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Updated: December 15, 2013 00:12 IST

The ‘labour’ of love

Saraswathi Narayanan
Comment (23)   ·   print   ·   T  T  

“Do you know how much this dosa costs in terms of Indian rupee? Rs. 504.81 to be exact at today’s rate!” the boastful male voice wafts across the Indian cafeteria in the U.S. I steal a glance at the members of the table from where the voice emanated. It is more or less a mirror image of our own table. A typical Indian family one often comes across in the West. A senior couple like me and my husband — a stiff sari-clad woman and her morose-looking husband, a younger couple, perhaps their daughter and son-in-law (the brag!) or the other likely pair, the son and daughter-in-law and a restless three-year old kid on a high chair.

My focus again shifts to the older couple and I get the picture. They are probably here to fulfil their part in an unwritten pact with their sambandhis back home. Their routine is like the compulsive ritual of migratory birds every year. After their mandatory stay in their son or daughter’s home for six months — visa rules do not permit more than that — they leave and make way for their child’s in-laws to take over the next six months. The idea is to help out with domestic chores and handle other nitty-gritty without a break to enable their progeny to pursue the American dream smoothly.

In the process, they brave all the sniggers and veiled comments from friends and relatives for being treated like glorified cooks, maids, and errand boys. Some of these parents do agree, in their lighter moments, that it is like preparing oneself for a ‘karmic’ backlash for not appreciating enough the cheap human labour handed to us on a platter in India. But others dismiss any such notion with a face-saving one-liner, “For us, it is nothing but a labour of love.”

Ironically, the joint family system, fast disintegrating in our part of the world, seems to have been successfully adopted by the more tradition-bound NRIs even if it is by default. It is a win-win situation for everyone concerned in this arrangement.

Thanks to the shared experiences of these frequent travellers to the West in our midst, even first-timers like us who landed in the U.S. were aware that it could be an exercise in unlearning all our essentially ‘Indian’ middle class practices if we wanted our trip to be meaningful.

As an example, a basic rule that forbids us from spilling water on the bathroom floor as the structure is made of wood can haunt us with a feeling of being ‘incomplete’ and ‘unclean’ all day long. That is because of our involuntary habits of washing ourselves clean and bathing leisurely bang in the middle of the bathroom. Pretty soon we realise that we must overcome our splashy ways for our own good.

While we totter around fumbling with the unfamiliar taps (faucets, please!), comes the next warning. Clothes should not be hung out to dry in the balcony, lest the maintenance supervisor of the premises will come knocking on the door. He will question us on our sense of aesthetics and possibly impose a hefty fine for the lack of it. But if the washing machine does the drying one hundred per cent, won’t the fabric quality suffer? Such a query, however, gets washed away as we are forced to fall in line.

It is only after taking charge of the kitchen do I realise that there is a far more serious condition to contend with here. Cooking at high temperatures, especially deep-frying is a firm ‘no-no’. Even a tiny open flame from a lamp lit in the puja shelf can set off the fire alarm in no time. In such a situation, the fireman here not only responds faster than God, he also goes one step further. He ticks us off for our ‘sins’ of negligence.

The message is clear and pointed — all is well as long as we listen to the voice of America!

The days drag on. The monotony of routine is thankfully broken by many a family outing to malls, temples and tourist spots. Here, one must give it to the NRIs for their honest attempt at recreating the Indian scene wherever they are, especially during festivals. But what the elders miss is the real Indian scene, the company of their friends and relatives, the easy mobility and access to goods, among other things. It can be embarrassing to depend on the younger lot to fetch things as inane as toothpaste or a bar of soap from the supermarket miles away — things that can easily be picked up from a nearby corner store back home. Just when we settle down cosily and begin loving the place, the date of our journey back to India is suddenly upon us. As expected, the return trip now seems like undergoing a course in regression therapy. A tiresome comeback to chaos, confusion, noise and pollution — the contrast all the more striking after the trip abroad.

Once inside the home, however, it is haven unplugged! And the day after our arrival … My husband has promptly left for the nearby temple. The domestic help is in the kitchen doing the dishes. Her assistant is dusting away months of accumulated dirt and grime from the furniture. The ‘ironman’ has come and left with a bagful of clothes to be ironed. Fresh milk, vegetables and provisions have all been delivered on our doorstep without any fuss. As for me, I relax my jet-lagged body against the sofa-cushions with my legs propped up on the centre table, feeling absolutely pampered. Well, the vacation has actually started, right now!

(The writer’s email:

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My grandson born and brought up in California chose to study medicine in
our country which he has just completed. On the price issue he used to
pay Rs.60 rupees for a journey by autorickshaw while he need to pay only
40 rupees if he just crossed over a railway track. It is only one dollar
thaathaa he would say when I suggested we cross the railway track. This
was during his first year. During second year he began crossing the
track as by then he realised the values of the rupee and dollar !

from:  S.Rajagopalan
Posted on: Dec 17, 2013 at 16:26 IST

Wow...that was great to read..and a nice article...superb

from:  Srinivasa Raghavan
Posted on: Dec 17, 2013 at 15:04 IST

Perhaps, we need to adjust to the situation and environs. Wherever we
live in all our phases of life, whether while schooling, or carrying on
a profession, practice, job or on retirement. This is more true when we
live with our children during our twilight days again, (whether such
situation happens to be) in India or any other part of the world.
Understanding, acceptance of the maxim 'change is the only permanent
feature in life' and adaptability to any situation is the essence and
secret of happy life.

from:  nagesh
Posted on: Dec 17, 2013 at 12:00 IST

similar woes and delights as far as Indian NRIs are concerned. We start to miss the simplicity of life in India once we have spent long time away. On the other hand, when we come back to India we suddently don't like it in comparison.
and yes, it's difficult for aged parents to feel Belonged in an alien geography and unknown people however friendly and generous they might be.

from:  R Vipin
Posted on: Dec 17, 2013 at 10:59 IST

Delightful read.. Nicely written...

from:  Rakesh S Sekhar
Posted on: Dec 16, 2013 at 12:18 IST

Very Nice Article.... Can really relate to my own people doing the same things :)

from:  Ranjitha
Posted on: Dec 16, 2013 at 10:44 IST

Nice write-up. Psychologists call it "comfort zone" for each individual. I have been to US
three times, from my comfort zone in Mylapore. Better we enjoy the kindness of our
sons/daughters than complain. We are also happy to enjoy the neo-culture.

from:  G. Narayanaswamy
Posted on: Dec 16, 2013 at 07:59 IST

In life, everything comes with a price and there is no 'free-lunch.' As a parent of NRI children, we too have performed the annual ritual of visiting USA. It is always a compromise. Enjoy a clean, hassle free life in the company of children and grandchildren every now and then in USA or languish with a plethora of issues and hassles living here in India. Despite all claims, life in India is way behind when it comes to quality of life. I too had lived in Dubai, but it is no match, especially in pockets where the Asians live predominantly. Though Dubai or Gulf countries seem to offer the best of both worlds, where do they allow the young ones to bring their parents for a six months stay? Is not the family values strengthened, when the growing grandchildren spend time in the company of their grandparents? I have observed, we observe our customs and rituals more sincerely in USA than when we are here. We consciously recognize that we are Indians while we are in USA than when we are here.

from:  T N Neelakantan
Posted on: Dec 16, 2013 at 06:53 IST

This article has touched many aspects of Indians living in US and many
other countries. I wish she had included more details of how festivals
are dull in the US. There is not much happening at home but in the
temples. The concept of Spic and Span Kitchens with not much of cooking
must also be looked into. Hope to read more interesting articles by
Mrs. Narayanan.

Posted on: Dec 16, 2013 at 04:03 IST

I appreciate the author for writing this article. At the same time, i
see that this author wants to "have the cake and eat it too!". She had
mentioned in her below lines that she is compelled to listen to the
voice of America.-"The message is clear and pointed — all is well as
long as we listen to the voice of America!".
But the actual truth is, she is only listening to the voice of her
daughter-in-law or daughter. Why blame America for that?. It was you
who allowed/encouraged your daughter or son or D-I-L or S-I-L to stand
in long queue on the roads to get the visa for US. Who is listening to
whose voice here?
Also will you stand on the wheat fields of Punjab and complain that it
is not giving a good harvest of rice for making Idli and Dosai?.
Comparing and complaining about the lifestyle in US and India is like
comparing Apples and Mangoes. A wise person would not compare them and
complain one against another.

from:  Malar
Posted on: Dec 16, 2013 at 03:22 IST

Very nice article! I have shared it in FB.

from:  Prabhakar
Posted on: Dec 15, 2013 at 15:49 IST

Very interesting and enjoyable. The authenticity of the article
interspersed with humour made the reading absolutely delightful.
Compliments on your great writing skills.

from:  Gita Raja
Posted on: Dec 15, 2013 at 12:43 IST

Sweet :)

from:  Neeraj
Posted on: Dec 15, 2013 at 12:14 IST

Madam, Namaste. I am short of words to express my thrill and ecstasy in
reading this extraordinarily simple yet extraordinarily excellent
article. Pardon my English, even the editorial board in The Hindu may
have convulsions. I just do not know how to thank you for this wonderful

from:  G Mohan
Posted on: Dec 15, 2013 at 12:11 IST

The visiting middle income group NRIPs'(Non-Resident Parent Indians) obsession with the
"ever conversion psyche" often drives their NRI sons and daughters to the point of
vexation.Right from day one,they want time in terms of IST,the equivalent of weight in Kgs
as against Lbs,the temperature in terms of Celsius,equivalent to Fareinheit,Rupee in lieu of
US dollars.It is easy to say "Be a Roman while in Rome". But to practise and show it,a good
amount of courage and sagacity is required,particularly when it is a matter of rupees.

from:  Seshagiri Row KARRY
Posted on: Dec 15, 2013 at 11:56 IST

I love this lady!!!! she sounded just like mom :)

from:  Anonymous
Posted on: Dec 15, 2013 at 11:19 IST

Couldn't agree with you more!!! Making the parents as baby sitters!!!
Nice article!!!

from:  Venkat
Posted on: Dec 15, 2013 at 10:45 IST

I had a nice laugh after reading this. While I appreciate the author's sense of humour, the article brings to the table the serious topic of the "responsibilities" that the senior generation in India fulfils even today, despite the collapse of the joint family and the geographical challenges involved. On one hand, this annual migratory ritual, as the author satirically puts it, is a big benefit to the NRI family - the children get to experience the love and tradition that only grandparents can offer, the NRI couple can pursue their careers without undue tension on the home-front, and save on day-care expenses. In some cases, it is also a positive experience for the grandparents, who might otherwise live in boredom in India. However, there is many a case where the senior couple lives culturally and socially active lives in India and finds it extremely boring to live abroad, even for 2 or 3 months. For such grandparents, it is indeed a job that they must perform with gritted teeth.

from:  Chandrashekhar K
Posted on: Dec 15, 2013 at 09:36 IST

A very true experience of all parents who's sons or daughters are in U.S.You feel really
relaxed when you are back in India.Good article

Posted on: Dec 15, 2013 at 08:56 IST

The article summarises the experiences of parents/parent-in-law abroad, but in only one part of the hemisphere. There is a whole new world in the other parts of the hemisphere, Singapore, Dubai, Muscat etc., where also Indians, have moved in droves. Here, the parents & parents-in-law enjoy the best of both worlds! In Dubai, I have a 24/7 supermarket right down my apartment, where I can go at any time of the day or night to get my toothpaste or soap! No doubt, you can't afford to throw litter anywhere as you are used to in India. Also, the habit of conversion of currency dies hard, you are shocked when you realise the milk prices are more than double in Dubai and treble in Singapore. But when you get into the comforts of an air conditioned taxi and travel to the place of your choice without any hassles, you forget all your bitter experiences with the auto in Chennai. Therefore, I call on the sons to move to such places if you do want to migrate, before bringing your parent

from:  S.GANESH
Posted on: Dec 15, 2013 at 07:52 IST

Delightful reading - a reflection of what many of us go through. Another problem we come across in the U.S. is that we can't buy small sizes of items that we really need. The kitchen shelves in the U.S. are bursting with things that we wouldn't be using for months. Having to consume them faster means excessive eating, adding to our calories. The only redeeming feature(!) is that we, parents, can boast to our relatives and neighbors that our children are living in the U.S. earning fat salaries. However, the family has shrunk beyond belief. As long as the parents and parents-in-law can travel to help out their children in the U.S., it is fine for now. But, the parents dread how they would manage to lead their lives on their own when they would be needing physical help for mere existence. This is the price which we have to pay for providing the means to our kids to migrate abroad.

from:  D. Chandramouli
Posted on: Dec 15, 2013 at 05:04 IST

lovely article :) its a pity that the "heaven" people consider the US to be, doesn't quite turn out that way. Even the youngsters have to undergo all these changes and adapt to it, and also be away from their family, all in order to earn money. I hope the day comes when we are able to be back in India and enjoy life there. True, its more crowded, polluted, unhygienic, but still its India.

from:  Nitya
Posted on: Dec 15, 2013 at 04:02 IST

This is a very familiar terrain and just for this reason, I hesitate to bring my folks
after their visit 12 years back. It is what it is, the way of life, if you will and it is a
price for both sides to pay even if it is Karmic backlash, they missing seeing their
grandchildren grow and we missing their expertise to soothe our nerves at times of
need. The way I have learned to look at it is they are just 24 hours away and that is
what it took to reach your folks if you are employed in North and have to travel south
before the affordable airliners arrived.

from:  JK
Posted on: Dec 15, 2013 at 03:38 IST
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