Chicago Blues

This blog is an online repertoire of my columns that run in the Indian Express, North American edition. Here I rave and rant about life, mostly as seen from the large vistas of my little world.

Location: Chicago, United States

Monday, January 14, 2008

Another Year to Live

With all the manner of hurrah and ho-ho-ho filled New Year wishes streaming in, I must say I’m sorry, for what I’m thinking through isn’t exactly as thrilling, and may even screech-stop the music to the whole dandy-bandy. I am rather annoyed with the cheery all’s-fine-and-dandy-with-the-world-and-God’s-in-His-heaven messages I’m being bludgeoned with. I’ve woken up every so often in these past few months completely overwhelmed, emotionally sapped, and sporadically even fearing the worst, as more people are killed and more injustice is meted out to thousands of innocents for nothing. While it is hardly possible to overlook the recurrent flak over Iraq, and more recently, the horror of Bhutto’s slaying, several ordinary, middle-class Indians living here have been killed or dealt atrocities for no reason or rhyme.

So, grim as it may seem, as another New Year dawns and the norm of making resolutions is carried duly out, one wonders if the phrase “goodness and peace for all,” has merely been relegated to the books and the occasional greeting cards. Is a sectarian ideology better than cosmopolitanism, and irrespective of either, can we ever really stick together as one, for the sake of humanity, not partisanship defined by absurd precincts? In what can be best described as a near-peace-deprived society, do the Virginia Tech shootings that left several innocent students, including some Indians, dead; the Louisiana State University killings that took the lives of two Indian doctoral students; suicide and homicide attempts by Indians across the US…mean that we are living in a senseless one too?

Closer home, there have been three ghastly incidents involving Indians lately. In August last year, 32-year Nimisha Tiwari, set her house on fire killing herself and her two children in suburban Chicago. Reports claim that her troubled marriage was the cause of this dreadful act. In November, 34-year old Kaushik Patel of suburban Chicago doused his two young sons with gasoline and set them ablaze. He later drove them to a relative’s house in his car, and the episode has been described as a blotched suicide attempt involving him and the children. The three are said to be in critical condition, and while reports say that Patel is likely to be in the hospital for weeks, if not months, the children remain in drug-induced comas.

As if this isn’t enough to choke you, a third such case in five months has cropped up. In all these cases, fire is a common factor, as is the cause - domestic dispute, involving Indian families in the Chicago area. This one has particularly left me numb and utterly irate - 57 year old Subhash Chander of Chicago brutally burned his pregnant daughter, her husband, and their three-year-old son to death, because he apparently disliked his son-in-law, who belonged to a “lower caste.” While the man is believed to have his own contorted take on the case, nothing he or his relatives say can possibly heal the situation. Not only has he ruthlessly slain his own daughter and her family, including her unborn child, the psychopath has left several people in the apartment complex homeless, but mercifully, alive.

In another stray incident, non-violent, but baffling all the same - 24-year old Anu Solanki from, yet again - Chicago, went missing recently, causing considerable alarm and costing the investigation nearly $250,000. She has since resurfaced and had apparently taken off with a male friend, deserting her husband. Latest news on her case is that she may not be charged with a crime, but the question that still remains unanswered is whether or not the county will attempt to recover the money.

The blow in all these and any violent incident anywhere else comes not from the number of people killed, but from the fact that as humans, we can embrace the culture, the attitude, or the need to destroy every shred of peace in the world and take lives. So while we usher in another year amid this dire, reprehensible state of affairs, I think it is time we made serious efforts to create for ourselves an inner state of harmony and calm, which will radiate into our environs to produce a credible balance. While it may not be a bad idea to get in touch with our roots, and appreciate our mores, and stick with each other as modest NRIs in this faraway land, the exigency of the situation calls for something that is more significant than that. It is something that is as indigenous as is universal - to come together for humanity, to heal the world.

Perhaps it’s time to put the music back on track - something that will reverberate as the music of the spheres in all generations among us, beginning with the “Vaishnava Janato,” fanatics, to the Gen-X-ers, who should delve into the meaning of the more recently popularized “Mool Mantar,” from the movie Rang De Basanti, before blasting it on their I-pods.

Here’s to a New Year filled with compassionate deeds, equitable justice and inner peace to all.

Chak De, NRI!

Right from the early immigrants, mostly of Punjabi origin, who toiled 19 hours a day on farms and mills in the Northwest, for a meager 18 cents per hour, to the high-tech IT pros swarming an ever-distending Silicon Valley, working the routine, white-collar, eight hour stretch and minting the big bucks, NRI wayfarers have surely come far. What fetches us here as immigrants isn’t just the notion of El Dorado anymore. Somewhere beneath all that it embodies - comfortable living, labor egalitarianism, and the whim of a “free life” that dangles precariously between summers (the stretch of time when the Indian equivalent of tradition-bound Toryism surfaces with the arrival of most parents from home) - lies the classic, often hackneyed desire to “make the best of both worlds.”

With all the manner of immigration rules being constantly picked up, tweaked, and constricted further to boot, and the recent fiasco that left thousands of temporary workers in a flux, there is still an upsurge in the number of immigration applications. Amid all the frenzy of repatriating NRIs with their lofty “reform India” missions rooted deep in Gandhism, there is still a section of us that wishes to disentangle from the furor of resettlement, and stay on, funneling our goodwill to the homeland in donations made to the Sankara Eye Foundation, or some such. While that might sound shallow in more ways than one, I, as an ecumenical, freethinking immigrant, believe that there is nothing unpatriotic about wanting to live outside the native land and acquiring new experiences. This belief, of course, goes beyond the premise of a newfangled “How Indian Are You?” quiz on Facebook, which has rendered me inept by putting the “Bollywood Superstar” tag on me - and I assure you that my Indianness is not theatrical by any measure.

It is hard to put a finger on it, but Indianness is a relative term. While most of the Gen-X NRIs, like I do, believe they still “have it in them,” despite submitting to the impulse of innovation in the new world, the baby-boomer generation of NRIs has a pre-set definition of the term. To them, a dip in the Ganga is still the epitome of sanctity; one of the, if not the only, way to feel that unique, deep connectedness with their homeland. To most of these first immigrants, moving to America was the only way to overcome sober, bourgeois conditions and attain financial stability. Post-independence, when the 6000-odd Indian populace entered the United States, the numbers increasing steadily thereafter, thanks to the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952, the issues of biculturalism, objective nationalism, and stringent alien-resident policies were the least of their concerns.

Right from the outset, from apprehensively filtering in, then gradually entering the mainstream middle-class communities, and eventually establishing a visible and strong identity for themselves, these early immigrants seldom lost their grip on the bigger picture - to earn a decent living while in America, and save enough to be able to retire gracefully in India, in the caring embrace of venerable family and friends’ circles. Every other first generation immigrant that I’ve crossed paths with has shrugged at the mention of the typical American, “laissez-faire” high school experience their children have had to endure. And the mention of the other far out Yanksville elements like dating, unhinged sexual explorations, inter-racial marriages, drugs, invariably solicit the un-cool look.

And then there’s us - the new breed, if you will, of immigrants or Green Card hopefuls, for whom crossing the hurdles of immigration laws entails much more than financial security or the idea of the “better life.” For us, the immigration process is akin to a safety “blankie,” a thing of great value for our hard work and hard-earned moolah. It allows us the liberty of acquiring rich educational and professional experiences with an autonomous edge as opposed to the pecking order control-driven atmosphere back home. Further, it allows us to stretch and live freely, and garner the best of everything this land of opportunity has to offer and carry it all with us when we return to India. It gives us a purview of life in a developed and prosperous nation that is beyond the “burger-fries-coke,” or “Walmart - ‘great-value-for-your-every-dollar’” notions as read about in books; or the geometrically-perfect layouts of streets and motorways as seen from the window of an Air India flight.

A few months ago, a section of us found ourselves in dire straits as the USCIS turned its back on our immigrant applications. Several hopes were crushed, dreams shattered, and at various parties and potlucks, the only topic of conversation was “So, are you giving up and moving back?” There was no longer, however, the tension over assets and savings, as the considerable devaluation of the dollar has, in recent times, changed that equation and much more. Many of us scurried to bag interviews with companies in India, and seal job offers before we booked our tickets and hopped on a plane. And then, in a sudden turn of events, when the USCIS reversed the rules and opened up windows for fresh applications, we re-strategized our options and decided to take on the challenge of reaching the finish line on the course, on one of the toughest immigration marathons in the world. And even with the Green Card fever that has gripped us so hard, some of us still consider ourselves as belonging to the alien resident gang that is often singled out like a magnet for qualms about employment visa status, among other things.

While the election season is heating up the immigration debate; and a National Social Security registry is discussed, to help employers track down potential employees and their work authorizations; and H1-B quotas are talked of in escalating numbers, it is yet to be seen whether the repatriating NRI count will dwindle.

If the new legislation act of the 50s helped fashion a bustling new wave of Indian immigration, enabling entire clans of early immigrants to settle in, aside from protecting the status of skilled immigrant workers; one wonders whether merely increasing the numbers of visas for skilled workers, introducing stricter workplace enforcements, or eliminating the backlog in processing visas constitute a good package deal for this day and time. Will all that help solve the “out of place in America, not at home in India” angst we endure as we strive to strike a perfect bicultural balance as Gen-X immigrants? Will we hurriedly whisk our pre-teens away before they get fully exposed to the over-liberal ways of school life here, or will we stretch ourselves thin just to get a slice of that lived-in, worldly feeling before we move back for retirement? Does immigration policy really hold sway over our thoughts, feelings and actions, or is the reverse more veracious; in that we shape and reform our lives here, replete with borrowed thoughts, mixed feelings, and painstakingly balanced actions, based on our proactive stance to go through the entire, ten-yarded rigmarole of obtaining a Green Card?

The answers to those questions are as ambiguous as can possibly get, and they seem to further wince away into hazy oblivion when I update myself with the latest developments on the Green Card processing times and hoopla, courtesy While I wouldn’t say I’m proud to have donned on a “world citizen” tag, I’d be lying if I said I haven’t been bitten by the immigration bug, even with its flogging rules, sealed walls and hinged doors. I have no specific explication for having one foot planted permanently in India, or allowing my thoughts to drift time and again, to the realms of the unembellished life lived there, where rules were often breakable, walls openable, and doors unlockable. I can’t say I’d usher the New Year in by bopping on my left foot with as much élan as Madhuri Dixit. Even she shares the “mixed feeling” syndrome, and at the end of the day, I’m just another Fresh-Off-the-Boater, even after my half a decade’s worth of stay in America. And even as oldfangled guitars thrum the famous Chicago Blues notes in the background, I will realize yet again that I may possibly never feel right anywhere, or comprehend entirely the import of my roots amid the clangor of the current up-and-coming façade masking India, but a girl can dream.

Perhaps the Facebook quizzers have a point - I see myself getting into an overly histrionic mood just before the annual trip to “desh.” But if I can say “Chak De!” with the same spirit as that of the hero of a movie on India’s national sport, I doubt if my Immigrant-Patriotism-Quotient is out of kilter. Is yours?