When I first came to the UK, I stayed in a bed and breakfast for a month or so. Husband was in India and we wanted to wait till he got here to rent an apartment.
This bed and breakfast was run by a Gujarati family who had emigrated to the UK from Kenya. Their forefathers had emigrated from India long, long ago. One day, I was chatting with him and he said, ‘We are more Indian than you’. I was stunned to hear that. Apparently they believed that they were more Indian than some of us who lived in India because they followed traditions and rituals more than we did. At that time, fresh from India, I found that incredibly funny. Here was a man who has never lived in India, does not visit India much, and yet claims to be more Indian than us.
Just to explain, they had a very traditional lifestyle. His wife wore only saris, and she must have been in her early thirties at the most. The girls in the family were under five, and they would wear only salwar suits. I had never seen such a conservative family in all the years that I lived in India. Most children at that age is allowed to wear frocks or skirts. And even after years of living in the UK, they still had not merged with the mainstream. They lived in a world of their own.
The other day, we were discussing returning back to India. It is one of the most complicated and difficult to resolve issues that we face. When we first came here, I was quite certain that I will always want to be back in India. As we spent time here, and got used to the life here, it got more and more difficult to decide where to settle down. The certainity that was there once, is no longer there. Now we can see pros and cons of life and there and it gets very difficult to decide. So many more factors come into being. Plus the life that we lived in India before we left is definitely not the life we will lead when we go back.
Just as we have moved on, India has too. Even old friends. We cannot just go back and expect everything to be the same. Our friends who chose to stay back would have made other friends, have developed different perspectives, and would be leading a different life(just as we did).
So coming back to the question of ‘Indianness’, if I may call it so. A friend and I were discussing and she said that in so many ways, we are more Indian than people back in India. ‘My daughter knows all her prayers, while people in India don’t even go to temples’. Now, that sounded to me exactly like the Gujarati gentleman we met years ago.
Somebody else mentioned how they were shocked when a child, growing up here claimed that he was ‘British’. To be honest, I wouldn’t expect anything else. While we still might be Indians, growing up here, can we really expect our children to feel the same way? While we can educate them about our roots, to expect them to feel the same sort of loyalty or patriotism is not fair, in my opinion. If we choose to live in another country, surely we should have realistic expectations of our children. Is it fair to expect them to be just like you were while you were growing up?
Another friend gave me an example of how one child was brought up so well by her parents that she now knows no English songs and all the Hindi songs. It really makes me wonder how long they will be able to keep her insulated. Surely one day she might pick up a taste for different songs. And why is that bad? Is everything Indian necessarily good? I would not want my child mouthing Munni or Sheila – in any language, for that matter. If we do choose to live in another country, surely we should be in a position to mingle with people there, rather than cling on to our ideas of what our own country people are like?
Even within India, where you are, which part of India you come from will define the way you are. For instance, my cousins who grew up in Kerala are very different in mentality from us, who grew up in a small town. And we are very different from our cousins who grew up in swanky metros. So which part of India do we consider ‘real’ India? Can we even begin define what is being ‘Indian’? I, for one, sure cannot. Yes, as a parent one parent might consider certain aspects of their culture very important, and might chose to practise it, where ever one might be. At the same time, wouldn’t it be wonderful if we can pick up the good aspects of the culture of the place we choose to live in?
As we discuss all these things, I can’t help wonder why so many of us choose to live abroad when we clearly don’t feel that we fit in? I am proud to be Indian, and at the same time, I don’t feel having non-Indian friends or watching non-Indian TV programmes makes me any less Indian. If anything, I learn from other cultures. I pick up words from other languages, learn of a different way of life. I grew up in a cosmopolitan environment, with people from different parts of India, I think it was incredibly enriching. I might not be a pure Malayali, as some might say, but I do think the interaction I had growing up, helped me be open to other cultures. A mum(Indian) at Poohi’s school asked me if I had a ‘Tamil’ friends group (she thought I was a Tamilian, for some reason), because they had their regional friends group, and was quite surprised when I said no. I never felt the need to seek out Malayalis and form a ‘group’. I am, thankfully quite happy with meeting people who I gel with – irrespective of where they come from. And I think that is what I would want for my daughter too.
I would want her to be proud of her Indian roots, if we do live abroad, and be comfortable around people from across the globe. To be able to see beyond the colour, race and language divide, like she does now. And the same goes if we go back to India. I would like her to be Indian, rather than a regional person. To be able to absorb the good stuff, leave out what does not work, and be the best you can.