Returning to India - At ease in India and the world

July 30, 2005

Some people argue that in this era of globalization you can live and work anywhere in the world. This is easier said than done. Adjusting to life in India can still be a challenge for someone who has been used to life in the west. This is especially true for the first year or for as long as one continues with the obsession of comparing the two.

I returned to Pune in July 2002 after living in the United States for 14 years to start an Indian operation for my American employer. After living in America for so long returning to India initially felt - cosmetically - a little different from what I was familiar with. Fiats and Ambassadors had changed to Fords and Hyundais, heavy rigid phones to snazzy mobiles, government and banking jobs to BPOs. Teenagers appeared trendier with designer wear and gelled hair. Instead of hanging out in small snack shops they now 'chilled out' in cafes, fast food chains and multiplex theatres. However, the general condition of infrastructure appeared either unchanged or worse. The crowds seemed denser, the pollution thicker. Cars, buses, bikes - and sometimes bullock carts - fought for space on potholed roads. Power failures were more the norm than the exception.

Adjusting to the new surroundings with the family was anything but easy in the first year. Our children who were born in America would fall sick every now and then even after taking care of water and food. Our maids - who gave us a much needed respite from the household chores - eventually turned out to be thieves. We still had very few local friends. Power outages were routine and annoying. Not knowing of too many places and poor road conditions, planning a weekend getaway was difficult. How we longed for those smooth long drives along the interstate highways!

On the work front, setting up an operation from scratch was not easy. Contractors often did not fulfil their schedule commitments. Except for a few pleasant surprises like getting the phone and internet connections in a few days, getting any service was difficult. The overall red tape involved in getting the clearances seemed a lot less than I anticipated. There were still pockets of frustration like the excise and customs officials. How I longed for the prompt service I was used to!

However, after a year things began to change for the better. Our children had adapted quite well to their new environment. The frequent visits to the doctor had finally stopped. Both our boys - now 6 and 3 year olds - had made quite a few friends in the neighbourhood. It was a treat to watch them play, fight, makeup and grow with their friends every day. Getting the elder one admitted to a good school was relatively straightforward. Although the selection criterion was stringent, the admission forms were filled, submitted and short listed online. They were admitted to all the schools that we applied. Wonder who told us that school admission in India was a nightmare!

Our social circle had expanded - partly from meeting people in the neighbourhood and partly through our children. However, close friends remained few and far in between probably because there are very few who could relate to our unique experiences. We were now able to meet our parents and relatives (in Kolkata) every few months. The newly acquired power generator helped us work around the power outage problems. Our new maids were now a far better lot - efficient and trustworthy - this time hired through recommendations. This allowed my wife and me to go out for dinner and movies leaving the kids in their care. Free time - a rare commodity in America - seemed to be abundant here. I resumed by old hobbies like reading and writing. We began vacationing in places like Lonavala, Mahabaleshwar, Goa and others. During festivals like Holi and Diwali we revelled in the lights and colors as well as in the subtle sense of belonging to the local culture. In times like cricket matches, we not only enjoyed the game on TV but also the firecrackers that exploded whenever India won.

At work, the new office was now fully functional. New people had been hired and trained for the job. There seemed to be an abundance of talented youngsters more than willing to work for a fraction of a US salary. The cost savings from this operation turned out - as expected - to be real. However, retaining them for a long term remains a challenge due to the unprecedented demand for technical talent in the last few years. Taking care of government compliances and formalities remained a nagging problem, but this task was now largely delegated to staff members and consultants. When it came to dealing with corrupt officials I learned to say the magic word - NO. It did create some inconveniences but it is also incredibly empowering. I also found that there are many good, honest officials and in general it is a good idea to treat them with respect. As for keeping commitments from contractors, I learned the ropes - like never releasing payment until all the deliverables were received and checked and making provision for penalties in case they defaulted on schedule.

Now, after having spent nearly three years in India, power failures, pollution and potholes appear to be only a minor annoyance. Not that I accept them but I realize that there is no benefit - to society and to me - in fretting about it every day. Beneath the apparent chaos, there are subtle but unmistakable signs of a civilization that is finally ready to shake off the shackles of its past. There has been a significant reduction in red tape in the last few years which has spurred business investment and growth. The boom in the IT industry has now spilled into other areas like finance, real estate, auto and aviation. Getting a home loan is now easier than ever. Even a common man can afford a mobile phone. There is a unique sense of satisfaction in being able to make a contribution to this society through my work and life. I hope that this can be compounded in future.

Memories of our stay in the US, although still memorable, now surface only once in a while. We still miss the huge shopping malls, parks, freeways and impeccable service. But we have also begun to cherish our new existence. We have learned to reduce the mental compulsion of comparing (considered a typical NRI syndrome) and have started to fully enjoy the local advantages. This is probably a prerequisite to enjoying life in India or anywhere else in the world. And the question of which is the best place may be nothing more than a mind-made abstraction. The feeling of being rooted again in India has begun to happen while maintaining enough distance to look at things from an outsiders' perspective. There is a feeling of having traveled a full circle - as an Indian, an American and perhaps a global citizen in a rapidly shrinking world.

Avijit Goswami in Pune
avijitg at

The views of this column are the author's own, and do not necessarily represent the views of NRI Online.


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