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Amit Shankar Saha

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NRI Writers' Depiction of NRI Characters in Fiction
by Amit Shankar Saha   
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Last edited: Saturday, April 11, 2009
Posted: Saturday, January 26, 2008

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Alas for the egg if a stone falls on it,
Alas for the egg if it falls on the stone.
A proverb.

An NRI (non-resident Indian) is that egg above - figuratively speaking. To explain the metaphor, let us take an example. Anita Desai, who has for long been a global citizen, depicts in her novel, Fasting, Feasting, the NRI, Arun, who has just arrived in the US of A from India. Arun lives with the family of his American host and, despite being provided with plenty, finds it difficult to adapt. At first, he can stomach neither the food overflowing from his hosts’ refrigerator nor their lifestyle. In the end however, we find him discarding from his bag some of the contents brought from India. It is an indication that he is making room for the new. He has learnt to adapt. The novel ends. But what after the adaptation?

Here we could consider a short story, Winterscape, by the same author. Here the NRI, Rakesh "had transformed himself into… a Canadian." So much so, that when his aunt and mother visit him and cook for him "the foods of his childhood," he longs for his favourite pasta. Therein lies the NRI’s dilemma. Alas for the egg…

While depicting NRIs in fiction, NRI writers are preoccupied with themes of rootlessness and displacement. This displacement is not merely a change of address but is also socio-cultural. What gives poignancy to this depiction is that the world today is a global village afflicted with the problems of immigrants, refugees and exiles. That is precisely why such works have a global readership and an enduring appeal.

In more than fifty years since Independence, two classes of writers have emerged from the diaspora. One class comprises those non-resident Indians who have spent a part of their life in India and have carried the baggage of their native land offshore. The other class consists of those who have been bred since childhood outside India. They have had a view of their country only from the outside - as an exotic place of their origin. The former group of NRIs has a literal displacement whereas the latter group find themselves rootless.

Arun and Rakesh belong to the former group and their predicament is well explained in the words of another NRI character, the narrator of Salman Rushdie’s short story, The Courter, "I… have ropes around my neck, … pulling me this way and that, East and West, the nooses tightening, commanding, "Choose, choose.""

A fine example of the latter group of NRIs is Ila, from Amitav Ghosh’s novel, The Shadow Lines. Ila’s father being a roaming diplomat, her upbringing has been totally on foreign soils. She finds herself as much out of place in India as any foreigner. Amitav Ghosh acknowledges as much when he says through the narrator that Ila ‘… has seen much but experienced nothing.’ What is important to note here is that today’s world is more accomodating. The bigger issues like religious intolerance and racial discrimination are no longer the daily concern of an NRI. The world has changed and now what matters are the small things. They confront the NRIs like everyday chores. They keep reminding them of their rootlessness.

Even the English language, which is unifying, has its peculiarities as the narrator of The Courter finds out; his English schoolmates giggle when he uses ‘brought-up’ for ‘upbringing’, ‘thrice’ for ‘three-times’, ‘quarter-plate’ for ‘side-plate’ and ‘macaroni’ for ‘pasta’. Fortunately, he learns the difference between ‘nipples’ and ‘teats’ from his father’s mistake before using the words.

NRIs learn and adjust but a sense of belonging can never arise in a person by making adjustments. NRI writers have explored this angst in their fiction either through their own sense of alienation or through their empathetic observation of the lives of others. What becomes apparent in their exploration is that little things matter much.

Jhumpa Lahiri’s short story, Mrs. Sen’s is a typical example. Mrs. Sen is the wife of a professor in Boston; hence, she is not exactly a cultural pariah. She spends her time cooking elaborate meals with vegetables and fish. Yet a sense of loneliness gnaws at her being. So she decides to baby-sit eleven-year-old Eliot. But she has to baby-sit the boy at her own home because she does not know how to drive. She practices with her husband but is always afraid to drive on the road.

Once, on learningthat some fresh halibuts (variety of fish) have arrived on the boats, her desire to get a whole fish to cook overcomes her dread of driving. She drives - only to meet with an accident. The crux of this story is that if Mrs. Sen were in Bengal, her inability to drive would not have been a hindrance for her. But since she is in Boston, it becomes her handicap. Her handicaps are the real cause of her loneliness.

Thus we see, through an NRI writer’s work, how little things gain enormous proportions for the NRI. Small problems stoke the embers of ‘non-belonging’ in the NRI mind to keep it burning.

In another Jhumpa Lahiri story called The Third and Final Continent , we see how the NRI father brings his son home from Harvard University every weekend "so that he can eat rice with us with his hands, and speak Bengali." When the NRI father says towards the end of the story, "I have remained in this new world for nearly thirty years," we are not surprised. What has been his home for thirty years is still a "new world" for him.

It is best to summarize this essay in the words of the NRI character who says, "Still, there are times I am bewildered by each mile I have traveled, each meal I have eaten, each person I have known, each room in which I have slept. As ordinary as it all appears, there are times when it is beyond my imagination."

Truly, no imagination can grasp bewilderment.


Works referred: -

* By Anita Desai (b. 1937): The novel, Fasting, Feasting (1999) and the short story Winterscape from the book Diamond Dust (2000).
* By Salman Rushdie (b. 1947): The short story, The Courter from the book, East, West (1994).
* By Amitav Ghosh (b. 1956): The novel, The Shadow Lines (1988).
* By Jhumpa Lahiri (b. 1967): The short stories, Mrs. Sen’s and The Third and Final Continent from the book Interpreter of Maladies (1999).

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