Sunday, August 16, 2009

How the Non-Resident Indian has fallen from grace (August 16, 2009)

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.


Sunday Times of India, August 16, 2009


Indian Nationalist said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Nationalist said...

Dear Swapanda,
I have to agree, that as far as material goods are concerned there is absolutely no difference between what the NRI gets
access to and what the middle class Indian gets access to.
Royally ignoring the ultra nationalist NRI who has no intention of coming back would be the prudent thing to do.
But were you not a NRI yourself once albeit as a student , which is what I am . There are enough realist nationalist
NRI's with a resolve to build a better India. So its a matter of time when we are NRI no more that it will be hard to ignore.
I always see Sam Pitroda as a good example. The internet being such a powerful medium is not bereft of noisy voices.
Buf sift through it and there may be some good things too.

charuvak said...

It is the same Swapanda, who once said the NRI celebrated in the 'reflected glory of India's nuclear tests', today he has become meddlesome. Annoying. And time to ignore him.

We ain't going away Swapanda. That was never the deal. :-)

Just remember, the 'new' India must just be a mirage. :-)

Indian Nationalist said...


I too was a NRI(for 2 years as a student) until I returned back to India.

What Swapan Das Gupta and other pseudo seculars and Pseudo intellectuals presume is that there is a Quote - New India - unquote which has taken place over the past 5 years or so.

Though I might agree that there could be a few changes here or there, India has largely deteriorated over the past few years.

Rising prices of essential commodities, Middle class frustration, Farmer suicides, Hunger deaths and increase of extreme poverty in India is not considered by our Swapan Das Gupta in this "NEW INDIA". But it cannot be helped can it?....The increasing number of Pro-Govt TV channels and News channels along with Pro-Govt bought out press gives us mortals a feel good effect that India is really doing good and was doing good during the last UPA regime. For them, the rise in Stock Market is the benchmark for economic measurement of India.

Nothing can be near to the truth.

One very good example is the Weimer Republic of Germany from 1910-1929. You know the Weimer Republic was ruled by a Pro-secular Govt and enjoyed good periods of economic prosperity in Germany and everyone thought that Hitler was a madman who kept saying that Germany was getting poorer by the day.
The real shock came in 1929 when the stock market collapsed and real "prosperity" of Germany came out to the open. The prosperity was basically due to borrowed money and due to the activities of thugs and thieves under the supervision of the government.

Similar is the case of current India. Whatever growth is shown is flawed and is micro managed by thugs and thieves. The day it will fall, the New India concept will go away faster than it has arrived!.

Indian Nationalist said...

BTW, Mr. Das Gupta I knew many NRIs more patriotic than fellow Indians in India.

Look there are good and bad apples everywhere. We cannot ignore NRIs just because there is a new economically rich India of today.

It was these NRIs who got India on the world map before 1990s. Before 1990 everyone thought that India was a huge dust bin where all the worlds dirt could be thrown. As a matter of fact, It WAS actually a dust bin or even worse.

During those days before 1990, It were the NRIs in UK,USA and Russia through their hard work and dedication which proved to the world that though India might be bad, The Indians themselves are not that incapable people !.

Just because today India has risen we should not ignore the NRIs who were the first people to put India before the world map.

ZoomIndianMedia said...


Your criticism of NRIs appears harsh.

Indeed NRI's confusion is less pretentious than the confusion of mixing up Hinduism/Communism, theatrical allusions of BJP taking up Hindu nationalist positions in 2004/2009, citing the above to recommend giving up commitment to Hindutva (Mixing up BJP's lack of ideological coherence with the ideology itself)

There are those that are NRIs. And there are those that are resident NRIs (many just on mental plane). Second ones usually are more dangerous since their exposure to reality usually limited, shaped by secondary sources.


Kotlerkotla said...

The NRI has been variously described as 'Not really Indian', or 'Now Really Irritating' therefore 'Now Ready (to be) Ignored.'

They still remain India's non-resident ambassadors, affording the insider's perspective from the outside. As ambassadors, they are a bridge between India and the outside world, and influencers of the world's view of India. Just ask any Silicon Valley entrepreneur or university professor or medical professional.

NRIs, like it or not, are India's children. They will always be considered as Indian by their host societies, and as foreign by their fellow Indians. Those NRIs who are ashamed to be Indian will never find peace or inner security. Likewise, those Indians who reject their NRI cousins, are in effect, closing their eyes and minds to the world outside. Perhaps it was a desire to see that world which generated so much enthusiasm for the NRI messenger.

NRIs are a source of money, but they are much more than that. They represent a source of ideas - ideas that can enrich an India that is ideologically, scientifically and politically wanting, having spent itself on pseudo-secularism and artificial colonial divisions such as Aryan and Dravidian.

NRIs are evidence that Indians have enormous potential and can triumph against the odds of racism and discrimination to become world-beaters - if the right infrastructure is in place. NRIs are evidence that Indian politicians have failed to keep talent onshore, because they care more for their Swiss bank accounts than they do for their people.

The cast majority of the 40 million NRI diaspora today is proof that those who could voted against 60 years of Congress rule with their feet.

Like the Chinese have with their overseas Chinese networks, India would be smart to leverage the acumen and capital of its NRIs.

theman said...

What ? Just a pair of Levis jeans ?? I can buy that at the shoppe across the road !

With increasing affluence and abundance, it will take much more than a pair of Levis jeans to impress the teenager -- in that sense, Swapanda's point is taken.

However, to go from there to argue that the NRI at the keyboard must be ignored or squelched, is extremist. Ours proudly claims to be an inclusive society. The debate doesn't begin by putting on ear muffs !

Other points taken: The NRI does still wield some power and clout, even as the sinking dollar downsizes the NRI. And definitely, the homegrown powers-that-be wield even more power and clout and is no way challenged by the masses of NRIs who clatter on the keyboard.

Even if these small fish NRI's are threatening to come back home and be heard !

I wonder... Is this article a harbinger of a clash between the two that's been brewing ? Only time will tell !

Anonymous said...

You seem to have touched a nerve with your article on the NRI's. There is the implication that NRI's are too busy basking in India's reflective glory, with the Indian connection providing the singular source of self esteem and recognition. . I think this is somewhat dated, and probably more applicable to the English experience than the American one. Here we are too busy in self congratulation of our achievements and the speed with which the community has become part (as much as any community can) of the establishment.

In England thirty years ago, if an Indian was doing well, his achievements were always qualified, "for an Indian". That may still be the case, less so I suspect now than then. My take on the NRI experience is that it has been mutually enriching and symbiotic, a two -way street as it should be. Clearly there is a desire to reconnect or maintain our connections with the land of our childhood and in a number of cases they may be too tenuous and the demands too onerous. I am surprised at the number of my peers who have semi-retired to India. May be this is a sign of being unanchored and adrift, or that they have the resources and wherewithal to maintain a presence both here and in desh. Probably more the latter.

I believe we should take a page from the experience of the Jewish-American. A politician or party's posture on India should greatly influence our attitude, and we need to lobby a lot more effectively for India's interests. We are a bunch of ingrates for not giving George Bush the credit he deserves for elevating Indo-American relations, an area in which I fear Obama will prove a big disappointment (as he will in several other respects).