One of my earliest memories is of being dragged away from the escalator at the international airport. One of my uncles - my favourite relative since I could choose favourites - was leaving for America. I had just realised in a horrific epiphany when my question "When will he come back?" was followed by a heavy silence that America was not around the corner. It was oceans away, and my uncle would not be back that evening. No one knew when he would come back. Leaving for America was the norm back then. Everyone did it at some point or the other - ideally, before hitting thirty, and obviously, before marriage.
Watching a re-run of "Full House" and catching sight of the Golden Gate Bridge as it must have looked back then, it suddenly dawned on me that that would have been my uncle's first sight of America. In a world where letters were the only means of communication, we would wait every month for a letter from one of the uncles. Three sisters, a niece, a mother, and rather hesitant parents-in-law would exchange calls and pore over the letters, each section of which was addressed to a different person. The nephews would fight over the stamps. The niece, still rather notorious for her devious means of getting her way in the end, would end up with the stamps, through a combination of tears, tantrums, appeals and kisses.
Thinking back to the early eighties, to those moments in time, it brought pangs to me. When my turn came to go abroad, an aunt and uncle were there to receive me in London. I arrived on the same day I left India, and spoke to my mother thrice during the course of the day. We exchanged emails that night. Yet, every call from home would have me panicking about the health of everyone in there...so much so that my mother soon received standing instructions not to call me unless there was an emergency. I would call everyday. Mine was a world in transit. One where my best friends were Iranian, Egyptian, German, Swiss, British, Japanese, Kenyan, Jamaican, Azeri, Pakistani and Afghan. One where we would eat Indian food cooked by Indians, Chinese food cooked by Chinese, Lebanese food cooked by Lebanese, and talk about Sydney Pollack, Krzysztof Kieslowski, Mohsen Makmalbaf, Al Pacino, Robert de Niro, Israel, Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, Iran...well, it was a world where borders merged and grew bolder by asserting their individuality in a bolus.
But back then, when the Golden Gate Bridge looked as it did then, the point was to fit in, not stand out. It was a time Indians had to stop eating with their hands and abandon their accents. It was a time Indian women stopped wearing bindis and sarees and chose trousers they felt rather awkward in and short hair in their place. It was a time when racism was probably seething under the surface and we multi-coloured citizens of the world felt sheepish about it. It was a time when Caucasians didn't have the apologetic guilt complex they, as a race, seem to have now. How bold to have flown out across the sea, with no idea of what would greet one! With no idea of what the Manhattan that Friends, Sex and the City, How I Met Your Mother and a series of other sitcoms have made famous, looked like! How difficult it must have been settling into a house in the middle of nowhere, without Mary Alice Young from Desperate Housewives explaining what suburbia was all about!
And all we gave those people was the blame for the brain drain and the tag of "coconuts". Without thinking about why the coconut grows a hard shell before it falls off the tree.