To stay put or to return is probably the eternal dilemma among most NRIs from any generation. Every once in a while first generation immigrants feel the pangs for their homeland and no matter how successful, how settled they are, there is always that hidden desire, that yearning to go back and rediscover their roots. While the last generation which came after the war or in the 70s from Uganda or Bengal have stayed put, forming large and hugely successful diasporas in countries like the US and the UK, a lot of the new generation only seem to be only flirting with their NRI status. Call it social mobility or whatever; there is a definite change in the dynamics of what it means to be an NRI today vis-à-vis 30 years ago.
An increasing number of them are packing their bags and heading home after a few years of having lived abroad. Ironically though, their reason for going back is the very same as that of the previous generations’ for staying put – opportunity. And the only difference is this: the West offered the best prospects then, now it is India that promises a better future. It’s a role reversal of sorts and there is a growing trend among even 2nd and 3rd generation NRIs wanting to touch base with their Indian roots.
As someone who will always be a fleeting NRI (It’s decided – between 12-18 months at a time, not more!), I am never quite faced with such a grave indecision of what to do. But judging by what some of my friends and family are going through, it can indeed be a nerve racking choice to make. Because for all its progress, multiculturalism and opportunities, India is still a completely different ball game for someone used to the clinical order of Western societies and readjusting will not just be difficult, but could many a time seem impossible. No wonder, then, that half of those who return promptly come back.
Of course with the so-called modernization of India, what with all those snazzy malls and fast food chains, it wouldn’t exactly be like returning to the medieval ages, but here are the givens that will infuriate you if at all you are planning to move (not in order of chronology):
1. Infrastructure – Or the lack of it (!) in major cities that apparently aspire to be the hubs for business activity in the future.
2. Lack of public spaces – Forget it! For all you know, the last remaining green spot is being sold to a developer for yet another shopping mall or movie theatre complex.
3. Rents that make a dent – Earning in rupees and paying rents comparable with those in London, NY and Tokyo can be a nasty surprise, so be prepared! And yes, no more back gardens and conservatories, garages and patios. Welcome to the world of apartment blocks!
4. Stark inequity – Be prepared to confront a completely different India that co-exists with yours – that of toddlers begging at traffic signals, of open sewers and slum dwellers. It can be excruciating to come to terms with.
5. Bad public transport – If you complain about the Jubilee Line every day on your way to work, wait to see what the Mumbai Locals or the Delhi buses are like. In all probability you wouldn’t be using them, though, preferring to curse the slow moving traffic in the air-conditioned comfort of your car.
6. Indian Standard Time – Is decoded as half an hour late, which is not only normal but also fashionable. Is that where the term ‘fashionably late’ came from?
7. Red Tape – From getting your car registered to applying for a gas cylinder, be prepared to endure the infuriating nonchalance of fat babus who will usually get the work done only after a small bakshish (gift).
I could go on and on, but you get the drift, right? It is hardly a dream despite the whole gamut of career opportunities available in India for those wanting to come back! On the flipside there is a whole lot to learn, especially for a 2nd or 3rd generation NRI, in the imperfection of India. The art of being flexible, of getting used to living in a society that doesn’t work on tick marks, of compromise and relationships – business and otherwise! Some of my NRI friends who’ve returned after a while say their most lasting relationships have often been those in India, very often through work – which isn’t as segregated from your personal life as it is here in the West.
Of course none of this solves that ‘eternal dilemma’ as I called it, but here’s a solution – give India a chance, but always keep a window open to come back! The chances that it might not work for you are just as high as the chances that it might.