Returning NRIs are quickly realizing that the nostalgia of the past seldom withstands the harsh realities of an extended stay.
When the Kamats returned to India after 10 years in Boston in 2004, they were all set to make Bangalore their permanent residence. They had it fully planned out. Their two sons were admitted to an international school, which incorporated the traditional Indian ethos. They wanted the boys to grow up with a global outlook, but also rooted in their own culture.
Close and distant family were more than welcomed in their new home, located in the better suburbs of the city. Their parents were displaced from their ancestral homes into rented accommodations near the house. As Jaya Kamat* liked to say, “We want our children to grow up knowing their grandparents. I feel that is so important.” The grandparents would visit their grandchildren to spend quality time with them every evening.
Jaya Kamat, who was used to doing all her chores herself in the U.S., now had a retinue of house helps. She would correct friends every time they referred to the help as maids.
Shridhar Kamat’s* political correctness at his workplace was equally admirable. He treated subordinates with the same courtesy that he reserved for his peers. As the CEO of the organization, his attitude did not go unnoticed by the staff and a big deal would be made at office parties about their new considerate boss. Life was good. To paraphrase Robert Browning, “God was in his heaven and all was well with the world.”
Switch to 2012 and the Kamats have begun packing their bags to return to the United States. Shridhar Kamat quit the company and is on a six-month sabbatical. Their older son has another year left of high school and once he graduates, the Kamats will leave India once again. Their younger son will complete his high school in the United States. The status of their parents remains unresolved. But one thing is clear that they will not be accompanying the Kamats. Equally certainly, the Kamats are not returning to India anytime soon.
When and how did the India dream of the Kamats sour? More importantly why did it sour? The Kamats aren’t the only returned NRIs heading back to the United States. Various Indian media reports suggest that the number of returned NRIs heading abroad is growing, perhaps faster than the NRIs returning to live the India dream.
The reasons are many. The slowdown of the Indian economy, the sluggish and exasperating bureaucracy, the corruption, the chaotic traffic, the filth and total lack of civic sense and the general apathy of people. India is not for the faint-hearted,
Times of India columnist Chidananda Rajghatta commented in one article: “The infrastructure in India is a train wreck; the trains are a horror to travel on; the travel sector is inhospitable; the hospitality industry is unhealthy; the health segment is being corporatized; the corporate world is politicized; and the political arena is....”
Though the Kamats are reticent about sharing why India did not work out, several friends explained that the Kamats could not cope with the way of life in India. Though both Jaya and Shridhar were born and raised in India, in their 10 years in Boston they had become accustomed to a totally different lifestyle, to which they quickly and readily adapted.
When they returned to India, it was a very different homeland. The good part was that the economy had opened up, “foreign” things were readily available. Their friends were watching the same television shows and had many common interests. A lot of it felt like “way back at home in Boston.” The added advantage was the help and support of the extended family, the chauffer driven cars, the domestic help and a big house in the heart of the city.
However, there were many people like the Kamats, not necessarily returned NRIs, who were doing well themselves, even better. In the India of 2012, the American-returned tag is not a cachet anymore.
The returning NRIs are also quickly realizing that the nostalgia of past experiences seldom withstands the harsh realities of an extended stay. Madhusudhan Akundi, who went to the United States as a student to pursue a master’s and ended up with a software job there, says he returned to India for his parents’ sake, as “they were highly dependent on me, especially my mother.”
He gives examples of friends who returned to India for varying reasons: “I know of a guy in our apartment complex who felt compelled to return because he was the only son. Moreover, life in the U.S. for him revolved around work, lawn mowing, taking kids to hobby classes or soccer practice, cleaning the house and the shed, cooking for the week, and a whole lot of household chores. Now that is something most Indians miss about India — the advantage of having cheap domestic help.” says
Another friend was motivated by a great job opportunity: “This friend was offered a posting in India by an American MNC. He realized that he could have the best of both worlds — a high-paying job with the American job culture that he was used to plus the advantage of living in his homeland. He feels since he is from the U.S., he has an advantage in rising up fast in the organization’s India operations.”
Akundi narrated the case of another friend who wanted to return to India because he has two daughters and did not want them to be raised in the U.S. when they hit their teens.
Whatever the drivers for the return to India, few NRIs have a realistic sense of what awaits them. According to Lakshmi Pratury, who came to India in 2009 to set up the India chapter of the TED Talks: “Things that you thought were better in India, are in fact better than the expectation, while things you thought are going to be bad, are in reality worse than what you expected.”
When she came to Bangalore she expected that her then five-year-old son would be well taken care of. “In fact, it is so much better. He got to know his extended family and has all the freedom to come and go as he pleases in the gated community where we live,” she says. On the other hand, “I knew that the traffic would be a difficult issue, but I could never imagine that it will be such a nightmare.” Pratury says: “India is not for the weak stomached. You can be as happy as the people you are surrounded by.”
Which is perhaps why most returning NRIs prefer to live next to each other in gated communities that real estate companies are feverishly promoting — Mediterranean style villas, French chateau, American suburban homes and the like.
Saranagati Chatterjee went to the United States in 1998 for his MBA and worked there until 2011, when the homeland bug bit him. “I came back primarily because of family. It was not feasible to come every six months to meet my folks.” Saranagati, who works in Yahoo in Bangalore, says so far the experience has been mixed for him.
“It is hard if you have lived in the U.S. for so long. Things that you took for granted like getting a new SIM card for your mobile, opening a bank account to buying a car or getting a cooking gas connection, are more difficult and frustrating to get done,” he says. “Information is not easily available. One goes by only word of mouth. So you ask people around you how to get this done and how to get that done. Nothing is black and white.”
On the positive said, Chatterjee is happy that his two daughters can play freely in the gated community where he lives. “There is no pressure to arrange for classes and drive them to the neighborhood parks like in the U.S.,” he says.
But as the months pass by, Chatterjee is contemplating returning to the United States. “When I came here I was open to accepting the way of life in India today. Increasingly, I feel a decision will have to be taken and I think I will return to the U.S. When we came to India on holidays it was very different. We would visit family, eat out and generally have a good time. But living here is a different ball game altogether.”
He says that returning NRIs who do not have compelling reasons to stay back, such as family, are more inclined to return to their adopted homeland.
Rachna Singh, a tech entrepreneur who founded her company gohatchi, says though there are startup challenges in India, she somehow connects with India better, “I chose Bangalore because like the Bay Area, it happens to be the place for startups.” Singh has been in India for a year-and-a-half and is happy with her decision. “Anyway, I travel to the U.S. every six months, so I do not miss it. I am pleasantly surprised by the people of Bangalore and their attitude of live and let live,” she says.
Pratury is open to going back to the United States, “I had low expectations when I came to India.” She has discovered that schools are not well rounded and, contrary to popular belief, India is an expensive place to live in. “One thing that I learnt here was integrating the personal and professional life … and in a way it is a good thing that I appreciate,” she adds.
Akundi believes that returning NRIs must have a strong reason for staying put. “Regardless of the family and domestic helps, life in the U.S. has its own charm — great weather, amazing roads, easy access to lots of beautiful places, things to do, great cars to drive around, clean system, 24 hours supply of water and electricity, clean places, no queues, no corruption and a whole host of other things. On the other hand, in India, reality can hit hard. You take your car on the road and you hit a pothole. You are watching tennis on TV and there’s a power failure. You go to a shopping mall, it is filled with thousands of people on a weekend ... This reality makes people somewhat regret their decision,” Akundi says.
“There is another thing that most people do not admit — there is a certain superiority feeling when you live abroad,” he adds. “You feel you are more privileged, you feel better about yourself living in the U.S. than in India. This feeling is mutual and hence the returned NRIs who go back to the U.S. want to regain that status — the exalted status of the NRI.
*Name changed to protect privacy
Land of Opportunities
Mehul Parikh left India in 2008 to pursue an MBA from the University of Portsmouth, Portsmouth, UK. Unable to land a job after graduation, he returned to India in 2010 and currently works as a project manager in an IT company. He says, “I have been able to earn good in India, paid my education loan and also started to save money.”
He admits that he could have earned more abroad: “On the other hand, working in India has the comfort of living with family and enjoying a social life. According to me, working abroad is good if you have a project for a year or two and then return to your own country. I am not certain of entire India, but Mumbai has always been a land of opportunities for me.” — Dhara Salla
Best Thing That Happened to Me
Pravin Soni and his elder brother left India in 1979 for Bahrain, but were forced out by their sponsor and returned to India after just two years. “Though returning wasn’t a problem, I wish I could have lived there a little longer. I had never planned to live abroad all my life as I was very attached to my family and wanted to take care of their needs. I have always been very rooted to my country.”
He focused on his family gold business and did exceptionally well, “Getting back to India was the best thing that could ever happen to me. That decade was the golden decade of my entire life’s earnings.”
Nevertheless, he believes that his brief foreign experience was worthwhile: “I would like to tell the youth of today, it’s a great experience to leave your country. It gives an understanding of the cross cultural working environment.”
Soni is now a successful businessman with thriving businesses in gold manufacturing, finance, real estate and a jewelry store. — Dhara Salla
Returning was the Best Decision
Priyadharshini Janarthanan went to the United States in 2008 for a MBA at Baruch College. After completing her education she landed a job in New York, but in September 2011 she gave up her American Dream to return to India to partner with her father in his business.
She has never regretted the decision: “Even though I had a good pay and a job, after a certain point I started to feel lonely. ‘The living abroad’ phase was definitely a struggle — emotionally and financially. But to handle it well just makes me feel independent and good about myself. I totally believe in the song ‘Empire State of Mind.’”
Settling in the United States was just not for her: “Since my return I have never looked back and prefer the comfort of a social and family life above all. I believe that returning to India was the best decision.” — D.S.