It would not have been a return home, of course, without questioning where home really should be.
My husband and I were up late one night this week at his parents’ place in Massachusetts, exhausted from shopping for socks, vitamins and macaroni and cheese, when I finally asked the big question, “So do you think we should move back?”
“Back” for us would be these United States, where we were born to Indian immigrant parents and where we happen to be visiting. He paused. “Yeah,” he said. “But not for a while. There’s still so much going on in India.”
Fundamentally I agreed with him, but reminders of our lives in the US dangled like carrots: diversity and efficiency, privacy and loving neighbours, museums and story hours at the library. So for a refresher on India’s possibility, I sent an email to the man who initially planted the seed and inspired my move to New Delhi: Prakash Grama, past president of the RNRI Association. That stands for Returned Non-Resident Indian. (I am neither a returnee nor an NRI but such abbreviations in India tend to be inclusive by their oxymoronic nature.)
Grama and I met in Bangalore in October of 2005. I was working on an article for a US newspaper on the wave of information-technology professionals returning to India and Grama was linking the recently repatriated with volunteer work. He had lived in the US from 1988 to 1998, when he moved to Bangalore to grow a software services company, Span Systems Corp., he’d founded with his brother. Back then, he recalled, the idea of moving back to India was a sign of failure. That turned with the century and, by 2005, Grama estimated up to 40,000 people had returned to Bangalore alone.
“In the IT industry, there’s significant value for people coming back,” he told me over lunch. (By “back,” he meant India.) “And here you are not just accepted into society, you’re recognized at the top.” Follow opportunity, he had told me. Although he warned me that if I did, something very strange might happen: I might feel more Indian in the US and more American in India. He also ominously told me that some NRIs return to India but get so frustrated with issues from work culture to servant politics to the in-laws dropping in that they head right back West.
I had lost regular contact with Grama so I wanted to update him on our new RNRI life and thank him for asking me to look beyond the rain and traffic that defined Bangalore that day. Imagine my shock when I received his response this week: “Coincidentally, I have relocated to Dallas with my family!” I picked up the phone, filled with curiosity. What happened to being on top? Had India let him down? How could the head of the RNRI Association pull another R?
He laughed when I began peppering him with questions. “I always seem to be in reverse tide,” he joked. “In 1998, people said, ‘You’re crazy.’ And then that became popular and now I’ve come back here.
“Maybe I’m ahead of the times...”
He added that it was “90% a business decision.” The company had been growing quickly and the only way to sustain it and snag larger clients was for one of the brothers to relocate to the US.
This week, The Indus Entrepreneurs, a networking group of South Asian business leaders, released a survey that says about 60,000 IT professionals have returned to India, encouraged by development in infrastructure and salary increases. The survey found respondents keen to return to India to “protect their kids from the Western culture,” according to a report by the Press Trust of India.
Ironically, Grama said his children’s future was one factor that actually lured him back to the US. “I was concerned about the rat race for kids there,” he said of India. His daughters, now in a public school in an affluent Dallas suburb, miss their friends but don’t miss the immense pressure to hit the 99th percentile on board exams.
I told Grama that my husband and I, along with lots of returnees, have had similar conversations about schooling—although we were hopeful after recent overtures to open up Indian education, both in curriculum and investment.
When we met in Bangalore, Grama gave me the first inkling of returnees’ identity crises: over that lunch, he laughed as he told me he used to drive 60 miles on Sunday to get to temple. In India, he rarely ever made it—even with one across the road.
This summer, Grama told me he has been to worship several times, most recently for a pooja when he bought a Honda Pilot. I never make it to temple anymore, I thought. “But I’m not where the action is,” he said, seemingly reading my mind.
“You are.” And so even as he lives in my native country and I in his, Grama and I followed the same advice: We each followed opportunity home, thankfully a fluid and fleeting place these days.
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