Return to India: For Knowledge@Wharton

Return to India: One Family’s Journey to America and Back
Published: November 01, 2007 in India Knowledge@Wharton

For decades, it was widely assumed that the brightest Indians would go overseas to study and eventually settle there. Today, signs have begun to appear that the tide may be turning. The fact that global companies are setting up operations in India makes it easier for non-resident Indians to return home, often while remaining with the same employer. Indian students are not leaving the country as eagerly as they once did, and if they do, they go back home much faster because of the attractive professional opportunities there. Others return because they feel they are losing a connection with their past. In this special section, India Knowledge@Wharton offers one family’s experience as a microcosm of the larger trend — Bangalore-based writer Shoba Narayan’s account of her family’s decision to return to India, after living in the U.S. for 20 years.

Author’s Note: Since this is intended for an American audience, I have written it from the point of view of my life in America.

This piece is about India and America and the love-hate relationship that I (and perhaps other immigrants) share with the two lands. It is about America; about why I came to this country and why I left. It is about India; about why I left and why I returned. It is about the immigrant journey away from home and then back to the homeland. The arc of its narrative, I believe, encapsulates many of the conflicts and issues faced by immigrants in America and the world. But in the end, it is my journey. I hope I can carry the reader with me.

We start with a dream– my dream of returning to my homeland. Other Indians share this dream and perhaps all immigrants fantasize about riding back home on gilded horses with gold coins to the sound of applause from adoring families. They may do nothing about this dream; they may not speak of it. Some eventually disdain or discard it. But for others, it festers at the back of their minds, rearing its head at random moments, till– as it did for me– it becomes an obsession. Go back home, go back home…home…home….

Home– a word filled with loss and longing. Snatches of music bring to mind a mother’s song. Smells in restaurants conjure up a kitchen back home. A face in a crowd looks like a relative. Birthdays, anniversaries and other milestones bring guilty reminders of aging parents and the relentless march of time. Eastern values of filial piety and taking care of your own begin gnawing away at your psyche. And so it begins: a tug of war between two cultures– New York or New Delhi, San Francisco or Santo Domingo, Toledo or Taipei; a competition between countries with no clear winner; a championship game for the title of “Home.” Or as the Indian jingle goes, “East or West. Home is the best.”

Horace Greeley’s edict, “Go West Young Man,” has been turned on its head. Today, it seems, the East is the new West, thanks to the burgeoning economies of China and India. The East is where opportunities, jobs and profits lie, or so its governments would like to have you believe. Statistics point to it and the popular press practically trumpets it. The immigrants are returning home. Non-resident Indians are opting for jobs in Bangalore rather than Boston. Harvard Business School students choose internships in Seoul over San Jose. Chinese-Americans are returning to the land of their ancestors in droves, seeking to profit from the meteoric rise of its economy. Returning Taiwanese account for more than half the start-ups in Taipei. The Western gold rush has come full circle. Or so they say.

The truth is a bit more complicated. Immigrants from the East are returning home but not just to take advantage of economic opportunities. I should know. I spent the first twenty years of my life trying to escape the stifling confines of my homeland, India. I was a student in search of freedom and opportunities. America beckoned like a siren. In America, I wouldn’t get slotted at birth to a certain religion, caste and class. I could change my name, start a business, own real estate and go from rags to riches. In return, I had only to work hard and pay taxes. That was the promise of America. Regardless of where I came from, I could go places. I could go from refugee to immigrant to green card holder to citizen. I could belong. Or so I thought.
What I found was that every choice involved a sacrifice; assimilation involved losing bits of my identity as an Indian. After twenty years in America, I sat atop my Manhattan high-rise, watching the planes and longing to fly back home with them.
Most immigrants of my generation are haunted by this conflict. They leave their homeland but it doesn’t leave them. The reason is because we are economic immigrants, changing identities, choosing cultures and chasing opportunities. Unlike generations past, we can go back home and frequently do.

Compare this with the political refugees and religious exiles of yore who fled native lands to escape starvation, persecution and even death. They were the pregnant women who threw themselves on boats, willing to submit to raging seas and the risk of drowning just so their children would be afforded the rights of US citizenship. They were the desperate refugees who begged, borrowed and paid their entire life savings to visa-agents to come into America saying just two words, “Political Asylum.” They jumped fences, crossed borders in the middle of the night and slipped into the shadow world of illegal immigrants for years on end for one simple reason: they didn’t want to go back home. So they anglicized their names, disavowed all relations and links to their past and started afresh in the West.

My path to America did not involve anything as drastic as jumping fences, crossing borders in the middle of the night, or overstaying a tourist visa and slipping into the shadow world of illegal immigrants for years on end. Mine is not a tale populated by bloodthirsty dictators, rampant epidemics, boat people, barking dogs and blood-smeared fences. I am neither a political exile nor a refugee fleeing from revolution. I came to America merely as a student seeking opportunities. Yet, I believe that my journey is emblematic of countless others. My dilemmas reflect those of many an immigrant today. My desire to give my children a safe, nurturing homeland is something that many Americans share, especially post 9/11.

The problem for economic-immigrants like me, immigrants of this generation, is that we are equally at ease in two disparate cultures and therefore fit into neither. We do the Namaz five times a day while trading derivatives or keeping track of baseball scores. We can sing in Sanskrit and Rap. We belong to both countries, yet choose neither. At some point, perhaps when the going gets tough with the INS and the green card, the isolation that comes from being far away from family and friends becomes too hard to bear. That is when people like me, who live the American Dream, start dreaming about going back home.

Like for most immigrants, home for me is a mélange of memories that have softened with time into a happy haze, like an Impressionist painting. There are people in this painting: iconic figures like my grandmother. There are physical places and wide open spaces. Most delightful of all are the scents and tastes of childhood– the fragrance of blooming night jasmine, dew wobbling on a lotus leaf, tinkling cowbells, the taste of cilantro, cumin and ginger– all of which imbue me with a powerful longing for the land that is called India, but which I call home. Most people ignore this call because inertia is easier. In many cases, circumstances prevent such a move. Jobs are specialized and cannot be easily transported. Teenage children, American by birth and inclination, get used to their hyphenated identities (Mexican-American, Indian-American, Korean-American) and vehemently oppose changing schools and leaving their friends. Even if both spouses agree to move back, they argue over logistics. The husband wants to live in New Delhi with his parents but the wife who can’t stand her in-laws chooses Pune. Many times, the couple just hasn’t saved enough money and decides to stay for “just one more year,” for the income.

The arrival of children complicates the process but compounds the longing. Both my daughters are Americans by birth but cannot escape being Indian. As a mother, I want to offer my children America’s benevolence. But I also want to bequeath them India’s heritage. I know they will love America, but I also want them to love India just as I do.

My own relationship with the two countries I have called ‘home’ is complicated. My love for India is one that a child feels for her mother– albeit, a chaotic, unwieldy, harassed one who doles out exuberant affection and unpleasant surprises in equal measure. My admiration for America is what one feels for a perfect if emotionally detached father– part hero-worship, part reproach. Because I put America on a pedestal, it sometimes falls short. Because I take India for granted, it sometimes surprises me pleasantly.

One of India’s recent surprises has been the fact that this lumbering elephant of a country has been able to dance to the technology tune and turn itself into an outsourcing Mecca. When my Indian friends and I met to celebrate Diwali, India’s largest holiday at—paradoxically—a church in Queens a couple of years ago, the post-chai discussion centered around returning home.

America is beginning to see such a trend amongst immigrants from different nations. Central Americans are returning to Costa Rica preferring the simple life to New York’s squalor. The English, Scots and Irish want to raise their children in the UK just like they were raised. Several things are causing this trend which I predict will become a groundswell. Jobs are becoming more global. The climate of America has become restrictive post 9/11. Immigrants are slowly being deprived of the very freedoms they had sought in coming to America. In my own case, finger-printed and saddled with ID cards, I was being slotted, not by caste as in India but by ethnicity. Being brown-skinned was no longer merely exotic. It was a liability. My husband got stopped more often at airports. We were used to being stared at but suddenly we perceived hostility. So, I too reached a point when I just wanted to go home.

What is home anyway? Is it a place, a person, or merely a fleeting memory? Can one ever go back home or is such a trip fraught with disappointment? Why do some people go back home and others don’t? I didn’t know the answers when I began asking these questions and perhaps there is no one answer to questions so individual. I found no universal truth, no personal path to salvation. But in the meantime, I discovered many things—about life and loss, identity and compromise, and about my place in the world.

This is what I found out. This is my journey.

Return to India is a topic that obsesses Indians. Chat rooms are devoted to it; multiple websites ponder the question and offer help, both practical and emotional; and first-generation Indian families can’t seem to stop thinking about it, if not actually discussing it. Lists are made about pros and cons. Mine went like this.

Reasons to move back to India
1. Parents are getting older. Want to take care of them.
2. Want kids to have eastern values like putting out for family and respect for elders. (Can we teach them these values while living in America?)
3. Want kids to have relationship with their grandparents and that is easier if we live in India.
4. Want to give back something to the country that nurtured us. (Can we do that from here? Contribute dollars to Indian charities.)
5. Viscerally miss living in India– the food, smell of jasmine, the auto-rickshaws, music concerts, cows on streets, haggling at bazaars, wearing silk saris. Is this just nostalgia?
6. Family is family. You can buy anything in America. Can’t buy family.
7. America is a very high-octane society. Want to protect kids from random shootings, drugs in high school, sex in middle school. (Am I being puritanical?)
8. Don’t want daughters to become a Brittany Spears clones. (Am I overreacting?)
9. What if we move back and something terrible happens? Can I live with myself?
10. If we live here, there is a fair chance that India gets eroded out of our lineage. Can I deal with non-Indian grandchildren?
11. Want kids to love India as I do.

Reasons to stay in America.
1. Global opportunities for a career. Meritocracy in the workplace. Encourages you to be the best in your field. Exciting place to work. If we move to India, have to give up on a career.
2. America is a multicultural society. Kids will get to know classmates from all over the world, especially if we live in a large city like New York. They will have a broad worldview.
3. Very comfortable life here in terms of material comforts. Systems work. People are efficient. Easy to get things done with encountering corruption.
4. Dollar income, strong currency, good purchasing power. Can use it to travel the world, buy things, enjoy life, go on cruises.
5. Want kids to have American values of independence, self-reliance, go-getting drive. (Can we teach them that from India?)
6. America is the least imperfect society. Has its problems, but at least I don’t have to worry about traffic, pollution, bribery and petty corruption, trains running on time, etc.
7. Even if we move back, I would want the kids to come back here for college. Then why bother hauling them back?
8. Medical facilities are much better in America. What if we move back to India and get a medical emergency; if someone dies because of medical mistreatment. Can I live with that?
9. Kids can learn skiing here. No snow in South India. Then again, how many times have we gone skiing in the last ten years?
10. Have a great life here. Have many dear friends. Why uproot ourselves? Are we nuts?
11. Want kids to love America as I do.

The impetus to act however, doesn’t come from these lists. It comes from events, either life-changing like a parent’s death or a child’s birth; or a series of small ones. I was one of those people who thought more about the move back home after my kids were born. But if I had to choose, I’d say that my questions about life in America grew out of a series of mundane events. Parties, for instance.

Dressing up for an Indian party in New York was, for me, a complicated exercise fraught with rules and miscues. On the one hand, I didn’t want to seem too Indian, dressed like my mother in a traditional sari and dime-sized bindi. On the other, I didn’t want to show up in a cocktail dress or pantsuit and confront a sea of women decked to the gills in ethnic finery. Not only would I stand out, worse, I would be instantly labelled as a pseudo Indian who tried to be too westernized.
Indians have a highly honed instinct for spotting artifice probably because many of us have attempted it ourselves. After all, what is the point of starting afresh in a new land if you cannot reinvent yourself into someone else, be it a suave corporate chieftain, Nobel-prize winning professor, media-darling with political aspirations, policy wonk, or UN high-flier who cloaks ambition with charm?

Yet, within each of us lay contradictions. We touted American enterprise and capitalism yet engaged in acts that were antithetical to free will: conducting an arranged marriage before thousand guests at one’s native village after spending years in America was one. Consulting an astrologer or shaving a child’s hair on a preordained auspicious day were others. We were– all of us– rational professionals with some irrational Indian predilections such as a love for cricket, curry and cold water without ice; a craving for mango pickle and mother’s rasam; and a belief in the curative powers of Vicks Vaporub, Fair & Lovely face cream and Woodwards Gripe Water.

I thought of this as I stood before my closet, discarding outfit after outfit. Usually, my sartorial decisions weren’t so complex. I wore Indian clothes to Indian parties and western clothes everywhere else. But Vicky and Tina Kapur, our hosts, were the most westernized Indians in our acquaintance. There was a fair chance that their party would be full of Americans in which case a cocktail dress or a pantsuit would work just fine. Then again, they may have invited only Indians in which case an elegant silk sari was more appropriate. Sari or suit, Indian or western– therein lay my dilemma.

Every Indian carries a mental inventory that is divided between being ‘Indian’ and being ‘Western.’ Certain clothes like saris and shawls are Indian, while pantsuits and short skirts are western. Chunky gold jewelry is Indian while sterling silver is western. Sandals are Indian, shoes, western. Long hair in braids or a chignon gave women an Indian look, while short boyish cuts were more westernized. Living in Queens, New Jersey or Long Island was Indian while living in edgy Manhattan was more western. Goods that offered value-for-money were Indian, outrageous splurges were western. Driving an SUV or BMW was Western; driving a Toyota or Honda was definitely Indian. Leasing, or for that matter, anything construing a short-term mindset was Western; owning, paying off the credit card bill in full at the beginning of each month, and offering cash for all transactions was Indian. Decorating your home with Indian artifacts was obviously Indian, while buying minimalist modern furniture was western. And so it went.

The problem with such a list was that random acts became deliberations. Lifestyle choices that should have been spontaneous became complicated by analyses. Should I keep an ‘Indian’ home or a ‘western’ one? Should I wear a bindi or not? Should I keep my hard-to-pronounce name, or anglicize it, like the Jews and Chinese had done? Should I celebrate Christmas, a holiday that I didn’t grow up with, or should I ask for a day off to celebrate Diwali, the most important Hindu holiday? Should I remain aloof or assimilate? Should I wear the colorful Indian clothes that I love, or quit wearing them in public because I am tired of being stared at? Such questions rattled my brain to the point where I sometimes just wanted to check out. Sometimes, I just wanted to pick an outfit, not a country.

When I was single, the answer to such questions was simple and pointed to all things American. I wanted to wear western clothes, celebrate American holidays, embrace new traditions, and assimilate completely. That changed after I became a mother, and took upon myself, the self-imposed but rather nebulous task of passing on “Indian values and culture,” to my child. I didn’t have a clue as to what exactly constituted Indian values, but I knew that they had to be different from American ones, which meant that I had to be different too. I had to become more “Indian.”

As cultures went, India and America were so different that it was difficult to assemble a composite Indian-American identity. India was at one end of the spectrum, America was at its opposite, and there truly was a schism between the two. It was hard to mesh the two cultures together in one individual.
In comparison, I felt, Europeans, particularly Western Europeans had it easier. They were closer to America in the cultural continuum. When my Swiss or German friends talked about going on ski trips, for instance, it sounded natural– what they had done in the Alps as children, they were continuing in Aspen. When Indians talked about ski vacations, it sounded like an affectation, given that there is no snow in most parts of India. Similarly, some of my Indian friends cultivated an interest in wines and waxed eloquent about them. While their interest was genuine, and their knowledge, honestly gained, it seemed contrived– in comparison to say, a French man’s interest– because India has few vineyards and is not a wine drinking culture. Indian booze consists predominantly of beer, whisky and scotch.

I couldn’t help wondering if my fellow Indians cultivated such interests– golf, wine, opera, art, or jazz– as a means of fitting into mainstream American society. Or perhaps they were enamored by the novelty of it all, just as I was. I too, was not exempt from such behavior. I had studied modern art in America and gained an understanding and appreciation for it. Still, it seemed pseudo when I dropped names like Jackson Pollack and Christo, because Indian modern art is a mere twenty years old and I had little interest in art before I came to America. We had, each of us, added layers to our personalities after coming to the United States. Sometimes, these layers clashed with our past even if they were not poses. There was no coherent way to join our Indian past with our American future without it seeming forced.

My problem– and perhaps all women face this– was that depending on the event and the people involved, I switched roles and changed personas. In the presence of elder Indians, I reverted to what I called my “Indian bahu (daughter-in-law)” role, touching their feet respectfully, plying them fresh lime and samosas, and politely calling them Auntie and Uncle. In the presence of Americans however, I felt duty-bound to break stereotypes and prove to them that Indian women were not suppressed demure damsels sans voice or convictions. So I got into my “feminist” role— she of the strident laugh and strong opinions. It got a bit confusing, and sometimes I wondered who I really was.

My husband’s answer to all this was a devastatingly simple, “Why don’t you just be who you are?”
But who was I really? Was I the good Indian bahu (daughter-in-law) or the feminist rebel– two different creatures entirely? And who were all these Indians pretending to be?

Ram (my husband), I knew, didn’t view our fellow Indians through so jaundiced a lens. He didn’t think anything wrong for an
Indian to acquire new loves– be it western hobbies, racecars, nouvelle cuisine, or all of the above. While I viewed such choices as traitorous pretensions, he saw them as a natural evolution of coming to a new country and learning new things.
“How can a guy who has been eating dosa and sambar for 25 years suddenly guzzle kimchi and proclaim Korean the food of the Gods?” I would ask.

“Why not? Just because you grew up in England doesn’t mean you have to love Shephard’s Pie. Just because you grew up in Vermont doesn’t mean you have to love snow,” Ram would reply.

“You don’t have to love it, but you don’t need to turn your back on it forever,” I said. “After all, a leopard can’t change its spots.”

I was right, and Ram was right too. Most of our Indian friends hadn’t changed spots completely, but hadn’t remained the same either. We had retained some of our Indian-ness while absorbing some American mannerisms, habits and interests, and morphed into something unique. We were unlike any of the Indians we left behind back home but hadn’t completely become American either. We were mutants.

The Kapur party had already reached the high decibel zone when we arrived. Their Upper East Side townhouse “fitted with a swimming pool, no less” as someone said was filled to the brim with Indians; and a smattering of Americans.
There were many overlapping circles amongst Indians in New York, and the Kapur party contained a fair representation. On one side was the Asia Society crowd– the auteurs and art patrons who paid $1000 a pop for an evening with filmmaker Mira Nair. Across the room were the Columbia University professors and journalists. Many of the men were from Wall Street and you could tell who was where on the corporate ladder by what they wore. The ones who appeared genial, almost professorial were the top guys who ran big divisions. The ones with the $5000 Armani suits were the ladder-climbing midlevel executives, and the young single analysts…well there weren’t any young singles at Tina’s party. They were all probably enjoying Indian Bhangra Night at SOBs downtown with DJ Rekha.

I stood back to enjoy the scene. City lights twinkled in the background, the kir royale had a delicious fizz, and the murmur of conversation was punctuated by a sudden guffaw or giggle. This, I supposed, was my world…and it wasn’t a bad one. My daughter, Ranjini would have loved this party. She enjoyed playing hostess. When we had dinner parties at home, she liked to go around and serve people, which sort of drove me nuts, because it was such a traditional womanly role. I wanted Ranjini to take charge, to be tough and strong. She would probably end up traumatized by the mixed messages she got from her mother. On the one hand, I wanted her to be humble and respectful to elders like a good Indian kid; on the other, I wanted her to be an American go-getter. She would probably end up an ABCD– an American Born Confused Desi.

Desi is a Hindi word, meaning ‘native’ and immigrant Indians like me used the term ABCD (American Born Confused Desi) pejoratively to indicate first-generation Indian-Americans who were born in this country but burdened and confused by the strong Indian values thrust upon them by their parents.

“Oh, he’s such an ABCD,” we would say dismissively, referring to someone who looked Indian but acted American.

Yet, now, here we were, rearing ABCDs ourselves. ABCDs who would eventually view us disparagingly as “Fresh Off the Boat (FOB)” parents who knew zilch about American culture, rap music and proms.

“I would hate to spend the rest of my life with a FOB,” my American-born, Indian-parented niece said whenever the subject of marriage came up even though she considered herself ‘Indian.’

We called them ABCDs, they called us FOBs. Who were we really?

We had arrived in this country, carrying little but our wits, and then clawed, scrambled and fought our way to decent positions in respectable professions. We had grabbed our share of the American dream and ensconced ourselves in its soil. Now that we were part of its populace, we had little to fight for but hadn’t yet lost our stray dog spirit. So we jockeyed and practiced against each other, dropping names, developing new interests, joining non-profits like the American India Foundation and giving money to fashionable charities. In this, we were still the immigrants who had something to prove– to each other and the world. Yet, for all the assimilation, our current personas were sometimes at odds with our past.

I realize that this is my problem. Many people shrug off their origins for reasons that have nothing to do with migrating to another country. Even within America, people from the South may shed their accents and people from Hawaii may have nothing to do with beaches or the surf. Others change their accents to become news anchors; their names to become models; and hide their sexual preference when applying to the armed services. They change their identity and are the happier for it. You can’t be imprisoned by your past, they say, and I agree wholeheartedly. But when an Indian does this, I take it personally. Because I am part of the land where he comes from, I feel bad when he disassociates himself from it.

Even those that proudly display their origins end up having to watch it being rubbed off from successive generations. In my own case, the most painful example of this disconnect occurs when my mother recounts stories from Indian mythology and my daughter prefers to watch the Cartoon Channel. Or when my daughter speaks English and my parents can’t understand her accent.

“What is she saying?” they ask, gazing at me confused.

“My own mother can’t understand my daughter,” I think in theatrical despair as I translate.

This disconnect is happening in India as well– the youngsters play pool while their parents play cards; college students patronize pubs in Bangalore even though their parents don’t drink; teenagers listen to rock bands instead of native Indian music. This, I suppose is what is called generation gap. But in the case of Indians in America, the gap has perchance become a gaping hole.

It was late at night when we hopped on to a cab. I leaned back exhausted.

“These Indian parties really get to me,” I said. “We are such pretenders,” I said. “The whole lot of us— with our foreign affectations and faux accents when what we really do is go home and eat dal-chaval (rice and dal) everyday.”

“Why can’t we be both?” Ram asked. “Indian and American. Indian-American.”

“An ABCD, you mean?”

“Not necessarily. American for sure, but not necessarily Confused. The best of both worlds.”

I shook my head. “Doesn’t exist. India and America are too different. Best of both worlds leads to confused kids. Best of both worlds is a prescription for an ABCD. You have to pick a country; you have to make a call.”

“I disagree.” Ram’s voice rose. “Being cosmopolitan is not a bad thing.”

“Being cosmopolitan is all very well for adults with set identities. It is a disaster for young children,” I said.

“That’s not true,” Ram said.

There was silence. We turned away from each other.

“It is true,” said a voice from the front. Our cab driver was looking at us with interest through the rear-view mirror.

“It’s true,” he said, nodding his head emphatically. “Raising kids in foreign country is no good. That’s why I sent my wife and kids back to Nigeria last year.”

“Thank you for your comments but….” Ram began testily.

“Hear him out,” I interrupted.

“This culture very different from African culture,” the man continued, clicking his tongue. “Here it is…what you say…sex, drugs and rock & roll, no?”

I smiled and nodded.

“Send your wife home,” the Nigerian cab-driver advised. “Nice life in India. Hare Krishna Hare Rama!” He grinned.

Ram rolled his eyes.

“Look, if giving Ranjini Indian values, whatever they may be, is so important to you, then do something,” Ram said. “Rather than hankering for something which doesn’t exist.”

“I will,” I said as we got out of the cab. “I am taking her to the temple tomorrow.”

I wasn’t surprised that motherhood changed me. After all, I, an avowed agnostic had suddenly started taking my child to the Hindu temple in Flushing, Queens so she could become exposed to her faith. What surprised me was that motherhood changed my attitude towards America. Until then, America had been a welcoming land where I had spent ten glorious years being young and free. It had denied me nothing because of the color of my skin or the foreignness of my character. Indeed, it had allowed me to fly and freed me from the constraints of my homeland.

After my child was born, America became my daughter’s birthplace, her homeland, and I held it to high standards. I wanted it to accept Ranjini, but– irrationally, perhaps– I resented that she would always be a minority. I didn’t want Ranjini to think like a minority, to carry a chip on her shoulder and feel compelled to try harder like I did. I wanted her to have the ease of entitlement, the confidence of knowing that this was her country, because it was. I wanted her to believe that she would have equal opportunities here; that she was just like the other kids.

So I began to look at other parents, particularly Indian parents to figure out what techniques the successful ones adopted. Ram and I had many nephews and nieces who had grown up in America, and I talked to them about growing up as an Indian-American.

Two years into the process when Ranjini was about five, it became apparent to me that Ranjini would not be a typical American kid. She was American by birth, but couldn’t escape being Indian, not because of the way she was but because of the way her parents were. Ram and I were too Indian. We enjoyed America but had not been able to leave India behind. Because of us, Ranjini would be always be the other, the outsider, the minority, the “Indian” kid. She would be Hindu and vegetarian because we were. She was doomed to spelling out her strange-sounding name because we had thought it pretty and named her so. She wouldn’t escape Indian culture because we surrounded her with it.

Ram’s attitude towards parenting was more sanguine. He believed that as long as we gave Ranjini a stable home and basic values such as honesty, compassion and equanimity, she would turn out fine.

“You are overanalyzing things,” he told me often. “There is no magic cause-and-effect for parenting. It is more like a crapshoot. You do what you can and hope for the best.”

“That’s not true,” I said. “I want Ranjini to believe that the world is her oyster, that she can become anything she wants including the President of the United States.”

“You really want her to become President?” Ram asked. “Like Clinton?”

“Not really, but I want her to believe that she can. I want her to believe that she can walk in space and touch the moon,” I said.

“That’s great,” said Ram. “But how do you propose to impart all this confidence and make her humble and respectful to elders like a good Indian child?”

I pursed my lips. He was mocking me. There was a lot I needed to figure out. Cross-cultural parenting was harder than I thought.

Although it seems illogical, many Indians activate their plan to move back to India after they get their green card or citizenship. It seems contradictory—the American government finally gives them permission to stay forever and then they pack up to leave.
This certainly was true for me, thanks in part, to Priscilla the pretzel lady.

Snow was falling as I climbed up the steps of the Brooklyn College auditorium; plump, happy flakes that danced over the red brick buildings and settled on my purple overcoat like fairy dust. I was early, or so I thought as I pushed opened the door. The long lines of people inside testified otherwise. They were from all over the world– 54 nationalities, I would later learn, ranging from Haiti to Hungary, Tajikistan to Tasmania. 1600 immigrants– waiters, nurses, bankers, cab drivers, divorcees, single mothers, and transvestites– gathered together for the same purpose– to become naturalized citizens of the United States of America.

We were a particularly large group, partly because it was February 2000. The Millennium year or Y2K as everyone called it, using its import to make important changes in their lives. Becoming a naturalized citizen was one and so applications swelled.
I took my place in line and surveyed the faces, each remarkably different in color, tone, and bone structure– Caucasian, Chinese, Hispanic, South Asian, Middle Eastern African, and others I couldn’t recognize. Yet, they all reflected the weary resignation of people who had been waiting for a long time. After the application forms came the interviews, fingerprinting and security checks. This was the last step– the oath of allegiance– in a long, grueling journey; a journey, which, for me, had begun in a line, just like this one, outside the American embassy in Madras.

I glanced around at my fellow travelers. It hadn’t been easy, this immigrant path we had chosen. Rather, it had been an elaborate obstacle course that served only to whet our appetite for America. By the time I and a thousand others leapt through the minefield of barriers, red tape and rules by dint of will, hard work, perseverance, and occasionally cunning, we possessed one quality that set us apart from the average American: steely resolve. Immigrants are fighters. They have to be. The INS makes them jump through too many hoops in order to gain the honor of becoming American citizens.

At exactly 11 a.m. the doors opened and we were all ushered inside. The large auditorium was full. On the stage were a posse of local and state government officials who gave cliché-laden speeches about what a long journey it had been for each of us, and how happy we must be to have reached this point. Finally, one of them told all of us to rise. She had been previously introduced as the INS commissioner for the region.

“Raise your right hand,” the woman said.

We did, and repeated the oath after her. “I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure…bear true faith and allegiance…bear arms on behalf…work of national importance…take this obligation freely…so help me God.”

After that, things got a bit crazy. People began hugging each other, even perfect strangers. Someone shook my hand, someone else took a picture. Spanish broke out on side; Haitian French on the other. Two women shouted excitedly in what appeared to be Russian, while another man was yelling into his cell phone in Yiddish. The speeches from the stage continued booming their congratulations.

As we left the auditorium, an usher gave us a certificate of naturalization, a voter’s registration form, and instructions on how to apply for a US passport.

My attorney, Ann La Rue was waiting for me outside. She had been with me at the start line of my voyage as an ‘alien,’ and I had invited her to be part of the finish as well. I was touched that she had taken the time from her busy workday and trekked all the way out to Brooklyn just to see me becoming a citizen from the viewer’s gallery.

“Congratulations!” she said as she hugged me. “Come on, let’s have lunch and celebrate.”

We had lunch at the Williams Club where Ann was a member, and went our separate ways, I towards my apartment near Lincoln Center and Ann to her Madison Avenue law firm.

At the corner of 66th Street and Columbus Avenue, a stone’s throw away from Lincoln Center, is a tiny stand named Priscilla’s Pretzels, manned by an old woman who looks to be of Eastern European descent, perhaps Polish. I had always assumed her name was Priscilla, although the stand could have been named after her mother or daughter.

I passed Priscilla’s Pretzels several times a day– on my way to the subway, after dropping off and picking up my daughter at her preschool, on my way to pediatric appointments, and when we walked together as a family to Lincoln Center during the summer for outdoor concerts.

“Hi Priscilla!” I would say as I passed her and she would wave back. I hadn’t made a single purchase from her stand for I disliked pretzels, but I didn’t think she held that against me.

On that cold February afternoon, a few hours after I became a US citizen, I passed Priscilla again as I walked back home. It was still snowing. Wisps of smoke came out of her stand as she wrapped a warm pretzel and handed it to a customer.

On an impulse, I stopped. It was a momentous day in my life. I felt exuberant, yet strangely weary. I was embarking on a new chapter and wanted to share the news with someone. Priscilla, I felt, would understand. She too was an immigrant, and had probably undertaken a similar journey. We shared a longing for America emulsified by a deep aversion for the INS. Or so I believed as I stood before her holding out some bills.

“I became a citizen today, Priscilla,” I said.

“Congratulations!” she said, slathering some mustard on my pretzel. She waved away my money. “It’s on me,” she said. Her accent was hard to decipher.

“Thanks,” I replied. “No more dealings with the INS.”

“That’s right,” agreed Priscilla.

“No more waiting for green card and visa extensions.”

“Absolutely,” said Priscilla. “Now it’s time to go back home.”

I laughed. “Sure,” I drawled. “Work hard to become a citizen, and then turn right back and go home.”

“That’s right,” said Priscilla. “Family is family.”

“Is your family back home?” I asked. I still couldn’t tell where she was from.

Priscilla nodded. “Every single one of them. I’ve been in this country 22 years but not a day goes by when I don’t think about them.”

“I know,” I said, nodding. I knew.

“Thanks a lot,” I said, holding up my pretzel. “Bye, Priscilla.”

“My name isn’t Priscilla,” she said. “Priscilla is my daughter.”

“Sorry,” I apologized.

It was only when I reached home that I realized I still didn’t know her name. So Priscilla she would remain, at least in my mind.

“Now it’s time to go back home.”
Priscilla’s words haunted me. It wasn’t the first time I had heard them or even thought them myself. Every time the going got tough with the INS, I would question my intent to stay in America. “What am I doing here?” I would think. “Is this worth it?”
But there had always been the seemingly unattainable next step to aspire to, the next challenge. Mount Holyoke, graduate school, getting financial aid, getting a job, applying for a work permit, getting a green card, and finally, after 15 years, becoming a US citizen. I had been propelled by a drive that I hadn’t questioned. I had been so busy getting to the next step, running up the spinning wheels that I didn’t bother to check where they were leading me. Now that I had finally ‘made it’ as an American citizen, what next? How now to make meaning out of my life?

Staying the course was easy; inertia, easier. Dreams were prettier when they remained just that– blowsy, diaphanous and distant. The minutiae of living cut into the examination of a life. Until something or someone broke the cycle…as Priscilla had done for me.

My first ten years in America had been glorious. Single, then married but still independent, I enjoyed them thoroughly. Life was exciting, and trips back home, boring necessities that I undertook reluctantly, mostly to assuage parents and close family. After every vacation, I raced back to America, eager to see my friends, embrace its fast pace and pulsating rhythms, go to restaurants, and catch up on the movies, sit-coms and magazines that I was addicted to. When the plane touched down at JFK International Airport, I would pump my fist and utter a silent whoop of delight. Yes! I was home.

It was after I had a child that I first entertained the previously heretical possibility that perhaps, America wasn’t home for me. Tired, sleep deprived and encumbered, the “land of the free,” no longer seemed so to me. I was saddled with a toddler and missed parents, relatives and other potential babysitters. I missed the respite that came from dropping off a child with a trusted aunt for a few hours. India’s social fabric seemed more conducive to raising a family. I could call a neighbor, any neighbor at a moment’s notice and ask her to watch my child while I ran out for some milk. I missed the septuagenarian grandfathers who patrolled my neighborhood and reported back all naughtiness and babysitter negligence. I had hated their interfering eyes as a child, but now as a mother, I viewed them as allies. I missed the whole village of people who had raised me, who would help me raise my child.

It wasn’t that we had a bad life in New York. We didn’t. We had made friends, took advantage the city’s cultural and social vibrancy, and enjoyed its quirks. But it was still an American existence. It was efficient, compartmentalized and prided independence and self-sufficiency. I couldn’t dream of dumping my child with a friend, however close, at a moment’s notice. All my friends led hectic, tightly packed lives. While they were perfectly willing to watch Ranjini, their schedules wouldn’t allow it unless we made arrangements days in advance. Spontaneity was out of the question, unless it was planned and noted in our Palm Pilots. Work and family were distinctly differently. There were work colleagues who we never saw on weekends, and family or friends who we rarely saw during the week. Our days and nights too were similarly divided– there was family night, date night when my husband and I went out, leaving Ranjini home with the nanny, and couples night to which children were not invited. All this compartmentalization increased the odds of enjoyment but didn’t allow for lapses of efficiency. It was fun to dine with another couple at a fancy restaurant unfettered by tugging children. Yet, at the same time, the amount of planning that went into searching, procuring and paying for a babysitter made me question the necessity of such elaborate arrangements. In India, the kids would have simply tagged along. They would have created a ruckus and after a point, we would have paid the waiter a few bucks to entertain them at another table. It wasn’t very efficient, but it wasn’t a production either.

Part of the complication was that India was several time zones and several thousand miles away from New York. I couldn’t just jet over to see family or attend a wedding over the long weekend. For the first time in my life, I began missing my large close-knit family. When Ranjini uttered her first word, there was no one to share the delight with me save my husband. When her arm swelled after a fall, I couldn’t S.O.S my grandmother right away for an herbal poultice recipe. It would have been 3 a.m. in India.

The isolation of being away from close family, combined with the occasional stresses of being a foreigner made me nostalgic for the familiar sights, smells and sounds of Home. America, however, seduced with the promise of wealth and the “good life.” Like many others, I succumbed and stayed put, haunted by my homeland’s childhood warmth but lacking the courage to return to its chaotic systems.

I was a minority however. Most immigrants I knew didn’t want to return to their home countries. I knew several Indians, who considered it an infra dig to even acknowledge that they were from India. While they missed certain things, they had put their homeland behind them and grown roots in America. They had acclimatized and become Americans, both legally and emotionally.

In our building lived a Peruvian couple who spoke Spanish to their young son, ate ceviche everyday but had no desire to live in Peru ever. Ranjini played with a little girl whose French father considered America the best country on earth. He liked to visit Paris, yes, but after twenty years in the States, he said, there was no way could he live or work in France.

Ram too was one of those people who loved living in America. He worked in asset management and enjoyed being back on Wall Street. He liked being surrounded by brilliant, driven people and the fast paced exchange of ideas. He could move millions of dollars with a computer click or a phone call. He could email a broker or research analyst with a question and have financial information on just about anything within a few minutes.

Perhaps as a result of watching economic reform inch along at snail’s pace in India, Ram was a big believer in the capitalist model of getting things done and moving on without endlessly looking back. Regret wasn’t a part of his psyche, and Wall Street and its here-and-now culture suited him perfectly. Sure, it was stressful, he said, but which job wasn’t. The pay was good; the job was stimulating, and though his firm was a political place, it still had enough bright people to leaven the monotony. As far as Ram was concerned, our lifestyle in New York was perfect. No wonder he was loath to question it.

“Priscilla thinks we should go back home,” I told Ram one evening as we sat on the steps of Columbus Circle having an ice cream together. Ranjini was watching a juggler, entranced by the sight of the colored dominoes that he threw up in the air.

“Who is Priscilla?” he asked.

“The pretzel woman at the corner of our street.”

Ram raised his eyebrows. “And she’s the authority on when we should go back home?” he asked. “You just became a citizen.”

“Two separate things,” I said. “Two separate things. Becoming a citizen is like taking life insurance. It is a cushion.”

“So now you want to go back?” Ram asked. “Why? I thought you liked it here.”

“I do,” I replied. “I love New York. But I also think we should explore the possibility of living in India.”

“After all these years? What will we do in India? I can’t work there. My job is too specialized,” Ram said.

“All I am saying is that family is family, and our parents aren’t getting any younger, and if our kids need to have contact with their grandparents, now is the time to provide that opportunity.”

Ram shook his head. “I don’t understand you,” he said. “Is this some kind of a feminist reaction to what you’ve just done? I thought you wanted to become an American citizen.”

“I did want to become a citizen,” I replied. “I do. I wanted to make sure that our kids were born here so that they won’t have to wait in line outside the American consulate like we did. I wanted to get my citizenship so I never have to deal with the INS again.”

“And so you won’t,” Ram said, chewing his cone. “Aren’t you overreacting?”

“India is a great place to raise young children,” I maintained. “Life there is more relaxed, not as stressful. I could get much more household help for far less money. Our families would baby-sit. Things are slower. The whole system is set up to accommodate young children.”

“So you think,” Ram said. “So you think. You haven’t lived in India for years.”

“But do I want to live in this country forever? I am not sure.”

“Well, you’d better get used to it,” Ram said. “Because I am not packing my bags and moving.”

My brother was– packing his bags and moving, that is. A month later, Shyam visited me from Chicago, where he and his wife then lived to inform me that he was moving to London. His firm had openings in their London office and he was taking one of them. Two years later, they planned to move back to India.

I was dismayed. “Why are you doing this?” I asked. “Don’t you like America? You want to leave me all alone here?”

Shyam chuckled at my aggrieved tone. “Look, in order to continue working in America, my firm requires that I have a green card, and I don’t.”

“I can fix that,” I said quickly. “I know Ann. She’s a great immigration lawyer.”

“I am not sure if I want to go through all that hassle,” he said. “The INS really makes you jump through hoops, doesn’t it?”

“Not really,” I lied. “It is mostly procedural.”

“That may be, but I am still not sure if I want to live in America forever. People work too hard here, and there is little time for family. Europe is more laid-back.”

“But it is so far away,” I said, feeling strangely bereft, even betrayed.

“You know what your problem is?” Shyam said. “You are willing to put up with anything just to stay in America.”

“And you know what your problem is?” I screamed back. “You have a chip in your shoulder. You are so quick to see the bad side of things.”

Shyam was right and I was too. In order to survive as a foreigner in a new country, you have to be willing to discount minor infractions, and I had become very good at that. When sales girls ignored me at department stores, I told myself it was because of my dowdy clothes, not my brown skin. When acquaintances asked questions like, “Do people still ride elephants in India?” or “Is India full of beggars?” I brushed them off as silly questions from well-meaning people. Shyam, on the other hand, would have called those people parochial and ignorant at best, or at worst racist. He was a Leo. He had too much pride. He wanted America not just to accept him but also to adore him, to welcome him with open arms.

“Why does the INS treat everyone as criminals until proven otherwise?” he asked. “And why do you put up with it?”

“Because a hundred other people are waiting to take my place if I don’t,” I said. “Don’t you see? There are nuclear scientists and Nobel-prize winners standing in line to get into America.”

“Not me,” Shyam said. “I refuse to stand in line. If America wants me, it must accept me on my own terms.”

“Yeah, right. Like you are some hot-shot who this country can’t do without,” I snarled. “The truth is that we need America more than it need us.”

“That’s not true,” Shyam said evenly. “America needs its immigrants just as much.”

We glared at each other, upset and at an impasse. This always happened. I was desperate to get Shyam to live in America with me and couldn’t understand why he was being so dense and unrealistic about it. We were foreigners here. America wasn’t our turf, our homeland. We would have to put up with a few slights from ignorant people in order to reap its benefits. Why couldn’t Shyam just focus on America’s rewards, instead of going on and on about transgressions– real and imagined? Shyam, on the other hand, couldn’t understand why I was glorifying America at all costs.

“Don’t you have any pride?” he often asked.

“I can’t afford to have pride,” I said. “Be practical. Until this year, I wasn’t even a citizen.”

“Well, I am not going down that route,” Shyam said. “I am going to spend a couple of years in England and then move back to India.”

I paused and took a deep breath. Our conversations on this subject always disturbed me. For better or worse, I measured my life against my brother’s and when he made decisions that were the exact opposite of mine, I questioned my own choices. When Shyam talked about racism, it finally brought to mind all those instances when I had felt it but brushed it off– the patronizing Columbia journalism professor who assumed I couldn’t understand English, the rude salesclerk who enunciated every word when he spoke to me, the redneck on the pickup truck who had honked all the way while following me on a single-lane dirt road in Alabama, and many others.

In order to pull yourself up by the roots and move to a faraway land– whether it be your home or some other country– it is not enough to be lured by its distant attractions. You have to find your present existence odious enough to let go of it, to fly away as I had done from India. Shyam had had enough of Chicago, of America, and was ready to flee to London. I, on the other hand, didn’t dislike America enough to pick up and leave. Living in New York was easy and stimulating, which was why it was so hard to consider anything else.

“Don’t you miss India?” Shyam asked. “Don’t you miss home?”

“Oh, get lost,” I replied.

There is a reason why so many immigrants who come to America never move back to their home countries, even if they– like me, the Nigerian cabdriver, or Priscilla the pretzel lady– long to. Many of us, even the ones that love our homelands, had gotten used to the ease and efficiency of America. I, for one, had lost the ability to cope with constant elbowing and jostling that living in a populous, resource-constrained society like India demanded. New York was good practice but it was still not India.

The combination of circumstances that cause people to move back to India are so rare as to render them almost impossible. In some cases, one spouse wants to move back but the other doesn’t. Sometimes, both spouses want to move but the children don’t. In many cases, the family is dependent on an American income not just for themselves but for an extended clan back home. Even if money were not a criteria, uprooting a family involves numerous decisions– which city to move into, what job to take, whether to work at all or live on American savings. By the time the husband and wife argue, agree and finally decide, time may have flown and the kids too, may have flown the coop. We knew some friends in that situation, who had talked for years about moving back and now talked about “retiring” in their hometown.

“Sometimes, I wish I were one of those lucky Indians who has no desire to move back, ever,” I told Ram. “I wish I were one of those people who are able to put the old country behind them and live happily ever after.”

“A lot of them don’t,” Ram replied. “Pierre goes back to France three times a year. Tomas still has his parents in Uruguay. Avi visits Israel with his American wife. But they’ve all figured out one thing.” He smiled. “Life really is better over here in America.”

I pushed the food around in my plate and nodded, unconvinced. We had just found out that I was pregnant with our second child, and were ecstatic. But the nausea had made me averse to all food.

“Come on,” Ram said. “We don’t have a bad life here. You love New York, we have a nice home, I have a decent job, we have friends, family. What’s not to love?”

“I am just worried about our kids growing up as Indian-American,” I said. “Hyphenated identities are tricky, especially ones where the two parts are as different as India and America.”

“They are not radically different.”

“Oh come on,” I said derisively. “Americans eat sweet things for breakfast. Indians eat hot and spicy foods first thing in the morning. American kids sleep separately from when they are a month old. Ranjini sleeps in our bed and she is four.”

“What’s your point?”

“Indian parenting is all about hanging on to your kids and smothering them and preserving their innocence for as long as possible. In America, it is all about independence– separating them, teaching them to become strong and independent individuals.”

“Both ways have their merit.”

“You’ve got to make a call. You can’t choose both,” I said.

“Best of both worlds,” Ram repeated.

I shook my head.

On the one hand, I wanted my kids to have a healthy dose of Indian contact so that they wouldn’t feel like a weird minority. Yet, on the other, I had gained a lot by exposing myself to America. American meritocracy had unearthed talents that I didn’t know I possessed. My latent interest in art and writing had been encouraged to flourish. A number of Americans had taken me into their homes and gone out on a limb for me. They had touched my life in ways that were fleeting and profound. I wanted Ranjini to experience all that too. I wanted her to having a strong Indian identity yet learn all the good American values. Was it possible?

The bottom line was that there was no easy way to be an Indian in America. There were too many equally viable choices, too many ways of being “Indian-American,” whatever that was. You could socialize with just Indians, even those from your own region as many did in the Bay Area, and be okay. Or you could stay away from your countrymen and still have a fine life. The problem was that there were no norms, no social mores that dictated lifestyle and behavior like there were in India. The same choices that were exhilarating when I was young and unconfined became unwieldy when I became a mother and searched for the ‘right way’ to do things. In America, there was no right and wrong. It was all about personal choice, and sometimes, it was all too much.

But choice was not all that America was about. When I had been a teenager in India, I had associated America with McDonald’s, James Bond, fast cars, and glittering shops. Only after living here for years and years, only after I had thrown myself into its midst did I really understand the true values of American society. It had taught me self-reliance– I didn’t panic like my mother did if the maid didn’t show up. I could clean bathrooms, fix a flat tire and cook my own food, thank you very much. America had dared me to dream in broad swathes rather than miniscule points. It had grown me up and given me the confidence to tackle anything.

As a nation, America treated foreigners better than most others. It wasn’t perfect to be sure, and many immigrants in America faced prejudice, but it was the least imperfect of all systems. My aunt had lived in the Singapore for years but still could not own an apartment there because she was not Singaporean. Many of my cousins had immigrated to the Gulf countries like Abu Dhabi and Kuwait but had strict restrictions imposed on their monetary investments because they were not natives. In contrast, America had denied me almost nothing because I was a foreigner. I had gone from being a young girl with a suitcase and very little cash to a middle-aged mother with an awful lot of possessions. I could own a home, invest money, and vote for who became the next President.

It had been good to me, this nation of 300 million people, just as it had been good to the Silicon Valley Indians who arrived as nervous students and ended up as entrepreneurs-turned-millionaires. Yet, many if not most of them worked in American software companies, bought American products and then retreated into a world that was unequivocally Indian. They combined American comfort with Indian culture. The best of both worlds, they said, and it was hard to argue with that. Had I lived in the Silicon Valley, I could see myself falling into the comfort and convenience of doing just that. But what was the point of living in America but shunning its culture? What was the point of living in America but socializing just with Indians?

When I met like-minded friends of a certain age with young kids, an oft-repeated lament amongst us all was how simple and great life was back in India and how confusing and difficult it was raising Indian kids in America. Part of it was nostalgia, part of it, dementia, the kind that forgot realities and assumed that the grass was always greener on the other side of the ocean. A lot of it was ignorance. Most of us had leapt across the precipice of youth and emerged in America as fully formed adults. The India we knew was one that was devoid of adult responsibility. I, for instance, had never opened a bank account in India. Nor had I applied for a job, tried to get a telephone connection, bought a house or a car. I had done all these things in America with astonishing ease yet yearned for the ‘simple’ life back home.

Several Indians I knew had made “firm” plans to go back home by a certain year. Yet, they ended up having to postpone it for various reasons: to get a promotion, pay off a mortgage, finish a school year or wait for options to vest. There were always reasons to remain. And so I remained– a slave to opportunity, switching loyalties to suit a personal agenda. An Indian in New York. A paradox.

One night after Ram and Ranjini were asleep, I got on the Internet and went to a Web site that Shyam had told me about. It was called “Return2India” and it was full of people like me, caught in the dilemma of choosing between their homeland and adopted land.

“Two pieces of advice to prospective returnees,” said someone called DolphinOne. “Both spouses should take a full month off to settle in and two, you should move back with sufficient savings. It’s nice to be nostalgic, but India is great only if you have the cash. No question about it.”

This prompted a spirited thread about how much cash was ‘enough.’ Some said $300,000; others said $25 million. One post from ‘Loyal Indian’ said that $640,000 was all that was needed to retire in India.

“Do we have $640,000 saved up?” I asked Ram a few days later.

“Why?”

“That’s the amount of money we need to move back to India,” I said.

Ram stared at me. “You serious about this?” he asked.

“Well, I am just exploring the possibility,” I replied defensively.

“You are nuts,” he said. “We’ve worked so hard to come up the ranks. Just when we’ve reached a comfortable plateau, instead of heaving a sigh of relief and enjoying life, you want to throw it all away and move back to India. Why?”

“Why not?” I asked in response. “All our friends talk about it, everyone dreams about it, but no one is able to pull it off.”

“With good reason,” Ram replied. “Don’t you remember what Rahid said?”

Rahid was a well-known author and policy-wonk who appeared frequently network television. Like many others, he both loved and despaired for India. He missed certain things about it, he said, but would never consider moving back for a variety of well-considered reasons. Religious fundamentalism, pollution, slow economic reform, collapsing infrastructure, I had heard the list before.

“India is such a lost cause,” said Rahid.

Well, I was a sucker for lost causes. But it was more than that. I had started thinking of our return to India as something we needed to do to prove to ourselves, and others, that it was possible. It would be a grand message, something that would inspire legions of Indians to move back home. They would start companies, fuel India’s economy and put it back on the map. A nation would rise, and all because of one small act. Recycling, going organic, moving to India. Why not?
Ram interrupted my fantasy. “Our life is not a cause,” he said. “We don’t have to prove anything to anybody.”
He was right of course. This wasn’t a cause. It was our life.

“Look, I know you miss India,” Ram said. “I do too. But moving back may not be the best thing for us as a family. In fact, it may be the biggest mistake we make.”

“You think I haven’t thought of that?” I asked. “You think I haven’t envisioned scenarios where Ranjini gets some rare Indian disease because of the pollution, where I get killed in one of those horrible traffic jams in Madras, and you get kidnapped and tortured by the Bombay Mafia? You think I haven’t thought of all this?”

Ram’s jaw dropped. “You actually think up gory scenarios like this?” he asked. “I was merely thinking of difficulties with school admission and finding a place to live, not rare Indian diseases and the Bombay Mafia.”

“I have a vivid imagination,” I muttered.

I took a deep breath. “Look, I know this sounds corny but don’t you want to give back to the land that nurtured us?” I asked.

“You can give back from here,” Ram replied. “We can contribute money to any number of charities in India.”

“Don’t you want Ranjini to get to know her grandparents?” I asked. “It is easier if we are in India.”

“That I agree,” Ram said. “But that is not a good enough reason to move.”

I had run out of arguments. “I…just don’t want….to look back ten years from now and regret it. I don’t want to be one of those Indians that dreams forever of retiring in India.”

“And that’s your main reason for moving back.”

I nodded.

“Not good enough for me,” he said.

One evening, Ram came home early. As soon as I opened the door, I could tell that something was going on.

“How badly do you want to move to India?” he asked as soon as he walked in.

We stared at each other for a moment. He was dead serious.

“What happened?” I asked.

“A senior guy in the emerging markets team is quitting to start a hedge fund,” Ram said. “I am thinking of raising my hand and expressing an interest in it.”

I didn’t know very much about Ram’s business, but I did know that “emerging markets” were countries predominantly in Asia and Latin America. India was one of them. If Ram joined the emerging markets division, it would mean travel to Asia, to India. Perhaps we could move there. The thought made me smile.

“Don’t get your hopes up,” Ram responded. “Even if I raise my hand, they may not hire me. The two divisions are quite different. Even if they hired me, it doesn’t mean that we will move. India is a financial backwater as far as Wall Street is concerned.”

“Then why are you thinking of changing divisions?” I asked.

“Because an emerging markets job will bring me closer to India compared to where I am now. It will at least allow me to travel there a couple of times a year,” he said.

“Go for it,” I said.

“But once I make this move, you can’t change your mind and say you want to stay in America forever,” Ram warned. “I am changing career paths here and it has all kinds of consequences.”

“Hey, don’t hold me responsible for your career,” I said. “Do it only if you want to. I mean, clearly you don’t want to move back to India.”

Ram rolled his eyes. “Look, the India you have in mind is a fantasy,” he said. “It doesn’t exist. You are thinking of your childhood. All that has changed now. India is polluted, crowded, economically mismanaged. Life there is hard.”

I looked away. I was not ready to hear this. “Then why are you changing divisions?” I asked.

“Because I want to give this thing…India…a shot,” Ram said. “When I go back home, my father won’t even let me change a light-bulb. My mother fusses over me like I am a guest. I want to be a son– to my parents and yours. I think they’ve earned it.”

“And that’s the only reason?” I asked.

Ram nodded.

“The only reason you want to move back is for your parent’s sake?” I asked again.

“That’s it for me,” he said.

I shook my head. “That is not good enough,” I said. “You’ve got to come up with more. Parents are not forever.”

“Look, unlike you I don’t have all these Indian fantasies of wearing jasmine in my hair and going to music concerts,” Ram said. “I don’t have a visceral love for India. If I could get our parents to move here, I would not even consider moving back. I like America. I like the seasons, the systems, the efficiency, the people, the workplace, everything.”

“Then we shouldn’t move,” I said. “Because you’ll hate India and want to move right back in two months or less.”

“That’s not true,” Ram said. “I also recognize that we have a set of circumstances that are unique. We would be fools not to take advantage of them. We get along with each other’s families, the kids are still young, parents are healthy, and we’ve saved some money. So if we must move back, it has to be soon.”

“Must move back?’” I imitated Ram. “It is like pulling teeth for you, isn’t it? Why are you so down on India?”

“I am not,” Ram shouted. “Unlike you, I am just realistic.”

We stared at each other, our eyes both accusing and defensive.

“Why are you so hung up about moving back?” Ram asked.

I thought for a minute. How could I explain the love of a land that had snuck up on me so gradually that I wasn’t even aware of it until someone questioned it?

“At first, I thought we should move back for the kids’ sake,” I began hesitantly. “But now, I realize that the kids will be fine here, and in fact, they will thrive in America just as they will in India. Then I thought we should move back for our parents’ sake. But even that is not a good enough reason. Parents are not forever. I think the real reason I want to move back is….” I struggled for words, for an explanation. “I just don’t want to end up ten years later, regretting the fact that I didn’t try, that I gave up on a dream. I don’t want to wake up as an old woman and wonder, ‘What if?’ It may be horrible for all of us in India, although I doubt it. We may even question the decision two years later and decide to come back to New York. But I think that if we…if I hanker for it so much, we should at least give it a shot. Better to try and fail than not to have tried at all,” I ended.

“Well, it is a costly experiment,” Ram replied. “And this is not a game. This is our life. We can’t afford to fail. We have to make it work.”

The wheels were set in motion.

Shoba Narayan and her family moved back to India in May 2005.

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About Shoba Narayan

Writer. Author. Freelance journalist. Business Columnist. Travel writer.
This entry was posted in Knowledge at Wharton, Return to India. Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Return to India: For Knowledge@Wharton

  1. Krishna Mony says:

    …”Because I put America on a pedestal, it sometimes falls short. Because I take India for granted, it sometimes surprises me pleasantly…”

    Gem.

    That ended my wonder why Indians that return suddenly use more exclamations on routine frills like the ease of hiring a chauffeur, maid or a resident cook for a song ..as if they’re experiencing it for the first time, as if they have never been exposed to those while growing up here. I sometimes used to mistake it as an extension of their Jet-lag… :-)

  2. Ram says:

    Hi Shoba,
    Its a a beautifully written article. I could relate with everything in it including the fact that we moved back to India in 2008. I too feel nostalgic every time I watch MASH or Law & Order.
    We had just one simple reason to move back ..my parents…I knew I had to return so never got into the GC business the first time. :-)
    But I don’t know whats changed now… have decided to go back to the US this year and stay put for a couple of years. But no GC this time around too… lol.
    Whats changed I keep asking myself?.. I have no specific answers..Maybe I just miss the smells of NY. :-). My stay here has been good. bad. ugly… buts that life I guess..
    Love your writing… Please do lemme know whenever your new books hits the stores..
    Rgs
    Ram

  3. Amit Singh says:

    Hi Sobha,

    Happy New Year!

    I read your article with great interest. You have placed all the facts in a very open and sincere way. Your words have bought tears in my eyes. We hope to return to our country one day.

    Keep writing and best regards,

    Amit Singh
    Singapore

  4. K. Jairaj says:

    Shoba:
    I enjoyed reading your rather long article. It is so similar to what I experienced ever so often in the US as a graduate student and later at work in Washington D.C. In my case, there was no prevarication about coming back. The tradeoffs have all been worth it. There is really no place like Bangalore/Basvangudi and, actually, Vidyarthi Bhavan. I doubt if you have been there and I would be happy to take you there.
    Jairaj

  5. Padma says:

    Hi Shoba,

    We really enjoyed reading your article. We are “considering” moving back to India either in a few years before the child grows too big or for retirement. Hence the reverse migration quest and for people’s thoughts who have taken the plunge. It would have been great if your article ending elaborated on what your experiences were once you actually moved to India. Is there something on your blog or other such similar articles/blogs that you would recommend to read to understand how it was going back to India? Would really appreciate it.

    Thanks,
    Padma

    • Hi Padma:
      Lots of people ask for this. It has been great so far. That’s the short answer.
      Don’t know of any other blog that articulates the “after moving back” experience. Sorry!

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