Lament on the death of the NRI 11

I must start with a confession. I used to be an NRI. In fact, I’ve been an NRI twice in my life.

The first time was when I was very young. We had travelled by space-ship to this planet known as the Gelf. It was a planet with no water and no cows, but Malayalis and skyscrapers grew in abundance.

Back then, even the word NRI had a little sheen to it. “Did you see Padmanabhan’s son?”, the neighbourhood mama would say, “He is walking in broad daylight in Mylapore wearing cooling glass!” “But he is US-retunn!”, a mami would say, “Cooling glass and all is jujube for him. You know he is gifting two-two Dove soaps for each and yevery relative!”  Indeed, NRIs brought suitcases filled with the treasures of the West (soap, chocolate, perfumes), and they took back the exotica of the East (pickles, powders and tamarind).

The NRI, whether by circumstance or design, stood out from the crowd. The shoes were usually the dead giveaway. Even in the sweltering heat of Madras or Bombay, when it was impractical to wear anything but open sandals, the NRI would pull on some socks and strap on a large pair of bulky sports shoes. The women would wear them with slightly out-of-date sarees and salwars, while the men preferred shorts or acidwash jeans. If you spotted an apparition in a green and purple striped Lacoste t-shirt bargaining with the coconut vendor, you could be sure it was a Gulf-return type. The US return-types, on the other hand, preferred to flaunt the name of some obscure university or sports team. From the NRI’s neck, there would usually hang a camera or a walkman. An unflattering belt bag would be fastened around his or her ample waist.

A bisleri bottle was the final touch to this outlandish costume. At relatives’ houses, the NRI would shake his head sadly at the proferred tumbler of water, and take a swig from his plastic bottle. A bag of Kit-Kats would be handed over quickly to smooth over any hurt feelings. There would be whispers about how they had become like white people, prone to falling sick from the water of their homeland. It was the golden age of the NRI, and although they were regarded with some suspicion and rancour, they were also welcomed back as visiting celebrities.

My second stint as an NRI was very different. We arrived, my husband and I, on the golden shores of Australia one cold winter day, and ended up spending the better part of seven years there. This time, I took every precaution not to become an obnoxious NRI. On our India trips, I insisted that we drank ordinary water everywhere. We even shopped at Fab India. We were completely committed to our cultural reintegration when we eventually moved back.

The first sign of trouble was the bottled water issue. Whenever we would met old, local, friends, every single person would request bottled water. “It’s just so polluted, no?”, they would drawl. They would watch in amusement and faint disapproval as we insisted on normal water.

There were also other changes. At markets and restaurants, the average Indian male now strutted around in shorts, with little white headphones or a bluetooth headset. They ate oats for breakfast, spread peanut butter on their toast, and demanded exotic foods. And, while we were keen to live in the heart of the city, not too far from chaat stalls and a tender-coconut vendor, our local friends had moved to gated communities the size of small European countries.

A few months after our move back, we went to the customs clearing office in Whitefield, to clear the goods we’d sent by sea. The officer ran a dirty fingernail down our list of goods. “This TV.”, he said, ” How many inches? What type?”

“It is 21 inches sir. Analog TV.”, my husband said.

This seemed to alarm the officer. “You minn to say, you are living in Australia seven years and you are bringing back analog TV?”

“Yes, sir, it works very well.”

He dropped the paper and peered at us. “I don’t know what kind of job you were doing there menn. Here and all, everyone is having home-theatre system. Minimum at least flat screen. NRIs, it simms!”

We realised what had happened. The average Indian had become an NRI. We real NRIs were no longer special. In fact, we were positively normal.

[This is the unedited version of my column that appeared in Deccan Chronicle/Asian Age on August 18, 2013]

11 thoughts on “Lament on the death of the NRI

  1. Reply Ram Aug 18,2013 4:25 am

    how nice to read this, though put on more than 15 years of so called software and traveled widely,when i look back some recent NRI’ man they are just irritating lot, the one instance of look at this bride groom, so obnoxious the way he behaving, could not resist to ask what is do US, he said that he on bench! every one though this some kind of american decorated seat,the way i dressed and attire look like any other Clark, i was to bout to spoil his party, just then the i resisted not spoil his party

  2. Reply sivaraj Aug 20,2013 8:39 am

    Absouletly True….one can agree to your observations in toto which were in our mind but you have put it down in writing…Discovered you from your paper article….will now have to read all your blogs…
    An ex NRI back in Chennai….

  3. Reply Poornakatha Aug 20,2013 3:21 pm

    Hilarious! I think the last bastion of the obscure-University-t-shirt type is Elliots beach at 4:30 in the morning.
    The thathas continue to be ardent devotees of their children’s NRI-ness after their trips to Indianabolis

  4. Reply K R A Narasiah Aug 26,2013 6:15 am

    Quite true.What about the T shirts with New York or some remote place names and unpressed pants of some rare origin, (made in Bangladesh or cambodia but sold out there)
    Well slowly all this is becoming non-fashionable and to say “my son is working in India only – you see we dont believe going abroad”, a reverse osmosis process in thinking pattern!
    Things are changing but unfortunately never for better!

  5. Reply N.R.SAMPATH Aug 26,2013 12:24 pm

    Dear Suchi,
    One more brilliant article.Heartiest congratulations.NRIs from the west,as a distinct race,can be spotted in any place in India,with their distinguishing inevitables—-a multi-coloured Bermuda,a Bisleri bottle in hand,coke bottles in their jolna bag,a branded T shirt and English with a slang.Gulf NRI is a different animal.The ladies decked in gold like the Manappuram ad model,the men perfumed with some duplicate perfume,out-of-normal size kids munching toblerone chocolate–you see them everywhere in any metro in India,during the summer months—-June to August.As you have rightly stated,with the influx of foreign goods into India,huge malls selling all branded dresses and toiletries,the NRIs are no longer looked at in awe in India.Globalisation has robbed the NRIs the special status they enjoyed till a few years back.Your description of NRIs is excellent–humourous and realistic.Kudos to you.Looking forward to more such eminently readable articles from you.Best wishes.

  6. Reply Usha Sep 2,2013 2:10 pm

    Well written. What caught my eye though was your calling, a technical writer. I am one, have been for years…
    Will read your other pieces …

  7. Reply Joel James Aloor Sep 13,2013 4:32 am

    No matter what kind of job an NRI doing in abroad , he will get the respect. Lacoste with a check Lungi is the brand costume for Gulf NRIs.
    There is a custom in Kerala called “opening the bag ceremony ” ie nothing but opening the baggage and distributing the things he grabbed from abroad to his relatives and friends , everyone will be expecting something and eagerly starring at the bag with a special smile.

    An NRI coming home without chocolates is considered to be Blasphemy.
    NRIs were so special in olden days because the foreign countries was unknown to us and this give an opportunity to NRIs to proudly present the lifestyle of the countries which they works with a little SHOWOFF.
    Internet is one of the main reason that made NRIs no longer special.

  8. Reply Ashley Nov 2,2013 3:43 am

    Amazing write up, really entertaining. now that i look back at time, i relate to every word written in there…


  9. Reply chandra Dec 9,2013 3:45 pm

    You must watch this and show this to all “mineral water from bottle only” addicts:

    When I was in USA last for 7 years, I drank tap water in order not to lose the inherent immunity so that I could drink ordinary water any where in the world!

  10. Reply Kanchan Mar 30,2014 8:14 am

    You had me flummoxed at “planet called the Gelf!!!!! “How amazing is that! Took me a whole minute to crack that..till I came to the Malayalees.. Sorry, to do this but ROTFL it is.

  11. Reply Pramodh M R Jun 25,2014 4:11 pm

    Appappa beautiful eyeopener of what we Indians have become…. An IT EFFECT….

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