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Homeward Bound

February 2005
Homeward Bound

The story of how India is luring back some of her expatriates.


Call it a new trend, call it a dramatic U-turn, call it anything you will, but it's a phenomenon that has everyone in the diaspora sitting up and taking notice. We are talking about the reverse migration of globally settled Indians to their native land.

Considering that the allure of "phoren" shores was one of the defining characteristics of middle class Indians in a post-Independence era, few would have guessed that settling back in India after having lived elsewhere would become a viable, and even desirable, option. After all India, until recently, was stuck in the rut of the License Raj; bureaucracy and red-tapism ruled the roost, sub-standard products and limited choices were the norm, ?enterprise' and ?wealth' were dirty words.

As a result, the exodus of upwardly mobile Indians to faraway places such as the U.S., England, Canada, Africa, Australia, Singapore, and even the Middle East, was only natural. Financial and material betterment that they could only dream of in India, was a real possibility in these lands of opportunities.

Thus, if a sub par standard-of-living, and perhaps a sense of adventure, is what motivated many of us to uproot ourselves from the comfort of the native land, it only stands to reason that having fulfilled the bug of adventure of "seeing the world", some of us would be drawn back to an India that is slowly but increasingly offering the lifestyle and opportunities of the developed world.

"You can't beat having a shudh shakahari (pure vegetarian) McDonald's burger on the streets that you grew up in? while chatting away in your mother tongue without having to feel self-conscious," explained a cheerful Sangeeta Rajani, underscoring the "best of both worlds" scenario enjoyed by those who have gone back. Speaking of the nine years she spent in the U.S., she says her life, while comfortable and prosperous, had a persistent undercurrent of the "something missing" syndrome. That something, she found out after moving back, was the "turbo boost of living in a place where you don't have to explain yourself from a socio-cultural perspective. This is something that cannot be materially quantified; but it is positively exhilarating."

Elaborating further, she adds, "Until now, our choice of going to the West for a better standard of living came with the cost of never really fitting in. And this is not a comment on American society, which, for the most part, is as accepting as is possible. But East is East, and West is West; and our cultures are a world apart. And adaptable creatures that humans are, we do make the most of our immigrant lives there. But through it all, there is an unmistakable feeling of not fully belonging."

"That would have been an acceptable tradeoff twenty years ago, considering what India was then. But today, India is bustling with possibilities and I enjoy all the material trappings of a modern world right here. Even in the relatively small city of Pune, we enjoy the best of international cuisines, we watch CNN, CNBC and Carry on Shekhar (The Indian version of the Tonight Show), our house has most modern amenities, and to boot, help is readily available. From dhobis to doodhwallahs, there is a whole array of vendors who provide home service at affordable costs. So, on the one hand we want for almost nothing in terms of comforts and conveniences; and on the other, and more importantly, we can live our lives with native pride. I don't have to feel self-conscious about wearing a sari or a bindi, the few times that I wish to. In the U.S., even my kids used to feel embarrassed about eating daal roti when in company of their friends. Because you know what? No matter how much pride you instill in them about your customs and traditions, peer pressure is a huge thing at their age. They didn't like to feel like aliens," she summarizes.

Rajani may well have put a finger on the pulse of the growing trend of the homeward bound NRI (Non Resident Indian). It appears like having your cake and eating it too. All the enticements that were the magnets for our move to the West are now available right there in India ? without the downsides of having to live in cultural alienation.

So what is responsible for such a dramatic turn of events? How did India become a viable destination in such short a time?

The impact of IT

The heady days of globalization in the early nineties suddenly saw India turn topsy-turvy. After decades of deprivation there was a whole new glittering world of a vibrant marketplace with its luxury goods, unlimited choices, fashion, cuisine, design, style and?attitude. These are hip times to be an Indian in India ? which is not a claim that other post-Independence decades could make.

Close on the heels of globalization came the information technology (IT) boom. And suddenly the country was in the news for the right reasons. Earlier it was the poverty-stricken millions, droughts, floods, starvation, and of course, a liberal sprinkling of exotica such as snake charmers, elephants and maharajahs, that defined the Indian landscape to outsiders. Today, while poverty, poor infrastructure, pollution and other host of problems do exist, they no longer make the main story about India. The progressive India is slowly but surely overshadowing the third-world India.

Playing a dominant role in this transformation is the IT sector ? which is largely responsible for pulling back many of the brightest global Indians in a phenomenon of the so called "reverse brain drain". While earlier there was a trickle of Indians returning from abroad, today the facts speak for themselves. According to one estimate, there are 35,000 returned NRIs in Bangalore alone, with many more scattered across India. According to a study conducted by India's NASSCOM (National Association of Software and Service Companies) in 2003, which categorized U.S. returnees, 15 percent are U.S. citizens and about that many more are Green card holders. These numbers indicate that a significant percentage of those returning are doing so by choice rather than compulsion.

Sheila Gandhi of NASSCOM explained why senior professionals are returning. "Today India is getting into high-end work and not just grunt design and they find that their experience abroad has helped, and they like what they see," she said. According to Gandhi, despite the salaries, those who have returned couldn't be happier. Most are working for companies like Intel, Microsoft and IBM because when those companies shifted high-end work to India, they were the natural choices.

In July 2003, in Santa Clara, in the heart of Silicon Valley, industry bigwigs like Intel, Microsoft and National Semiconductor Company were among a list of 28 employers taking part in ?Career Factory 2003', hosted by Siliconindia magazine. Approximately 2,000 tech workers of Indian origin were checking out the job opportunities in India.���In a study conducted at the University of California at Berkeley, it was discovered that over half of the Indian-born IT professionals in Silicon Valley would consider going back to establish a company. A shortage of high-tech jobs in the United States and increased downsizing could be motivators too.

The simultaneous reversal-of-welcome for foreign workers in the U.S. along with India's growing prospects may have given rise to the still, internal voice of dissatisfaction that Rajani alluded to. Dr. Santanu Maitra, principal scientist at Dr. Reddy's Laboratories, returned to India in July 2003. One of the reasons he cited was to "hopefully enjoy the grade ?A' citizenship without having to bleach our brown skins!" Avinash Peters, another recent returnee, goes so far as to say that there is an inherent undercurrent of racism in the U.S. He says, "I never felt at home there." On the other hand, Viral Desai, a manager at Larsen and Toubro, has never felt uncomfortable about the color of his skin. Neither has he faced any form of racism. Nevertheless, Desai says, "Returning to India and being among my own people ? it does make me feel more at home."

Jaspreet Singh, team manager for Microsoft Enterprise Platform Support, who returned to India in February 2004, says, "The office environments here are pretty much like the U.S." Where earlier, most offices were shabby, small and unprofessionally run, today India has swank IT parks, glass-fronted office complexes, plush interiors, channel music and broadband connections, which can compete with any international office complex. Air-conditioned offices are no longer a luxury but a necessity. For those who return from abroad, it is a pleasant change to not find slow running fans lazily spinning out hot air or dusty files adding to the dreariness of the surroundings.

The Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Mumbai is possibly a good reflector of India's attractiveness as an IT destination. Earlier more than half the graduates would migrate to foreign shores; today that figure has come down to two-fifths!���

States like Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh have aggressively promoted IT and invested significantly in infrastructure to support the boom. State-of-the-art IT parks have sprung up all over the country. The sector has singularly contributed to a rise in standards of living within the country ? high salaries are de rigueur in the industry. The best of the Multi National Corporations (MNCs) are setting up shops in India. And they are offering great salary packages and excellent perks. Singh says, "The standard of living has really increased in India. The salaries are a lot better, and actually adequate to live a very comfortable life." According to Sheila Gandhi, "Salaries in the IT sector have gone up by 14.5 percent, which is the highest (increase) in the Asia Pacific region."

The trend is not limited to IT. According to a study by the Charities Aid Foundation of India, medical professionals are increasingly giving up well-paid jobs around the world to return to India to join research institutes and hospitals. Rukmini Kethiredypally, a biostatistician at Dr. Reddy's Laboratory, offers "social and political reasons" for coming back. In 2003, out of approximately 250 research scientists working at Dr Reddy's Laboratories, 20 have come back from foreign shores. According to Dr. Maitra, the future of the Indian pharmaceutical industry is quite bright.

The glitzy world of consumerism

Why endure the alienation in the West, when the West is as close as the brand spanking new mall around the corner? From glitzy shopping malls to six-lane highways, the Indian landscape is beginning to mirror the developed nations in some ways. India is in the throes of a retail boom, with sparkling shopping plazas sprouting up in urban centers. Mohan Babu, a green card holder, manages and helps maintain a community web portal called GaramChai.com. He returned to India to be with his parents. Mohan is a regular columnist for Express Computers. He stresses, "Definitely we are experiencing a consumerism wave. Walk down the Forum Mall in Bangalore and you could feel that you are in Singapore, Europe or the U.S."

The facts are staggering: the more than $206-billion Indian retail market is presently growing at a rate of 8.5 percent annually. Moreover, India has the highest number of retail outlets per capita in the world. Rising income levels, a burgeoning middle class and youngsters with far more spending power than what their parents could have dreamt of, have all contributed to this phenomenon. For the returning NRI this is a dream come true ? he can enjoy an international standard of living without having to disown his roots. Coke, Pepsi, hamburgers, pizzas?these symbols of American consumerism have invaded India too! Padmapani Nallan, who works at Satyam Computers in Hyderabad says, "It is not a decisive factor (for moving back) but certainly it adds to the quality of life we are having here."

The coffee-pub culture has rapidly spread in urban areas, especially with the young crowd. There are many chains styled on Starbucks. The coffee pub is more a lifestyle than just a place to go for a hot cuppa! Jaspreet Singh observes, "Today, pubs and discotheques are part and parcel of the urban Indian lifestyle." These along with bowling alleys, night clubs and more offer plenty of lures for those "spoiled" abroad.

Besides, the changing social mores are also more conducive for the liberalized NRIs. Singh explains, earlier, many NRIs who came here on holiday would comment, "Everyone stares at you if you wear tight jeans!" No more! With MTV and Fashion TV beaming into Indian living rooms, the urban Indian has been completely bowled over by Western attire. Where earlier girls would leave home in demure dresses and hurriedly change into something revealing at a friend's house, today kids openly leave their homes in tiny mini skirts and noodle straps! Dating is no longer a no-no among urban parents. It's hip to have a boyfriend/girlfriend.

While all of this may not be considered as "progress" by many, the point is India is no longer the rigidly orthodox place it may have once been. One no longer feels the compelling need to conform.

The biggest concern for those considering a move back is often the issue of how their American-born children would fare. Surprisingly, most of the returned NRIs that Khabar talked to all enthusiastically reported positively on how well their kids have adjusted. "Our seven year old son could not be happier," shared a very pleased Kavita Menon who had just left behind a sprawling mansion and private schools in Atlanta to move to Hyderabad. "After only a couple of months of some cribbing, he is now having the time of his life. We can see a different level of energy in him. He loves our colony, the new friends, the school. In the States, our constant worry was to do with activities for him. What to do? Where to take him? Here, it simply is not an issue. The environment, friends, relatives seems to take care of it."

The robust new capitalism is helping here too. Educational institutions have woken up to the demands for international style schools. Today's new breed of schools offer a host of state-of-the-art facilities. They come equipped with well-appointed laboratories and computer facilities. They have high tech auditoriums that encourage extra-curricular performances, well-stocked libraries, AV rooms, and more. Some have temperature-controlled classrooms, posh study bedrooms, wireless broadband networks, laptops for the students, and multi-cuisine dining facilities at residential schools.

Not to be left behind, real estate developers are also on the double satisfying a growing middle and upper class, many of who are the foreign-returned. In what is seen as a new and lucrative trend, builders are constructing ultra-modern complexes and self-contained luxury enclaves with all amenities including swimming pools, gyms and parks; some specifically marketing them as "NRI colonies".

Take the example of Royal Garden City in Bangalore. This will be Asia's largest web-enabled housing enclave. Once completed, there will be 35,000 residential units. The perks: a central business district, entertainment centers, parks, restaurants, shopping malls and educational facilities. This project will possibly be the country's first NRI hub. For the dollar-rich NRI, a luxury apartment comes at a far more pocket-friendly rate than its equivalent in the U.S. "We are living in a location in Hyderabad which is considered to be the most posh and infrastructurally best location here. I could not have afforded such a location in the U.S.," says Padmapani Nallan.

The tug of the family

Traditional Indian life is centered around the family, which is an essential part of its culture and ethos. The extended family is known to be the rock which is there for one in good times and bad. And while life in the West offers everything in terms of material comfort, loneliness is a constant companion for many, especially those who are single. Couples, too, miss the interaction with family.

Earlier, the standards of living between India and the West were too dramatic, and many felt that the tradeoff in having to move elsewhere, while painful, was worth it. Now that India is globally competitive when it comes to lifestyles, the tug of the family has beckoned many who had settled elsewhere, especially those who had left parents behind.

For working couples in India, family is a boon because children can be left with their grandparents; couples in the U.S. find it tough when they have to leave their children in a day care. Many also feel that their kids lose touch with Indian culture when they are brought up there. Returning to India means reviving those bonds, those familial ties, and letting kids play and interact with their cousins as they grow up.

Mohan Babu says, "I was looking forward to spending time with my parents back in Bangalore and it also helped that the job market here is booming. In a way, it was a ?win win' proposition." "My ties with my parents and brothers were a strong motivator for me," declares Ranjani Nellore, associate director at Dr. Reddy's. "My child interacts with grandparents every day and I see my parents in Bombay every chance I get. I live a comfortable life. I have gone from a six-figure American salary to about the same that I made as a graduate student over a decade ago. Yet, I have a driver, a maid, a cook (off and on), and a dhobi. But I have other things to compensate that cannot be tagged with any currency."

Nallan says, "Family definitely is one of the main reasons for us to come back. We want our parents to enjoy spending time with us and more importantly with their grandchildren. Of course, we want to be here to take care of our parents if and when they need our help. We want our kids to spend time with their cousins and develop a strong family bond with them." Dr. Maitra too emphasized the importance of family ties in their decision to move back, "We want our toddler son realize that his family goes beyond his parents' territory."

Vinita Varma of Los Angeles married an Indian living in Chennai. She was spending her time shuttling between LA and Chennai with her little daughter Yasmin. Earlier she was opposed to the idea of settling down in Chennai and was keen on taking her husband back to the U.S. She felt that India was too conservative and stifling and that Yasmin would get better opportunities, in terms of education, in the U.S. Today she is doing a rethink. There are so many little things that impact her life here ? she can drop in at someone's house when she wants without having to call or make an appointment. Yasmin has many friends and affable ?aunties' to look after her if Vinita and her husband need to go out.

Give a little, take a little

While moving back has been rewarding for most, there is always the flip side! Som Velluri who now lives in Bangalore said he had some of the most glorious years of his life in the U.S. "Having lived there from age 19 to 32, I simply cherish and appreciate the country. It is a misconception that all of us move there only for a materially superior lifestyle. In fact, the constant talk of fancy cars and mansions in the desi community during those heady days of the IT boom is what I detested the most. For me, America is all about all you can be as an individual. It may sound clich�d, but it is a level playing field to discover and achieve your best potential," says a perceptive Velluri. Having had a reasonably successful career with Lucent technology and then with Oracle, Velluri, who is equally thrilled being back in India, came back last year to join the family enterprise in manufacturing. He adds, "For me, America was about all the usual suspects ? personal freedom, opportunity, a robust capitalism, a functional bureaucracy, lack of corruption. I know, I am aware of WorldCom and other recent happenings what with the war and all; things may be changing. But I can speak for the time I was there, and must admit, it was not an easy decision coming back. Heck, I even loved the lay of the land. Some of my striking memories are of pristine spring days in the Tennessee mountains. While I am psyched about the energy in India these days, lets face it, most of India is not a nature lover's delight. The thing that I liked a lot in the U.S. is that a short drive would take one from an urban center to the heart of nature."

Speaking of short drives, the universal complain of the phoren-returned was the abysmal conditions of roads in India. Most of them lamented the potholes, bumps, chaos and the nerve-wrecking traffic ? a far cry from the roads in the U.S. Singh misses the "luxury roads and the clean environment." Nallan says, "We keep thinking about the U.S. whenever we compare the roads and other infrastructure, facilities, and services. We feel a sense of sadness that so much can be done here also, but enough is not being done due to corrupt politicians, apathetic and corrupt officials." According to Mohan, "I do miss the lack of pollution or intrusion in the common man's life that I saw in the West."

There are other aspects of life in the U.S that people miss. For instance, Rukmini Kethiredypally reminisces, "Having gotten used to a different work culture and with plenty of access to good university libraries and having enjoyed both physical and individual space, initially it was difficult. But since we came back with full awareness of what we lose and what we gain, the adjustment has not been that bad. I do miss the U.S. Here are some of the things I miss: friends, the print edition of The New York Times, wide roads with decent pavements to walk on, museums, bookstores such as Borders, National Public Radio."

Then, of course, there are the problems faced at work. Maitra says, "What we miss the most are lack of professionalism, responsibility, and maturity." Shailaja Neelakantan, who returned to New Delhi, believes that the men in India still belong to the Stone Age. According to her, "Attitude towards women is a huge problem. I could be (and usually am) covered head to toe, but people still feel the need to stare; people have often commented about my short hair." While this may be true of cities like New Delhi and many parts of the Hindi belt in Northern India, by and large women have moved forward tremendously. Indian women are empowered, especially in the cities, and today they are bold enough to live life on their terms. They are not confined to hearth and home.

Haribhai Khatri who has lived in Africa, London, U.S. and is currently residing in Ahmedabad, India, offers a sagely observation, "The decision to uproot yourself yet again to come back to India is a highly personal one. Life is a trade off. At the end of the day your happiness has more to do with the kind of person you are than how many gizmos you have and how many channels your TV broadcasts, and what hemisphere you live in. If you were a depressed and angry person here, that is what you will be in the U.S., and that is who you will remain once back to the ?new and improved' India.

Yet, it is enough for those who place a premium on indigenous values, culture, and atmosphere, that thanks to the turn of events, coming home no longer means having to put up with a dismal quality of life. India does beckon; and whereas at one time the only exodus was the one away from it, now there may well be one shaping up that is headed towards it. For most, migrating back been an enriching experience that has added to their quality of life. For them, it has literally been the best of both worlds.

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