In November, India Knowledge at Wharton published 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. Since that time, Narayan’s essay — “Return to India: One Family’s Journey to America and Back” — has generated a number of candid comments from our readers on the growing trend of non-resident Indians returning home. In this opinion piece, S. Srinivasan, a writer and executive based in India, offers an analysis of the predicament Narayan describes, attributing it to a “preoccupation with a consumerist style of living.” “Without an enduring objective at a higher plane,” he argues, “it is not surprising that there is an element of drift and dissatisfaction.”
I read “Return to India: One Family’s Journey to America and Back” with considerable interest and felt compelled to comment on it.
By far, this is the most exhaustive and well written piece that I have seen on this complex topic. The coverage traces an immigrant’s journey from the larva stage until wings sprout at the citizenship stage. Many of the problems are described so vividly that those who have not yet reached this stage can experience a dry run, free of cost. Unless the writer had intensely felt the pain of this conflict, it would not have been possible to bring the issue to life so dramatically. We must credit the writer for unhesitatingly acknowledging the greatness and positive aspects of the U.S. and its society, even while expressing anguish over her inability to choose whether to return to India.
However, what is the bottom line of all this painstaking recollection? Why do individuals in the top IQ quartile who have mastered bio medicine, integrated chips or complex derivatives quake at this cross road, particularly when there is no unknown factor? Indeed, [in Narayan’s essay] all the parameters are well enumerated. Comparisons are elaborately drawn and quartered and the equation almost solved except to hit the return key and deliver the verdict. Here it is stuck. Why?
I get the feeling that this massive voluntary disclosure is only an excellent statement of the problem. We need to see the root cause. Here is a case of an eminently successful family, and yet they appear to be in great torment for taking a step of comparable dimension to those that are taken by the ordinary and the under privileged on a fairly regular basis. This quandary compels me to give my two rupees worth of unsolicited view. And while doing so, I would like to make two things clear: First, I am viewing the India and U.S. options neutrally. Second, the writer’s account is taken as quintessential thinking of a group of persons in a similar dilemma; while my response is to the group as a whole, understandably, not all of it will apply to everyone.
‘Been There and Done That’
Why do people come to the U.S. to start with? Surely, not for its culture — rich, or otherwise. Their objectives are clear: They have visions of swank universities, plum jobs, the green card, ‘big moolah,” creature comforts, the BMW and annual holidays at exotic locales from Auckland to Alaska. At the same time, without knowing the specific pin pricks, they are quite aware of the possibility of Indian kids running into turbulent weather in their teens and the strong home factor which will wistfully pull them back. These issues, fully visible even at the starting block, probably get brushed aside with the notion that “one will cross that bridge when one comes to it.” And the day of reckoning duly arrives when the house is complete with gym and Jacuzzi, the Porsche and the Prius, the HDTV and Blue Ray, and the dog and cat. Here, the charm of material benefits wear off and the higher levels of Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Needs” take over. Once the wallet starts bulging and the kids are conversational, panicky parents are seized with the grimmer aspects of this venture.
In “Return to India,” the trigger for the writer’s reassessment of continuing in the U.S. came from very ordinary events — like parties, for instance. Therein lies a clue to the real issue. While overtly logical and legitimate factors are listed, discussed and thrashed over, there are other factors at work on a subterranean level. Recount the subtle and not-so-subtle references to the identification and stratification of family status based on the location of homes, the cars driven, the attire worn for parties, the experimentation with wines and attending $1000 dinners. The goal in life appears to be to be able to announce that we have “been there and done that.” Buffeted by peer pressure, there is preoccupation with a consumerist style of living — a state of affairs where the mission in life is continuous evaluation, calculation, positioning and comparison. Even charity seems to be part of this process. Without an enduring objective at a higher plane, it is not surprising that there is an element of drift and dissatisfaction.
Though anyone in a household can influence the decision [to go home], in this case the control appears to belong to the man of the house, with his predicament on the job front. He becomes mentally ready to make a move only when the circumstances are favorable to an astonishingly high degree: A guaranteed job at the other end. A job in the same organization, restricting cultural shocks to the minimum and preserving seniority. Dollar denominated emoluments. Settling down in Bangalore, rated as the best place [to live] in India today. Same home city for both spouses. No apparent complications in the domestic scene, such as in laws and out laws. Extensive overseas travel with opportunities to be back in the U.S. on work. Savings possibly upward of $600,000, a level by Indian standards that is sufficient to sit at home and play golf for the rest of one’s life. The reassurance that the children will be back for their higher studies. And the U.S. citizenship status which can facilitate a back track, should the experiment prove to be a failure. The elusive “best of both worlds” does not get any better than this — and if this is the benchmark for deciding on a shift, there is slim possibility of the majority of this group ever making a move.
People in our society face crucial forks in the road or cataclysmic changes in their lives on a daily basis. The dilemma of families living in the Middle East, for instance — whether to plod along or to leave. Over there, the lure of petro dollars is evenly pitched against noxious factors, such as life in a Death Valley-like environment, interaction in some countries with arrogant locals not particularly known for courtesy or understanding, job quality that is not exactly stimulating or scintillating, and a non competitive environment for children that tends to soften them. Or, imagine the plight of a retiring general manager of the Indian railways who executes challenging projects for transporting millions. When he or she retires, there is a free fall from a private railway saloon coach and a car with a beacon light into a non-descript, self-driven vehicle. And 200,000 subordinates vanish overnight. People can go through severe mental agony or even fall apart in these and similar situations, but they do cross the Rubicon and stay sane. And there are no parties to discuss these [issues]. No websites or chat rooms to exchange tidbits and terabytes of information. No high profile research or analysis of any kind.
In “Return to India,” some of the impressions expressed by the writer appear to border on fuzzy logic and need to be validated, since erroneous impressions are the mother of all misconceptions. Are there not children with exemplary upbringing in the U.S., and conversely wayward specimens in India? Cannot kids be kept on track through values inculcated at home and through the powerful family and filial factor?
Also, while it is true there is less respect for merit or excellence in India, this is largely confined to the political establishment which is somewhat allergic to these concepts. We should zoom into the more relevant zone, the corporate sector. If barons of business ranging from Tata to Mahindra are making waves across the oceans, it is not with a squad of selected sycophants. Today, industry is willing to pay a premium for merit. And this is being met by go-getters who can hold their own against the best in the business internationally. And Indian women in the corporate sector are on the list of the most powerful and influential persons in the world.
Likewise, the writer’s reservation about quality medical services is also misplaced. While on average the quality of medical treatment may be abysmal, that again is not our zone of discussion. The hospitals that could be visited by this segment of the population would be of high to very high order where some of the best brains will be behind stethoscopes and scalpels. Indeed, “medical tourism” is a buzzword gaining ground, what with super wealthy sheiks routinely looking at India for treatment, in view of the huge cost differential. As for health care in the U.S., the less said the better. In the bizarre U.S. medical system, traumatized patients are routinely made to wait endlessly while the painful premedical processing goes on. Locating the personal physician and getting him or her into a synchronous mode with the insurance squad and the hospital can take eons while the hapless patient waits in agony. No less than Hillary Clinton seems to have failed to reform the system and has bitten the dust against these entrenched vested interests.
The Keralite Model
Thus, the primary issue [for families like the writer’s] appears to be the lack of a towering objective or goal in their lives to which other parameters can subordinate themselves. There is comfort in being perennially in a state of flux and ruminating rather than in deciding one way or the other through some compromise. Why not look to the Keralites in this regard? This is the group that is omnipresent from Delhi to Dibrugarh and from Dubai to Dallas. Wherever you go, you find them with their tea stalls or tyre shops, or anything else that supports life. On one side, they have God’s own country that is closest to Paradise, except for the fact that employment opportunities are lacking. And yet you are unlikely to find them endlessly discussing the merits and demerits of a shift. They tend to blend with the location and put their best foot forward. No wonder they are among the most successful emigrant groups anywhere in the world. Looking at the lack of will power on the part of Indian parents in the U.S., it seems patently unjust that Indian children born in the U.S. should be carrying the cross of “ABCD” [American-Born Confused Desi]. The problem is squarely with the parents, and in fairness, they should be given the appropriate nomenclature. I propose the term “AACI” — pronounced “Ah-ki” — to denote those America-Arrived Confused Indians who will only dine and whine.
Leaving aside temporary “techies,” there are four types of Indians who land in the U.S. Group one, which comes just for the education and possibly some bare minimum experience and wishes to return to head their awaiting empires. Substantially, children and wards of business magnates and tycoons fall into this category and for this lot, the piece by the writer as well this response are both irrelevant. Then there is the crowd at the other end of the spectrum, whose only objective is to be on U.S. soil and who have no intention of looking back, come hell or high water. We have the Indian version of those who cross the Rio Grande. In their fixation to stay in the country, group two will adopt its own strategies to either integrate or isolate themselves in society, and to them, the cultural issue is only as disconcerting as their daily commuting problems. Indeed, some are strongly convinced of the net positive features prevailing in the U.S., and they will not be able to understand what the fuss is all about. A third group is in for a slightly longer haul, presumably until they make some money or reach some other milestone and intend to positively return. While on and off this group may feel the irritation of cultural imbalance, there is a subconscious resolution that deliverance is around the corner. Finally, we have the fourth group, which wants to stay longer, or even indefinitely, but is unable to make up its mind and the problem is localized here. They appear to be in a quest for the Holy Grail and should consider at the earliest whether they fall into group two or three.
A Mediocre Violinist
I recollect reading about an incident in the life of Mahatma Gandhi. While practicing as a barrister in the U.K., it occurred to him that he would be able to operate better in London if he took some steps. Accordingly, he enrolled himself in three classes, one each for violin, elocution and dance. He reckoned that mastery over these would help him to merge seamlessly with English society. In his own words, he says that after some time, the bell of alarm rang in his mind over the insanity of his antics. Soon enough, he abandoned the entire exercise as a mental aberration. If he had persisted in these ventures, instead of independence, we may have gotten a mediocre violinist. A visit to his frugal ashram at Wardha will enlighten us on the power of simplicity. For that is where, clad in loin cloth and armed with just ahimsa, he demonstrated that a great objective — and subordination of everything else to it — can bring even an empire to heel.