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Why India adores its ‘returnees’ and the logic of its love for ‘Amrika’

We believe that a western stint is a necessary appendage to higher accomplishment.

We are a self-criticial nation and see ourselves as survivors in a chaotic society with neither order nor governance nor intellectual heft. And hence, we foster this constant longing for Western thought and accomplishment as was seen in our incredible interest and live coverage of the recent US elections (though few understand the processes).

This fondness can in fact, be seen everywhere, especially in our urban architecture and our naming of our gated communes, like "Belvedere Apartments".

Of late it has also been seen in some senior government appointments, especially that of the Chief Economic Adviser, the senior-most post not occupied by IAS wallahs.

Students at a graduation ceremony in the US. Reuters.

As a rule we don’t hire foreigners in government service, as we are extremely insecure and xeonophobic and also because the IAS clan will not allow any questioning of their ways. So we look toward to the ‘returnees’ (A created word to match the favourite double ‘e’ ending favoured by bureaucracy) to give us that pound of wisdom which we are convinced that we so lack.

So when Raghuram Rajan was appointed Chief Economic Adviser replacing Kaushik Bose, (yet another economist with exposure to the American campus) it showed how much we value US experience. Both Basu and Rajan are accomplished economists no doubt, but would Basu if he had continued teaching in Delhi and not gone to Cornell, become the Chief Economic Adviser?

This admiration for ‘returnees' has a history, partly because of what his western tenure did to Gandhi. That sort of total transformation of an average human being into someone with extraordinary powers is what transfixes us to the West even today.

So in any job an Indian who has had even a six-month course in a Western university is accorded a halo difficult to attain with an Indian degree.

We look forward to the ‘returnees' to come and show us a way out of our perceived mediocrity. When an Indian writer or an Indian painter too returns he is accorded much media space and is approached to write books about his “experience”.

When the great painter SH Raza, 89, returned to India last year after 60 years in Paris, there was general jubilation because he has now been reclaimed and repossessed. After all “India inspired him when he was abroad and its influence is evident on every canvas,” the Times of India joyously reported, reflecting the general euphoria while welcoming a ‘returnee.

Raza, mired in nostalgia and still living through the guilt of having deserted his homeland, painted a canvas with the words: “ Mother! What shall I fetch you when I come back home.”

This notion of an emigrant actually being a prodigal son who has to be reclaimed or whose return has to be celebrated is a narrative we can see everywhere.

Last year Lalit Kala Akademi organized an exhibition aptly titled ‘Punaragman’, soon after Raza’s return to India as if to reclaim and reinstate the prodigal son in a hurry onto the national consciousness, lest France (where he created his biggest works) laid claim to him.

In our writing too we look fawningly at those who went abroad as people who have been enlightened by their encounters with the Western discourse. Almost all of India’s top “ranking” English language writers (though not top selling), live and write from the US or England. This only embellishes our love for the West.

Those who cannot do that ,go at least for a quick course at the Ohio Creative Workshop so that on their return they can be claimants to some higher creative faculty which they would not have possessed have they remained in this culturally and intellectually deficient country, with nay a smattering of modern literary sensibility. The high ranking that we give both these categories here is also part of our effort to reclaim them as our own, just in case they get a Booker!

One lucky Indian who has had this enlightening encounter with the West is also credited with the faculty of telling us how to run our own country. Hence the near mythical status given to a common work of reportage, Maximum City by the New York based Suketu Mehta and various other works by expats.

Bereft of the honorofic of having worked in New York similar reportage by Indian writers never attain the status of Mehta’s book.

Since India has done well over the last decade, these days we invite such returnees to look at the changing India and give us good marks. We don’t mind their condescension.

Of this nature is the new book by Akash Kapur called India Becoming: A Journey through a changing Landscape (Penguin). A reporter of The Hindu betrays the clawing fascination for this “returnee ’ who like Raza “packed his bags” and returned for good in 2003.

In the Hindu interview Kapur plays up to the prodigal son role: “ I grew up here. This was home and I always wanted to come back. The opportunities there didn’t make up for the sense of alienation.”

He then proceeds to offer a caveat: “But here the opportunities come with tons of pitfalls and that’s what I am trying to get at in this book.” In other words Kapur has already assumed the high pedestal of being a “returnee” and can therefore tell us how to run the country and point out our flaws.

Similarly if a non resident Indian decides to travel across by Indian in trains. It immediately finds a publisher. (See London based journalist Monisha Rajesh’s Around India in 80 trains, for example) but an Indian who travels in a train all the time is not accorded the honour of writing about it. In other words his experience is not worth recounting because he is untouched by the enlightening experience of having studied or lived in the West. If he had been there, he would have learnt to “see”.

A stay in the West alone teaches us to “see”, something not possible in an area of darkness which we inhabit.

It would seem that it is out of Naipaul’s writings that we learnt to marvel at the West in such a fashion and subconsciously deride our own. It also comes out of our understanding that Gandhi’s encounter with the West was the sole reason for his transformation from one who was quite ordinary before he crossed the seas.

Sanjay Subrahmanyam, also an academic settled in the West, in a 2007 essay In London Review of Books says this of Naipaul: “It would appear that for Naipaul there is only one way to be modern and that is to be Western. All other societies have failed in this respect and therefore can only look: they cannot see.”

Naipaul himself is an example of how it is useful to escape so called medieval societies (Trinidad in his case ) and then grow enough to produce a critique of it, like others too have done of India.

All this reinforces a certain Naipaulean sterotype . While Western intellectual might cannot be questioned, it creates unnecessary convulsions in national debate like in the recent case of a Time magazine article running down the Manmohan Singh tenure and the government went into a tizzy for no reason. Any Indian magazine article against Manmohan Singh is swatted away as insignificant.

Though the Indian immigrant initially tries all he can to get a passage to the West of Harvard, Columbia and Oxford and thus assume an identity that surpasses that of merely an educated Indian, his ultimate fantasy is to return home. But before that one has to get there.

In Salman Rusdhie’s Satanic Verses this theme is tackled in detail. Fibreel Farishta and Saladin Chamcha crash land on the shores of England. This is actually still a great Indian fantasy: to somehow land on the shores of the mighty West Chamcha “fulfils the common immigrant fantasy of returning home’ reconciling with his father and his society of origin according to critic Alaa Alghamdi.

This fantasy of crash landing into advanced societies (and maybe ultimately returning home embellished with a hybrid persona) has been tackled much earlier too.

Subrahmanyam recounts a Telugu short story Haha Huhu written by Telugu writer Vishwanatha Satyanarayana in the 1930s in which a Gandharva, a flying half –man half-horse crash lands in Trafalgar Square. This man’s encounter with English society as he lives captive in his cage is an occasion for a rumination on cultural clashes and identity.

But this Indian half-man finally flies away calling out to his English captors that he’d never seen a more childish race.

Since then we have changed our views. We may still think they, ‘the West” are a childish race but we sure do value the education they impart to our elite to make them well-rounded personalities capable of advising us on how to run the country or better still run the country themselves.

And indeed write books which we will cherish for ever.

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