[Column] The price of inburgering

During his fifth autumn in the Netherlands Vishal Onkhar ponders the pros and cons of the Dutch way of living. “The unbridled independence here is bittersweet to me.”

Vishal Onkhar: “Rembrandt’s forays into Indian drawing techniques might have guided his hand in The Jewish Bride, a copy of which hangs in the hallways of 3mE.” (Photo: Sam Rentmeester)

“Welcome to my humble abode,” I declare as I usher my Dutch visitors through the front door one windswept fall evening. “Apologies in advance for the mess,” I sheepishly add as I escort them along the main corridor and into the living room, a remark which they graciously wave off. The hall is the tidiest it has been in days, owing in no small part to a bout of frantic decluttering not 10 minutes prior to my guests’ arrival. Fast-forward a couple of hours, and dinner is a mellow, albeit indulgent affair, with rich food from an Indian restaurant and the dulcet tones of genial conversation. And as I shut the door behind them, my spirits are buoyed by the lingering warmth of hugs exchanged and parting words traded.

It is already my fifth autumn in the Netherlands, and the way things are going, I must confess I am tempted to make the relocation permanent. What at the outset seemed merely like a sojourn of study has since morphed serendipitously into an extended stint of research and a general affinity for the Dutch way of life. However, this odyssey has not been devoid of a modest cargo of misgivings. In the past, I have evinced my apprehensions about racism, the housing crisis, juggling two cultures, and hitting it off with the locals. But there are additional concerns to mull over before jumping ship.

‘A public display of affection without fear of judgement or backlash is a blessing’

For instance, it strikes me that assimilating into Dutch society entails subscribing to a lifestyle involving habitually rushing hither and thither – dashing to work, hurrying home for dinner, even hastening to meet friends for a laid-back evening. There is a palpable lack of spontaneity and an undue emphasis on constant time management that promptly leaves one gasping for breath. Perhaps this elucidates why Dutch people so often cherish the trait of being spontaan! In India, by stark contrast, impulsive ideas and plans on short notice regularly reach fruition, occasionally to the detriment of deliberate agendas. To quote Ferris Bueller, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”

Further, the unbridled independence that the Netherlands bestows is bittersweet to me. There is no denying that the ample leeway to exercise personal freedoms as elementary as speaking one’s mind on contentious issues, relishing a cold beer, partying till the break of dawn, or a public display of affection without fear of judgement or backlash is a blessing. It is also gratifying when local infrastructure and recreational facilities in the Netherlands purvey a wide assortment of possibilities to suit my every taste. Moreover, the liberty to be self-standing and master in one’s own house is profoundly empowering. Nevertheless, there remains something to be admired in the Indian mentality of contentment in frugal living and the capacity to divorce happiness from the ceaseless pursuit of pleasure. And charmingly, there is delight to be found even in a bustling household, from the incessant chatter of family to the availability of hired help to ease the burden of daily chores.

To conclude, and ere I come across as a dithering idiot, I will concede I have embarked on the overlong process of inburgering, enticed ultimately by the trifle that is hassle-free travel as a Dutch national and the dubious belief that I am bettering my standard of living. For what it’s worth, this decision was not an easy one to make.

Vishal Onkhar is from Chennai, India and pursuing his PhD in Vehicle Engineering at TU Delft. He is an avid player of chess and video games, but he also harbours a special interest for reading and writing fantasy fiction. He doesn’t drink coffee but good music and film have the same effect on him.

Columnist Vishal Onkhar

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