Monday, January 28, 2008

The X = X + 1 Syndrome By R.K Narayan*

When an Indian professional becomes a 'Non-Resident Indian' in the United States , he soon starts suffering from a strange disease. The symptoms are a fixture of restlessness,anxiety, hope and nostalgia. The virus is a deep inner need to get back home. Like Shakespeare said, "The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak." The medical world has not coined a word for this malady. Strange as it is, it could go by a stranger name, the "X + 1" syndrome.

To understand this disease better , consider the background. Typically middle-class, the would be migrant's sole ambition through school is to secure admission into one of those heavily government subsidised institutions - the IITs. With the full backing of a doting family and a good deal of effort, he acheives his goal. Looking for fresh worlds to conquer,his sights rest on the new world.Like lemmings to the sea, hordes of IIT graduates descend on the four US consulates to seek the holiest of holy grails - the F-1 (student) stamp on the passport.

After crossing the visa hurdle and tearful farewell, our herodeparts for the Mecca of higher learning, promising himself and his family that he will return some day - soon!

The family proudly informs their relatives of each milestone -his G.P.A., his first car (twenty years old), his trip to Niagara Falls (photographs), his first winter (parkas,gloves). The two years roll by and he graduates, at the top of his class. Now begins the great hunt' for a company that will not only give him a job but also sponsor him for that 3" X 3" grey plastic, otherwise known as the Green Card.

A US company sensing a good bargain offers him a job.Naturally, with all the excitement of seeing his first pay check in four digit dollars, thoughts of returning to India are far away.His immediate objective of getting the Green Card is reached within a year.

Meanwhile, his family back home worry about the strange American influences (and more particularly, AIDS). Through contacts they lineup a list of eligble girls from eligible families and wait for the great one's first trip home. Return he does, at the first available oppurtunity, with gifts for the family and mouth-watering tales of prosperity beyond imagination. After interviewing the girls, he picks the most likely (lucky) one to be Americanised. Since the major reason for the alliance is his long-term stay abroad, the question of his immediate return does not arise. Any doubts are set aside by the'backwardnes' of working life, long train travel, lack of phones,inadequate oppurtunities for someone with hi-tech qualifications, and so on.

The newly-weds return to America with the groom having to explain the system of arranged marriages to the Americans. Most of them regard it as barbaric and on the same lines as communism. The tongue-tied bride is cajoled into explaining the bindi and saree. Looking for something homely, the couple plunges into the frenetic expatriate week-end social scene compromising dinners, videos of Hindi regional films, shopping at Indian stores, and bhajans.

Initially, the wife misses the warmth of her family, but the presence of washing machines, vacuum cleaners, daytime soap operas and the absence of a domineering mother-in-law helps. Bits of news filtering through from India, mostly from returning Indians, is eagerly lapped up.

In discussions with freinds, the topic of returning to India arises frequently but is brushed aside by the lord and master who is now rising in the corporate world and has fast moved into a two garage home - thus fulfilling the great American Dream. The impending arrival of the first born fulfills the great Indian Dream. The mother-in-law arrives in time: after all, no right thinking parent would want their off-spring to be born in India if offered the American alternative.

With all material comforts that money can bring, begins the first signs of un- easiness - a feeling that somehow things are not what they should be. The craze for exotic electronic goods, cars and vacations have been satiated. The week-end gatherings are becoming routine.

Faced with a mid-life crisis, the upwardly mobile Indian's career graph plateu's out. Younger and more aggressive Americans are promoted. With one of the periodic mini recessions in the economy and the threat of a hostile take-over, the job itself seems far from secure.

Unable or unwilling to socialize with the Americans, the Indian retreats into a cocoon. At the home front,the children have grown up and along with American accents have imbibed American habits(cartoons,hamburgers) and values(dating). They respond to their parents' exhortation of leading a clean Indian way of life by asking endless questions.

The generation gap combines with the cultural chasm. Not surprisingly,the first serious thoughts of returning to India occur at this stage.Taking advantage of his vacation time, the Indian returns home to 'explore' possibilities. Ignoring the underpaid and beaurocratic government sector, he is bewildered by the 'primitive' state of the private sector. Clearly overqualified even to be a managing director/chairman he stumbles upon the idea of being an entrepreneur.

In the seventies, his search for an arena to display his buisness skills normally ended in poultry farming. In the eighties, electronics is the name of the game. Undaunted by horror stories about government red tape and corruption he is determined to overcome the odds - with one catch. He has a few things to settle in the United States. Afterall, you can't just throw away a lifetime's work. And there are things like taxation and customs regulations to be taken note of. Pressed for a firm date, he says confidently 'next year' and therein lies our story.The next years come and go but there is no sign of our McCarthian friend.

About 40 years later our, by now, a old friend dies of a scheduled heart-attack and it so happens that his last wish was that he be laid to rest in the city he was born in India. So our friend at last returns to India for good. But by now the people who were so looking forward to see him return to his homeland are no more.

In other words if 'X' is the current year, then the objective is to return in the 'X + 1' year. Since 'X' is a changing variable, the objective is never reached. Unable to truly melt in the 'Great Melting Pot', chained to his cultural moorings and haunted by an abject fear of giving up an accustomed standard of living, the Non-Resident Indian vacillates and oscillates between two worlds in a twilight zone.Strangely, this malady appears to affect only the Indians - all of our Asian brethren from Japan, Korea and even Pakistan - seem immune to it.

*Looks like this has been written many years back. Except for few, many of the conditions are still the same as they were then.

3 comments:

nellutla said...

Bharani,

Good one!!

Sudhakar Komakula said...

This feeling, idea always made me think and worry. Everytime I visit Airport(only to give send offs) I observe the parents and children and feel pity about the parents.

RK Narayan - whose writings appear as reality, provides us a clear picture here.

Thanks to Bharani for posting such a wonderful and thought provoking message out here.

Prithwis Mukerjee said...

when i was a grad student in the US -- in the dim, dark antidiluvian era of the 1980s -- when even having an email was a privilege, i had come across this write up as a chain-mail that was floating around in the limited word of the BITNET / ARPANET / CSNET. the www as we know it was still in the womb of futurity !

Good to see it floating around again.