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 The women would wear them with slightly out-of-date sarees and salwars, while the men preferred shorts or acidwash jeans.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.