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“How are you feeling?”

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January 2004
“How are you feeling?”

Few persons generate as much empathy and concern

as a returning Indian expatriate.

___________________________________________________________

By RANJANI NELLORE

Almost everyday someone asks me "How are you feeling?" I am not keeping count, but I suspect that the only other time I have been asked this question more often, has been during my pregnancy. At that time, concern about my physical well-being prompted the query. Now it tries to gauge my emotional status. After all, pregnant women are plentiful, but how often do you encounter someone voluntarily leaving the U.S. to return to India for good?

"Do you feel butterflies in your tummy?" asked my cousin as she helped me wrap my Corelle plates. The plates sat beside the neatly stacked matching bowls in the stiff U-Haul boxes, unaware of the impending trans-Pacific journey. What I felt was not a gentle flutter of shimmering wings but swishing and swirling streams of water, as if a fully loaded dishwasher had taken up residence somewhere under my ribs.

On other days, I felt like a soon-to-be-wed bride as I watched my husband return from yet another marathon shopping session, trying to procure all things American that he perceived as being unavailable in India. It had been a while since I had witnessed such mega shopping trips with little regard to the budget or to the relevance of the objects purchased.

Watching us get ready for our big move seemed to stir up different feelings among our friends, colleagues and acquaintances. In a lighter vein, some of my Indian friends likened my stay of fourteen years in the U.S. to the vanvas, the length of time that the Hindu God Rama spent in exile. Of course, in my case, these years were not marked by deprivation and sacrifice as in the Ramayana, but a time of excitement and learning.

On a serious note, I had a memorable conversation with a normally reclusive colleague. On hearing of my departure, he stopped by my office to share details of an episode on "Sixty Minutes" where he had seen a veiled Indian woman cleaning out an open-air toilet of some sort. He truly wanted to know what made me, as a woman, want to return to such a country. As it turned out, he had also watched the show where Narayan Murthy, founder of Infosys, one of India's premier IT companies, mentioned that MIT would be second choice for his son if he could not get into IIT, India's internationally reputed engineering college. My colleague had chosen to preferentially retain the first scene in his memory. I am not sure if my fifteen minute speech about the contrasts of Indian life helped to dispel his previous negative image.

I straddled this divide of opinions and emotions with a stoic demeanor in public. It was only in private that I allowed the feeling of quiet inevitability to overwhelm me. I had experienced this peculiar emotion once before. I was eight months pregnant then. I had attended Lamaze classes that had provided an honest preview of what to expect during labor. While having served its educational purpose, it had also succeeded in thoroughly destroying my peaceful and blissful ignorant state. I looked at my protruding abdomen and realized that there was only one way for this child to come out. While everyone was concerned and excited about the baby, it was only I who would experience the pain of labor. From that point, I realized that there was no going back. The thought was simultaneously sobering and terrifying. What had I gotten myself into?

It is this same sense of apprehension that follows me around like a dark low-lying cloud.

I glanced at the calendar one morning, and noticed the unobtrusive caption that lingered shyly at the bottom corner of the picture for the first time. It was a quote by Sidney J. Harris.

Regret for all the things we did can be softened by time. It is regret for the things we did not do that is inconsolable.���

I am leaving America, not because the IT bubble has burst. I have tendered my resignation, much against the wishes of management and coworkers. I am taking this step because it is something I have always considered doing, returning to my homeland.

I left India right after I finished college. It is only in the U.S. that I pursued graduate education and an exciting career. I feel a twinge of fear at entering into the workforce in India after having experienced a rewarding work life here. As I enter a country that now has a population of one billion, I worry about the dust and pollution and the intense competition for resources that I will be exposing my child too. I sense that the loss of a substantial "dollar" income will be offset by the intangible gains like the time I will spend with my aging parents and the first-hand experience of growing up in India that I will gift to my child. Most importantly, making this move gives me an opportunity to start over and a chance to reinvent myself. If I don't take this step now, I may never do it. It may forever linger in my consciousness as an inconsolable regret. It is now or never.

I am returning home, but like the proverbial salmon, my journey is upstream. Unlike fairy tales, life rarely offers tidy conclusions. In my story, this step represents, at best, a reasonable denouement.


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