Under my byline

Indian by choice

Posted in Profiles by Rrishi on 31 July 2007

Many foreigners who come to live in India find themselves slowly becoming Indian

Roswitha Gautam arrived in India in 1967 by ship, disembarking at the port of Mumbai. “Never ever had I seen so many people in one place,” she says. She came to join her fiance, an Indian who was studying engineering in Germany. They had met a year earlier.

“We got married in Lucknow,” she says, but soon moved to Delhi. Her in-laws had received her well: “My father-in-law, a highly educated man, told me, ‘I am grateful to you, you brought my son home. It would have been easy for you to keep him there.’ This was a great welcome to me.”

Along with her on the ship came her car, a little Volkswagen. “I didn’t know it was counted as a dowry! My mother-in-law must have been pleased, it had a good kimat!”

Sephi Bergerson and his wife Shefi, both Israeli, came to live in India in 2002. They had visited before, taking back the sari and sherwani they wore at their (Indian) wedding in Israel. “After we got married,” says Sephi, “we talked about what we wanted to do in life. I was the president of the professional photographers’ association in Israel. I could have just kept my studio, but we both wanted to leave Israel — we were not happy with what was happening.”

Two and a half years later, Sephi and Shefi moved. “We wanted to buy some land near Rishikesh and start a small restaurant. I thought that I’d quit photography forever.” But it didn’t work out, and they came to Delhi.

Klaas Oskam is a vice-president at Ernst & Young in India. He came here from the Netherlands two and a half years ago, because his partner “had to be here for work”.

Oskam was 12 when Mrs Gandhi was killed. This was among the first things he learned about India, apart from “its closeness to the Soviet Union and Mother Teresa”. Some years later, Rajiv Gandhi died. “I can remember the images of the funerals.”

Two murders and Mother Teresa don’t sound like a recommendation, but he qualifies: “When I made the decision to come, those earlier images didn’t play a role. My focus is technology, so I saw the rise of Infosys, and and the country opening up.”

“For the first six months,” he goes on, “everything suprises you. The roads are so colourful. Seeing 10 people in an auto, overtaking a camel — it’s just one big adventure. Then you become more Indian and desensitised.”

Roswitha Gautam’s first job was as a teacher at Delhi’s Max Mueller Bhavan. Later she worked with the Austrian trade commission and the German Academic Exchange. Finally, she went into business, exporting “environment-friendly” garments made traditionally but in European designs. She “worked with people from the grassroots, people who had learned the art from their ancestors.” By this time she was speaking Hindi fluently.

In the 1970s and 1980s, her grassroots work led her to social work with the Delhi Commonwealth Women’s Association. They started a clinic in Zamrudpur in south Delhi, which was “a jhuggi and sun umbrella”. Today, it treats 200 people a day.

Her export business lasted 18 years. She closed it down recently, after Chinese goods and currency fluctuations priced her out of the market. “I thought I should close when I’m still successful,” she says, “One cannot swim for long against the stream.”

Sephi and Shefi “didn’t make a rupee for a year and a half. We made all the mistakes that you make when you first come to India. We met the wrong people, we were tricked, we were fooled.” At one point, they had just Rs 4,000 left. “I asked Shefi,” recalls Sephi, “At what point do you say okay, it didn’t work out? She said—” Shefi interjects, “‘You brought me to India and you don’t believe in you any more? Maybe we’ll go back, but not like this.’”

So, “I picked up a job in photography,” continues Sephi, “I built a website, made a few phone calls and got a project — and we suddenly had money.” Shefi meanwhile “had a business of baby blankets” and other design-related enterprises “that started picking up… Life started getting on a certain track. By now, life is good.”

They live modestly, in a barsati in Nizamuddin East. “We’re not in the chase of money,” says Sephi. “I can dream here, and pursue my dreams. Ninety per cent of my ideas haven’t been done here. It’s still a virgin country.”

According to Klaas Oskam, the work environment here is “not hugely different” from Europe. “Many Indians have worked in an international context.” But “people I work with here are on average more intelligent. They have more conceptualising power, great on-the-spot creativity, fast thinking. There is hunger and eagerness to move up.”

What is negotiating with Indians like? “Indians are like the British — you need to read between the lines. If they say ‘Interesting’, they probably mean ‘No’, but for a Dutch person, it means ‘He’s buying into my argument!’ It takes a bit longer to read Indians and understand what their true intentions are.”

Ian Pringle came to South Asia in 1998 to work with UNESCO. His interest is in local media, especially community radio, as a development tool. His partner is Indian, and currently they live in Nepal.

“There are times when it’s not easy,” he confesses, “but you know it’s not going to be easy. It’s a different world to Europe and North America — culture, history, ways of seeing people around you.” When Pringle moved back to Europe in between, he thought he would fit right in, but soon realised that “the people I seemed to be getting along with were Asians”.

Rachel Magnusson, now doing a PhD in political science at York University in Canada, “fell in love with the idea of India at about 15, when I started reading Indian novels — Salman Rushdie, Vikram Seth, etc. I wanted that intensity, that complexity, that drama of life.”

When she was 22, Magnusson “fell backwards into one of the best jobs I have ever had”, interning with Sarai and helping organise a conference on media and reportage. “It felt so important,” she says. “I felt like the kid who had conned her way on to the rock-star bus. India to me is now tied up with this experience at Sarai — an experience of coming-of-age.”

Roswitha Gautam had three daughters, “which was a disaster; a daughter-in-law is persecuted for that in a subtle and mean way. People are so one-track about this.” Two of her daughters live in Europe, the third with her in Delhi. Gautam and her husband have separated.

Apart from having to be “strong and self-contained”, she says, Indian women are “focused on their children. They are both spoiling and nurturing; many times they are overpowering or pushy towards sons and controlling to daughters. It’s a pity, because it doesn’t encourage self-reliance and thinking, and Indians can be so creative.”

“I’m not happy with the school system,” says Sephi Bergerson, but they put their daughter in Modern School rather than a foreign school. “I’d like her to feel at home. I want her to have her gang. This will be something she can build on.”

He and Shefi are finishing a coffee-table book on street food, which, says Shefi, is going to vanish. “In 20 years people will be sentimental, they will see this book and say, look, this was my country.” “You wait and see. I’ve seen it happening in Israel,” adds Sephi hotly, “You’re not going to be able to have chhole-kulchhe from a person on a bicycle. This is going to go away.”

Ian Pringle, having lived in infrastructure-poor Bangalore, “found it impressive how Delhi was dealing with its problems; more than anything the decision to dismiss diesel-burning buses, autos, taxis. This is amazing and hard to believe.”

He explains, “It’s not the size of the city that’s problematic, it’s the pace of change.” There is also a “real embracing of materialism and capitalism, which can give cause for concern”.

“There is a new caste of nouveau-riche,” agrees Sephi. “Maybe they sold their property and they have money to open a business, and they start making more money! See tourism — Manali used to be strictly foreigners, and now there’s no room for foreigners! Indians have more money!”

On the other hand, “Indians are already more confident about who they are and what they’re worth. They’re not trying to be ‘as good as’. Change is not a bad thing — I think Indian culture and society will absorb it eventually.”

“I respect it when people fight,” says Pringle. Rural “people in north India don’t find it easy, but they don’t seem to accept things very easily. South Indians seem to be more accepting.” Pringle faces his own periodic fight to renew his visa. “It was always a big effort.” As a result, “You learn the Asian way: you don’t get angry, you get patient, and you get clever.”

“India has always been a power,” concludes Roswitha Gautam. “Only education needs modernisation, to encourage thinking. If society can decide to not suppress women, nobody will be able to stop it. After all, Lakshmi is for everything, not only money.”


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