Managing Editor’s Note: In this compelling essay, Shilpi Suneja explores the dilemma many first-generation Indian migrants face after moving to the United States: whether to stay in this new country, where opportunities might be more easily found, or to return to India, the place of their birth. The burden of leaving India is both societal and personal. As Suneja writes, “this choice often becomes the hardest moral dilemma upon which not only our lives but the lives of whom we marry, love, and birth depend.”
by Shilpi Suneja
Two days after Srinivas Kuchibhotlas was shot dead at a bar in Kansas, his wife Sunayana Dumala spoke at a press conference about her concern for staying on in America. “I often asked my husband,” she revealed, her voice breaking, “are we doing the right thing (by) staying.” Sunayana’s fears hint at the awkward moral burden immigrants from the Indian subcontinent place upon themselves.
For many of us first generation migrants who can remember our arrival into America, we have a choice—or at least, we feel that we do—of either staying on in America or returning to India. This choice often becomes the hardest moral dilemma upon which not only our lives but the lives of whom we marry, love, and birth depend.
The act of leaving India remains one of Hinduism’s oldest taboos. Traversing the black waters lead to the loss of one’s caste status as well as an end of the cycle of reincarnation, because, leaving India meant coming into touch with non-Indians, or those without caste, and going far out of reach from the life-giving waters of the holy Ganges. But when the British came to India and brought great economic and social upheaval, they sent three and a half million indentured laborers to the Caribbean. This forced crossing of oceans, albeit with large cauldrons of Ganges water to alleviate concerns about the loss of rebirth, was perhaps the first time in modern history when caste-Indians defied Hinduism’s oldest taboos in such vast numbers.
Overtime crossing the black waters to visit Canada, America, and Europe was downgraded in popular culture from a taboo to simply an act with terrible moral implications. Still, India remained darmabhoomi and karmabhoomi — the place of dharma or morality and the place where you perform your earthly karma or deeds.
Those of us who leave India are seen as morally suspect. We stay on in economically well-off nations, ungratefully forgetting the birthing pains our mother country bears to educate and nurture us. We are a drain to the resources of an already under-resourced fledgeling nation. Our immorality and ungraciousness has long been eulogized by Bollywood.
However, in the 90s and well into the 2000s—right around the time India chose to open its economy to foreign investment—Hindi movies began to offer the immoral but rich NRIs (non-resident Indians) an olive branch, a chance to return home. In films such as Aa Ab Laut Chalen (Come, Let’s Return Home) and Pardes (Foreign Land) women named Ganga (Ganges) and Pooja (Worship) lead heroes searching for jobs and better lives in America back to India. The best of these, the movie Swades: We, the People portrayed Shahrukh Khan as a NASA scientist who lands in a north-Indian village looking for his long-lost nanny. While there, prompted by his own material discomforts, and moved by the poverty of the villagers, he builds a hydro-electric dam to bring electricity to the poor households. The beautiful and sharp-tongued Gita, a local school teacher convinces him that the village is where his engineering skills are most needed, where he truly belongs, not the gilded vaults of NASA. Swades was inspired by the real-life story of Ravi Kuchimanchi, founder of the Association for India’s Development (AID), a volunteer-based organization with chapters in universities all over the US. Since 1991 AID has helped alleviate the guilt many NRIs face of leaving India by helping them to channel their resources to various social causes such as education, clean energy, water, and women’s empowerment.
Swades marked the last of these movies that offered a narrative of return. Since the late 2000s, Bollywood has stopped talking about NRIs. India’s cultural narrative has shifted vastly, as have the economic conditions of middle-class Indians. For one, more and more Indians are sending their children to America for higher education, including bachelors degrees. This is a new phenomenon. Until now Indian families could only afford to send their children for the already-funded ph.d.s or the partly-funded masters, both with promises of quick returns. Over the last decade the number of Indian students coming to the US has remained around 100,00 (plus or minus a few thousand). As more and more Indians come to America, coming here is no longer the same taboo. Nor is staying on.
The choice to return and to return with ease now belongs to the new monied class, to Indians who have so much money they can afford to have homes in both places. These are the Ambanis, the Tatas, the Birlas, the sons and daughters of business executives, politicians, and diplomats. The rewards awaiting them upon return are plenty: parents who find them careers at high places and in the fullness of time, suitable spouses; homes with servants; chauffeur-driven cars; valet-parking. Bollywood has its hands full celebrating these kids, because, let’s face it, unprecedented wealth and travel is, after all, a cause célèbre.
Choosing to stay on in America, to put down roots, is now an old-fashioned thing to do. Those who stay on belong to the class and the generation of Indians whom the movies took to task in the 90s. It is with these Indians that the moral dilemma of choosing to stay or to return still lies.
For many of these Indians, America has come to bear the moral valence that India once bore. For my uncles who came here in the 70s and 80s to study medicine saving American lives and serving underprivileged Americans is just as much a righteous act as saving the lives of underprivileged children in an Indian village. America has become their karambhoomi, the place to perform their earthly deeds. Srinivas Kuchibhotlas, and his wife Sunayana also belong to this category. Even if they have money in the US, their money cannot buy much social capital in India, not after having spent a decade in America. What do they have in India, you might well ask. For my uncles who are now in their sixties, I can tell you, nothing much. India is more a fantastical place they love to tell their children about, than a reality they might face. In Kanpur, where they were born, they know no one. Old friends have moved, neighborhoods have perished, and the cricket and swim clubs they once so enthusiastically captained, have long lost their accreditation.
Still, culturally speaking, the divide between “here” and “there” is shrinking, if only because of the proliferation of social media. Countless Indian teenagers feel just as comfortable downward dogging at a local Y as they do sun saluting at Lodhi gardens, or sipping martinis at the Bombay Gymkhana as they do sipping same at a bar in—well—New York. American culture—shopping malls, American brands, the Kardashians and the Beyonces—are spreading so fast, I hear that kids in Bombay are calling each others n*ggaz. Our histories as our cultures are inching so close, at times the particularities are being forgotten, mangled, misunderstood.
Still, a vast majority of us Indians in America, like Kuchibhotla and Dumala, cannot transition this easily between the two countries. Many of us do not have access to the exclusive clubs in Delhi or Bombay, memberships to which are strictly hereditary. Staying on in America for us is a political and ideological decision. Staying here means that ideologically we identify with America, believing in its promise of an egalitarian society, where the child of a janitor or a housekeeper (such as myself) can successfully vie for a college degree. Those of us who return to India, return to a society where fighting for egalitarianism is a daily battle. We are brave no matter what we choose. Surviving material, systemic and social discomforts in India is as much a battle as is surviving American racism and alienation.
I wish I could tell Sunayana that staying on was for her husband just as much of a battle, the “right” moral decision, as it would have been if they had chosen instead, to return.
Shilpi Suneja was born in India. She holds an MA in English from New York University and an MFA from Boston University, where she was awarded the Saul Bellow Prize. Her work has appeared in Hyphen, Consequence, Kafila