Monday, December 01, 2008

Being Indian

Interestingly, while I felt intense pain about Mumbai and tried to write my private thoughts on this blog, I have been on the receiving end of some stinging criticism, some of it for what I have been writing, but most of it for who I am and what I do. That strain of criticism ranged from affectionate - 'you are a third party regardless' - to downright hostile, like this one from a friend [which I have edited a bit to make it impersonal]:

Do you really think that, people who are sitting in London,NY,LA and writing about Mumbai are true INDIANs? Well, you may argue that from the bottom of their heart they are Indian and it's their country. What a joke indeed . The gentleman who called them third party is absolutely correct.

These people who left this country, are still licking the feet of already snooty West for their due residency or citizenship are of course not true Indians. These people have no positive contribution to Indian welfare. Just don't tell me all of them are very bright and they are doing phenomenally well in West....don't tell me that all of them have to pursue their global career. A number of NRI's who are now making sound was not doing soooo..well here and left this country.They should not pass judgments now.

Yes, we Indians are corrupt, we take bribes, we are suffering from severe leadership problem, complete administrative failure is there, we have coordination problems, we are not united, this is not the proper time to declare war against Pakistan, we can't only blame the outsiders,we don't give value for lives.......everything is true.....but sitting in London and thinking only about India's crisis ........what say?

There indeed is a personal story here, but the feeling, I suppose, is widely shared: Indians living abroad do not have the right to lecture about what the country should or should not do, at times like this. Despite my personal situation - I am very much an NRI and stand accused - I can understand the pain, and agonize that I have done my bit to evoke this reaction [talked about all the evils that plague us everyday in India].

However, the point is that I did not even realize I am third party till I have been told I am a third party. With most of my family and friends in India, I never thought I am an NRI before being told I am indeed one. But the correspondent is indeed correct - my claim to the Indian identity is surely less than her. Or, is it?

We are back on to the original debate: what makes an Indian? Residency? That will make me British, and some of the mafia who abetted the crime more Indian than me. That can't be right. Bureaucratic definitions apart, is it okay to count out the Indian diaspora across the world and say that they have no right to feel the pain and say what they think can be done right?

While I was on the subject, I read the objections again, and discovered something else. That whole thought about 'doing well', which sits almost irrelevantly in the context of the argument, is actually the central point. That's the new definition of whose opinions are acceptable in India - those who are doing well. Who do not contribute means who do not contribute financially, and more than residency or birth, it is actually the income, the property and the visiting cards make the modern Indian.

This is unlike any other country though. I am not certain that an expat American would be treated the same way. Or, British, for that matter. Kipling famously said that wherever there is an English soldier buried, that little stretch of land is England. Or, the Japanese, or the Chinese - who thrive on their diaspora and built their global businesses on the basis of these connections.

In fact, so did Indians. Indian-Americans and other members of Indian diaspora surely helped spread the message of India. Many of them invested in India, but more so - many more opened the doors to travelling Indians, helping students, job seekers and family visitors to study, work and travel abroad. Many implanted parts of their culture and religion in other parts of the world, many times in the face of local resistance, and enthusiastically educated their foreign friends about the values Indian. I know many non-residents who watched TV as anxiously as anyone during this crisis in Mumbai, felt as angry and grieved as much. So, I am certain we are not very different from any other community/ race in the world. [I recalled a very poignant story in Jhumpa Lahiri's The Interpreter of Maladies, where an expat Bangladeshi family watch Dhaka burn on TV.]

Except that doing well bit. Nirod C Chaudhuri, a brilliant commentator of the Indian diaspora, talked about how we endlessly keep talking about the successful members of our families and treat any discussion about the less successful ones with disdain and apathy. We are addicted to success, we worship it.

So, we have long denied people who are less successful than us the right to be 'equal' Indians. We have always frowned at failures, and were embarrassed by difficulty. We have excluded them from the rights and rituals of modern India, and built an who's-who society. Interestingly, terrorists knew that too - they knew that by walking into our poshest hotels, they will create the maximum impact. No amount of bombs around the city, which kills our less successful citizens, would have made us feel this desperate.

And, the solution is actually right there - building a more inclusive society. Caring about citizens, without considering whether he is someone or not. I watched this story on TV where a doctor, who was staying in the Taj and who actually looked after an wounded Taj employee during the seize was describing, how, after the wounded man was handed over to the rescue team, the hospital wanted to know what is the person's division/ rank in the hotel, as if the care will depend on the same. However, if we sat up when bombs were going off in our cities and pavement dwellers and scavengers were getting killed, we could have possibly repulsed the terrorists who stood victorious over dead bodies in the coveted Chamber inside the Taj Mahal hotel.

So, there I go, lecturing again, a less-than-successful NRI. But I know that when I am counted as an Indian like every other person in the country and in the diaspora, the country will stand stronger and prouder than today.

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