised by Naipaul’s suggestion that belonging to a minority may be attractive, I was struck by the way he confidently refers to himself as an Indian, given the fact that he was Trinidadian.

For obvious reasons, my daughter Aparna, although an American citizen by birth, will always be viewed as an Indian. If we had continued to stay in the United States, like the children of our Indian friends who go to language and religion classes, take lessons in Indian classical dance and music, and perform at cultural functions, Aparna would have done the same. I would have chauffeured her to these and other activities, considering the efforts worthwhile enough to make her imbibe a feeling of Indianness.

Now that she is in India, she no longer needs what I used to euphemistically call India 101 since she is enrolled in the India immersion program by default. Here I do nothing to reinforce either her Indian or her American connection. In today’s world, where the global village seems to be condensing into our own backyard, I have often pondered about what makes us align with one group. Is it the color of our passport, the shade of our skin, or the lilt of our accent that indicates affiliation to a country? Can’t we simply be global citizens? While these are larger questions, it dawned on me quite early on that most people I encountered were interested in the more obvious question about the reasons for my return.

One Saturday morning Aparna and I passed through the metal detectors, took off our shoes, and sat in the waiting area of the Police Commissioner’s office. We filled out the forms necessary to get her registered as a foreign national living in India. The bureaucrat who sat in the spacious but cluttered office was not the first one to frankly ask the question, “Why did you come back to India?” Replying to this question in 30 seconds is not easy, no matter who is asking it. Friends, acquaintances, relatives, total strangers have asked me this question quite unselfconsciously. To them, it is as simple as asking someone “Where are you from?” (another interesting question, a topic for another day, perhaps) Even if I do attempt to answer, most people do not have the patience to listen to the story behind my motivation for returning.

Along with a craze for all things “foreign,” the chance to live abroad is viewed as an opportunity not to be missed by the vast majority of Indians. In this context, coming across someone who voluntarily chooses to return to the population, pollution, and problems that living in India is synonymous with, seems too far-fetched to believe. On some occasions I have felt that my answer would have seemed more credible if I had said that the Immigration and Naturalization Service had deported me or that I was trying to escape from the clutches of the Internal Revenue Service.

Convincing the skeptics has been no easy task. The one person from whom I have learned to respond with the right degree of honesty and nonchalance has been Aparna herself. After being repeatedly bombarded with the question “Why are you living in India?” she came up with the perfect answer. In her typical direct way, she simply replied, “Because I can.”

Ranjani Nellore, a former San Francisco Bay Area resident, now lives and writes in Hyderabad.

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