My first book deals with returning home to India after spending fourteen years of my early adulthood in America. Here is the story behind my motivation to capture the adventures of resettlement in No Longer NRI – How I left America for My Homeland.
Trishanku, formerly known as King Satyavrata, ancestor of Lord Rama, was a king with a strange ambition; to ascend to the heavens in his mortal form. Following a series of misguided actions, he ends up in the strange predicament of hanging upside down between two worlds, in a heaven designed expressly for him. As per Wikipedia – ‘the word Trishanku has come to denote a middle ground or limbo between one’s goals or desires and one’s current state or possessions’.
The Indian diaspora comprising persons of Indian origin stands at 18 million and forms the largest diaspora in the world. Not surprisingly, many modern-day Non-resident Indians (NRI) experience the same predicament as Trishanku.
Life as I knew it
Growing up in India was easy. If you were lucky like me, you got to live in the same house that you entered as a baby, graduated from the same school where you first learned to read, and came of age in the company of the same set of friends who sat beside you in kindergarten. But life seldom remains the same.
When I first left India, as a naive twenty-two-year-old eager to embark on adventures that awaited me in America, I was full of confidence. I had the benefit of an English-medium education, an urban upbringing, and an optimistic streak.
In the pre-internet days, that meant, stepping into a new country with very little knowledge of what awaited you. Yes, there were TV shows and Hollywood movies, but I was smart enough to know that all that I saw on the screen was not really representative of everyday life.
With only limited guidance from relatives and family friends with prior US experience, books helped me visualize what lay ahead. As a voracious reader, I was familiar not only with English but also its nuances. My knowledge of western culture was imbibed from books by Enid Blyton and Ayn Rand, Alistair MacLean and Sidney Sheldon. I wholly expected to fit in seamlessly and assimilate into the great melting pot that is America.
Upon landing in America, I was surprised by all that was different. People drove on the right (or was it wrong?) side of the road, measured distances in miles, and weight in pounds. It took me a while to infer that temperatures in the thirties meant cold weather on the Fahrenheit scale.
Navigating a familiar language
The biggest surprise turned out to be language. While I had expected challenges with the American accent, (having watched British comedy shows on Doordarshan), I had not envisioned myself struggling with vocabulary (elevator instead of lift, glasses, not spectacles), spelling (color not colour) and of course, pronunciation. To ease my way into American society, I was advised to watch TV and read books. I preferred the latter.
My first visit to the local library (aka book heaven) was a revelation, tall shelves, stacked with books I could take home, for free! Of all the things that were different about America, I appreciated libraries the most. Upon receiving my driving license, instead of the temple, I first drove to the library. Within months I had read several popular and upcoming American authors.
In subsequent years, I spent more time in the laboratory than the library. My education happened within and outside the walls of the university. Once the novelty wore off, I began to appreciate America’s comforts and conveniences without comparing it to India. Superficial differences no longer mattered. I found things in common with students, colleagues and sometimes, even strangers. I stopped seeing myself (and others) as foreign and saw them as fellow humans.
Just when straddling two cultures came comfortably to me, I moved back to India, a family decision motivated by the desire to embark on a career in the newly booming India of the twenty-first century, a wish to spend more time with parents in India thereby allowing them the liberty of engaging with their grandchildren without having to travel so far, and to once again embark on a fresh start, something I had done fourteen years ago in America.
As they say, the only constant in life is change.
The new India into which I arrived as a Newly Returned Indian (also NRI) was very different from the one I had left behind. But the truth was I was also different. Making the most of any situation involved understanding things at a level deeper than mere superficial observation.
Writing helped me settle in my home country
I wrote a series of essays in a column titled “Round trip” for India Currents, a California-based magazine that had previously run my essays. Over time, these essays became a journal, a repository of my life experiences during that first year of transitioning back into the Indian milieu which should have been very familiar, but felt very foreign.
By leaving India for greener pastures, I had become a part of the 18-million strong Indian diaspora. My story was a bit unusual in its trajectory of having taken a round trip back to India but it was not unique.
There is much that we learn by stepping out of our physical comfort zones but every move teaches us something. I learnt both, from leaving the comfort of home and also from returning back.
Not once while writing these separate, stand-alone essays did I think that one day, these would form my first book. Perhaps the greater story behind the arc of my physical journey, was the narrative arc of my ambitions as a writer. It transported me from essayist to author.
My adventures taught me one thing.
Every life is a journey, regardless of whether you stay in one place, live like a global nomad, or end up being something in between.
My book, No Longer NRI – How I Left America For My Homeland, is a compilation of essays that describe these ‘adventures of resettlement’ in the first year after my return.
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Are you an NRI? Or a returned NRI? Have you moved out of your home country and made your life in a different place? I would like to hear from you. Please drop me a comment.