Knowledge @ Wharton

Knowledge @ Wharton has been one of my most satisfying journalistic experiences. My editor, Mukul Pandya, sits in Philadelphia at the Wharton School. He has taken chances on me and allowed me to write pieces that aren’t an obvious fit for a business publication but ended up getting a lot of gratifying feedback for both K@W and for me. I am listing below all the pieces I’ve done for them and will keep adding to this page, and well as upload separate pieces. I start with what I call my magnum opus– the Return to India piece I did for Mukul. To this day, a good three years after the piece was published, I get emails from all over the world, particularly Indians who go through this conflict.

The other pieces are political, business-oriented, and about women– a range of topics that are a journalist’s delight.

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.

Electric Cars in India: Why So Few?
Published: October 08, 2009 in India Knowledge@Wharton
With the rise of environmentalism and the high cost of gasoline, it would seem that the electric car would take off. Not so fast, says Bangalore-based writer Shoba Narayan in this opinion piece. Although companies like the Reva Electric Car Company are advancing the cause and major auto makers are likely to follow suit, Indian consumers need to be convinced they will achieve substantial savings and that there is enough infrastructure in place to support electric vehicles before they will be willing to open their wallets.

Affordable Housing: An Idea Whose Time Has Come
Published: August 27, 2009 in India Knowledge@Wharton
Affordable housing is the Indian government’s new mantra. President Pratibha Patil mentioned it in her speech on Bharat Nirman, a project that plans to double the construction of low-cost houses to 12 million units. This move, it is hoped, will cascade into more demand for steel, cement and construction material. For this to happen, the government is banking on public-private partnerships. In the past, even if developers were willing to build housing structures for the poor, they found it difficult to come up with suitable ways to finance them. Now, given the fresh optimism in the market, it seems like affordable housing is an idea whose time has come, writes Bangalore-based writer Shoba Narayan in this opinion piece.

What Is the Role of Women in Indian Politics? Growing Stronger…
Published: May 21, 2009 in India Knowledge@Wharton
India should work towards empowering women economically — through microfinance programs — and also encourage greater participation of women leaders in panchayats, or village councils, writes author Shoba Narayan in this opinion piece.

The ‘India Option’: Instead of Looking Abroad, Today’s Indian Management Graduates See a Future at Home
Published: July 24, 2008 in India Knowledge@Wharton
In the past, India’s best and brightest routinely looked to the U.S. and other Western countries for jobs following graduation. Today, however, the “brain drain” seems to be reversing: According to placement figures at the Indian Institute of Management (IIM) in Bangalore, 75% of this year’s graduating class opted for jobs in India. In this opinion piece, Bangalore-based writer Shoba Narayan offers her understanding of this trend following interviews with graduating students and IIM faculty. Previously in India Knowledge@Wharton, Narayan chronicled her own family’s decision to return to India after living in the U.S. for 20 years (“Return to India”).

The India Option for Knowledge at Wharton

The ‘India Option’: Instead of Looking Abroad, Today’s Indian Management Graduates See a Future at Home
Published: July 24, 2008 in India Knowledge@Wharton

In the past, India’s best and brightest routinely looked to the U.S. and other Western countries for jobs following graduation. Today, however, the “brain drain” seems to be reversing: According to placement figures at the Indian Institute of Management (IIM) in Bangalore, 75% of this year’s graduating class opted for jobs in India. In this opinion piece, Bangalore-based writer Shoba Narayan offers her understanding of this trend following interviews with graduating students and IIM faculty. Previously in India Knowledge@Wharton, Narayan chronicled her own family’s decision to return to India after living in the U.S. for 20 years (“Return to India”).

Madras, India. 1986. The sidewalk outside the American consulate was most active at dawn. That was when bellboys from the nearby Prince Hotel darted out with steaming cups of coffee for a long line of sleeping bodies, all of whom had camped out overnight with one single-minded goal: to get a U.S. visa.

When the embassy guard opened the gate at 8 a.m., everyone sat up, eyes wide; hands clutching files, papers, passports, bank statements, visa forms, driver’s licenses, birth certificates, mutual fund proxies, archival photographs — anything to convince the stern, spectacled immigration officer behind the counter that we were upstanding citizens worthy of admission into America. We didn’t really care what subject we were going to study, at which university, or what job we would take after college. The whole point, as Sourav Mukherji says, was that “you basically went abroad no matter what, and then figured it out.”

That was then. Youthful, T-shirt clad Mukherji is the placement director at the Indian Institute of Management (IIM), Bangalore, and he has a ringside view of how the times have changed. Nowadays, his students are more discerning about the jobs they take. Going abroad is viewed as a choice, not a given. “I have students walking in and saying, ‘I got this job offer from a foreign firm, but the job wasn’t really interesting so I’ve decided to go with an Indian firm,'” says Mukherji. “Going abroad is not the be-all and end-all for these graduates.”

The numbers substantiate his views. Out of the 256 students in IIM Bangalore’s graduating class, only 65 opted for international locations; 75% of the class opted for jobs in India, and four students opted out of the placement process altogether to pursue entrepreneurial dreams. Finance and banking followed by consulting are the most sought after careers, with 40% of the students opting for jobs in finance and 37% in consulting.

These numbers reflect a national trend. At IIM Ahmedabad, many students turned down jobs in prominent companies abroad to stay and work in India, according to Piyush Kumar Sinha, chairperson of placement at the Institute. One reason is India’s emergence as a “hot” global economy; another has to do with changing student priorities. As Seema Bansal, a principal with The Boston Consulting Group, said in an editorial in the business daily Mint, five years ago, the typical place that graduates saw themselves a decade into their careers would be in the top management of a leading company. Now, more and more graduates want to run non-government organizations (NGOs), be entrepreneurs, enter politics and change society. Bansal, who has interviewed more than 300 students across multiple Indian campuses, feels that India as a nation ought to nurture this idealism and passion that seems evident among today’s graduates. And this is especially true in Bangalore, a city that thrives on ideas and idealism.

IIM Bangalore — or IIM-B, as it is called — is a leafy, verdant campus an hour outside the bustle of Bangalore. I drove to IIM-B one morning to meet the students and take their pulse. Having read tons of news reports about the burgeoning economic opportunities in India, the reverse migration of the Indian Diaspora and the country’s double-digit GDP growth, I was prepared for the students to be optimistic about India. What I wasn’t prepared for was the way these 20-year-olds viewed studying and working abroad with a nonchalance that would have stunned my generation.

Three Camps

Pradeep Shekhawat graduated from IIT Bombay and is just finishing his MBA at IIM-B. He worked with Capital One in Washington, D.C., for three years before enrolling in business school. After graduating, he does not want to go back to the U.S., at least for the time being. “Most of the industries in the U.S. are fairly mature, so consulting jobs have to do with incremental things like increasing efficiency,” he says. “In India, it is all about growth. Here is where the excitement is for a consultant.”

Shekhawat, a tall man with an easy smile and the measured tones of an engineer (they are mostly all engineers at IIM-B), has accepted an offer with The Boston Consulting Group and intends to work in their Delhi office. He would like to move to another part of the world, perhaps Europe, in three to five years, but in the short-term, “India is where it is all happening.”

Not in every field, though. The financial markets, everyone agrees, are far more advanced in the West. It will take India at least 10 years to catch up. And that’s the optimistic view. Ergo, most students who want to work in finance make the trek West to get job experience and satisfaction.

Rachana Kedilaya graduated from IIT Bombay with a bachelor’s degree in metallurgy and material science and has accepted a job offer with Lehman Brothers in London as an associate. Kedilaya is interested in the capital markets, “which means that I have to work in the West, at least initially.” She wants to keep the India option open, however: She is already working with some Indian private equity firms on a couple of projects so that she can return to India to work in that industry “in a few years.” In the meantime, she wants to trek to the Mount Everest base camp for the summer.

More women (roughly 50% of the IIM-B class) chose foreign postings mostly because they gravitate towards finance. Nidhi Gupta, for instance, echoes Kedilaya’s sentiments. Her plan is to work at HSBC in London, where she has accepted a job offer in the capital markets side for a few years. She thinks that she will learn a lot from the exposure. “But eventually, I want to come back to India and start something on my own.”

Students who leave India fall into three camps: those who leave saying that they will come back in a few years; those (like me) who aren’t sure where they will end up; and those who simply want to get out never to return. No one really vocalizes it in this way, of course. When I left India, returning or not returning was not in my scheme of things. My parents were more worried about the next step — how to get me married off — and I was equally worried about the next step — how to extend my annual scholarship to cover two more years of my education. It was only after a decade that I actually could pause and reflect on what I wanted instead of how to achieve the next step.

The generation that came after me gained in confidence, but they, too, viewed the West as the land of opportunity. It was only after the Millennium, when the Indian economy began gaining momentum, that a shift in thinking occurred. A lot has happened in the past eight years, both in terms of macro economics and public perception. One tangible change is that the so-called “brain drain” is slowly turning into a brain-gain. Students don’t automatically decide to go abroad no matter what; those who do talk about returning in a few years. As Shekhawat says, “Everyone talks about returning in a few years when they leave India. The difference is that a greater percentage of people are actually acting on their words and coming back.”

‘Yaari-dosti’ Culture

Living abroad is a gift when you are young. You get to live away from the collective thinking that permeates Indian culture and figure out who you are; you get to move away from what another student, Ashwin Jain, calls the “yaari-dosti” culture of India and do your own thing.

Yaari-dosti culture is perhaps best explained this way: In India, if your friends invite you out for a movie and you don’t want to go because you’ve already seen it, they will feel insulted and pressure you to join them — “Come on, yaar. Give us some company.” In the U.S., if your friend invites you to a movie and you say that you’ve seen it, he’ll likely say, “Okay,” and carry on. Your presence or absence does not make or break the friendship.

This group-think in India is both its strength and weakness. On the one hand, it preserves an individual’s web of relationships; yet on the other, it prevents individualism. Jain, a laid back, soft-spoken man, enjoys the individualism of America. He is joining Merrill Lynch in New York as an Associate. He is going for the exposure, he says. “Any money I make is a bonus.”

I ask Jain what his dream is. During my conversation with him, I can tell that he is thoughtful, bright and ambitious. I expect him to tell me that he wants to be CEO of Merrill Lynch. Instead, he says, “Don’t tell my recruiters this, but I want to start my own adventure travel company.” He wants to lead treks, raft the Brahmaputra River, walk through glaciers; the whole works. Then he repeats what the rest have been saying: “I figure I’ll go abroad for a few years, save some money and then, take some risks.”

Along the spectrum, these graduates fall right in between the Stanford undergraduate who drops out of school to start his own company and the Indian government servant who works all his life in one job so he can get a government pension. Today’s Indian graduates are risk-takers, but they want some security, although not as much as their parents. As Rajeev Gowda, professor of economics and social sciences at IIM-B says, “More than half the class are children of government servants, but there is a dramatic transformation in terms of their horizons and possibilities.”

Gowda, a Wharton graduate, returned from the U.S. to pursue a political career. Today, he straddles two worlds. He gets down and dirty with the unions, the farm workers and the rallies and then he — seamlessly, it seems — blends into the rarified realms of academia. He rues the herd mentality of his students and says that many of them are not sure of who they are or what they want. “But there is also a growing self-confidence in terms of their aspiring to be entrepreneurs much sooner than, say, my generation,” he says.

Missing Good Chai

Part of the reason why this aspiration is possible is the borderless economy. As thousands of Asian entrepreneurs have proved in the recent past, there is money to be made in China, India, Taiwan and Korea. If wealth is what you desire, the thinking goes, you don’t have to go abroad for that. The slowdown of the U.S. economy bolsters this argument somewhat.

Frequent trips abroad allay what Sidharth Gupta calls “the fascination for the Western lifestyle.” Many of these students have either spent time abroad during internships or know that they can go abroad for projects if they so desire. Their confidence is also a function of them graduating from a top-tier school in India. A student in a smaller city who does not have as many options as these graduates would still have the same fascination for the West that I did some 20 years ago. Gupta, on the other hand, is anything but fascinated. He did his first year internship with McKinsey in London but is very clear that he wants to find a job in India. “Location is important to me; family is important; and I see opportunities exploding in India,” says Gupta.

“At the end of the day, McKinsey has these ‘Ambassador’ programs where you can do a temporary stint in say, Texas, if you want,” he adds. Apparently, a lot of students gravitate towards consulting jobs because they are India-based positions. In that sense, they offer the best of both worlds: You have the professional satisfaction of working for a multinational in an Indian environment. “In the past, you had to choose one or the other: family or work,” says Gupta. “You either had to leave your family to get a good job, or take up a mediocre position to stay close to home. Nowadays, there are no sacrifices. I can have both.”

When he is abroad, Shekhawat says, he misses ‘Nukkad’ tea — good chai from a hole-in-the-wall dhaba. The taste of home. Kedilaya agrees. “What’s with the tea and milk in separate containers? When I was in London, I was like, ‘I want it all mixed together, Indian-style. What am I paying you for?'”

The students all mention the little things about India, about Bangalore, about their beautiful campus that they will miss. “There is a whole subset of my students who simply refuse to leave India and there are a few who won’t even leave Bangalore,” says Gowda.

Gautam Gurnani is ready to leave. Of the group of students I spoke with, Gurnani reminds me of myself when I was much younger. He likes the M&A job that Goldman Sachs has offered him in London and he is going to see where that leads. His plans and goals are fluid. He doesn’t much care for New York but he is open to doing a stint there. His family is open to him settling abroad, but even that is not a given. “Let’s see how it pans out,” he says airily. “In banking, it is good to start internationally and then come back to a developing market like India.”

I wonder if he has thought through the next phase of his life — about the agony and ecstasy of it; about the choices and sacrifices. But then, why should he? I didn’t when I was his age. And that was the fun of it. For a young person in his twenties, going abroad is a great trip. Arguably, in today’s world, going to work for an NGO in Bangladesh is an equally great trip. Why spoil it with planning?

Ashwin Jain has thought it through. He has seen his cousins grow up abroad; he has heard stories about prom night: the drinking, the sex, the whole nine yards. “It’s scary,” he says. “And that’s definitely a factor for me to move back to raise my kids here.”

Kedilaya shakes her head when she hears the word “kids.” That’s too far in the future for her, she says. Her focus is her immediate goals: Capital markets, being associate, then vice president, and partner. Then CEO of the company, I ask? “Why not?” she replies. “The mood is buoyant around here.” She sounds like a financial analyst already.

Entrepreneurial ‘Ecosystem’

If I could pinpoint the one big difference between my generation and today’s Indian graduates, it would be this: The latter have entrepreneurial aspirations and realize that they can create wealth, make it big — call it what you will — right here in India.

“There is an ecosystem here which views everything between graduation and entrepreneurship as instrumental, and this includes going abroad,” says Gowda.

Siddarth Pathak is part of this ecosystem. He graduated from IIT Delhi and never got into the “game of going abroad,” as he says. He did his first year internship in AT Kearney’s Gurgaon office, and once he graduates, he plans to find a job based in Mumbai or Delhi. “I can go abroad whenever I want, but the entrepreneurial opportunities are all right here in India,” he says.

I know, perhaps better than most, how dreams can change over the course of years. When I left India as a young student, I had no desire or intention to return. Then, the long arm of tradition brought me “back home” after 20 years abroad.

The students I met at IIM Bangalore are achingly enthusiastic about what life holds in store for them, their enthusiasm unsullied by life’s hard knocks or monkey wrenches. Perhaps this is because they view India as a safety net that they can always fall back on, instead of something they want to escape from. Unlike my generation, this one can go back home again. And it wants to.

Here’s what you think…
Total Comments: 3

#1 Entrepreneurial ‘Ecosystem’
I would glad to see more innovation out of Indian companies and that entrepreneurial spirit in young graduates. The big question is does the Indian entrepreneurial ecosystem can really help them in accomplishing their dreams. Do we have consumers to try their new products without the backing of known brands and big investors? We still need hundreds of entrepreneur role models and investors to be created in our own market without relying on getting experience abroad. Our business schools can be a potent catalyst in developing this ecosystem by working with our government, investors and successful entrepreneurs so that these young graduates can easily start an entrepreneurial career at the early stage of their life without spending those crucial four-five years abroad. I would say for starting out a venture they don’t require experience abroad. It requires a great vision, right attitude, energy and passion to be successful in their field against all odds, assuring that the rest will be taken care of by an Indian entrepreneurial ecosystem.
By: Mahinder Kumar, Technical Lead, iGate Corp
Sent: 01:16 AM Fri Jul.25.2008 – US
#2 Seeking Growth in the Consulting Space
Unlike in the West, the management scene is still in its nascent stages in India, be it consulting or finance. This has provided good “growth” opportunities to Indian management students.
I would be happy to see consulting in India kick off in a big way, with domain expertise playing a vital role. Instances of people with rich backgrounds and industry experience getting into business schools are still low in India.
I hope we get to see the consulting space grow in India.
By: Nagaraj Shapur, IIMB-GMITE student
Sent: 06:55 AM Thu Aug.07.2008 – IN
#3 India Option
Gone are the days when India was considered a snake charmer country. We are elated not just because our economy is growing. I am excited because the young generation in India thinks that it can transform society. I wish we all work together to make this world peaceful.
We are not in the race to be No. 1 or No. 2 But I am proud for the change among all those cynics who hated us and are slowly starting to recognize our growth.
By: prasad kulkarni, MVJCE
Sent: 07:08 AM Thu Aug.14.2008 – IN

Role of Women in Indian Politics for Knowledge at Wharton

What Is the Role of Women in Indian Politics? Growing Stronger…
Published: May 21, 2009 in India Knowledge@Wharton

India should work towards empowering women economically — through microfinance programs — and also encourage greater participation of women leaders in panchayats, or village councils, writes author Shoba Narayan in this opinion piece.

The ink-stained polls of the world’s largest democracy have delivered their verdict and India waits with bated breath to learn whether Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s second administration will be different than the first. While India exults after yet another peacefully concluded election, one question remains: What is the role of women in Indian politics? The answer is both big and small. Typical of India, it contains contradictions.

On the one hand, India falls in the lowest quartile with respect to the number of women in parliament (9.1%). Even the UAE, with 22.5%, has more women representatives, according to the UN’s 2008 survey of women in politics. That said, the recently concluded 15th Lok Sabha elections have delivered a record 59 women as members of Parliament, the highest since independence, raising their parliamentary participation to 10.9%. Seventeen of these women are under 40. And representation of women leaders at the grassroots level in India is nearly 50%, especially since the passing of the 73rd amendment in 1992, which allotted one-third of all seats to women. The panchayati raj, that bedrock of rural government, has fostered more and more women participants and leaders. (A panchayat is a five-person elected village council.) Some states, like Karnataka, had inducted women into rural politics even before it was mandated by the constitution. Several states, including Madhya Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh, Bihar and most recently, Uttarkhand, have allotted not just the required 33% of panchayat seats for women but increased it to 50%.

Beating the Odds

The rise of Indian women as panchayat leaders is a spectacular achievement given that India has one of the worst records with respect to the way it treats the female sex. Malnourished, suppressed, uneducated, violated and discriminated against, Indian women have the odds stacked against them. Even birth is a hurdle, thanks to widespread female infanticide in rural areas. But for every Saroja who will be married at 13 because her mother, a devadasi (prostitute) in Chikanahalli Village, Karnataka, cannot afford to pay a dowry, there is a Lakshmi, who is serving her second-term as the panchayat leader of Kadinamala village in Kotagiri district. There is a Kenchamma of Nereleke gram panchayat in rural Karnataka, who survived life threats during her two terms as council leader. An illiterate Dalit, Kenchamma could not read or write. Perhaps as a result of her personal travails, she made sure that she brought education to all the children in her village, including a disabled child.

Talking to these women is a lesson in humility. Instead of the outrage and anger that urban feminists project, these women panchayat leaders speak with clear-minded realism about opportunities and costs. For many women, attending a panchayat meeting means sacrificing a day’s wage. It means assuming leadership for the first time in their lives and then subsuming it at home to serve in-laws and husband. For Kenchamma, it meant leaving her one-year-old son to other caregivers while she learned the ropes of politics.

Ask these women about political reform, and their answers reflect concerns that every women and mother can relate to. They focus on three things: healthcare, education, and the funds to make these two things happen. Kenchamma, a trained midwife, established health camps to improve awareness among the villagers. She also knew from personal experience that, often, it is the mothers who neglect their health the most. Simplistic as it seems, solving health and education is a common thread among panchayat leaders, whether they are men or women. The third concern is figuring out how to save or raise enough money to accomplish their goals.

Most villagers — in India and across the world — either don’t go to banks or don’t have access to them. Instead, they borrow from each other, buy jewelry and save in what Melinda Gates calls, “risky and inefficient ways” in a recent piece she wrote in Newsweek. For most of these villagers, a child’s illness, even something as treatable as malaria, can wipe out several months of savings, sending a family spiraling deeper into debt. The answer, according to the Gates Foundation — no slouch when it comes to solving global problems in an accountable manner — is “bringing safe financial service to the doorsteps of the poor.” As a means to that end, the Foundation has pledged $350 million for microfinance, whose beneficiary is primarily women.

Microfinance and Economic Empowerment

Geeta, 32, would be a typical candidate. An orphan at age three, Geeta was raised by her elder sister. She didn’t go to school and was married to an alcoholic uncle when she was a teenager. Today, she works as a housemaid in Bangalore to feed her family of four: Her husband, her two sons and herself. Geeta’s life goal is to educate her two sons. But she lives in a cycle of debt — borrowing to repay past loans, to make annual school payments for her sons, to cover family events like weddings and every time someone in the family falls sick. Geeta, it so happens, works in my house.

Two years ago, Geeta heard about Janalakshmi, a microfinance company, from some women in her neighborhood. She joined a group of women and borrowed Rs. 30,000 (about $600) with the understanding that they would help each other not default on interest payments and take turns reaping the benefits of the loan. Each group has a leader who guarantees the interest payment to the microfinance institution and in turn, the leader invites women she trusts into the group so that they can borrow larger amounts. For now, Geeta’s microfinance loan is only allowing her to pay back her previous debts, but she dreams of the day when she can borrow enough money for a down payment on a home.

More and more entities are recognizing the power of micro-loans and how they can elevate an entire segment of society. And the route to the underserved is frequently through women, thanks to models based on Grameen Bank and others. Chennai-based Equitas, for instance, only works with women. In March, The Indus Entrepreneurs (TiE) launched Stree Shakti, a platform for training women entrepreneurs at all levels of Indian society. Goldman Sachs’s ambitious “10,000 Women” program aims to train and develop women entrepreneurs across the globe by pairing them with resources in the West. In all these cases, women serve as the lynchpin for programs, whether they are rural Self Help Groups (SHG) or global programs that aspire to foster entrepreneurship.

Microfinance is not the only answer to solving the poor’s problems but it is one good way to help women help themselves. Women self-help groups are burgeoning all across India, and study after study shows that they successfully impact women and bring them out of poverty. In an article that appeared in the December 2007 issue of UNDP’s Poverty in Focus, researchers Ranjula Bali Swain and Fan Yang Wallentin of Uppsala University in Sweden examine the link between microfinance and women’s empowerment using household sample data collected from five states in India in 2000 and 2003. Their results “strongly demonstrate” that there is a clear link between women’s participation in a Self Help Group (SHG) and their empowerment.

The good news, at least in India, is that these microfinance initiatives are reaching bigger swathes of the underserved. The Indian School of Microfinance for Women (ISMW), for instance, goes one step deeper into the problem. Based in Ahmedabad and chaired by social activist and SEWA founder Ela Bhatt, the school recognizes that borrowing money is only one part of the triangle. Among other things, the school teaches women how to deal with the money they borrow through capacity building workshops, networking and providing knowledge resources. Simply put, it takes Goldman Sachs’s global vision for women entrepreneurs and translates it into a deeper regional focus. The school’s website lists ‘hand-holding’ as one of its goals. Participants of micro-credit schemes are taught financial planning and investing techniques that they can use on the ground and in their business.

While microfinance works to eradicate poverty, the next generation of Indian leaders, including Rahul Gandhi, has made social sectors its calling card. The rural development portfolio, which traditionally was one of the less-prized posts, has now vaulted to the top of the pecking order, thanks in large part to the Gandhi family which has aligned itself with the aam admi (poor people) in both its campaigning and future promises. When Manmohan Singh was asked in a recent television interview if he had any regrets about areas that he couldn’t concentrate on in his first term that he would focus on in his second term, he said, “I’d like to work on agriculture, education and rural health.”

Reforming Education

Panchayat women leaders have been especially active in bringing education to their villages even though they are frequently held hostage by caste politics and quotas. Rural education is a quagmire of poor policies that nobody in government seems to have the will to change. The recent Administrative Reforms Commission repeats a long-standing recommendation that the selection of school teachers in rural schools be delegated to each panchayat instead of making it state-wide and therefore subject to caste-based selection. Deploying state-selected teachers to rural schools in areas where they have no caste-based affiliation makes it a losing proposition from the get-go, according to some experts. Detractors contend that delegating teacher-selection to each panchayat will make it subject to bribes and corruption. But as one official in the Administrative Reforms Commission put it, small-scale rural corruption (with some accountability) is better than the large-scale corruption (with no local accountability.)

Panchayat leaders who don’t have a say in the kind of teachers their village-schools attract end up focusing on infrastructure and other issues within their purview. Women panchayat leaders talk about building separate bathrooms for girls, which studies have shown will reduce the number of female drop-outs after puberty. They bring safe drinking water to their students. All these are not just palliatives, but are necessary developments in rural education.

It is easy to be cynical about yet another federal election that promises improvements to local government and to the lot of women. This time may be different, not just because of the number of women in parliament and the panchayats, but also because Rahul Gandhi, a rising star in Congress politics, is tapped to oversee the rural government portfolio. One can only hope that the Gandhi scion will free the portfolio of its state-level stranglehold and pass along more power to the people. Non-partisan economists have long called for decentralized local governance as the only way to speed up the impact of reforms. To that, I would add two other objectives: wider access to micro-loans as an enabler, and genuinely empowering women in local governments to succeed.

Electric Cars story for Knowledge @Wharton

Electric Cars in India: Why So Few?
Published: October 08, 2009 in India Knowledge@Wharton

With the rise of environmentalism and the high cost of gasoline, it would seem that the electric car would take off. Not so fast, says Bangalore-based writer Shoba Narayan in this opinion piece. Although companies like the Reva Electric Car Company are advancing the cause and major auto makers are likely to follow suit, Indian consumers need to be convinced they will achieve substantial savings and that there is enough infrastructure in place to support electric vehicles before they will be willing to open their wallets.

India has millions of people to house, power grids to expand and factories to fuel. They all involve hydrocarbons. How, then, is a developing economy to grow sustainably? One answer may lie in a small electric car being manufactured right here in Bangalore.

The Reva Electric Car Company (RECC) just announced a plan to build its second manufacturing unit, which some say will be the largest such facility in the world. Naturally, the new factory will meet LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) ratings standards, with rainwater harvesting, solar power and natural ventilation. With a capacity for 30,000 cars, the facility will be operational in two years, according to the company. RECC also plans to develop a larger sedan that will comfortably seat four, compared to its zippy but tiny current model. More importantly, the new Reva L-ion will have a range of 120 kilometers compared to the current model’s 80 kilometers per charge. While the current car battery takes a few hours to charge, the new model will achieve 90% of its charge in an hour using a fast-charge port option. All very good — but why aren’t customers lining up?

I wanted to buy a Reva. My husband and I fit its target customer profile: educated, well-travelled, passionate environmentalists. One morning a couple of years ago, we went to the showroom — just off tony Lavelle Road in Bangalore — to check out the models. Contrary to common belief, these tiny cars are not lightweight. With a solid frame and heavy doors, Reva’s bulky body comforts just as much as it small interior constrains. To my husband, a firm believer of free markets, it all boiled down to numbers: Why weren’t more Revas plying Indian roads? There must be something wrong with the car if more people aren’t buying it, he said. Numbers never lie.

Value Conscious Consumers

The answer, I found out, lies in the axis between economics, politics and old-fashioned marketing. Mohanjit Jolly, executive director of venture capital firm Draper Fisher Jurvetson (DFJ) India moved to Bangalore two years ago. DFJ plans to invest US$75 million in India out of its US$600 million DFJ IX Fund. The company is an early investor in RECC, and Jolly is on its board. I cornered him one morning and asked him the question that had been bugging me: Why didn’t I buy a Reva? In other words, why was the car such a hard sell to Indian consumers?

“India is a very finicky market,” said Jolly. “Often, decisions are made, not based on the overall total cost of ownership but rather the upfront cost of the vehicle.” According to Jolly, the fact that Reva will save them a ton of money in fuel costs is often lost on consumers. “The Indian consumer is extremely value conscious and often equates size with price. So, if another vehicle of equal size is available for a lower upfront price from a known manufacturer, why would he or she buy a Reva?”

Why indeed? My sister-in-law owns a Reva, but for the most pragmatic of reasons. Trained as a driver in the U.K., she wanted a car with automatic gear shift and the Reva fit. She, too, is an environmentalist, which played into the choice but wasn’t the prime motivation. The automatic gear-shift and the car’s inherent stylishness was. I drive her Reva around Bangalore and pretend to be cool.

Several environmentally inclined Indians I know considered the Reva before buying other cars for all the reasons Jolly mentioned and then some. Many in Mumbai live in high-rises without convenient plug points to charge an electric car in their basement parking garage. Mothers wondered if the Reva’s small size would be safe for travelling with babies. Also, what if they ran out of charge while on the highway? Families with live-in grandparents couldn’t fit into the Reva. India’s skewed taxes also added to the problem. Road taxes, fuel surcharges and others led to differential pricing. Chandigarh and Delhi had significant subsidies for electric cars, while Maharashtra had none — so that a Reva that cost under Rs. 3 lakhs in Delhi was sold in Bombay for more than Rs. 4 lakhs. One friend contemplated buying a Reva in Delhi and driving it down to Bombay, but plotting his itinerary to accommodate electric plug points drove him nuts, he said.

RECC’s next model will address most of these issues about comfort, safety, range, speed, carrying capacity, time to charge and others, Jolly says. “To address the price sensitive, value conscious consumer, Reva is coming up with a flexible business model whereby the price of the battery will be removed from the upfront price of the car, and the customer can choose to lease the battery on a monthly basis. That will provide an apples-to-apples comparison in terms of the battery cost versus fuel cost.”

Solar Beginnings

The man behind the Reva is a tall, strapping 39-year-old who was named by Businessweek in 2009 as one of India’s 50 most powerful people. With his goatee and glasses, Chetan Kumar Maini, deputy chairman and chief technological officer (CTO) of RECC looks like a Silicon Valley professor but he is in fact an outdoorsman who rides mountain- and motor-bikes in his spare time. As a child, Maini used to take apart and build cars. He received a Master’s degree in hybrid electric technology from Stanford, but the real “turning point,” he says, happened while he was an undergraduate student at the University of Michigan, when he got involved in a solar car project and subsequent solar car race. His team built and raced a solar car in the U.S. — and, as it happened, came in first. Later that year, in 1990, General Motors sponsored the team to race in the World Solar Challenge in Australia where they came in third. Their vehicle, called “Sunrunner,” beat many of the big American auto companies. The average age of the Sunrunner team: 21. “The fact that we could cross a continent [more than 3000 km] purely on the sun’s energy really got me thinking of the potential of electric vehicle technology, especially in a country like India,” says Maini. “And when I came back to Bangalore that summer and saw the pollution and traffic, it started to dawn on me that getting this kind of technology into places like India was exactly what was needed.”

The Maini Group — Chetan is the youngest of three sons — was already involved in a variety of businesses, from building materials to precision components. The Reva Electric Car Company is Chetan Maini’s brainchild, named after his mother. Reva, appropriately enough, means “one that moves” in Sanskrit. Some say that it means “a new beginning.” According to news reports, ex-U.S. Ambassador Frank Wisner suggested using Maini’s mother’s name because it had the letters “EV” (for “electric vehicle”) in it.

According to Maini, forming the company was happenstance. “A few of us friends talked about building a company in the electric vehicle space. My friends’ father was planning to start a company in California [AEV LLC] based on new technologies and liked our idea, and I started to work for that company. Later, that company and Maini Group joined hands to develop electric vehicles.”

Maini also worked with a friend of his father’s, Lon Bell, the U.S. inventor who is listed on RECC’s site as a company co-founder and member of the board. “Technology and transportation excite me,” says Maini. The fact that EVs provide a solution to mitigate climate change has got me even more involved. This also makes business sense as solutions for climate change and energy security are going to be the challenges for the next decade.”

The Reva is currently being sold in United Kingdom, Italy, Malta, Cyprus, Norway, Spain, Ireland, Japan and Srilanka, and being test marketed in Australia, Switzerland, Germany, Austria and Nepal. Of all the markets, it is popular in Bangalore, London and Oslo, according to Maini.

In Oslo, it is a popular choice for its environmental credentials but also because it gets tax breaks. “However, the main reason for its popularity in Oslo is that in a Reva, you get to drive in the bus lanes, which for commuters means at least an extra half-hour’s sleep every Monday to Friday,” Maini notes. “To nudge motorists’ behavior, you need a combination of environmental credentials and fiscal incentives — the two are definitely needed to kick start the market.”

London has kick-started the market through tax incentives. The Reva is marketed in London under the G-Wiz brand and exempt from the London Congestion Charge. Riders of G-Wiz in London can park and charge for free, which adds to its image as a “cool commuting” car popularized by celebrities and media people. This past April, the UK government also unveiled a plan which gave carbon discounts to Electric Vehicles. It wasn’t negligible, either: 5,000 pounds, to be exact. “Here’s 5,000 pounds. Go buy an electric car,” said British headlines.

Why wasn’t India offering carbon discounts? Why had the Reva sold only 3,000 cars since 2001 to a nation of one billion, with at least one million car owners?

‘For Electric Cars, You Need Electricity’

That question led me to India’s Minister of State for Environment and Forests, Jairam Ramesh. Ramesh is the sort of minister you wouldn’t mind having a drink with. He spent five years in the U.S. without owning a car, and is a huge believer in public transportation. I cold-emailed him asking for an interview. A short while later came the reply: “Sure, give me a number.” Indian netas (politicians) aren’t this responsive. Usually, there are several layers of buffers — peons, bureaucrats, personal assistants. But Ramesh isn’t your average minister. He is, according to bureaucrats, “incorruptible.” So we spoke about sustainability, India and carbon discounts.

Why, I asked, weren’t electric cars popular in India? “For electric cars, you need electricity, yaar,” Ramesh replied, using the casual verbal tic that everyone from corporate CEOs to Mumbai cab drivers use. Yaar means “friend,” but it is the verbal equivalent of, say, “dude.” It is what important people who don’t take themselves too seriously say to inquisitive journalists. Ramesh then proceeded to tell me about fuel cells and hydrogen cars. He wants to make all government vehicles electric. “You know, the government uses a lot of cars and most are gas-spewing Ambassadors,” he said. He wants to get the gas-electric hybrid Toyota Prius into India by January 2010, plans to purchase an electric vehicle (the Tata Indica) for himself soon, and hopes to convert all government vehicles into more sustainable ones. The problem– and I say this with my tongue only partly in my cheek (and certainly I didn’t tell Ramesh this) — is that most politicians and their accompanying entourage won’t fit into a Reva. Certainly, Jayalalithaa, the corpulent erstwhile chief minister (governor) of my home-state, Tamilnadu, won’t. But electric cars aren’t the main thrust of Ramesh’s sustainability solutions; public transport is. The cabinet approved a biofuel policy, he tells me. “But private transport is a recipe for disaster. We need a huge investment in public transport. An urban renewal mission, almost.”

Today, many Indian cities are moving towards public transport. Delhi has a world-class metro and Bangalore is building one. Mumbai has its train system, and second-tier cities are exploring options. But when all is said and done, India is an aspirational developing economy. Owning a car, for many, indicates that they have arrived. The Tata Nano might be an environmental disaster by making cars even more accessible, but it has also (forgive me) electrified the auto world. Even Maini appreciates the Nano for its “innovation in auto engineering.” Ramesh says that the Nano will give “mobility to the masses,” and so it will. “The Nano is a phenomenal achievement by any means,” says DFR’s Jolly. “Quite honestly, it’s a matter of time before most, if not all, vehicles become all electric or hybrids. The Nano, I am sure, will follow that path. I also wouldn’t be surprised if Tata is already working on it, and there have been some rumors about that recently as well.”

No rumor. Tata company’s chairman, Ratan Tata, has, on two occasions spoken about his company’s plans to develop an electric car. At the company’s annual meeting last year, he said that they were developing one. In June 2009, at the Cornell Global Forum on Sustainable Global Enterprise, Tata mentioned that his company’s electric car would be in the market by fall of 2009. Tata’s distribution network would give its electric car an immediate fillip. Mahindra & Mahindra is also planning a four-seater electric car in 2010. Tara Tiny, an EV from India’s Tara International and China’s Aucma, plans to retail at Rs. 99,000 — lower than the Tata Nano. The Ajanta group, which specializes in clock making, also plans to release its low-cost EV — the Oreva Super, priced below Rs. 1 lakh. The Tamilnadu government just alloted 100 acres of land to Bavina, a Chennai-based company that plans to produce 25,000 units in partnership with American electric car specialist, Velozzi SpA.

An Unsure Bet

The key for Reva, according to Jolly, will be to differentiate based on a broader and deeper knowledge of electric vehicles than any company globally. He is biased, of course, being on its board and all, but his view is that the Reva, with its revamped product design and marketing savvy, can make a dent in the minds of the Indian auto customer. “With scale, the cost will also reduce which will make it possible for Reva to provide better value for the money than any of its competitors globally,” he says.

Still, electric vehicles are an unsure bet in India. The average Indian environmentalist is a pastiche of fervid idealism and ruthless pragmatism. What opens wallets, in the end, is demonstrable savings. Solar water heaters, for instance, are a big hit, even among older conservative Indians. My octogenarian uncle just got several solar panels installed in his Bangalore bungalow using infallible logic: “I am 80 now. Even if I live for three more years, the Rs. 500 I save per month in electricity bills is worth this Rs. 15,000 investment.”

Cars cost more than Rs. 15,000, which is part of the problem. The other issue is the tangled Indian bureaucracy with different tax rates for different states. One thing that Ramesh and other government officials could do to help — and I know that this is easier said than done — is streamline auto taxes. Why have different tax structures in different states? With each change in government, policies change. India has no coherent, long-reaching environmental policy that can develop incrementally, regardless of which party is in power. “When we launched in 2001, the taxes for automobiles were doubled,” says Maini. “At one point, the subsidies for alternate energy vehicles were completely removed as the Government had a lot of difficulties in comprehending such an innovative product from India.”

RECC ended up working with multiple agencies, both in India and abroad, on formulating regulations and policies for electric vehicles. Today, some governments are proactive. Delhi, for instance, under Sheila Dixit, has come up with several incentives for customers who buy a Reva. Simply put, buying a Reva in Delhi is Rs. 1.5 lakhs cheaper than anywhere else (where the car retails for Rs. 4.5 lakhs).

Another unresolved concern has to do with infrastructure: plug points for electric vehicles. Ideally, these would be standardized and widely available so that a driver who owns a Tara Tiny or a Reva could charge their cars using the same plug point. RECC is working on rapid recharging stations where a Reva can be driven to what looks like a diesel or petrol pump and get a decent charge in about five to 10 minutes — about the time it takes to fill your car with gas. Charge points are already available in Bangalore’s Garuda Mall and other parking spaces. Over time, dedicated electric vehicle parking spots — which double as charging stations — need to be created.

The bottom line, as Jolly says, is that “people need to see more and more Revas on the road. Once they do, at least the consumer-led issues will be put to rest.”

There is a certain inevitability to the development of electric vehicles. With research on the hydrogen fuel cell, lithium ion batteries and sophisticated hybrids, electric vehicles are part of our collective future. Even General Motors, perceived by many as an aging behemoth “who killed the electric car,” according to a 2006 documentary, is coming up with the Chevrolet Volt which is expected to achieve 230 miles per gallon in the city through a mixture of lithium ion battery and gas. As Jolly says, “Initially, they may be the second- or third- [choice] car for short hops, but eventually as technology gets better and people simply start getting more comfortable with the concept, it will indeed be mainstream, not an exception. And that time is not decades, but years away.”

The challenge for Reva and other EV companies is to stay ahead of the curve with respect to technology. More importantly, they have to coax warring state governments into offering subsidies to dithering customers who will then get off the fence and commit to an electric car. If this happens, it is not just good for the individual car companies involved; it is great for India and indeed, the planet.

Affordable Housing for Knowledge at Wharton

Affordable Housing: An Idea Whose Time Has Come
Published: August 27, 2009 in India Knowledge@Wharton

Affordable housing is the Indian government’s new mantra. President Pratibha Patil mentioned it in her speech on Bharat Nirman, a project that plans to double the construction of low-cost houses to 12 million units. This move, it is hoped, will cascade into more demand for steel, cement and construction material. For this to happen, the government is banking on public-private partnerships. In the past, even if developers were willing to build housing structures for the poor, they found it difficult to come up with suitable ways to finance them. Now, given the fresh optimism in the market, it seems like affordable housing is an idea whose time has come, writes Bangalore-based writer Shoba Narayan in this opinion piece.

A story is sometimes told about the Tamil Nadu government magnanimously building Lower Income Group (LIG) apartments for squatters who made a living by milking buffaloes and selling the milk to the neighborhood. The flats were ready and after a ribbon-cutting by an officious minister, the milkmen and their families were ceremoniously ushered into their spanking new homes.

A month later, neighbors awoke to the sight of a buffalo staring back at them. The milkmen had decided that their buffaloes gave more milk when they were housed in comfortable quarters. So they went back to their coir beds under the night sky and corralled their buffaloes — dung and hay intact — inside their tiny one-room homes. All of which goes to show that money is not the only consideration when building homes for the poor.

I recount this story to Naresh V. Narasimhan, partner and architect-principal for Venkataramanan Associates, a Bangalore-based architectural firm whose clients include Infosys, Biocon, TCS, iGate and the World Bank. A leonine man with a wry sense of humor, Naresh, as he is called, tells me that most state-sponsored interventions for affordable housing are “usually quite patronizing with no attention to design.”

Anyone who lives in urban India can attest to this reality. Slums and shantytowns typically have one room in which the entire household eats, sleeps and does everything in between. A typical 400-sq.-ft. home would contain a family of four, in-laws, and visiting cousins from the village who would sleep under the bed. “It is a global paradox,” says Naresh. “The smaller the unit, the more people live in it. The larger the house, the fewer people it contains.”

So far, the design model for affordable housing has been to compress a home into a single room with no toilet inside. Instead, women have to walk through a scorpion-infested courtyard to a common toilet at night. When Naresh started designing affordable housing, he says, simply building a toilet inside the house was seen as hugely empowering, particularly for women. “It gives them a sense of dignity.”

Affordable housing is the current Indian government’s new mantra. President Pratibha Patil mentioned it in her speech on Bharat Nirman, a project that plans to double the number of low-cost houses that are to be constructed to 12 million. This move, it is hoped, will cascade into more demand for steel, cement and construction material.

For this to happen, the government is banking on public private partnerships (PPP). This implies that government will set up the enabling framework and private sector players like developers and microfinance institutions (MFIs) will partner to deliver the affordable housing units. Traditionally, developers have been slow to target this market. It seemed easier and more profitable, at least so far, to make money in middle to high end housing units.

Financing is another issue. Even if developers were willing to build appropriate housing structures for the poor, they found it difficult to come up with suitable structures to finance them. Now, given the fresh optimism in the market, it seems like affordable housing is an idea whose time has come. About time, I say.

The numbers are both daunting and promising to marketers. According to the latest research by Unitus Capital, India has a housing shortage of 40.3 million units. Assuming that five or seven people live in a unit (the Indian average is 5.5 per household), that’s more than 250 million people — about a fourth of the Indian population without adequate shelter.

Last year, the Monitor Group put out a comprehensive report addressing the state of affordable housing for the urban poor in India. The report estimated that 21 million (as of 2008) households do not have a proper home, due to lack of land titles and volatility in earnings on a day-to-day basis, with incomes ranging from a dollar a day to about US$250 per month.

Leaks and Loans

The challenge lies in structuring a solution. The government has tried, mostly by building LIG apartments and offering loans to the poor. Since its inception in 1970, HUDCO (Housing and Urban Development Corporation) has disbursed millions of dollars worth of housing loans to the poor and Economically Weaker Sections (EWS). The problem is that there is severe leakage in funds as they traverse from center to state to local administration so that poor individuals either don’t get anything or get only part of what is due to them. To combat this, HUDCO Niwas was established in 1999. This loan scheme disbursed directly to individuals rather than through the state governments. Even this is fraught with inefficiencies. Critics say that a giant national organization like HUDCO cannot behave like a local loan-center. HUDCO’s budget is huge. By some estimates, just in the last two years — 2007 to 2009 — it has given loans worth over Rs. 4000 crores (US$850 million), primarily to EWS, which comprise 92% of its customer base. In spite of spending large amounts, the urban poor are without quality shelters, given the rampant leakages in project execution.

When the Monitor Group talked to developers, most said that the low-income market was a viable one for them, except for financing issues. The poor themselves are eager to own a home and willing to pay and sacrifice for it. Banks and Housing Finance Companies (HFCs) want to lend to this sector but cannot solve the high transaction costs and perceived credit risk. The only way to recover loans — and even that is dicey, they say — is to take defaulting customers to court.

These risks apply to the non-banking finance sector as well. Microfinance institutions (MFIs) have an advantage in this area because they know their customers and can gauge how much credit risk these low-income people can tolerate. Recently, alumni of American Express and the Monitor founded Micro Finance Housing Corp (MFHC), India’s first housing-loan company that combines the advantages of a bank and MFI in one entity. MFHC gives loans of about Rs. 5 lakhs (US$10,000) for a tenure of 15 years at a prime-lending rate of 12% using the home mortgage as security. It has tied up with low-cost developers including Shubhgriha by Tata Housing, Global City (a Rustomjee/Evershine joint venture), Shree Vaishnavi Constructions and Tanaji Malusare City. All these projects are in Maharashtra — in Virar and Karjat.

The attraction for MFIs is that some of them who remain connected to their customer base understand the urban poor consumer psyche better than the regular mainstream bankers. For instance, most poor households can afford to pay regular small sums every day over a long period to the MFI loan collector. But ask them to provide up-front advances and large monthly payments, and chances are they will default. Some MFIs understand this better than others and are willing to structure arrangements that involve daily collections against the house purchase.

Critics of the MFI model highlight its inherent fallacies. As Aneel Karnani, a professor of strategy at Michigan’s Ross School of Business writes, “Beneath these beliefs in the market-readiness of poor people lies a more basic assumption: People in dire straits are well-informed and rational economic actors. Yet this view denies the fact that poor people often act against their own self-interest. Of course, wealthier people sometimes do so, too. But poor people face far worse consequences for their bad choices than do more affluent people. And so romanticized views of Bottom of Pyramid (BOP) people as value-conscious consumers and resilient entrepreneurs are not only false, but also harmful. These views lead states to build too few legal, regulatory, and social mechanisms to protect the poor, as well as to rely too heavily on market solutions to poverty.”

Karnani’s view isn’t completely right, but neither is it entirely wrong. Anyone who employs help in India can attest to that. When a driver with no savings and five mouths to feed walks out of a job because his employer chastised him for being late, does it show self-respect, high tolerance for risk or simply a bad irrational choice? Sure, the poor are resilient. They have to be. But the market is also ruthless. A child falling sick with malaria can wipe out money saved carefully for months on end.

Ruthless Logic of Markets

Social entrepreneur Ramesh Ramanathan takes the middle ground. A passionate believer in free markets, Ramanathan left a high-flying career as head of corporate derivatives in Citibank’s London operations and returned to his hometown, Bangalore. Together with his wife, Swati, he co-founded an NGO called Janaagraha that aims to improve citizen participation in government. “I believe in the power of the market to solve the problems of the poor, but I also recognize the danger of markets,” he says. “There is a ruthless logic to markets which is why they are efficient. You need to build institutional mechanisms to harness the market’s power. At the same time, you have to check the market’s ruthless tendencies so that it doesn’t take you away from your soul.”

A boyish man despite his salt-and-pepper hair, Ramanathan exudes confidence and passion in his agenda to get Indians to take charge of their destiny. This commitment has garnered him credibility and goodwill among government and corporate philanthropists. Last year, the Susan and Michael Dell Foundation gave an unprecedented US$2 million grant to one of Ramanathan’s projects, called Janaadhar, to build affordable housing for the poor. The money was used to buy land off Hosur Road in Bangalore near Electronics City. Ramanathan also serves as Advisor of the Jawaharlal Nehru Urban Renewal Mission (JNURM), a US$12 billion Central Government initiative which allocates funding to different states to ensure basic services like housing and infrastructure, urban reforms and strong municipal governments.

Janaadhar grew out of Janalakshmi, Ramanathan’s microfinance company. My maid, Geeta, is a typical customer. Fifteen years ago, nobody would lend to her. Illiterate but intelligent, Geeta’s means of raising money was to visit usurious money lenders, using her jewelry as collateral. Today, she and nine other women join together and borrow Rs. 20,000 which they then split amongst themselves using a rotational method. If one of them is in dire straits, the others have to make up her loan repayment so that the group doesn’t default. The system seems to work because Geeta and her cohorts have borrowed for a second time.

Janalakshmi, which was set up in 2006 to lend to the poor, has a two-tier institutional set-up — the Janalakshmi holding company, which is a Section 25 non-profit, and Janalakshmi Financial Services (JFS), which operates for profit but funnels all its profits into the holding company. “As a promoter of the institution, I don’t get wealthy,” says Ramanathan. “I can look a person in the eye and say that I believe in the power of the market but not necessarily by the same greed that is driving some others.”

Janalakshmi, like many MFIs, lends to women through Self Help Groups (SHG). I asked Geeta why she chose Janalakshmi to borrow from. She said there was one other microfinance company that came to her slum. “The problem with the other MFI is that they hold meetings once a month for two hours and make it compulsory attendance,” said Geeta. “Plus, they insist that I appear in person to borrow and return the loan. How can I do that when I work all day?” Janalakshmi, according to Geeta, has a more flexible model where the 10 women can repay their loans to the leader at any time, who in turn repays it on a monthly basis to Janalakshmi. And as a bonus, there are no meetings.

With some 20,000 non-defaulting Janalakshmi customers, Ramanathan began looking at taking it to the next level. “Unfortunately, the practice of microfinance in the last two decades has romanticized the group as a structure by which we lend to women,” he says. “Why are we elevating the group to such an extent? At the end of the day, none of us professionals working in microfinance access our financial needs through a group. Why is it that what’s good for us is not for the poor?” he asks.

Peer Pressure

The answer, as everyone in microfinance has realized, is that the group is a mechanism by which the poor access finance and also acts a peer pressure ensuring low defaults. But that doesn’t mean that the model is perfect. Take Geeta, for instance. In addition to borrowing from Janalakshmi, Geeta takes cash “advances” from me, her employer, on a need-basis. This is typical in India. Every now and then, I will lend her Rs. 20,000 (US$450) and she will repay it in lots of $50 taken off her $150 monthly salary. The point is that she (and others like her) can sustain borrowing and repaying nearly 60% of her monthly salary. Her loan appetite and ability to repay these loans is higher than what she borrows from Janalakshmi. The real challenge for MFIs is to move poor individuals like Geeta from the group model to an individual one. “The group is like scaffolding,” as Ramanathan says. “We want our customers to move from the group towards more permanent financing structures by accessing finance individually.” To that end, Janaadhar’s explicit goal is to work with individuals in terms of building them homes and also helping them secure financing for it.

With the global recession, several companies are looking at the sub-prime market. Ahmedabad-based MAS Financial Services is one such company. With 250,000 customers, each of whom has completed seven cycles of loans, MAS, which has been in operation for 18 years, knows exactly how much appetite for credits its customers have. Developers, too, have jumped on the bandwagon. They include Tata Housing, the Godrej Group, Ansal Properties (10,000 homes in UP and Rajasthan), Foliage Developers and Neptune Builders. These real estate companies are funded by banks such as State Bank of India and HDFC, which is also financing Mphasis founder (and ex Citibank India head) Jerry Rao’s affordable housing project, Value & Budget Housing Development Corporation and MFIs. Rao views housing as “inventory” which the developers ought to build cost-effectively and sell quickly before moving on to the new project. The efficiency of this system will make it economically viable as opposed to previous models in which builders held on to flats in the hope that they would rise in value.

Backed by government agencies such as the National Housing Bank (NHB) and National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development (NaBARD), MFIs like MAS can lend to the poor at an interest rate of 12% to 15%, as opposed to a traditional bank’s 8%. This spread, while wider than traditional banks, is commensurate with their risk. And that is where they make their money. For the poor borrowers, these rates are much lower than current market rates that are upwards of 36% per annum.

Matheran Realty

There is a reason why MFIs are thriving in the housing sector. Until now, the real estate boom in India meant that developers and builders could make money by simply catering to the premium market. With the premium market having fallen in some places and tanked in others, developers are now eyeing low-cost (affordable) housing for the first time. Both MAS and MFHC have tied up with Matheran Realty, a firm that specializes in flats ranging in size from 300 square feet to 700 for one of India’s most ambitious affordable housing projects. Titled Tanaji Malusure City (TMC), it will be spread across 100 acres in Karjat, outside Mumbai. Its 15,000 homes of 200, 300, 400 and 500 sq. ft. attracted 70,000 buyers. This is not surprising. According to the UK-based Noble Group, India’s savings rate of 37.7% make it among the highest in the world. Even the poor in India, who are supposed to live a hand-to-mouth existence (and many do), can save to buy a home, it seems.

The government, too, has an interest in affordable housing. TMC, for instance, is a partnership between Matheran Realty and the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority (MMRDA) which wants to develop Karjat as a satellite town to ease Bombay’s congestion. Matheran Realty says that its apartments will cost between Rs. 2.1 lakh and Rs. 7.35 lakhs (US$4,200 and US$14,700). Like any satellite development, TMC will have schools, hospitals, shops, commuter buses and even malls and multiplexes.

In all real estate developments, securing land is the big issue. TMC got its land because it is a private-public partnership. Janaadhar bought land because of the Dell Foundation’s munificence. One result is a fairly high corporate governance standard. After using the money to buy land and sort out title issues, all of which take time in India, Ramanathan went to all the leading real estate developers to get them involved in the project. “They gave us samosas and chai and a lot of reasons why they couldn’t get involved,” he says with a laugh. “Some said that building low-income housing would spoil their image as premium builders. Others said that it was a good idea but not a good fit for them.”

Ramanathan finally signed up with Sterling Developers and architect Naresh for designing and executing the project. There will be 1300 flats, two-thirds of which will be 400 square feet and one-third, 600 square feet. The entire mortgage risk will be underwritten by Janalakshmi. “In real estate, it is very easy to lose sight of who the end customer is,” says Ramanathan. “We have to keep reminding ourselves that we want to deliver homes at the lowest possible price.”

Naresh says it another way. “The challenge will be to keep the damn speculators away.”

Sustainable Construction

Securing funding for land is one thing. Designing the actual homes is another. One way to keep costs down is to explore green building techniques. The Monitor Group has come up with an exhaustive report about alternative building methods, ranging from composting toilets, rubber wood doors, mud rammed earth, red oxide floors, solar lighting and rainwater harvesting. The problem is not just one of sustainability, though. It is also about perception of what constitutes a good home for an upwardly mobile family, poor though it may be. As Naresh says, “I can go blue in the face saying that mud walls are sustainable and eco-friendly, but whenever I build mud homes for poor people, they all want concrete homes — just like us. It is about aspiration, you see. Not just the environment. They want homes like us — with concrete walls, proper roofs and garish paint.”

Other countries struggle with poor housing, too, but Naresh says that none of those models are relevant to India. “Banlieue in Paris, where all the riots happened, is a classic example of how not to do affordable housing,” he says. “With India, you have to drop all the old paradigms and start afresh. For example, the idiotic idea of separating the workplace from the home doesn’t work in India — as Dharavi proves so eloquently. That’s what makes this project exciting for architects like me.”

The thing with designing low income homes is that it impacts so many social indicators like teenage pregnancy, drug use, literacy and others. Experts say that cities have to figure out their model — whether to relocate its poor to the outskirts (Banlieue) or satellite cities like Karjat; or keep them enmeshed within the city, given that most of the poorer sections service the middle- and upper-class areas of cities. Land is a challenge and rates within urban cities are unaffordable, leading many to plan low cost projects on the city outskirts. The challenge in such cases will be to provision transportation and civic services for these dwellers. Matias Echanove is an urbanologist who moved from Tokyo to Mumbai. I called him to ask about how cities could urbanize affordably and effectively.

“Affordable housing benefits the construction industry because you can build these high-rises very quickly and cheaply,” he replied. “But there is not a single instance where mass low-income housing has succeeded. In most cases, as in France’s Banlieue, it has failed dramatically. People feel excluded. These artificial satellite cities don’t generate their own economic activities. That is the big, big disadvantage. This model relies on people commuting to cities.”

It is true. Most of the help that services cities like Mumbai travel from afar to come into the city by 8 a.m. Most leave their homes at dawn and return at midnight. What Echanove is suggesting is the complete opposite of existing models. Instead of sweeping the poor away into faraway satellite townships, he is suggesting that the rich move to these very same distant locations and energize them.

Lesson from Tokyo

The model, according to Echanove, is Tokyo, which has urbanized through infrastructure retrofitting. In other words, Tokyo’s government allows the poor to build their own homes in an organic way and simply helps them with electricity, sanitation and amenities. “Japan’s government could not build houses for the massive influx of people into cities because it was bankrupt after the war,” says Echanove. “In that sense, its approach is very pragmatic because affordable homes have developed incrementally. If you look at the urban typology of suburban Tokyo, it is the same as the slums of Bombay: low rises, high density, small buildings, lots of pedestrians, narrow streets, very strong local interwoven economy, artisans and small businesses. All this is very empowering for poor people because they have a say in their future. Plus the economy develops from the ground up.”

Echanove and some colleagues run Urbz, an urban user-generated collective ( which conducts workshops on community participation in urban planning. He championed the cause of Dharavi’s residents through a website called Unlike Europe and America, says Echanove, “India is in a unique position to start doing what has always happened in the past but never seen as a benefit. India can help people chart their own futures and build their own homes.”

There is much sense — and arguably much naivete — in what Echanove says. I don’t doubt his expertise. He, after all, has lived and worked in Dharavi. Still, his belief that slum dwellers can chart their own destiny and build their own homes is at odds with say, the Singapore model, in which Big Brother decides a prudent mix of Malays, Chinese and Indians in every government housing complex. Not only that, Singapore’s government decides the exact mix of lower, middle and upper classes who occupy these dwellings.

Down the road from my new condominium is a tiny slum. The milk-lady who sells me cow’s milk every morning lives there. She brings her six cows right in front of my apartment complex in the morning and milks them right then. Army wives from the cantonment across the street line up for milk. They chat, exchange notes and bargain for the best cow’s milk. For now, my street is a vibrant mix of cultures and classes: frugal, yet comfortably off army families, new developments such as mine and poor housing. My milk lady lives in a slum. There is no other way to describe it. And in spite of the conveniences her proximity affords (both for her and us), her own home and surroundings are small fly-infested rat-traps with poor sanitation, hygiene and light. I took a turn into her home once to question the quality of milk she had given me that day and was appalled at how she lived. Offering a home to my milk-lady in Bangalore’s equivalent of Karjat (satellite town) would no doubt improve her home environment. But it would take away her livelihood. And therein lies India’s housing conundrum. After all, a home doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It needs life, and a livelihood to sustain it.

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.


“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.