Where to live – east or west?

My husband and I have been living in India for over two years now. After being settled in the UK, we relocated to the east for work reasons. Now we’re about to have a baby, I’ve been thinking a lot about which society is best to settle in – the east or the west?

Our background is that we’re both British Indian (Indian origin but were brought up in the UK when our parents emigrated there for their careers). Now our parents are retired and resettled in India, which is an unusual trend even today (migrating back to the homeland after 30 years working and living abroad). My husband was born in the UK and I was born in India; his family is originally South Indian and mine North Indian – but apart from those differences, we have a very similar cultural identity. We were raised in a British society, with British friends and pastimes, but our family life was Indian. As a result, we’ve become very mixed in our cultural outlook, and open to living in different societies.

There are so many considerations when it comes to deciding where to live. One is work and finances, then there’s the environment, social values, education, family life and, the all-important, everyday lifestyle. In almost every category, the west has a more established infrastructure which we find easier to live with, but then again in every category, the east offers more variety and unpredictability which makes life more exciting. In terms of health and safety, environmental awareness, education, I prefer the west’s sense of order. But our family is now mainly in the east, so social values and everyday lifestyle are better for us in India right now. I also like the fact that the sun comes out everyday, as it does have an uplifting effect. It’s a very difficult decision between logic and emotion (west=logic, east=emotion).

To some extent, as the recession looms, the decision is not entirely up to us. We’ll have to consider the work situation at the end of the year and that will be one of the priorities for where to settle. I think raising a child in a safe and secure environment is important, but a bit of unpredictability and a richer family life are important too.

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What India means to me

Map of India

I have developed a very strange relationship with my motherland.

I was born in India, but my parents took me to the UK when I was five years old. They tried to come back and settle in their homeland twice during my childhood, but it never worked. They were absorbed in their medical careers, which required them to be in the UK.

My sister and I spent a couple of brief school years in India, looked after by grandmothers and other relatives while my parents went back and forth between continents, trying to manage work and family life. For both my sister and me, India was our first home, our native country, undisputedly. As a young child who had known no other territory, ‘Mr India’ was my favourite film. But gradually, everything I took for granted as my natural identity became questionable.

As I struggled and succeeded to learn British English in London, my grip on Hindi began to falter. As I became accustomed to my friends’ ways of being and doing things, the memories of my childhood home began to fade. Those brief spells in which we tried to come back to India were like a temporary reawakening – a door to the past that would open and pour its wisdom into me for a short time before shutting again. My relatives thought I had become ‘angrez’, even thought I hardly thought of myself that way. In India. I became ‘different’, and in the UK, I was ‘different’ too.

So now, years later as I write this, I am very aware of what India represents to me. It’s more than just an idea; it’s a reality that I feel everyday. It’s huge and complex, something that I won’t ever be able to explain fully. Every time I feel a sense of ‘Indianness’, I am aware there is a ‘Britishness’ which rests uncomfortably alongside this. After all, the countries struggled against each other historically, precisely because their identities could not integrate fully with each other.

Whenever I am in India, it’s tempting to see stereotypes all around me: spiritualists, poverty, chaos, consumerism. Only when I actually talk to people personally – the rickshaw wallahs, relatives and their neighbours, dry-cleaners and taxi drivers – I see the reality behind the overpowering image of India. The authenticity of other people’s cultural behaviour allows me to see what it means to be Indian.

Despite this feeling of identification, I disagree with the concept of national identity (the idea that an individual can be defined by which country they come from). I see my identity as drawing from, yet separate from, nationality and culture. What I understand about India is cultural rather than political, although I’m aware that there is a connection between culture and politics which cannot be ignored. Even the naming of a country is political and represents a territorial division.

Indian English

A nation cannot escape its history, anymore than an individual can deny his or her past. Our history conditions and moulds us into the people we are today, individually and collectively.

That is not to say, however, that all people and nations are trapped by their histories, and are defined once and for all by events which occurred a long time ago. People can and do change; so do nations, and so does the world. But we remain accountable for our history, and it should stay with us as a reminder of how we have progressed. This is especially true in the case of Great Britain, which has matured a great deal through its history. Great Britain has progressed towards multiculturalism, after leaving the days of its tyrannous empire behind. Sadly, some Brits still think of the British Empire as an achievement in their country’s past. We are used to hearing protests about various human rights violations in different parts of the world, but we rarely hear a disapproving critique of the British Empire from a British person. There is a lack of awareness about what the BE actually did. And those same Brits who hail the BE as a great time in their country’s history are often the people who want immigrants to ‘go home’ and who think that countries like America and Australia always belonged to the people who now rule those countries. They are not aware that immigration was one of the consequences of the empire, and that the British themselves emigrated to countries all over the world in order to rule over those countries and to exploit their natural resources. But that is what happened in the past, and the only way to deal with it is to accept its consequences: multiculturalism and the role of English as an international language are some of the things Great Britain has to accept. As the famous post-colonial phrase goes, ‘we are here because you were there’, and your language was there too.

When the British spread their rule across various nations, they took their language with them, and sometimes even sought to enforce that language on the indigenous population. An obvious example of this is Thomas Babington Macaulay’s ‘Minute on Law and Education’, presented in Bengal during the days of the British Raj. Macaulay ignorantly dismissed Indian literature and spoke of the ‘intrinsic superiority’ of English literature, saying that this should be taught to natives in order to educate them. There is no doubt that Macaulay’s views were uninformed and biased (anyone who has read Hamlet and also read the Mahabharata knows that they are, on the one hand, incomparable, and on the other hand, both great works of literature). However ludicrous Macaulay’s views may sound to us today, they were common at the time, and they shaped the way in which English was treated.

As most of us know, India was a British colony until 1947, when the Quit India Movement put an end to the British Raj and its exploitation of India’s indigenous people and raw materials. But India was left with English as one of its languages, and it was the kind of English which had been used during the time of the Raj. Due to colonisation, English had become an internationally-known language, but it had the enormous task of expressing the idioms and cultural nuances of hundreds of different societies. So, the language of the Raj was mixed with Hindi, with Kannada, with various dialects. Indian English is still trying very hard to mould an alien language to suit its native customs and traditions. Apart from that, we now have a situation where American capitalism has begun to influence India, too. In the USA, the English language has had time to digest and synthesise influences from the Irish, Italian, Hispanic and other cultural groups that form modern America. But India is still trying to synthesise and create its own brand of Indian English. In Indian English, not only do we have words and phrases that are ‘roughly translated’ from local languages, but we also have the old language of the Raj and the American influence. Looking at English words used in India these days, one will notice that sometimes they are spelled the British way and sometimes the American way. Sometimes the word is completely NEW, e.g. ‘preponed the meeting’, ‘coped up with the situation’.

Is this Indian English wrong? I would say that it depends on context and consistency. It is not wrong to use Indian English, because we cannot help but put our personality and cultural influence onto a language. But we should be aware of the rules we are following and stick to them for the sake of clarity (e.g. not mix ‘color’ with ‘colour’). A language is a set of codes, and those breaking the code need to be sure that it follows a particular set of rules, otherwise it becomes incomprehensible. Until Indian English becomes globally recognised (the way American English now is), I think we have to try to stick to an international standard as much as possible. Defining that standard is very difficult – we can only say what it is NOT: it is not the language of the Raj, not the colloquial British English spoken today, not the ‘Hinglish’ mixture of Hindi and English. It requires eliminating highly cultural influences from the language, which is hard to do. We need to do this when we are speaking or writing formally, but we can customise the language as we wish when with friends who understand our informal codes.

So, we may have to limit the more quirky side of Indian English for the time being, but that does not mean we have to deny its existence or its informal usage. It’s likely that, in the near future, new words and expressions from Indian English will gradually enter the realm of internationally-recognised, standardised English. India’s growing software industry will make sure of that. Until that happens, however, we have to make the effort to say ‘bring the meeting forward’ instead of ‘prepone the meeting’, or ‘go to the back of the building’ instead of ‘go to the backside’. I don’t think such modifications are too difficult to apply.

Reading The Namesake

Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel, The Namesake, has been appreciated by desis (Indians) and non-desis alike, to the extent that it has been made into a film in India and appreciated worldwide. The book deals with the cultural situation of first generation and second generation Indians in foreign countries, in this case America. I am in a bit of a strange situation when it comes to cultural categories, as I am neither a first nor a second generation Indian… I am somewhere in between, having been born in India and having grown up in the west (something like a 1.5 generation migrant). Stranger still is the fact that, after living in England, making friends there, graduating from college there, getting married there and having a home there, I have revisited my motherland after all these years. My partner and I are currently working in India for a couple of years… My husband is in the second generation migrant category, and we speak to each other in English (with British accents), he watches the football, we eat a mixture of western and Indian food at home, we don’t practise the Hindu rituals our parents practise and we wear mostly western clothes. So, that’s my situation as I begin reading The Namesake

The book begins with an account of a Bengali couple’s journey to the USA, the wife’s (Ashima’s) sense of alienation as she learns to accept her distance from her family, the lack of authentic Indian food, the cold climate and the sense of being different from those around her. The couple have two children, Gogol and Sonia. The story centres around Gogol’s experience. He hates his name, which was given to him as a pet name but which stuck as his ‘outside’ name. He does not initially know that his father gave him this name because he had been reading a book by Nikolai Gogol when he experienced a serious train accident; waving the book from below the wreckage was the act that allowed him to be seen and rescued. Gogol later changes his name to Nikhil, a name his father had wanted him to adopt for school, but which he had not liked as an infant. The act of naming becomes integral to the book’s exploration of cultural identity. Unlike his mother, Gogol embraces Amercian culture effortlessly, to the extent that he dismisses and discards his Indian identity. He has premarital relationships, goes out with friends and only engages with the rituals of his childhood – of speaking Bengali, attending ‘pujos’ and eating mostly Indian food – when he visits his parents. He visits his parents less and less as he grows independent, preferring his separation from them. This is until his father dies suddenly, when his perspective begins to change. As if in retaliation to his ‘foreignness’ from his parents and from his white American friends, he marries an American-Bengali like himself. But the marriage fails because the couple cannot maintain a sense of connection with each other; Gogol’s wife begins an affair with a man who has the same intellectual interests as her, and Gogol eventually finds out.

The book ends at the point Ashima, Gogol’s mother, is about to return to India to enjoy her retirement. She plans to divide her remaining time between India and America. Sonia is about to get married to an American man who Ashima knows will make her daughter happy. The story is simple but deeply moving, showing the struggle of those who start a life in a foreign country whilst being unable to fully let go of their own cultures and customs. It also shows the more subtle pain of the second generation immigrant, who feels divided between two identities.

What struck me most about the book was that things I thought were specific to my own experience of growing up are actually typical migrant experiences. Such as the loud Indian get-togethers Gogol’s parents have, and his mother’s fussing. It seems to me that the book is ultimately trying to say that however important culture may be in shaping our experiences, it is not the thing which makes us who we are inside. Gogol and his Indian wife have the same cultural experience, but their personalities do not complement. Ashima builds her life around her Bengali community, but when she grows older she realises that America has also become her home, and she cares about her American friends at the library where she works.

The saddest thing about the book is that it is a reminder of cultural fragmentation. People living far from their families and friends in pursuit of new opportunities. But in such a global situation, it becomes even more important to stay connected with loved ones and to be open to unlikely friendships.

My own relationship with India

I grew up in the west, but am of Indian origin. I came back to India after a long separation.

Yesterday I went into a slum community school. As I was walking through the alleyways, I saw life thriving around me. In tiny shacks all joined together, people had crammed mattresses to sleep on. Outside the doors, two sticks were lit up so as to boil water in a pan. People surviving on the very basics of life. Yet what struck me was not how little the community had, but the way in which they had created a habitable environment. A livable environment, perhaps not lavish or comfortable, but resourceful and manageable.

The other thing I noticed was that despite having the very basic of human provisions, every second house in the slum had a tv which was blaring out the latest bollywood hits. When I finally reached the school, the children greeted us by calling us ‘didi’ which means older sister. They may not have great material wealth, but they have an abundance of endurance and generally a joy for life. They make everyone feel a part of their family.

This is something very new for me, as individual space is much more a priority in the western world. Being back in India, I am rediscovering my own relationship with my motherland. There are frustrations living in a developing country like India, but there is also something which makes it worth dealing with, and I can’t explain that to anyone who hasn’t experienced it. If I had never gone away, I might have taken this for granted. But now I’m torn between two cultures and a little unsure about exactly where I belong. India has certainly made me feel part of itself, and it’s much harder to achieve this sense of family in the west because family is not considered as necessary within the society. I guess I will have to accept that I belong wherever I am at the time, and that there’s nothing essential about my identity except for who I am.