Random stuff: the NRI fiction piece

(First published in Tehelka, March 2004)

All it takes is a few weeks on a reading assignment for a paid-up IBCD (Indian Born Complacent Desi) to upgrade to TCD status. TCD—not the same as ABCD, or American Born Confused Desi–stands for Terminally Confused Desi. It’s what happens when an RI (Resident Indian and/or Recalcitrant Indian) takes the plunge into the overcrowded pool of NRI literature. NRI, as everyone knows, is what most non-NRIs call Non Resident Indians. There are non-NRIs who insist the NRI acronym should read ‘Not Really Indian’ or ‘Not Reliable Indian’; be warned that these are usually the ones who failed their SATs or didn’t get the all-important visa nod at the Embassy (US or UK; once you get started with acronyms, it’s hard to know when to stop).

Getting kind of terminally confused yourself? Welcome to the alphabet soup world of the ABCD (see above), the BBCD (British Born Confused Desi) and the compartmentalised lives of the hyphenated Indian. The latter used to come in just two flavours—Indian-American and Indian-British, but is now expanding to embrace Indian-Canadian, Indian-Irish and even Indian-Japanese.

Reading a certain kind of diaspora fiction is like being forced to watch only Hindi films with an NRI theme, all the way from DDLJ (Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge) to KHNH (Kal Ho Na Ho). There’s a thin vanguard of authors who can transform the themes of disapora and exile into the stuff of great writing, led by Jhumpa Lahiri. There are writers who entertain you by using the cliches of the NRI experience, from samosas to saris and bhangra to Bollywood hangovers, with a certain adroitness. The rest, and this is most of the heap, is like a Karan Johar script on a really bad day performed by actors chosen expressly for their lack of ability to emote.

At the risk of being dubbed not just a Complacent Desi, but one of those CDs cariacatured in Meera Syal’s Goodness Gracious Me! for their conviction that everything was invented in India first, I should point out that the talent-to-dross ratio in the NRI literature pile almost exactly mirrors the genius-to-dreck ratio in the small world of Indian Writing in English back home. It’s a little alarming to imagine that we’re exporting our ability to achieve splendid mediocrity along with our unburgeoned enthusiasm for conquering brave new worlds, but it’s an inescapable conclusion. This is what the NRI world looks like between covers:

Phir Bhi Dil Hai Hindustani: Apparently, the whole point of going to a phoren land was so that you could have a searing moment of unabashed, nostalgia-drenched nationalism that also proved your abiding attachment to your roots. In Kal Ho Na Ho, the Mera Bharat Mahaan moment is provided when do-gooder Aman Mathur gets the desi community together to build a bonafide monument to India in the form of a desi restaurant. It opens its doors, queues form around the block; voila, conquest via chicken tikka. But it merely mirrors the MBM moment in Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gam, when a small boy who’s supposed to sing Do Re Mi to a British audience bursts into Jana Gana Mana instead. In Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, India shone forth when England-returned Rani Mukherjee, challenged to prove her Indianness, sung Om Jai Jagadish Hare.

In novels, it’s more gradual—a process exemplified in Tanuja Desai Hidier’s Born Confused, where Dimple Lala quits fighting against “meaningless” traditions and begins to seek out her Indian identity via curry recipes, and capsule lessons on Indian history, and the realisation that bhangra’s cool, once she meets the right Indian boy. Or it shows up in Kavita Daswani’s For Matrimonial Purposes when the heroine decides that what she really wants is a man of “similar caste and background”, who can share the “momentuous pressures and enduring obligations” of her community.

The point of the patriotic moment is to glorify the love for a country left far behind; it’s light years away from the uneasy concerns expressed in Jhumpa Lahiri’s short story, ‘When Mr Pirzada Came to Dine’. To Lilia, India is a “sprawling orange diamond” on the map that her mother had once told her “resembled a woman wearing a sari with her left arm extended”. Her father asks, knowing the answer already, what history she’s learning. “We learned American history, of course, and American geography.” In these three crafted sentences, Lahiri said more about the sorrow of diaspora—the loss of connection with a land still remembered—and its brisk ability to move on and assimilate, surely the whole point of braving a new world, than a three-hour reel of spliced together Mera Bharat Mahaan moments could. But then Lahiri’s prose coexists in the decade of the Matrimonial novel.

Shaadi, Desi Style: If anyone doubts the existence of the Matrimonial novel, I’d beg him or her to run an eye over these recent book titles. Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni may have anticipated the trend with Arranged Marriage. But she cannot have envisioned the spate of titles that would be eagerly snapped up by publishers in search of the India abroad chicklit market. From Bali Rai’s (Un) Arranged Marriage to Sharon Maas’ Of Marriageable Age to Kavita Daswani’s For Matrimonial Purposes, it’s a small world out there, with apparently just one thin plotline.

In (Un)Arranged Marriage, Leicester Punjabi Manny rebels against his family’s attempts to ring out the wedding bells by trying to be the most unsuitable boy possible. A trip to India changes his mind, and his attitudes, and no prizes for guessing how the story ends. Of Marriageable Age brings together three people of Indian origin—Sarojini, rebelling against the thought of being forced into marriage, Nat or Nataraj from Tamil Nadu, who bumps into Saroj in England, and Savitri. Maas is more mawkish than lyrical, but the story ends predictably. And Kavita Daswani’s For Matrimonial Purposes follows 34-year-old Anju’s Great Official Husband Hunt from Bombay to Umrica.

That’s just the ones with ‘Matrimonial’ or ‘Marriage’ in the title. The rest hide the same old plot—boy meets girl, horoscopes match, identity crises work out, and everyone dances at the wedding—under the second favourite contemporary NRI obsession: food.

Instant Bhelpuri: Amulya Malladi’s Mango Season juxtaposes recipes, many quite edible, against the story of Priya Rao, who has turned away from an arranged marriage, is concealing an engagement to an American from her family, and agrees in desperation to return briefly to dusty, dirty, confusing, hot, sweaty India. The suitable boy crops up. Of course he does. Expecting him not to would be like expecting a mainstream NRI flick to end with sadness and existential gloom. No doubt Malladi was taking her cue from the far more talented Anita Rau Badami, who called an early novel Tamarind Mem for more complicated reasons. But neither of them can hold a candle to Nisha Minhas, fast making a niche for herself in the world of Brit chicklit (subdivision: Multiculture Lite). Minhas’ first attempt was Chapatti or Chips?, billed as a romantic comedy set in Milton Keynes and featuring Ashok, Naina and Dave. Ashok is every brown woman’s dream come true; Dave is the bad boy; Naina’s confused. With only a slight hiccup when she titled book two Sari and Sins, Minhas reclaimed her edible territory with book three, Passion and Poppadums, where nice young brown girl takes on not just white man, but his jealous and gorgeous white fiancee. Could this be what Rushdie meant when he first coined that famous phrase about the Empire writing back?

The two books that show some faint promise within the one-plot-blurs-all confines of the genre matrimonial are Cauvery Madhavan’s Paddy Indian, which attempted to do for the Indian Irish what Meera Syal had done for Indians in England, and Tanuja Desai Hidier’s Born Confused, which makes up in verve and exuberance what it lacks in originality. If Indian filmmakers continue to spread their creative horizons, there’s no reason why the next Karan Johar blockbuster wouldn’t hire either Madhavan or Desai Hidier as screenwriters.

The Asli NRI Story: “Who is an NRI?” asks Amitava Kumar in his brief essay, ‘Duty-Free Indians’, answering it alongside: “The one carrying nostalgia in a suitcase.” But he broadens that somewhat reductive definition himself, pointing out the tensions between home and abroad. “For anyone in India…the NRI is fair game. And why not? We are the proud bearers of canned identities.” But this is a prejudice, an unreasoning tic, he continues. In Delhi, or in India’s metros, he sees little evidence of roots either, just “versions of the same pathetic attempts at a narrowly defined cosmopolitan identity”. Pathos is a dead end, as is an unjustified sense of superiority emanating from those who chose to stay at home, not to make the leap into the unknown, and Kumar has harsh judgements to pass on those who would see the NRI story as the first, or exercise the second without reflection.

The book he’s introducing should become a minor NRI classic: S Mitra Kalita’s Suburban Sahibs: Three Immigrant Families and Their Passage From India to America. “[It] introduces us to a new generation that, instead of looking back, is looking around itself. This generation is duty-free in a totally different and new sense. We might even say that the new generation of desis abroad are rooted in rootlessness. Who is to decide whether this is a good place for the NRI to be?” For Kumar, this is a deliberately defiant question; as someone who’s studied the trajectories of migrants and immigrants, he knows that those who appear to have lost one kind of history are simultaneously immersed in the project of creating a different kind of history of their own.

These stories do get told, but by a bare handful of writers this far. Non-fiction seems to be more tenable than fiction for some authors, and it can offer even more than fiction. Suburban Sahibs, for example, tells the NRI story that’s been hidden behind the cartoon “phoren” sets of every NRI film from American Desi to Pardes or Ab Aa Laut Chalen. The problems the Patels face are economic; in the case of the Kotharis, we witness a fierce struggle to be recognised as part of the American political sphere; for the Sarmas, the conflict between Indianness and assimilation can create uneasy but useful tensions.

This is the territory mapped with tremendous unselfconsciousness by Abraham Verghese in his classic tale of Aids in small-town America, My Own Country, where the politics of race seemed as natural to the narrative, if more subtly presented, as the politics of medicine. And Atul Gawande may be the new face of the NRI writer, though that’s slightly paradoxical given that the young doctor’s gripping tales from the medical world in Complications do not lend themselves to category by nationality—or acronym. (If you really had to classify Gawande, you’d set him down not as an ‘Indian’ writer or as an ‘NRI’ writer, but as an exemplar of the classic New Yorker school of writing. He could’ve come straight out of Mr Shawn’s legendary stable.)

Perhaps this is just coincidence, but the first promising debut ‘NRI’ writer I thought of also comes from the medical world. Sanjay Nigam’s ‘The Snake Charmer’ marked him as a talent to watch; ‘The Transplanted Man’, which gleefully shoves Bollywood superstars, insomniac scientists and obscure but compelling medical disorders into the same melting pot, establishes him as far more than a one-book wonder. There are writers like Jhumpa Lahiri, who find the question ‘Where do you come from?’ justly tedious. The Namesake, her first novel, has a wonderful riff about the kind of blurred images that children growing up in the US bring back from the mandatory Indian holiday (part purgatory, part fascination) which asks an unspoken question: when we live “here”, how can “there” be home?

There are many writers, too many to count, who belong in both worlds; who, like Shauna Singh Baldwin, can live in Canada and write with equal felicity about home and abroad, flipping the two categories at need. Her second novel, The Tiger’s Claw, is due out in a few months. There’s Rohinton Mistry, who has lived in Canada for years while his fiction crawls across the timeline of India’s history. Or Manil Suri, embarking on the second volume of his Death of Vishnu trilogy, relieved after living in the US all his life that people in India “certified” his book as an “Indian novel”.

The choice doesn’t have to lie between nostalgia and repudiation, between the old and the new homeland, between insularity and assimilation. Perhaps we can invent a new meaning for those worn old acronyms: Authors Believe Content Dazzles. Nationality Really Irrelevant.

Nilanjana S Roy

One comment

  1. this is with regard to ur article on asian writng where you mentioned books by nisha minhas and kavita daswani. i am writing a thesis on second generation diaspora and would be grateful if you could tell me where nisha minhas and kavita daswani were born. my email is- kukurah@gmail.com

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