Desi O’ Desi: High Maintenance NRIs and Non-Returning Indians

Anu Chitrapu

By Anu Chitrapu

INDIA New England News Columnist

BELMONT, MA–We can very easily be identified in India with our bottles of mineral water in our hands. Most of us proudly flaunt it, some of us choose to annoy our hosts by insisting we be served only bottled water (as opposed to water boiled at home which is better for our gentle stomachs), yet others prefer sure dehydration to the chance of a water borne infection.

And by the way, if you are of Indian origin living in the United States then irrespective of your citizenship, where you were born etc., you are an NRI – non-resident Indian (often referred to as non-returning Indian in Bollywood movies). So yes, we are all NRIs – with most of us also living up to the lovely image of high maintenance NRIs!

Anu Chitrapu

I once met a person on a train in India and we were chatting about various things. He asked me where I was from and I said Boston. He heard it as Botswana – it was not at all noisy on the train so I am assuming he had some hearing issues or my accent (!!) was terrible. In any case, he was not impressed that I was from the diamond capital of the world even though he did say, “ahhh you must have a lot of diamonds” – to which I politely said I was from Boston (a little louder than needed). And suddenly he looked at me like a light bulb had switched on over my head and said, “ohhhh you an NRI.” So please note – being from Boston makes you an NRI, but Botswana, sorry that does not qualify.

Some of us develop (or rather put on) an American accent to be tried and tested on our dear friends and family. Some get an early start on the accent — as early as when they have their papers ready to apply for a VISA. The poor security guys at the US embassy have to hear various put-on accents for no fault of theirs. But no need to feel sad for them – they have learned to use their perceived power to their advantage.

I can’t believe once upon a time, I thought I had to be nice to them or they would somehow influence my getting a student VISA!  Many think it is important to dress well for the VISA interview and by well I mean in a western suit.  Go down the road near the US embassy in Chennai on a hot, balmy 100 degree day and sure enough you will find a long line of soon-to-be-NRIs, sweating it out on the street in their hot suits — may be totally inappropriate for a hot tropical city street but absolutely appropriate for the interviewers sitting in the cool comfort of their cubicles inside. I am sure, I would do the exact thing if I was trying to get a VISA. But that accent — would be great if we did not try it out on the highly entrepreneurial tea boy trying to make a living, and helping us pass time as we wait for our turn to become high maintenance NRIs!

On a recent trip to India I was shocked to hear a harried neighbor saying she was trying to get a new inverter installed, the house treated for bugs (requiring the family to stay in a hotel for a day), car air conditioning repaired and bathrooms getting a makeover because their daughter was coming to visit from the US along with her young children. Apparently, after living in the US for all of 5 years her daughter could not tolerate the Chennai heat in which she grew up and lived in for 25 years! How easily we NRIs adjust to living in the first world! And don’t think twice about old parents preparing the house for us to visit. Yup, at least some of us are high maintenance NRIs!

A few years back, I took my children to my parents’ summer home in Araku Valley. The extended family made fabulous meals for us with all home grown ingredients – even the coffee was made from beans from our garden. I cannot even describe the honest, pure taste of home grown spinach with home grown turmeric and hand pound spices with bottled water. But for my daughter the holiday turned into a nightmare when she spotted a fat lizard above the light.

In the lizard’s defense he was trying to hide behind the light but got called out because he peeked out at the exact moment when many were staring at the light. My poor mother, not wanting her granddaughter to have a complete breakdown, quickly called the young boys in the house to action by announcing a reward of Rs.100 for chasing the lizard out. The boys got into action – in fact, I suspect the new lizard we saw was cajoled into the house so he could be chased out for another Rs.100. This would have continued if not for a distracting announcement that a snake was spotted in the garden. At that point my fear of snakes took over and I don’t remember anything else. Our NRI behavior may have something to do with the fact that we have not been invited back to Araku Valley.  Jeez, we were high maintenance NRIs!

The worst accusation flung at me was when I went for a movie with my cousin. On the way there we took an autorickshaw – I deliberately did not go in a car because I did not want her to think I was a high maintenance NRI. As we got off the auto, she paid the driver, and then looked at me accusingly and said, “You NRIs have single handedly increased the auto fares in Chennai.” So that got me to to thinking about what the top 10 annoying NRIisms could be.

Here is what I think RIs may be thinking of us NRIs:

  1. Grew up in India but turn up their noses while walking on monsoon touched streets (read that as taking walks down slushy roads)
  2. Want to show the power of the dollar against the rupee at every opportunity but think time stands still and exclaim at prices of everything because they are comparing to prices when they left India
  3. And what’s with those Bisreli bottles – everyone drinks mineral water in India and by the way those over priced bottles you bought were filled with tap water and resealed so stop brushing your teeth with expensive water
  4. You’re going to wear that? Which century did you buy that salwar suit? And please don’t even think of offering me that when you are leaving because I will not be seen dead in that
  5. Can you please stop saying thank you for everything? It’s ok to thank the waiters and drivers but you are scaring the maid every time you scream thank you
  6. Speaking of maids, stop saying we live a life of leisure in India because we don’t wash our clothes or do our dishes. Remember we have to account for limited water, random power cuts and … ummm …  maids not showing up, ok?
  7. As for asking us to stay away from plastic and giving us lectures on recycling, if you stopped visiting we would save thousands of plastic bottles
  8. Also please remember that you are coming from the country that has the worst rates of obesity so do not even think about talking to us about healthy eating. And no we will not go and buy super expensive quinoa for your meals just because that is the latest fad in the US
  9. We have moved on from thinking engineering or medicine are the only two fields of study for successful careers so DO NOT advise our kids to focus on science
  10. Finally – thank you for those gifts from the dollar store but you know what, the same supplier has a store on the pavement outside my office so if I want them I will buy them there. Seriously, what DO you think of us?


  1. My home town is in New Delhi. Being an urban place most of my family and freinds have traveled . In most of the gatherings I went to I did more of the questioning. My interest was mostly related to the political social,and economic spaces in India. India has certainly moved ahead. But with affluence comes other issues. My grandfather’s house was a lovely tree lined street and the road was lightly travelled. But not any more. The traffic is horrendous -smog and pollution are nothing to talk of. Poverty is still rampant and painful to see. As our first PM rightfully said “poverty is a blight it scorches everyone”.


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