An excerpt from Away: The Indian Writer as an Expatriate edited by Amitava Kumar.
Written by R K Narayan for the Frontline October 1985.
(this is my first encounter with RK Narayan’s non Malgudi writings)
At the American Consulates the visa issuing section is kept busy nowadays as more and more young men seek the Green Card or profess to go on a student visa and many try to extend their stay once they get in. The official handles a difficult task while filtering out the “permanents” and letting in only the “transients”. The average American himself is liberal-minded and doesn’t bother that more Indian engineers and doctors are swamping the opportunities available in the country possibly to the disadvantage of the American candidate himself.
I discussed the subject with Prof. Ainslee Embree of Columbia University who has had a long association with Indian affairs and culture. His reply was noteworthy. “Why not Indians as well? In course of time they will be Americans. The American citizen of today was once an expatriate, a foreigner who had come out of a European or African country. Why not from India too? We certainly love to have Indians in our country.”
There are however, two views on this subject. The elderly parents of Indians settled in America pay a visit to them, from time to time (on excursion round ticket), and feel pleased at the prosperity of their sons or daughters in America. After a Greyhound tour of the country and a visit to Niagara, they are ready to return home when the suburban existence begins to bore them whether at New Jersey, or The Queens or the Silicon Valley neighborhood of California. But they always say on their return, “After all our boys are happy there. Why should they come back to this country, where they get no encouragement?”
Our young man who goes out to the States for higher studies or training, declares when leaving home, “I will come back as soon as I complete my course, may be two years or a little more, but I will definitely come back and work for our country, and also help our family…..” Excellent intentions, but it will not work that way. Later when he returns home full of dreams, projects, and plans, he only finds hurdles at every turn when he tries for a job or to start an enterprise of his own. Form-filling, bureaucracy, caste and other restrictions, and a generally feudal style of functioning, exasperate the young man and waste his time. He frets and fumes as days pass with nothing achieved, while he has been running around presenting or collecting papers at various places.
He is not used to this sort of treatment in America, where, he claims, he could walk into the office of the top man anywhere, address him by his first name and explain his purpose; when he attempts to visit a man of similar rank in India to discuss his ideas, he realizes that he has no access to him, but can only talk to subordinate officials in a hierarchy. Some years ago a biochemist returning home and bursting with proposals, was curtly told off by the big man when he innocently pushed the door and stepped in. “You should not come to me directly, send your papers through proper channels.” Thereafter the young biochemist left India once for all. having kept his retreat open with the help of a sympathetic professor at the American end. In this respect American democratic habits have rather spoilt our young men. They have no patience with our official style or tempo, whereas an Indian at home would accept the hurdles as inevitable Karma.
The America-returned Indian expects special treatment, forgetting the fact that over here chancellors of universities will see only the other chancellors, and top executives will see only other top executives and none less under any circumstance. Our administrative machinery is slow, tedious, and feudal in its operation, probably still based on what they called the Tottenham Manual, creation of a British administrator five decades ago.
One other reason for a young man’s final retreat from India could also be attributed to the lack of openings for his particular qualification. A young engineer trained in robotics had to spend all his hours explaining what it means, to his prospective sponsors, until he realized that there could be no place for robots in an over-crowded country.
The Indian in America is a rather lonely being, having lost his roots in one place and not grown them in the other. Few Indians in America make any attempt to integrate in American cultural or social life. So few visit an American home or a theater or an opera, or try to understand the American psyche. An Indian’s contact with the American is confined to his colleagues working along with him and to an official or seminar luncheon. He may also mutter a “Hi!” across the fence to an American neighbor while lawn-mowing. At other times one never sees the other except by appointment, each family being boxed up in their homes securely behind locked doors.
After he has equipped his new home with the latest dish-washer, video, etc., with two cars in the garage and acquired all that the others have, he sits back with his family counting his blessings. Outwardly happy, but secretly gnawed by some vague discontent and aware of some inner turbulence or vacuum, he cannot define which. All the comfort is physically satisfying, he has immense “job satisfaction” and that is about all.
On a week-end he drives his family fifty miles or more towards another Indian family to eat an Indian dinner, discuss Indian politics, or tax problems (for doctors particularly this is a constant topic of conversation, being in the highest income bracket). There is monotony in this pattern of life. so mechanical and standardized.
In this individual, India has lost an intellectual or an expert; but it must not be forgotten that the expert has lost India too, which is a more serious loss in the final reckoning.
The quality of life in India is different. In spite of all its deficiencies, irritations, lack of material comforts and amenities, and general confusion, Indian life builds up an inner strength. It is through subtle inexplicable influences (through religion, family ties, and human relationships in general). Let us call them psychological “inputs” to use a modern terminology, which cumulatively sustain and lend variety and richness to existence. Building imposing Indian temples in America, installing our gods therein and importing Indian priests to perform the puja and festivals, are only imitative of Indian existence and could have only a limited value. Social and religious assemblies at the temples (in America) might mitigate boredom but only temporarily. I have lived as a guest for extended periods in many Indian homes in America and have noticed the ennui that descends on a family when they are stuck at home.
Children growing up in America present a special problem. They have to develop themselves on a shallow foundation without a cultural basis, either Indian or American. Such children are ignorant of India and without the gentleness and courtesy and respect for parents, which forms the basic training for a child in an Indian home, unlike the American upbringing whereby a child is left alone to discover for himself the right code of conduct. Aware of his child’s ignorance of Indian life, the Indian parent tries to cram into the child’s little head all possible information during an ‘Excursion Fare’ trip to the mother country.
In the final analysis America and India differ basically, though it would be wonderful if they could complement each other’s values. Indian philosophy lays stress on austerity and unencumbered, uncomplicated day-to-day living. On the other hand, America’s emphasis is on material acquisitions and a limitless pursuit of prosperity. From childhood an Indian is brought up on the notion that austerity and a contended life is good. and also a certain other- worldliness is inculcated through the tales a grandmother narrates, the discourses at the temple hall, and through moral books. The American temperament, on the contrary, is pragmatic.
The American has a robust indifference to eternity. “Visit the church on a Sunday and listen to the sermon if you like but don’t bother about the future,” he seems to say. Also, “dead yesterday and unborn tomorrow, why fret about them if today be sweet?” – he seems to echo Omar Khayyam’s philosophy. He works hard and earnestly, and acquires wealth, and enjoys life. He has no time to worry about the after-life; he only takes the precaution to draw up a proper will and trusts the Funeral Home around the corner to take care of the rest. The Indian who is not able to live on this basis wholeheartedly, finds himself in a half-way house; he is unable to overcome the inherited complexes while physically flourishing on the American soil. One may hope that the next generation of Indians (American-grown) will do better by accepting the American climate spontaneously or in the alternative return to India to live a different life.