By Swapan Dasgupta
There was a time, not all that long ago, when the annual ‘home’ visit of the non-resident uncle or aunt was the most important item in the dreary social calendar of a middle-class Indian family. An air of expectancy would fill the household as the bulky suitcases were unpacked and the gifts distributed — a muffler for the grandfather, a cardigan and a bottle of perfume for mother, a duty-free Johnnie Walker for father, denim jeans for the teenager, chocolates for the neighbour and a compact umbrella for the old maid. We would be shown photographs of the spacious suburban house and the big car which would be contrasted with the creaking 12-yearold Fiat outside.
Until the early 1990s, India was home to a middle-class that lived in a state of permanent deprivation. However much we loved our country and waved the flag on the few occasions India won a Test match, our Third World status confronted us incessantly. Although life was never as unbearable as in the Communist bloc, we lacked those little luxuries that make drudgery bearable.
Leaving India was an idea assiduously nurtured if you were audacious and ambitious. The grass, it was known, was far greener in the West. There, despite the social and racial disdain an immigrant was subjected to, you could make it with hard work and some enterprise. In the social milieu of the West, the expatriate Indian counted for very little. Barring the odd exception, he could never make it to the inside track of the power structure. But he ensured for himself a relatively decent standard of living. True it was a life minus servants, but it was also minus the hassles of unending shortages, petty corruption and telephones that worked erratically.
It wasn’t merely the Green Card and, ultimately, the coveted blue American or red British passport that made the NRI feel more superior. It mattered to him that his superiority was recognised and acknowledged at home. Despite not being there for 11 months in the year, the NRI became the centre of attraction in the family. He was fawned upon when he came home to India; his pronouncements were heard with awe and reverence; and he was flattered by banks and governments into parting with his few surplus dollars, in exchange for extraordinary benefits denied to rupee earners.
Nor was the importance of the NRI confined to the family. Even mighty politicians and stand-offish babus courted NRIs with an eye on some crumbs of hospitality during visits abroad. In the 1970s and 1980s, i encountered many petty travel agents, restaurant owners and property speculators in the Indian ghettos of London who counted for little in Britain but who had free access into the houses of our politicians.
All this seems a long time ago. The balance of power began tilting against the NRI sometime in the late 1990s. First, the government of India lifted the absurd restrictions on foreign travel and the purchase of hard currency by resident Indians. More important, you could use your Indian credit card abroad and not scrounge for NRI hospitality. Secondly, the spurt in domestic manufacturing and free imports implied that you didn’t have to depend on the visiting NRI for those little extras. Since many of the best global brands are available in India at competitive prices, the shopping list of discerning Indian travellers have shrunk dramatically to include only the exotic. Finally, the globalisation of Indian business signalled the end of a one-sided flow of capital. It’s no longer a case of India depending on NRI munificence but the West wooing Indian capital.
The average NRI’s fall from grace in India has been precipitate. The vacuous condescension that marked earlier attitudes has been replaced by desperation to find some accommodation somewhere. The big NRI players have no problem — they have seen their social worth in the West keep pace with India’s soaring reputation as a rising power. But the small fish whose tie and a twang once enabled him to lord over his less fortunate brethren in India has seen envy replaced with disinterest.
To the NRI confronted with a precarious descent into obscurity, there is only a small solace: interventions on the net. Taking advantage of a more connected world, the professional NRI (who knows no other identity) has stepped up his battles to cast India in his own confused image. No Indian website is free from the voluminous but pernicious comments of the know-all, ultra-nationalist NRI banging away on the computer in splendid isolation. From being India’s would-be benefactors, the meddlesome NRI has become an intellectual nuisance, derailing civil discourse with his paranoia and pseudo-superiority. It’s time he was royally ignored.