Sunday, September 25, 2005

I Don't Want To Be Called NRI

The term "NRI" has bothered me ever since it first began showing up in Indian newspapers, probably in the late 80s or early 90s (Anyone knows its "first-usage" history? Devraj of DickandGarlic, that's your assignment.)

I am certain the term was created for administration purposes. That's how governments see things when it comes to framing laws for property ownership, assets etc. The 1980s witnessed the first visible wave of temporary migration from India to the Middle East and pretentious words like "diaspora" and "hyphenated identities" weren't invented yet. Mother India didn't want to let go of her sons, it seems. Ergo, "Non-Resident Indian".

Fair enough.

But the way the Press uses it, "Non-resident" isn't an innocent, neutral description, but a strong modifier. It is an artificial gap between two humans. We, resident, They, Non-resident.

Take this headline appearing on "NRI Slays Family, Commits suicide in UAE".

How does it matter if the said slayer was a non-resident Indian? Does that tag of "non-resident" attract more readers? If so, then what does it say about the readers? Could it be a secret condemnation of the Indian who isn't "there"? Look at him, they seem to be saying, he crossed the seven seas and now he slayed his family! This is the fate that awaits those who leave their homes!

If the headline simply read "Man Slays Family....", it would become yet another horrific-crime news item. No one reads those anymore.

If it read "Indian Slays Family..." (as it does above the body of the story in, it piques our curiosity. Indian did it? But with it also comes the unbearably strong stench of complicity. After all,'s readers are mostly Indian. See, this was no ordinary killer, this was an INDIAN! What's worse, this was no ordinary crime, it was a MURDER. And get this - the INDIAN killed his FAMILY!

MURDER, INDIAN and FAMILY - Three supposedly incongruous ideas. Almost as unbelievable as the headline "Kalahari Tribesman Discovers Cure For AIDS".

So this where I come in: the rambling, drifting, rootless, immoral Indian whose sole defining characteristic ("salient feature", as our biology textbooks called it) is - what? His NON RESIDENCE, of course! (If this were the mandatory exposition of the Criminal's Motive in a detective novel, picture our hero exploding with those words while prodding his slightly-dense sidekick in the side, with a sharp cane.)

Cliches and pre-packaged truths neatly conceal the really important issues. We can find at least a million of those around us ("Islamic terrorists", "Sexy Pop Diva Britney Spears"...) But what are they really saying? More importantly, what are they not saying?

(Full credits to Public Enemy for the headline of this post.)


Akshay said...

do you think expatriate Indian would be a better word ?
or should there be no difference at all

km said...

Akshay, don't see headlines about Expat-Brits or Americans, so I am not so sure...


Kapil said...

On a lighter note.

I like to call my cousins living in Dubai - NOT REQUIRED INDIANS (NRI).


km said...

LOL, Kapil. And I suppose the Native Americans, i.e. "American Indians" call Indians in America "Non-Indian Residents"? :)

Prahalathan said...

The term NRI commands a little more respect i feel... I never knew of anyone who had a problem with that except... when it came to money matters like exhorbidant college fees etc.

Sunny said...

Haha! Well said, it's always annoyed me too.

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