Losing my ‘non’ : The prodigal NRI returns

NRI. Non-resident Indian.On 5th of July 2017, after three decades of living as an expatriate in Dubai, I renounced the NRI status and returned to India with my navy-blue passport and a bunch of overstuffed suitcases. The word ‘CANCELLED’ was stamped in bold red ink across my residence visa.

On 5th of July 2017, after three decades of living as an expatriate in Dubai, I renounced the NRI status and returned to India with my navy-blue passport and a bunch of overstuffed suitcases. The word ‘CANCELLED’ was stamped in bold red ink across my residence visa.

No more ‘non’, just plain Indian.

What does it take to leave a place you called home for far too long to go back to a country you only experienced sporadically as a charming, nostalgia-evoking space? How do you build new roots as an adult in your thirties? And where do you begin to prepare yourself mentally to handle what it takes to both survive and prosper in a nation that is constantly in a state of disarray?

Where it all began

Like a lot of people, my father moved to Dubai in the 80’s on a quest for a better life. At the time I don’t think he ever imagined that the city would become his home for thirty something years. True to the spirit of helping uplift one’s kin, he helped others find jobs in the Gulf and soon we built a safe cluster of extended family around us in this so called foreign land.

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Our Indian-ness was supported by a city that was malleable to the expatriates it housed; my sister and I went to an Indian school ,our parents had only Indian friends, there were even special supermarkets catering to sub-cultures like ‘Perumal Stores’ near the temple for Tamilians, ‘Adil’ supermarket for all things Gujarati and Sindhi, ‘Sunrise’ for Keralites.

My versions of ‘Yeh mera India’

During the peak summer months of July and August, we flew to India for vacation. We boarded the flight with suitcases stuffed with Swiss chocolates, tinned lychees, Jovan Musk spray bottles, dry fruits (only for the deserving souls).

Much excitement awaited us at the other end; ancestral homes, grandparents, cousins congregating to indulge in shenanigans, spontaneous excursions to famous temples, lush mango trees, perennially clogged toilets. After the initial few days of walking on tiptoes and scanning walls for lizards capable of spraying potentially toxic pee on us , we grew accustomed to the way things were and got busy with indulging in utter merriment and destruction. 

This chapter of my India fits into one trunk in my heart.

The next one was the two years I spent of my high-schooling in Kodaikanal till 2002,  where I studied in an international school with classmates and teachers from around the world in a breathtaking setting of misty mountains, pine-tree forests and orange skies. Although I was physically in the country, it felt like a different world. My mind expanded with a richness in perspective as I built relationships with people so different from me, raked community service hours by volunteering at children’s clinics and with rural initiatives, hiked through muddy terrains and camped besides crystal-clear lakes.

This goes into another shelf. Or was it a box? I can’t remember and it doesn’t matter. Just some sort of heart-and-mind-space is all you need to imagine.

After graduating high-school I moved back to Dubai and did my university education there, got a job in Finance, met and married the man I loved. There was no question about where home was; I loved India but Dubai was where I grew up, it was the city that held my past and tied me deeply to its future through my career, friendships and a promising stable future.

A changing city and the expatriate dilemma

In 2012, after a forced retirement enforced upon my father by his employers, my parents left Dubai.

It was heartbreaking to lose one of my anchors to the city. The house we’d grown up in and built decades of memories in had to be packed and handed over to another family. The villa was just concrete, paint and an ancient centralized air-conditioning system. But saying goodbye to it provoked deeper questions.

What next for my parents?

What next for me and my family?

What happens to US thirty years down the line?

A few months later I was pregnant. Faced with some health complications, we decided that it would be best to have the baby in India where there’d be adequate family support. I spent a year in Bangalore, some of it waddling about and most of it as a new mother figuring out how to deal with the massive responsibility of another being. Although I missed the husband and friends and struggled to cope with the cacophony, for the first time I fathomed a life out here. 

When the little one was five months, I went back to Dubai and we picked up from where we left off, save for the ‘minor’ adjustment of a baby wedged between us. As she grew, we began talking about the future and the kind of exposure and values we wanted for her. But they were sporadic and disorganized conversations that amounted to nothing. In any relationship, it’s hard enough coming to terms with your own differences without having the parenting mishmash elevate the chaos to a whole new level. We ploughed on, fighting and making up, letting the mundane overpower us and telling ourselves – Hey we’re still young, we’ve got time.

A quest for permanence and unconditional belonging

Then there was an incident at a bank. I’d left my daughter with a babysitter and come rushing to get some urgent work done. After waiting for more than an hour and being treated poorly by the customer service staff, I asked to meet the manager to complain. The manager, a local man, refused to apologize or display any sort of sympathy which agitated me further. When I argued on obstinately, he shut me up with a simple statement- Do not speak to me like this, remember your place.

Remember your place. REMEMBER YOUR PLACE. There it was – the three most important words I needed to hear to be reminded of my status as an expatriate. The ‘non’ in NRI dazzled like neon lights on a dark night – of little or no consequence. I cringed with the shame of my insignificance and walked away. He was right; I could live in that city for 30 days or 30 years and a single offended citizen of the country could use his power to deport me with nothing but my savings, memories and shredded pride.

I thought back to the stories my father shared with us of his struggles in the UAE and wondered of the tolls that being successful at as an expatriate took on his dignity. It is a well-known fact that children will never fully know the humiliation their parents endure. 

The wheels began turning. The husband and I talked more about leaving. He wasn’t ready yet and I was suffocating; we were at stalemate. In 2017, he lost his job and my immobilized queen moved. Visa? Rent? School fees? And hey… what about the future man? Don’t we want to be of some consequence in a land where no one can tell us to go back where we came from?  

I feel like I’m rambling and pulling you further away from the story but I think it’s important you, as a reader, understand what it takes for someone to leave a life they’ve built elsewhere to come back to a country they have never lived in. 

Tired of dabbling in uncertainty, we finally reached a decision that somewhat managed both our expectations. I’d move with the kid and he would continue to move between Dubai and India as part of a flexible work arrangement.

So on that hot day in July, I said my goodbyes, cried buckets and left Dubai.

Where to now…

My story till now has cast glimpses of the different versions of the country that I’ve nurtured as an NRI ; the India as an attic of sentimental memories of distant family, the India that fed my child as she grew within me, the India that demanded my sympathy and provoked the guilt of privilege, the India whose tiranga aroused fervent patriotism. But beautiful as these shelves or trunks are, they are incomplete. I have been merely simmering in these notions of what India is, fluttering in and out like a whimsical butterfly without settling down to learn and love its pandemonium.

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The past year and a half has been tough to say the least and there have been many wrecked days at the end of which I have contemplated returning to the secured comfort that the glittering Gulf offered me. But after spending a lifetime choosing conveniences over spirited struggles and feeling hollow, I am not prepared to give up so easily.

I planted the Half Boiled Indian seed in my head almost a year ago. As I explored the city walking about or sitting in the back of an auto-rickshaw as an impatient driver wove through traffic, I experienced emotions such as frustration at how much effort it took to get basic chores done, rage at the blatant corruption hidden behind beguiling smiles, fascination towards the tolerance that people were surprisingly capable of exercising in certain circumstances, disappointment at my own ability to adapt so quickly to an apathetic state of mind. These searing and overwhelming feelings bounced within like restless boiling molecules, desperate to release themselves as words and possibly inspiring stories.

Who is the Halfboiled Indian?

Anyone who has lived away from the country for too long and wonders what awaits them if they were to ever return.  Anyone struggling to reconcile an India that exists in their imagination and/or expectations with reality. Anyone who aspires to connect with a narrative that embraces both acceptance and a desire to enable change where possible. 

My freshly tinted tricolored lens will enable immersion into new experiences, observations, thoughts and conversations. Brandon Sanderson said, ‘The purpose of a storyteller is not to tell you how to think, but to give you questions to think upon.’ This best defines what I wish to achieve through this venture.

And maybe at some point with enough of the right questions, we’ll find an answer together.

 

4 Replies to “Losing my ‘non’ : The prodigal NRI returns”

  1. It was more an emotional ride than a reading experience. This date of uprooting and supplanting elsewhere is like a little time bomb expatriates carry along our all rjrough our lives abroad. I myself am relentlessly caught between the convenient life here and the inner desire to do something more in life. Unless and until one is pushed to the very edge people like me ll never even attempt a flight. You for one have always inspired me with your stories be it quotidian cares or the leap of faith you took when you decided to leave the certain for the uncertain. This page may or may not reach millions but u have one reader for every post of yours.
    The most enticing feature about your story and writing, what I find most riveting is the fact that it’s very real very genuine and more often relatable. You never care of its right or wrong , whether your views will be welcomed or ridiculed, you just keep writing and that honesty is really commendable. Good luck sangeetha. 💟

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