Indian Life in America - R. K. Narayan

unknown at unknown at
Wed Dec 13 21:31:40 UTC 1995

                       MY AMERICA
 Author: R.K. Narayan
 Source: October 1985 issue of Frontline

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

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


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


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.



More information about the INDOLOGY mailing list