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March 17, 1998


Ashwin Mahesh

The Home Coming

Kadiresan Nadar was born in the early 1930s in Suva, Fiji. His father had left India for the island at the turn of the century, and gone on to be a trader in the then-British colony. Like thousands of other ethnic Indians from Trinidad to Kampala, he was born into a family that clung tenaciously to a culture far removed from the reality of his own nation. Several years later, he met and married Chellamma, also Fijian-born, and also as identifiably Indian as they come.

I first ran into them in K Mart, a little north of here, on yet another browse-and-buy-nothing trip. After a while, it is pretty clear that pretty much everything one wants to buy is already bought, with even the original thought behind such purchases rapidly fading by now. Idling about, I hardly expected the events of the day to take such a turn as they were about to.

The lady smiled pleasantly, and despite myself, I smiled back at her. Most times, I am happy to nod at folks and move along, unlike some significant others around me who jump into conversations before the hat even appears, let alone drops. But the lady seemed harmless, and somehow, just nice. She looked a lot like my grandmother, and no doubt that helped her penetrate my crusty shell.

"India people?"

Whoever said grammar is essential to speech has never heard such succint posers. Yes, I aver politely. India people, indeed.

"Me Nadar, you what caste?"

Boom, this harmless exchange of two-minute niceties has nosedived into a script for a badly-made movie. What kind of question is that, anyway? Carefully working around such banalities, I try to keep the conversation on an even keel. Yet, it is hard to get around her cloistered world, where everything that moves is Naidu, Brahmin, Nadar, Gujarati, Muslim, and above all else, India-people!

Clearly, my carefully guarded sensitivity to caste differences is no part of their world. As if that were not enough, the anachronistic twosome has no means of transport. After two decades of living in the land of the automobile, they apparently remain content to be taken around by friends and children, or to suffer the glorious uncertainties of public transport. Well, public transport in Seattle is pretty good, but try looking a 60-year old woman in the eye and imagining that she'll do just fine on the bus. At least they lived close by, and I might not be delayed too much by dropping them off.

One thing led to another, as it always does, and over a few sumptuous dinners, occasionally giving them rides to the video store to keep track of Shah Rukh Khan and Sharmila Tagore, and Mr Nadar's heart attack thrown in during the time, I've bumped into them a few more times since that day three years ago. I cannot say that I know them well, or that they are friends, but we understand each other, and that seems enough.

I've learned the nuances of their language too -- now, I can tell the Hindu-people from the India-people and the Fiji-people, and I've run across a few castes I'd never heard of. A son who lives 40 miles away visits them every day with his wife. Another is a pilot in the Royal Air Force in Britain. Someone else lives in Puerto Rico and works on a boat. A grand-daughter is excelling at Kathakali or Bharatanatyam or some such art, albeit she is now a Naidu! Some Fijians!

I've decided the Nadars are nice people, they are definitely interesting. Yet, as I consider their life, I cannot help being struck by the weirdness of it all. They are the villagers I've never lived next door to. A magnificently wide-hearted woman devoted to her taciturn husband. The odd gaffes of enthusiasm where she bursts into a conversation with no clue as to its ongoing nature, only to have her husband tell her simply 'hum kuch aur bath kar rahe the' (we were talking about something else). A sheepish grin, the unashamed ignorance of simple folks.

Close-knit families uprooted time and again, trying to stay ahead of events over which they have no control, moving from one place to another. Hanuman and Hampstead. One brother in New Zealand, another in Fiji, each clinging to an India they have never set foot in. I've long since stopped thinking of them as an unlikely family -- only the movie version of their mad-max lives is yet to come.

Which brings me to the next act. After the travails of a lifetime in which they've lived in Fiji, Trinidad, Britain, Australia and the United States, the Nadars are going to India on a three-month long visit. And I find myself in their living room, listening to their travel plans. While the ceaseless wonders of the past mostly left me incredulous, this one still takes the cake.

Imagine a couple of 60-somethings, the quintessential Indian couple reared in deference and parochial stereotypes. Add to this a complete unfamiliarity with the land; neither of them has ever been to India before. Throw in a garbled tongue that passes for Hindi, which is all they speak. This, in Tamil Nadu, where even the natives aren't particularly adept Hindi-speakers. Imagine this couple moving about in India, trying to find hotels to stay in, ask around and find places of worship to visit, buy sarees, whatever. They give new meaning to the phrase -- eaten alive.

Whatever my feelings now, horror was the one I had at first. These folks must be out of their mind. They'd get robbed and mugged in no time at all, and left to fend for themselves by some tout who's happy to rip exactly this sort of couple venturing on a well-planned disaster. I can barely refrain from telling them that they are absolutely clueless -- if they can understand how this upstart twenty-something can even dare voice such an (honest!) opinion.

Slowly, the semblance of sense creeps in. A cousin of an aunt of an uncle, or some other such close relative, lives in Madras. His father himself, Mr Nadar is quick to point out, was born in Madras. BUT THAT WAS IN THE 1800s! ARE YOU OUT OF YOUR ... I remember the leash, and pull back. One month in Madras, "poora gumayenge." I adopt my long-honed Bangalorean dismissiveness -- a month in Madras? Even retired tourists don't go to Madras for a month.

Still, it is comforting to know that there is a face to see them at the airport, a place to stay in for the first few days anyway. What after that? More plans, naturally. And predictably, full of the absent-minded-professor playing Indiana-Jones scences. Trichy, Ahmedabad, Surat, Delhi, Malaysia. More eighteenth aunts, and twenty-second cousins from Tobago. Will 5,000 dollars be enough for the trip? Where can one buy jewelry? Vibha, she of the 40-mile daily commute, wants sarees -- this, when most Vibhas are trying hard to forget the saree!

This is all beyond me -- by now, I'm happy to simply tell them who I know in one place or another, and to urge them to stay in contact with those they are reasonably familiar with. I tell them to carry their money in traveller's checks, not all of it in one place. Watch what you eat on trains, be careful about the water, all the usual stuff. And have fun!

I said that last bit casually enough, but you should have the seen the old man's face. It broke into a broad grin, and he nodded with all the conviction I'll ever need to see. Of course he'd have fun. Looking at his smiling face, I resolved to set aside my cynicism that the trip could go off without a hitch -- and sought instead to share the simple and radiant happiness of this contented couple chasing their dream.

Later this year, I'll pack my bags and leave, marking another turn in my own journey through life. Some weeks ago on India Central, I argued, and some would say vehemently, that educated Indians owe an enormous debt to the country, one we have paid only sparingly. That is true enough and I maintain it, finding in it my own motivation to go home when I'm done with the university. But these past few weeks have opened my eyes to another truth -- one which we Indians who live abroad often seek, but rarely find evocatively displayed.

In the simple ways of an anachronistic and culturally transplanted couple, and in the maddenning murkiness of their travel plans, I have witnessed the unalloyed joy in seeing one's fondest wishes come true. The Nadars are off to the India they have long known and sought in their hearts, even though it has never been a part of their physical lives. The thought of visiting the land of their dreams and gods has created such immense joy in this couple. I haven't fully lost my steely "are-you-mad" look, but a sense of wonderment is beginning to soften the glint.

Hope, they say, springs eternal. The hopes I carry for the India of my dreams just got a powerful boost -- from an unlikely Fijian couple whose India has always existed only in their dreams. Welcome.

P S: For those readers who, in response to an earlier article, wrote to say that I have hidden agendas against Indians abroad, this piece might seem like a flip-flop. But to those of you agreed that the law and proper principle must be upheld, there should be no inconsistency. I maintain that Indian citizens are different from foreigners of Indian origin. Being myself an NRI, I am hardly about to wage war against them!

Nor do I have any prejudice against those of Indian origin living elsewhere. Such people as the Nadars, whose cultural heritage relfects their love for India, are always welcome. Indeed, even those who have no particular affinity for India are weclome, for I certainly hold faith with the laws permiting unrestricted travel. But that does not alter the truth -- citizens of India are different from non-citizens, and equating them results in inevitable improprieties and blatant discrimination in the name of culture. The India that I cherish has no place for that.

Ashwin Mahesh

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