I, Maithili and my NRI Cousins!

“Oh! How good he is with Maithili!”, “Despite staying in America, they are so well versed with their culture”, “Children here are not half as ‘Indian’ as the Indian children in foreign land.”

Just some examples of the sentences I came across as a ten-year-old Indian child staying in India and the recipient of those glorious sentences were my NRI cousins!! They could express themselves so well in a language that is not spoken in their adoptive country. And they were good at everything Indian, like Indian dance, music etc.! I remember, one in particular, was appreciated for reciting ‘Gayatri Mantra’ every day. Also, he would touch feet of all elders before he began his day! Thankfully, I have never been much sensitive about these kinds of judgement (had I been-“children here in India are not half as Indian as them” jibe would have hurt me , you see!) and it didn’t bother me even then, though I did sense that suddenly my mom was imposing ‘Maithili only at home’ rule on me. Maybe she too wanted some appreciation directed towards her son’s way. That seemed important to her.  I had felt bewildered. I didn’t understand why suddenly Maithili had become that important. She had inculcated in me the belief and understanding that the language not withstanding, it was more important to articulately convey one’s thoughts .  She always had been an advocate of ‘survival of the fittest’ ideology and languages, cultures, traditions fell in that ambit for her. She believed that whichever culture had the strength to provide good living to the human race, shall survive . It made sense to me. Then why this contradiction now!  Slowly though, this dictate of ‘Maithili only’ died its own death, to my relief.

It has been some years since and I do understand quite a few things about life and culture now but still find myself at a loss about certain things, especially about the two extreme behavioral patterns- one by the NRIs and another by the resident Indians!

The first one is, why do NRIs become so obsessive about Indian culture! What is it that makes them enroll their kids for kathak classes or Ramayana recital classes on the weekends! Why, despite living off the benefits of their adoptive countries, they continue ‘yearning’ for the ‘Indianness’! Incidentally, they want their children to have the same set of values that they themselves grew up with, sans the same surrounding!  Is it their love for their country? But if that was the case, why did they leave it at the first place! Why didn’t they lend their expertise for the benefit of their ‘motherland’! And even now if they see such merits in the ‘Indian culture’ and its way of thinking, they should rather pack off and head back home.

In reality, this ‘Indianness’ has got nothing to do with India, has never been! As it turns out ‘the foreign social status’ gets too big to consider that (coming back).  Stuck in the vicious cycle of money and social pressures, they are not able to break away from the social barriers to return back home. Instead, they look for ways to imbibe Indian culture and traditions into their kin and tell people back home that their kids are more culturally inclined than any Indian kid could be. While in some cases this might be true, in most of the cases these are statements to satisfy the self from the guilt of not being able to return to their roots. Also, it provides them a kind of moral strength to survive in a foreign land.

Now, one cannot expect to have the cake and the cherry both. But then that’s their battle to win (or lose).

Personally, I feel alright about this whole ‘move’ to a new country for better prospects, life style, professionalism. Since time immemorial, people have been explorers, moving from one place to another in search of food, shelter, good living! And hey ! Who wouldn’t like to go and work at a place where one can earn enough even at the entry level to visit different countries and explore the world, who wouldn’t like to go  to a place where ones work is the only criteria for promotion, where one gets an opportunity to experience different cultures !

What I do not feel alright about is, the baggage of forced cultural notions for reasons that’s anything but organic!

The second one that I still am to figure out is, why do Indian people start behaving differently in the presence of their NRI relatives! My mom suddenly bursts into her fake ‘Priyanka Chopraish’ American accent while talking to my cousins or will start using her chaste Maithili. It’s her ‘Dude, I too care for my culture’ look- more for the benefit of other listeners than the cousins!  Also, increasingly I am getting the invite to Halloween parties! ‘Baby shower’ pics on my timeline is a regular now ! Some of my friends are planning to be a part of ‘Tomatina’ in Bangalore! Wonder if we didn’t have enough festivals, rituals already!

Interestingly, the answer to both these extremes lies in one explanation- We all are in a constant search for something that exhibit us in a certain way- a way that makes us feel secured- sometimes at emotional level and sometimes at aspirational level.  While the NRI set is constantly in search of ‘emotional anchoring’ and finds that via ‘cultural activities’ in their adoptive country, we in India follow our aspirational needs and imitate all things that’s a part of ‘developed world’. It’s so not misplaced to notice that this trend is increasing at the same rate as the rising income levels of the people here. Our ‘cultural- emotional needs’ well taken care of, it’s the ‘aspirational needs’ that we long to fulfill and prove to the world that we are at par, by hosting and attending parties that’s completely out of sync- no one is complaining though!

But to me, this seems as forced as the NRIs carrying the baggage of ‘Indianness’! Clearly I have to walk a long way to understand more about these things.

Copyright © Aradhana Mishra

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  1. That’s a valiant effort to delve deep into a subject aimed at reading the mindset of two sets of people at the far end of the global spectrum.
    …….and to your credit,you have done fairly well in deciphering the subtleties that tell them apart!
    The yearning by the one to return to its roots comes in conflict with the craving by the other to imbibe everything foreign ……and your midas touch lends a helping hand for the ensuing battle to take an epic proportion.
    While the predicament that burdens the NRIs(somewhat manufactured and fussy sometimes…..I agree with you)has been well elucidated,the behavioural pattern of native Indians too has not been lost sight of……even lampooning its double-standard & double-speak.In this context,you have been modest enough to make a derogatory reference about your mom too!
    To end;the denouement sums up the gist of the subject matter in no uncertain terms.
    ……well written….a class apart!

    Last but not the least,Maithili is one of the sweetest languages native to India and who knows it better than me who himself hails from Mithilanchal(Madhubani)and retains a fluency in it to the envy of others and against the powerful onslaught of other Indian languages….

    1. Hello Sir,
      As always your comment is apropos to what I have tried to convey.
      On the face of it, this write-up might be about NRIs, RIs, and Maithili, but in reality, they are just the metaphors which can be applied to many other situations like these. As far as hypocrisy is concerned, this has always been a part of our narrative , especially in Indian context.
      This article has been written from a boy’s perspective, who happens to be my son and the ‘ burlesque mom’ is myself. Spared my mom 😀
      To know that you are as accomplished in ‘Maithili’ as you are with English, didn’t come as a surprise to me! I couldn’t have expected any less from a wordsmith. However, the fact that the language happens to be ‘Maithili’ was kinda pleasant surprise, for that’s my mother tongue too and if I may add, I take pride in being reasonably fluent in this! 🙂
      PS The best compliment for a writer is when her write up is understood the way she had intended to ! It surely motivates her to come up with better work! Thank You! 🙂

  2. I think it is a part of them wanting to connect well with their family and roots. It feels good if your kid can talk to their relatives well. Imagine opposite case where a child is unable to communicate in any language other than english (economically best suited language). What they loose is intrinsic feeling of belonging that we all are hardwired to cultivate.

    E.g. I understand Maithili but since my mom spoke Bhagalpuri and my dad spoke Maithili, so I ended up speaking none but understanding both. I do feel a bit of loss when I meet some relatives and I am unable to talk in Maithili.

    While survival of fittest is economic reality, wanting to connect with roots is more intrinsic need for belongingness.

    Besides Maithili does sound a bit sweet (maybe I am biased). Lol

    1. I agree to your point where one remains in touch with his cultural side in order to stay connected with his loved ones back home and there cant be any denying that there is this intrinsic need to hold on to ones cultural roots when one is in an alien land.
      However what I have tried to convey in this write up is that ‘need’ is not equal to ‘patriotism’ or ‘more cultural awareness’.
      Secondly, it may be true or rational (need based) for the first gen expatriates to cling on to their cultural background, I feel it’s not really correct to ‘force’ the second generation to learn or imbibe what the first gen thinks correct because
      1.. The first gen had the advantage of learning those things in their natural environment while for the second or consecutive ones , it may be confusing…being told to follow one set of norms and seeing another set of norms around!
      2. While for the first gen , its their adoptive country, for the second and consecutive, that becomes their native country. I feel it would help to facilitate better integration into that country, if they are given that freedom to adapt to the ways of that land, instead of shackled into the moulds of their parents’ need based ‘cultural motifs’
      Coming to Maithili, indeed it’s a sweet language. I have used this as a metaphor though. It could be any language and country! 🙂

      1. Agree with your points about not equating that to patriotism or cultural awareness.

        Also it is indeed unfair if parents expect alignment with values of place where children don’t actually stay.

    1. Thank you Keerti, for the beautiful words… that’s encouraging and motivating!

  3. Hello Aradhana Ji,

    It was quite interesting for me to find this article and read all the feelings depicted by the writer (yourself). I would like to take this article to publish on http://www.maithilijindabaad.com, if possible, I will be translating it too. So, kindly permit!

    Rest, I would like to learn about Maithil’s general life in USA. Are they organized? Do they celebrate anything connected with Mithila and Maithili? If yes, would you please provide me some details for my studies and writing further to let our people know about USA’s Maithils and keep connected.

    1. Hello Mr Pravin,
      It was a pleasure reading your comment. First of all, apologies for the delay in replying. I shall rather reply the second part of your comment first. I am afraid that I shall not be of much help vis-a-vis a Maithil’s general life in USA. I feel that its something very personal and until and unless someone agrees to be subjected to such observations, I shall not feel comfortable about it.
      Coming to the first part, I wonder, if your targeted readers ( checked the link) will relate to this. If yes, go ahead by all means. Appreciate the fact that you asked for permission.
      Much Regards

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