RK Narayanan’s My America

Few Indians in America make any attempt to integrate in American cultural or social life. So few visit an American home or a theater or an opera, or try to understand the American psyche. An Indian’s contact with the American is confined to his colleagues working along with him and to an official or seminar luncheon. He may also mutter a “Hi!” across the fence to an American neighbor while lawn-mowing. At other times one never sees the other except by appointment, each family being boxed up in their homes securely behind locked doors.

After he has equipped his new home with the latest dish-washer, video, etc., with two cars in the garage and acquired all that the others have, he sits back with his family counting his blessings. Outwardly happy, but secretly gnawed by some vague discontent and aware of some inner turbulence or vacuum, he cannot define which. All the comfort is physically satisfying, he has immense “job satisfaction” and that is about all.

RK Narayan’s My America is a simple-yet-devastatingly ironical look of an Indian’s American life. This article of RK Narayan was written for Hindu’s Frontline in 1985. I keep reading and re-reading this but now I am starting to appreciate it better. My America has the classical writing style of RKN. Very subtle, very genius.

Sujatha had written a similar article called Vellinaattu Mogam Konda Ilaignargalukku which was even more straight-from-the-heart and hard-hitting. I had just too many discussions on this with my friends. The last few were with Balaji and Latha. But don’t worry, to pick up a discussion on this again, is a cake walk for me. I’m ready !!

15 responses to “RK Narayanan’s My America”

  1. Dreamer Avatar

    It is an undeniable fact that for an Indian to fit in and feel at ease with Americans or Europeans or anyone for that matter, it becomes necessary for him to acquire new tastes, interests and habits. A rare few do so willingly. But a majority do not feel the need to change for the sake of fitting in. They instead choose to spend time with like minded Indians, participating in activities that replicate a mini-India wherever they live. R.K. Narayan calls them people who have lost their Indian roots and have not grown American roots, which imho is a little harsh. The very fact that they refuse to change to gain acceptance is an indication of their inseperable attachment to their country. To use a cliche..you can take such people out of India, but you can never take India out of them…..


  2. Lazy Geek Avatar

    Sometimes cliche’s have too much emotional pretence attached to them ;-). Still, sometimes I use/like them.


  3. Uma Avatar

    Don’t you think RK.Narayan’s article generalises too much. Maybe it was valid 20 years ago, not sure this applies anymore.

    Also compared to the Indians in the US have the Indians in the UK done better in integrating with the locals without losing their identity? To me it appears so, but maybe I am just being naive.


  4. anon Avatar

    well said, dreamer…


  5. anonymuos Avatar

    hi lazy,
    very sensitive topic and very sensible analysis by sujatha.i know how hard it is to be in abroad for sake of being in abroad.And it all depends on individual attitudes.


  6. Bharath Avatar

    Lazy Geek,

    I have been reading ur blog for quite some time and if I am right about ur identity i think i know u from TFM also ( I maybe wrong here)…

    anyway on this topic!

    I read RK Narayan’s article in 1998 for the first time ( which was my first year in US as a grad student) and then I re-read it sometime in 2002 and by that time I had put in 4 years in US and was working.

    The first time I believed his article was true. The second time I read it, I thought he was catering to readers in India. Now that I am back in India and I rea dit again. I definetly do think that its valid for people in the 1985 era and not now.

    I do not see the difference between moving out of Madras and living in Bombay ( or delhi or bangalore) and moving out of Madras and living in US. Except for the lesser travel time durinng emergencies its the same. I am thinking, I am anyway out of home that I love (Madras) and Bombay or Bangalore is as alien to me as Dallas or Columbus ( Infact sometimes even worse). So instead of living in a place I don’t like and one which pays less, why not move to a place with higher standard of living which pays a lot. The emotional requirements, I can satisfy in the US the same way I would, if I lived in Bombay or Bangalore.

    That is the first reason. Due to lack of homogeniety in India and non-trivial amount of animosity between diverse states, Any place outside your hometown will not bring that emotional satsifaction.

    Sujatha’s article and RKN’s both deal with the incongruity of Indian lives in the US. I disagree with that now. The creation of mini India is just anotherway to describe celeberating “Tamizh puthandu” with sweets and payasam in Kolkota. Given that US is a collection of cultures from allover Europe and Asia we are bringing our own flavor into it. As for second generation mingling with other kids and merging wither culture. Its a price their parents have to pay. Instead of learning Tamil/Kannada/English/Hindi and getting spoilt in Bangalore. I might as well see him Learn Tamil/English ( and maybe hindi) and get spoilt in a higher- standard of education place like US.

    Coming back to India and looking at appaling way school/college admissions are handled here — Maybe the 2 Gen kids are allowed to grow in a part of the world where Racial ( that includes caste/religion/language/state) prejudices are under reasonable control. That world is more merit based and its a world with above average sense of moral/ethical values ( comparable and competitive to those found in India).

    I dont belive a squat of these dating – teenage s e x things etc. In this issue India is almost there or will get there (on par with US) in the next 10 years. When the fence is off = Cows will graze. Thats their nature. When democracy increases fences will go away.


  7. Ashwin Avatar

    I think the problem arises when an Indian settled in America actually starts complaining/cribbing about how he feels “left out” in the general scheme of “life” in the US when he himself makes no effort to get to know or get comfortable with that way of life. Don’t expect anything OTHER than a feeling of being left out if you yourself don’t make any effort of getting out of your comfort zone of workplace, home, Indian-friends-on-the-weekend.


  8. Ammani Avatar

    I read Sujatha’s write-up with great amusement. I have several bones to pick with the writer. However, I’ll stick to one that has rankled me the most. Sujatha writes that girls in the Indian society, in a blind imitation of western way of living, wear inappropriate clothing and that our society is not yet mature enough handle women wearing such clothes. And this, he points out, is what often leads to instances of harassment, eve-teasing and rape. What a ridiculous argument! I lived in Madras for the first 24 years of my life and I can safely say that for almost every day that I stepped out on the roads as an adult, I suffered some form molestation or the other. Ranging from a dirty look, a whistle, a taunt to a pinch, a slap and worse. And all the time I was clad in conservative salwar kameez with dupatta! So to say that wearing skimpy clothes is an invitation to disaster is like saying driving an expensive car is a summon to all robbers! The rogues will harass even nuns! Let Sujatha step out of his ivory tower and talk to some real women before making such potentially damaging statements.


  9. Priya Avatar

    In today’s global world there is no real difference between living in one place or the other.
    As for the culture, my nephew who lives in US is better versed in Mahabharath than most kids of his age in India.And I personally think the culture as we see in everyday India is something a child can do without.
    In the US there are so many channels of entertainment and education.The family can actually watch a movie or TV without the parents having to squrim in their seats.Can’t say the same for SUN TV.One particular instance comes to mind. The entire family was watching Boys Songs Enaku Oru Girl Friend venum on video the other day (Indian Kids loves Indian music here!!!!!) but the song had such vulgar connotations and scenes all of us including the 9 yr old nephew was feeling uncomfortable.
    For people who make comparisons between cultures and countries We Are Not Doing Too Great In India either!!!!!!!!!!

    Also emotionally Indian families which live in US are much closley bonded and expressive than they are otherwise.

    I think Indians in US have the unique advantage of both a well knit family structure and a advanced western society.Most second generations Indians kids as a result do very well.



  10. srini Avatar

    RK article is more simplistic and also based on experience which is shallow – a few months of staying in the country and observing does not make one an expert. It could also be time bound as a lot of things have changed over the period of time.

    It is true that the indian who moves here has his heart in India and longs for it but it is a slice of time which never comes again. He ends up not belonging to either of the two places. The new place he calls home or the old place he called home.

    So let us visit some of RK statements and see if there is a different point of view.

    India today does not build inner strength in a person. India today and the younger generation only have a mechanical life. The life is similar to the way the west is. The quality of life seems to be the same

    There is a conflict of seniority in india. The younger generation is tired of waiting for getting permission from the older generation. They are as good and can make decision like the older generations. I see that conflict everytime I go there to the people who want to move up and the people who are in those positions.

    Importing of poojas is only what people notice. But do people notice that in the west there is a state of enquiry where people are doing things like going to temples and talking about scriptures with more interest and knowledge than what is expected in India. We do not do it here without knowing why. This actually makes the religion and our experience stronger

    Children growing up in the States seems to have a stronger foundation where they balance their two facets of their life – am I indian as well as american. The indian born in India once he moves out after a long time does the same soul searching. The question is when it happens. Also an Indian child is more interested in aping the west than ape what is Indian.

    After being in this US for a long period of time, I have concluded we Americans and Indians are similar and under the same set of circumstances we react the same way. We are just across the pond. Their values are as strong or as shallow as ours and their relationship with their religion and family is also similar.

    We might have to get off the high horse of the Nehru era and should start looking at the world in a more inclusive way. We feel that the rest of the world is better but we are still better in the way we treat life. Is that not a narrower way of thinking intead of trying to get to learn the best of what the world uses and balance it what we have and come up with the optimum solution. That is what Indians in the States are striving very hard and some succeeded but it is a learning process. We never said we are perfect


  11. Nilu Avatar

    To those who think R.K lived here just for a couple of months – he lived in NY City close to 3 years at a stretch once(his own semi auto-biography).

    Secondly, R.K is not putting forward a path break research paper in sociology but just making a personal observation.

    Finally – the genius of R.K. is that I can relate to it each tme I read any of his works. To remain timeless from describing a Swami in 1930’s to a Desi in the U.S. in 1985 – especially in 2005 is what makes his genius. I still cherish those days when I used to see him take a walk outside his (actually his daughter’s)Eldams road apt …….


  12. Lazy Geek Avatar

    Thanks Nilu for that info.


  13. Partha krish Avatar

    hullo Guru: A very thought provoking article but let us first try to define’culturte’,distribution
    of culture,differances in cultures etc. it is not that simple.I agree with Priya that it is arduous to compare the cultures.As Dreamer says Indians here in U.S are just happy as they are.Only those who are on either side of the river have this complex. Uma is tight in asking whether it is not the same in U.K as well.
    Lastly may I ask U how do the Americans who come to India fare in this?Take them from the consulate or Ford India for example.Do they not practise exclusivity? Exclusive private schools,privare clubs,private and exclusive ‘Balls’,’Golf clubs’ “snookers’.How much do they mingle and how much have they tried to understand or assiciate woth our culture?


  14. Karthik R Avatar
    Karthik R

    Don’t get me wrong, I love R.K.Narayan. But I definitely have to disgaree with him on this. Every ethnic group in the US had to go through the same challenge — integrate or maintain your indentity? The Irish, Italians, Polish, Japanese and the Chinese all went through it. It definitely helped the European immigrants in that they at least physically resembled the earlier migrants. It’s a lot harder for the Asian immigrants.

    I think assimilation takes time (a generation?). It’s common for children in my neighborhood to hang out with their White, Black and East Asian friends. Also, if you had gone to school in the US it helps ease the assimilation process. If you had come staright to the US to work, it might take a little longer.

    In any case, who is an American? A White guy? May be in parts of the Mid-West. Out here in California, Whites form less than 50% of the population. And in Silicon Valley they are probably much less than that.


  15. kumar Avatar

    I moved back to Madras after 14 years in the
    valley. Trust me, RKN was talking of a bygone
    era when MTV/SS or whatever had not yet had the
    youth dancing to their tunes.
    I saw a prgram on TV where the first question
    a female caller was asked on TV was if
    she had a boyfriend (in tamil).

    TV and internet have razed the world into a flat
    plain where the cultures are almost the same.

    Of course, I still love madras and believe in the
    great indian dream etc, but RKN’s analysis needs
    to be taken in context of it’s time, not as a
    universal truth.
    – Kumar


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