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The NRI double standard: Daughters, go home!

by Kamala Thiagarajan

In the August of 1976, Shankar* moved to Seattle, USA — his wife and infant daughter arrived from his hometown in Tamil Nadu two years later. A graduate in advertising with an MBA in marketing from an American university, Shankar was proud to have been selected to stay on in a permanent capacity in an American company. It was a milestone that he had to work day and night to achieve.

“I had finally arrived,” he says of finally getting his Green Card.

Little did he know that in less than a decade, he would return to his motherland, this time of his own free will. It wasn’t family responsibilities or businesses interests in India that drew Shankar back home after so many years abroad. Quite simply, his little girl had grown up. "It just struck me one day when she refused to change out of her jeans for an Indian party we were going to. I also noticed that she never spoke to me in Tamil, even though she understood it perfectly. She was 11 years old then and I didn’t want her to grow up without any sense of her roots. I thought it was worth moving back, just to show her the kind of life and upbringing I’d experienced.”

Representational image. What goes on in the psyche of the young girl who is told that she cannot remain with her parents in the country that they live in, because it goes against their strict moral code? Reuters

Fast forward to 2012. Rajeswari* 33, recently moved back to Hyderabad after a six-year stint in the US because her husband had insisted that it was the right thing to do. Uncomfortable with their daughter growing up in the States, the couple had made arrangements for the seven-year-old to live with grandparents who doted on her. “We sent her to India first because we were both working and didn’t want her to be unduly influenced by the American culture,” she says. But when her daughter constantly cried for her and felt severely homesick, her parents urged them to either take her back or join her in India. “They felt that she needed us at this age and it wasn’t right for us to send her away. And we missed her far too much. It was a very difficult time for us.” Both Rajeswari and her husband were just months away from getting their green card at the time. It was something they had worked very hard for. “We had planned to buy a house, save some money for our kids’ college education and our retirement. However, every plan collapsed and it all happened so fast. Within a month, we had wrapped up everything and returned. Though it was a spontaneous decision without much planning/thinking involved, we couldn't be happier now and we’re very glad that we made this choice.”

It didn’t help that all their friends felt that the couple was being hasty and making a wrong move. “Only very few people understood us. After all, we had waited for the green card for years and were in the final stages of receiving it... I’ll admit it was a very tough decision, but the bottom line was that we wanted to be with our daughter and we wanted to raise her with good Indian values, so moving to India was the only option we had. My husband and I have no regrets at all about our decision.” Rajeswari admits that there are still no guarantees that her kids would grow up with all Indian values, (especially since India has changed so much and is catching up fast with western trends and lifestyles), but she still feels there is a better chance, now that they’ve done their part.

Ironically, nowhere is the Indian double standard more evident than in the bosom of a small section of seemingly modern, highly educated and sophisticated NRIs. For, deep down inside, many grapple with the fear of change while thrust in the midst of it, of moving away from conventional notions of man and woman's role in marriage and society, and even worse, being unable to relate to their own children who are exposed to values that are so different from their own. But if you really think about it, returning to India with the family or sending daughters back to ‘learn the culture’ would seem quite superfluous today, especially when there are Indians in every American state and when a great deal of that culture has been transported piecemeal to the US. Yet the ‘difficulty’ of bringing up girls here has cost many families their American dream. But this existential-type dilemma isn’t a problem in the case of NRI families with sons.

The question that arises then is: why is imbibing the Indian culture more important for girls than it is for the boys? Perhaps the reason lies in the fact that America is thought to foster a sense of individuality, of fierce independence and lateral thinking, which while great for our boys, can severely hamper a woman’s marriage prospects. Of course, most Indian women (groomed from the cradle to make the best wives) are still expected to strive to attain the virtues of domesticity, obedience and docility, to the point of being self-effacing. If the girl must ‘fit in’ with her husband’s family after marriage, she must learn to be flexible, to adjust without argument — lessons of life that some NRI parents feel just can’t be learnt in America’s hedonistic culture of unabashed gender equality, money, sex, drugs and self-gratification.

“In the US, there is no difference between a daughter and a son. At a certain age, all the kids must fly the coup and face life on their own. But that’s not the case in India, where most girls go from their parental homes to their marital homes and are still expected to abide by a strict code of conduct. You can take people out of India, but you can’t take India out of the people!” says Dr Dheep, psychologist and counsellor.

And perhaps that’s why many of these parents decide to send only the daughters and not the sons back ‘home’. Shalu,* 38, is a computer engineer working in California. Both her daughters aged 8 and 10 live with their maternal grandparents and study in Bangalore. Her 12-year-old son Santosh*, however, lives with her in the US. While initially, her daughters protested vehemently and were very bitter when asked to move to India, they "soon got used to it", she affirms. She sees them every year and is quite content with the arrangement.

What goes on in the psyche of the young girl who is told that she cannot remain with her parents in the country that they live in, because it goes against their strict moral code, but that her brother can do so, simply because he is male? Self-esteem issues, certainly. But even bigger than this is the constant feeling of being repressed and sidelined, of not being considered trustworthy enough and the niggling thought that somehow, the brother is the favoured one. Feelings of resentment over the injustice can fester over years, alienating these women from their peers, parents, even extended family.

The Indian culture is of course a wonderful, age-old code of living. But shouldn't our young women be credited with the wisdom to embrace these values of their own accord, no matter where they live? And shouldn’t this moral code apply to all of our children? In an ideal situation, irrespective of their geographical status, our kids would learn by the examples we set.

NRIs who feel compelled to send their daughters back to India truly believe that they only have the bigger picture in mind. However, the numerous flaws in the arrangement can hardly be overlooked. Since the move is across continents, for many, only yearly visits are possible. Being brought up by grandparents, (no matter how well-meaning and caring they are), can often lead to issues with discipline and communication. Based on where one's guardians live in India (small towns can often lack good teachers and essential infrastructure), education too, may suffer. And worse, nothing can bring back the precious formative years that are completely lost to the parents. Once the girl becomes a woman and it is time for her to marry, it is safe to assume that her own family responsibilities are bound to keep her away from her parental home. When such visits are seldom enough, shouldn’t there be warm and wonderful memories for her to fall back on?

Kamala Thiagarajan has written for leading magazines and newspaper in over ten countries.