Brain gain, being brown

A Malayali Southasian’s thoughts on going away and returning home.

Flying east-bound 9000 metres above Germany, I was flipping through a newspaper in the cramped cabin of a transcontinental airliner. There, I found an article on the new trend of 'brain gain', linked to India's Westernised émigrés return home. I was interested: I was on my way to New Delhi to take up studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University, having spent the past 18 years, since my childhood, in the United States.

Not so long ago, I had been to my birthplace in Kerala, and the first thing I noticed upon arrival in Delhi was that north India smelled a lot different than south India. I confirmed this sensation soon after, when I travelled to Madras. There, I experienced a slew of Tamil aromas that were close cousins of those smells with which I grew up in Kerala, but were quite different from those in New Delhi.

In the United States, I was always asked about spicy food, Hindi films and the Taj Mahal. Here in New Delhi, I was confronted with challenges as to why I could not speak Hindi, and why I would choose to return to India when everyone 'here' is trying to get 'there'. While I thought I had anticipated India's surprises, I was caught off-guard by some of the things that I found. There were fewer English speakers than I had expected to find on the street, but the number of people for whom English was a primary language (the one in which a person thinks and dreams) greatly exceeded what I had anticipated. The rich were also somewhat richer and the poor were much poorer than I had expected. But the rumours of the heat of the Indian pre-monsoon summer had not been exaggerated in the least.

A good part of my first week on the JNU campus was spent engaged in a favourite Indian past-time – waiting in line at one window or counter after another. Even though my passport declared 'United States', I felt that my brown skin gave me a birthright to complain. The first in-depth conversation that I had with my hostel-mates was emphatically and unapologetically about sex. Asked about the sexual pursuits of Indian men abroad, I shrugged and took a draught from my Kingfisher, hoping in vain to pass on to the next topic. My new friends were shocked that we were not at the top of the sexual food chain – did they (the Americans) not realise that we were from the land of the Kamasutra? They were perplexed, though I would wager that they were going by reputation, rather than having actually read (and practiced from) Vatsyayana's treatise. When Indians themselves/ourselves internalise the exotic, one can hardly blame the foreigners who come seeking the same: bright bazaars and camel festivals in Rajasthan, ayurveda in Keralan backwaters, or the expressive temples of Madhya Pradesh.

In any case, we need to re-evaluate our conceptions of exoticism and diversity, as well as our perceptions of other people. Judgment works both ways and it is safe to say that a good part of the postcolonial world has its own distorted view of Occidentalism. Southasians of Southasia might be surprised to know that the diaspora in fact has a much more developed sense of regional identity than do the citizens of the various nation states back home. Although this is less to our credit than a result of our weak demographic clout in the States, this dynamic proves helpful in erasing the ill-conceived boundaries that have ripped apart communities back in the mother region. Two families from Calcutta and Dhaka can get along in a way in which I, as a Malayali, can take part. Political boundaries fade and the more organic, age-old cultural communities emerge all of a sudden, as though they have been bottled up by decades of nation-building.

Growing up brown in New York, I found many opportunities to bond with others who thought like me – groups such as the South Asian Journalist Association (well known by its acronym SAJA) or the Indian Cultural Society of the Bronx High School of Science. The latter was interestingly made up mostly of non-Indians. Or non-Southasians. While at college, I was easily a part of both the Asian student associations, as well as the Southasian history classes. I also remember getting into a grade-school fight with a Bangladeshi classmate. When his mother confronted me the next day, she informed me that "such behaviour is not appropriate for brothers. We are the same." Even today, the memory of that confrontation is refreshing.

Desi dilemma

If that newspaper report is to be believed – and I find it believable – then it seems that some of these long-departed brothers and sisters are returning home. It is said that Southasians, more than any other immigrant community in America, desire one day to return to their homeland. Although most will make it back to 'till the soil' of their romantic notions, their longing is indicative of the Southasian's extensive connections with the ancestral earth. There is a deeper disassociation from the host society, as well as an enduring hope for the future.

But we must keep in mind that in the midst of this 'brain gain', the Western conception of India, at least, is also changing. That image is no longer only of cows and malnourished children; nowadays, one term describes it all – IT. The accuracy and significance of this image can be endlessly debated, but perceptions are what drive people. In the Western eye today, office parks are rapidly replacing the Subcontinent's slums. But instead of exulting in this change of imagery, my own suggestion would simply be not to feel insulted the next time you see a tourist taking a picture of a beggar child. As the divide between the urban rich and the urban/rural poor develops into a chasm, let's use that photographic event as an opportunity to remind ourselves of the 'real India' that is still out there. Lest, in our urban-centric or diasporic cocoons, we forget.

I have come to realise over the past year that there is a civilisational dilemma at hand. At one extreme, there are so many young and talented individuals that are seeking their first tickets to the US, in pursuit of material security and respite from the fatalism that they think afflicts their homeland. On the other hand, I notice so many here who have no interest whatsoever in visiting the West, much less settling down over there. Instead, they are completely satisfied with – and determined to improve – their present lives and environment. I also find so many Southasians wavering between these two extremes – but each time I share my own story of return with someone new, it feels as though that fatalism recedes just a bit.

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Himal Southasian