Returning to India : The NRI Dillemma - To return or not!

Bangalore, July 2005

Let me start this article with a disclaimer. If you're blissfully happy with your life as an NRI, don't continue reading - you will not only be wasting your time, you will become angry and ask everyone to quit complaining about life abroad.

As someone who returned to India after 11 years in the West, I'm often asked this question: "How did you decide to take the plunge?"

We all know how difficult this question is - many of us live with the thought of returning home every single day. Nonetheless, when it comes to actually doing it, the anxiety truly hits us. It was worse for me because I was one of those who went abroad for higher studies and had never worked in India. So the fear of giving it all up and diving into the deep unknown was quite terrifying.

So coming back to the question - how did I decide? In the end, it was quite easy. As NRIs, one thing we learn very quickly is that abroad, life is not all rosy. There are problems there too - it's not like we're given large pots of gold and a multi-million dollar bank balance the instant we land on foreign shores. We've got to work very hard and it's not only that - we've got to adjust to foreign cultures and so on.

Initially of course, it's all new to us and we're learning new things at a terrific pace. That keeps us happy for a while. It was true for me - I loved meeting people from different countries, I loved making new friends, I loved learning how to think in new ways, I loved the fact that my horizons broadened, I loved that I looked at India in a different way, I loved driving on the great roads and so on.

Then, the learning levels off, and life begins to get mundane. We begin to live with traffic problems (not just admire the great roads), housing problems (not just admire the neat houses), too-much-housework problems (not just admire the great equipment), health-insurance problems (not just admire the great medical technology), mowing-the-lawn every weekend problems (not just admire the wonderful trim lawns) and finally, just-too-mechanical-living problems. And on top of this, there are the bigger issues: do I still want to be here when I'm 60? Will I end up totally alone in my old age? Will I recognize my kids and their culture? And so on.

India of course, has its own set of problems. I don't need to go into them in detail, because you know what those problems are - bad roads, intermittent power supply, corruption and so on. But let me talk about one problem in particular that we don't like talking about: having to deal with close and extended family all over again, and a past that we gladly left behind and don't want to return to. Yes, these are real issues. This is one thing that stops some of us from returning. And yet?.there's an emptiness in our soul that we can't seem to get rid of.

So what's our response to these issues? Typically, we get stuck with analysis paralysis. We can't really decide to go back home, and we aren't fully happy in our host nation. And then what happens is this: we succumb to the mundane-ness of everyday living, because it's easier to deal with having to get your clothes washed right now, rather than pondering big moves to a strange country. We get caught up in the trap of immersing ourselves in the busy-ness of daily life, excusing ourselves with the thought, "After all, I need to go to work tomorrow. I have an important presentation on Tuesday. I'll worry about returning to India next weekend." And before we know it, years pass and it gets more and more difficult to think about returning.

So how did I do it? After years of being frozen with indecision, I realized one day I had two very simple choices: Either I live with the problems abroad, or I live with the problems in India. Both options have problems. None is idyllic. Once I recognized that heaven wasn't to be found in the West, it became easier to contemplate living a heaven-less but more fulfilling life in India. After that, things moved swiftly, and now here I am, back in India with no thought of returning.

Part of the problem that I've noticed with us NRIs is that although we complain incessantly about life abroad, we completely set aside those problems when making a comparison with India. We don't compare apples with apples. We talk about how bad the roads are in India vs. say, the US, and ignore the alienation we feel. No wonder it becomes difficult to decide. We see the madness of India, but despite our restlessness, we don't see the madness of our life in the US. And even if we do see both sets of problems, we compare not the problems, but the conveniences of daily life. And as we know, conveniences, though convenient, aren't a sure ticket to happiness.

So to anyone who's going through this agony, I can only offer you this advice: both options have problems. Decide this: which set of problems would you rather live with? And once you make your decision, make your peace with whichever set of problems you choose.

Chetan Dhruve in Bangalore

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


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