Breaking the glass ceiling
They represent the best of the Indian heritage in the most modern, competitive world. They do India proud. The list of the 15 Non-Resident Indians whose contribution and eminence in their adopted countries has been recognised with the award of the Pravasi Bhartiya Samman patra to be given at the third Pravasi Bhartiya Divas in Mumbai shows how well the NRIs have adjusted in alien societies and how respected they are in the countries of their choice. Be it politics, humanities, literature or sports, Indians have broken the glass ceiling to reach the top.
Lord Bikhu Parekh and Vikram Seth chosen from Britain are in two different fields, the former in politics and the latter in literature. But both symbolise the level of excellence many Indians like them have achieved. And they have achieved it without compromising their heritage or beliefs. Or decrying everything about India as some Indian-origin people are, unfortunately, wont to do.
Lord Parekh, who has risen to be one of the most respected Peer and academics, has always taken deep interest in the Asian community and is an authority on British Asian families and community relations. He was the first to defend and define the Indian culture in right perspective when the media here attacked the Indian business practices and the customs generally during the Peter Mandelson and Hinduja passport row. Yet he has never hesitated to adopt what is the best in the British culture or praise its good points and virtues.
Vikram Seth has won accolades for writing poems and novels in English. But whenever I met him, the conversation was in Hindi and he spoke it so well, recalling his young days in Patna and relating anecdotes in chaste Hindustani. He never pretended as if he had to labour to speak in Hindi to me, like a lot of young people here do.
The other day at Selfridges a young Indian lady had to just go on speaking in English to her husband, an Indian too and even shorten his name to make it an English name. The men at tills were least impressed. Possibly she was speaking in English to impress us, who do look like the real imports from India.
One has to hear how the names of Indian leaders or prominent personalities are pronounced on Asian radio networks. Atal Bihari used to be Ataal Bihari, and Mahatma Gandhi, Mahattama Gandi. It is hilarious to hear some newscasters pronounce titles of Bollywood films. At least on BBC or even CNN they always ask if they are pronouncing Hindi names properly. But then everybody cannot be a Lord Parekh or Vikram Seth.
What does NRI stand for?
I recall once Lord Parekh telling me that the perception behind the word NRI was wrong. Indians, he pointed out, have been travelling to other countries for ages. Wherever they may live, they are sort of an extension of India. Come to think of it, there is logic in his description of the people of Indian origin.
But what perplexes me as to why many people I met back home say, and seriously, that NRI should stand for Non-Required Indian. This is rather strange considering that almost every middle class family in India has some or other of its members and friends abroad. Is it then plain jealousy, or has the behaviour and conduct of some NRIs upset the Indians at home?
I recall one Indian Finance Minister who later became Foreign Minister, while enumerating the benefits on investments in India to a large number of prominent NRIs in London, he remarked that when they come to India they should behave and expect like sons and not like sons-in-law. Possibly the minister, albeit inadvertently, spelt out the feeling behind the elaboration of NRI as Non-Required Indian by some in India.