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Indian abroad: At home in the world

Sunday 9 January 2005, by SEKHAR*Vaishnavi C.

MUMBAI: "The question is," asks 18-year-old Priyesh Utchanah,"are you an Indian if you don’t know the language?"

Utchanah is a fourth-generation Indian who speaks French and Creole but barely grasps Bollywood movie dialogue. He certainly would not have understood Jagdish Tytler, minister of overseas Indian affairs, who broke into Hindi while addressing a meeting of people of Indian origin, remarking in an aside, "All of you speak Hindi, of course."

It’s just one example of the way in which the Indian government’s rhetoric on the "global Indian family" brushes over not just the linguistic and cultural complexity of the Indian diaspora, but the ambiguous nature of identities in a globalising world. Most non-resident Indians (NRI) and people of Indian origin (PIO) are here to reap the economic and social advantages of a family reunion, but while some emphasise their Indian identity, others are quite content to be at home in the world.

Monty Bedi, Toronto-based investment banker, left India 25 years ago for the greener pastures of North America. "I don’t see myself as an Indian, but since this is where I grew up, there is an affinity," he says. Bedi comes to India every other year for business and sometimes brings his two children along, but is also careful to take them to Europe so that they can "pick and choose from different worlds". He already has dual citizenship - Canada and USA - but would not mind one more. "In fact, there should be a passport for citizens of the world, so they can work and live anywhere."

The third Pravasi Bharatiya Divas is full of such happy hybrids, be they Indian-American, Franco-Indian or Indo-Trinidadian. "My identity reflects my life in England. As I keep saying, I am a Liberal Democrat who happens to be Indian not an Indian Liberal Democrat," says Lord Navneet Dholakia.

Such dualities and the more advanced levels of migrant assimilation in some countries - in Trinidad, a new music form chutney has emerged from the mutli-culti melting pot - have led some experts like demographic change consultant Adjiedj Bakas to believe that the future belongs not to countries but to groups with multiple loyalties spread across the world.

Still, an ancestral or primary identity is seductive to most people, points out Basdeo Panday, the former prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago. "We need to know we are part of a family, a culture and race - preferably a great race - even if we have to create a fiction to feel that way," says Panday, whose great grandparents came from India.

Laying claim to an ancestral Indian identity serves many purposes. In the case of second generation NRIs like Poonam Hooch, it’s a way of feeling "unique in America" and "explaining many things about myself". For Utchanah, it was a sister’s untimely death that made him relook at an Indian religious heritage he had previously rejected, especially Hindu philosophies of reincarnation.

For communities descended from the indentured labour force sent to Mauritius and West Indian countries by various colonial powers, tracing their roots to an ancient civilisation can be an assertion against colonial history. "You have to create a new history through genealogy, where you can recreate your own image," says Mohan Gautam, chairman of the International Commission on Museum and Cultural Heritage, at a meeting on how to create an online database to help PIOs trace their ancestry more easily. Pandey adds that assimilation may have been faster in the West Indies if the African government had not been so racist.

Interestingly, India’s image makeover from under-developed, over-populated country to potential economic and political superpower seems to have boosted the confidence of Indians abroad. Many people at the conference said they were proud that India refused aid for tsunami relief. "It shows it is a strong nation, that it no longer has to go out with a begging bowl," says Anand Mulloo of Mauritius. "We take great pride in nuclear India. Indian culture should reconquer the world."

Tytler’s rhetoric on the great Indian genes - he just stops short of saying that Indians will eventually rule the world - clearly has some takers. But even the moderates say that the change in the perception of India - from snake-charmers to Bangalore, Bollywood and biryani - has certainly changed the way Indians abroad relate to the country. "People are no longer ashamed to eat Indian food, dress Indian, do things Indian, and that’s important," says Panday.

And so eventually perhaps, Brahmins in Boston will no longer feel impelled to thrust their daughters into Bharatnatyam classes. Bedi has a six-year-old daughter but no intention of making her learn classical Indian dance or music. "Shiamak Davar is opening soon in Toronto," he says.

See online : Times of India

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