A Different Take: NRIs are not deserters, but proponents of free thought

Issue Date: February 16-28, 2007, Posted On: 2/18/2007

Several years ago when the film, "Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham" was first released, and was doing well in India and, more importantly, abroad (it held the number 10 spot in the first week of release in the United States, grossing $2.9 million at the U.S. box office in its 5-week run, and $3.9 million in the United Kingdom), I remember reading an editorial in the Hindustan Times chiding directors and producers for catering to fantasies of non-resident Indians, or NRIs.

My own distaste for some of the scenes in "K3G" (as the film was popularly called), notwithstanding, I think it was a runaway success with my children and their friends. We have a K3G DVD in our collection, and our children watch it regularly along with their friends.

Recently, I was blown off my feet when I saw my daughter buying a copy of "K3G" for her American roommate. Apparently, they watch "K3G" regularly and find it  tremendously entertaining.

In an article dated Aug. 17, 2002, in a publication called "India Current," writer Jeanne Fredriksen observes that "Films featuring or 'made for' NRIs have been criticized by some in India, but in reality, many of those films have performed extremely well at the Indian box office. Could this speak to the lure of adventure and the romance of the NRI?"

So, I keep thinking of that editorial in the Hindustan Times, and keep pondering: What do the expressions of Indian intellectuals, in fact, reflect - a contemplative thought, an intellectual self-obituary, an envious angry blurt, or worse? 

So, what exactly is an NRI?  And what and how relevant is its world view?

We might get a glimpse of it through Jeanne Fredriksen's lens of reel life, wher e she writes, "In many cases, commercial Hindi films present an overly-devised sense of the NRI as being either corruptly Westernized or as being more homesick than a child gone away to camp for the first time. While these concepts may carry a certain truth, the corresponding misconceptions come from the minds of the at-home Indians, who wag a seemingly envious finger at the NRI's ability to exist in two worlds: one allowing space and upward mobility, the other offering traditions and history.

Pompous, materialistic, alcohol-drinking, cigarette-smoking, drug-taking, affair-having, spoiled brats ..."

Phew! That is a lot of yin with seemingly no sight of yang. Are NRIs really that lackadaisical and lopsided?

Are Indians living in India really equipped mentally to understand the NRI, the mysterious character that has become the envy of the educated, messiah of the masses, and the punching bag of sour grapers?

In the words of Fredriksen, "Despite encouraging me to see more films, it made me wonder if "NRI" actually meant "Not Really Indian."

But wait, in a research article entitled "Bollywood in the Indian American Diaspora: Mediating a Transitive Logic of Cultural Citizenship," Aswin Punatham­bekar, of the University of Wisconsin-Madison writes that "K3G articulates everyday struggles over being Indian in the United States to a larger project of cultural citizenship that has emerged in relation to India's tentative entry into transnational economy and the centrality of the NRI (non-resident Indian) figure to India's navigation to this space."

Wow, now that sounds like a long-term foresighted strategic plan being implemented by itself. It calls for an objective and thorough analysis.

In the past 100 years or so, modern India has been tremendously shaped by NRIs. The most notable amongst them being Mahatma Gandhi (26 years in Britain and British South Africa), Jawaharlal Nehru (10 years in Britain and Europe), Bhimrao Ambedkar (seven years in the United States and Britain), and Jay Prakash Narayan (seven years in the United States).

Nehru and Ambedkar had rosy lives during their stay abroad, and imbibed much of the culture and philosophy from outside. However, both became quite anti-Indian, although for different reasons.

In fact Nehru said of himself at Cambridge, "In my likes and dislikes I was perhaps more an Englishman than an Indian."

Ambedkar had to deal with untouchability back in India, and used his intellect to confront that evil using inspiration from his experience abroad. Pandit Nehru, being of an average intellect, found it convenient to copy the west as a model for modernity.

And Gandhi's experience in Britain and British South Africa led to the concept of Satyagraha (implementation of truth) and non-violence that continues slowly but surely to expanding throughout the world.

So, what lesson does it carry for us NRIs who number close to 25 million and counting?

In my opinion, the NRI is a phenomenon impacting India and the world psychologically, economically, socially, and culturally.

NRIs are like genies out of the bottle, they are powerful and they are free. They not only represent the power of hard work, intellect, dedication, diversity, education, and entrepreneurship, but also the continuation of a culture based on human experience in independence, freedom, and truth.

A combination of independence and freedom leads to urges NRIs develop for the culture of truth and fairness, expressed through movies, dresses, languages, projects and practices. These are no different from what was expressed by Mahatma Gandhi in his life, when he began practicing Indian diets and dress, despite being a prosperous attorney.

But this is not how NRIs are viewed by Indian intellectuals. In a recent opinion column in the Hindustan Times [dated January 27, 2007], Gautam Bhatia takes a dig at social and activist gatherings of Indian Americans.

"...amongst the staunchest supporters of the Hindu Rashtra are Indian Americans - a strange breed of Indian whose allegiance to the motherland seems to get strengthened by distance. The greater the time spent abroad and the more the money earned, fills the departed with a sense of acute longing."

Then there are Indian American scholars, like Prema Kurien of Syracuse University who explain the overtly visible affection of NRIs for India is due to th latter's marginalization in American society.

Rather than looking into deeper connection between independence, freedom, and desire to hold some of the fundamental human values in their heritage, scholars look into some perverted causes to show originality in their insight.

In fact, scholarly works like these get marginalized, and the community turns to entertainment industry and their products such as  "K3G" or "Swades," for whatever it is worth.

Bal Ram Singh is director of the Center for Indic Studies at the University of Massachusetts in Dartmouth. He can be reached at bsingh@umassd.edu.