| Escape route
Jack Neo, the Chinese Singaporean actor and comedian, explains why he will never emigrate. “Here, I’m the Number One wife,” he says of his home. “Elsewhere, I’m the concubine.”
That is true of all Asians on the move. Yet, the urge to migrate is so strong that even marriage is seen as opportunity. Reading S.L. Rao’s article on the Dollar Brides reminded me of a long-established Indian settler in America who wanted his daughter to marry an Indian and settle down in India. The American-born-and-bred girl was also anxious to sample life in the land of her fathers. They answered dozens of advertisements in expatriate papers, found what they thought was a suitable boy and were bitterly disappointed when it transpired that all he hankered for was a Green Card.
He had disguised his ambition better than the other candidates. It’s a universal phenomenon. Many “China Brides” imported by Singaporean men turn out to be equally avaricious. Pakistani girls in Britain are forced to marry elderly potential immigrants. Malaysia has forbidden bumiputera girls to marry Bangladeshi workers.
The two-way traffic in spouses is not new. Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew credits the Sindhi diaspora with pioneering both globalization and guanxi (networking in Chinese) in its search for brides and grooms. Nor is it easy to endorse the implicit optimism of Rao’s conclusion. “We must find ways to make them (non-resident Indians) take (an) interest in India and its development,” he says, suggesting that they are waiting to respond to overtures. The stark truth is that the only overture they will respond to is financial.
There should be no shame in that admission. After all, those whom we call NRIs have migrated to better their prospects. That is the only motivation. The Chinese admit it without sentimental fuss. They will go wherever there is land and water, they say. The Overseas Chinese (the accepted term) also say that they sink their savings in China only because Beijing’s economic policies make it a sound investment.
Eyebrows were raised when Palaniappan Chidambaram, finance minister in the I.K. Gujral government, made an unabashed plea to ethnic loyalty at an expatriate Indian conference in Singapore. His hosts thought it was an unwise card to play that might open the floodgates of racism. More to the point, they felt it would serve no purpose unless he could promise that the money he sought would not only be safe but would also multiply. Time has proved them right on the latter point. The government’s accession to the clamour for dual citizenship only confirmed that those who flaunt the right political colours can get away with eating their cake and having it too.
The spousal market varies from class to class and region to region but follows a rough pattern. Once upon an unsophisticated time dowry was measured in silver coins struck on a marble or bellmetal platter. Then, as people became more greedy, came the age of tangible gifts — cars and houses at one end of the spectrum, cycles and scooters at the other. Among the socially enlightened, the girl’s father sometimes paid for the groom’s (or his brother’s) education abroad. A British or American degree was still the passport to elite status.
Gradually, and in keeping with societal reality, connections began to matter more than qualifications or cash. It was not push that decided a young man’s future but pull, and girls whose parents could manipulate strings were assured of the best grooms.
Overseas matrimony was a parallel movement, unnoticed for a long time because it was not rampant among urban middle and upper middle class readers of English-language dailies. Hawaii’s Watumulls, Ravi Tikkoo, the Hindujas or nuptial parties in England that might have inspired Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding made the practice acceptable. But con men also proliferated, and many private detectives survive on checking out potential partners and exposing fraudulent claims.
Lee mentioned Sindhis. I know modestly placed Malayalis (Catholic, Syrian and Hindu) whose marriages were arranged between Kerala and Malaya (as it then was) in the Fifties and earlier. A Calcutta Malayali boy told me in the Eighties that he had to marry off his sister before taking up his own very attractive bridal option in Singapore. He would have to fork out a much higher dowry for the sister if he were already matrimonially established in Singapore.
Early indentured labourers — the girmitya (from girmit or agreement) of Fiji and South Africa, for instance —could not establish such links with home for obvious reasons. They were illiterate and too poor. Sometimes the entire village was swept into coercive migration. Their successful descendants often have little time for what their ancestors left behind.
I recall a young man in Suva keeping the party in stitches with his tales of the god-forsaken village that Aligarh was for him. He had gone to the Muslim university there on an Indian government scholarship. Far lower down the ladder, a Singapore Tamil taxi driver who had never set foot in Tamil Nadu told me that he was the rightful owner of three houses there but that his mother had warned him that his Indian relatives would kill him if he ever tried to claim them.
“They are poor, so let them have the property!” His condescending magnanimity embraced all of India. By going to Singapore to work I seemed to bear out his opinion of the country his mother had left as a small girl.
Recently, I made my students read a long essay by Keith Richburg of the Washington Post, an African-American who is a first class reporter and writer. Having been sent to Africa on assignment, Richburg thanked his stars that his ancestors had been sold into slavery. There but for the grace of god go I, he mused, despairing of the dark continent’s violence, corruption and general beastliness.
The Chinese Singaporeans in my class who had visited China denied any personal echoes in the article. They were Singaporean, and China was an altogether foreign country to them. Even the cuisine was different. In fact, the ethnic Chinese journalist who represents the Straits Times in Beijing takes her food from Singapore. My two ethnic Indian exchange students from North America, however, admitted to sharing many of Richburg’s emotions on a first and only visit to India. They had been repelled by much that they saw and were glad not to be part of it.
Confident in their own indifference to the less successful ancestral land, one of the Chinese Singaporeans pointed out that the Indians would not have responded thus if deep down they did not still identify in some ways with the India they disliked. Perhaps. But that would only make them even more loth to commit themselves — or their money — to an India that they see as a metaphor for failure. Marrying there would acknowledge bondage to ancient (and unfashionable) shibboleths.
True, some are more mellow. Satish Nandan, the Fijindian poet, is lyrical about India. Since V.S. Naipaul has taken to paying regular visits, he obviously feels more comfortable there nowadays. A young second generation professional Singapore Malayali family is taking the children on holiday to India. Both parents feel that the little ones need the pride of ancestry to counter the racist taunts of their Chinese classmates. They are like the Singaporean Sikh who was delighted with Pokhran Two because India’s strength made him stronger wherever he was.
But, unlike Neo, they do not insist on the legitimacy of the married state. Some still shy away from a subcontinent which is their other self. Some have done well out of concubinage. A few might nurse starry-eyed illusions about marriage with the authentic article but crowds of calculating Indians are waiting to exploit their naïve idealism.
Millions of Indians are eager to vote with their feet. Matrimony offers a relatively easy escape.