Little India: Overseas Indian, NRI, Asian Indian, Indian American

Visa Wives: Unseen Presence, Unknown Stories

Radhika MB

“Let’s not forget, that there’s life beyond internet. Facebook posts won’t tell you what thoughts take off when you look out the window of your home to find maple trees instead of mango trees, or what the silence of that new place can do to your mind. You love things you hated back home. And wonder if you’re going mad,” says an impassioned Radhika, trying to capture for herself, and perhaps for many other Indian women living new lives abroad, the raging thoughts and emotions they have had to juggle with.

Radhika MB, a Bengaluru-based journalist, relocated to the United States in 2011, when her husband got a job in country. What life threw at her and how she dealt with it over the next few years sowed the seed for her book Visa Wives (Penguin Random House India). The book was also the result of a column Visa Wife she began to write, putting words to her feelings in a new land, for The Thumb Print e-magazine by Teresa Rehman.

“Teresa egged me on to make it a book. In hindsight I also feel a miscarriage I suffered in the US led to many things, and eventually the book. So I do have my lost child to thank. I dedicated the book to my grandma, who was the rock behind my grandpa’s numerous books. He wrote books and found a name, while she remained invisible, caring for a large household and toiling away. The invisibility of it all… ” she trails off.

Stories from the Heart

Visa Wives focuses on the H4 visa holders, whose purpose is, officially, “family reunion” – the most popular dependent visa. The author says she has lost count of the number of such women she interviewed. “I did about 30 to 40 in-depth interviews, plus a lot more smaller ones, not just of ‘Visa Wives’, but spouses, subject matter experts, random strangers…” Identifying them was not difficult. Getting people to talk was, she admits.

The book plunges straight into the American dream — the fears, the man-woman divide, abusive marriages, the visiting-in-law situation, and traces the history of the first Indian women settlers. The book is packed with statistics, and elaborates on the nitty gritty of processes, applications, rejections, loopholes, or lack of them, American laws, the way the system works, and what Indian women need to be prepared for, and armed with.

But it’s not just facts all the way.

The book banks on individual and personal stories and their frank telling. Sarika, Bindhu, Madhuri, Aruna, Rani, Revathi, Sathya, … and so many other women are casually introduced and you are sucked right into their lives and stories. These women keep popping up in the later chapters to continue their conversations and offer their insights. There are also those women who landed there for work, or to study. Touchy subjects are broached too: “I don’t know how they manage to do it — skipping the funeral of a parent,’ — a friend remarked during one of those conversations, about H1B visa holders not wanting to risk their jobs by going to India and face another US consulate interview, even when a parent dies.”

The joy of rediscovering hobbies like cooking, blogging, pot luck parties, also find place in the narrative. Radhika delves on the caught- in-between moment, “the pendulum phase”, in various circumstances — leaving home, people, and precious belongings behind, being on tenterhooks about whether the husband’s project continues or they pack up and go right back to India the next day…

An account by Rupashree, who opted out of moving to the United States with her husband because she was pregnant, at the last minute, tugs at your heartstrings… a situation no woman wants to be in: “He offered to come on leave for three weeks for the delivery. I was not prepared to see him go at the end of those three weeks. I told him, ‘Come back for good or do not come at all.’ I had a caesarean. I needed my husband every day. His own agony was no less. He saw our son during our video chats, but he was desperate to hold his baby. I was not depressed that he was not with me. I was angry.”

Multiple Perspectives

Radhika didn’t limit the book to her own experiences since that would have turned it into a memoir, and limited the range of subjects she wanted to cover. “I had no children, for instance, and moms had different experiences. I love crafting and writing more than cooking. Some women I know love cooking and rediscover it in their new environment. Earlier drafts had a lot more of my personal story, but I chopped it for narrative. Others’ perspectives enriched my book,” she says.

What stands out in the book is a sense of isolation and loneliness that runs as a thread all through, in various forms. Sometimes it’s just looking out at empty parking lots, not having anyone smile back at you or talk to.

“Before I came to the US, my friends who live here said I would miss my family. A friend said at times she saw no people for miles near her university. I did not get it then. We think we know it all before boarding that flight, and probably for a while after arrival too,” Radhika explains.

She points out how unprepared she was towards the fact that Indians become a lot more thrifty there, and that affects our confidence adversely. She recalls in the book that one of her husband’s colleagues quipped that they should look for treasures outside the garbage bin. If people wanted to discard their furniture without putting them in thrift stores, they simply left them at the garbage bin. It was considered perfectly fine for people to pick it up.

Each time Rupashree spotted a discarded piece of furniture outside the bin, she would drag it home up two storeys. She wanted to support her husband by making every effort to save money.

Path to Self-discovery

But it’s not all sob stories and negative experiences. What really does America offer that India doesn’t to these women? “A fresh look at life, a new perspective in an individualistic culture that’s tad removed from the networked family lives in India, some respite from ‘the good bahu’ problem (although the in-laws control can extend overseas), self-discovery through pursuit of your hidden talents, learning to value friends and help that comes your way,” she surmises.

And then further elaborates that some women who had not-so-happy family lives back home tend to find independence. Some find happiness in the open spaces in towns, while some are simply happy for not having to worry about cooking gas and water supply.

“My book chronicles the struggles, and eventual steps to accepting the country. Isolation from family can devastate you, but it also teaches you a lot. You value relationships. That would not hold true for women in a domestic violence situation though. Reaching out for help if there is spousal abuse, can be a huge thing.”

Given all that she’s now privy to, would she have not moved to the United States if someone had warned her about all this? Radhika is clear: “The truth is, I would still have taken that flight.”