Related Articles:

Welcome to the Bubble“—Why the biggest shock for returned-NRIs may be the inability to plug back into their old social lives.

The Return of the Homemakers“—How both women and men deal with new domestic and familial expectations upon their return to India.

Key findings from Vivek Wadhwa’s survey.


 

Let’s meet at Starbucks,” says Sumana Kasturi. “We just sold our couches today, and there’s no place to sit.”

After 12 years in the United States, the Kasturi-Dasus are packing their bags to go back to Hyderabad, India, with their children. “The idea was always to go back,” says Vikram Dasu on a mellow July evening, sitting outside a Starbucks in the heart of Silicon Valley. “The question was when. There’s the X+1 factor. First you get an old car. Then the car doesn’t work. Then you get a new car. Then you buy a house. Your kids start school.”

When I first arrived from India I followed the same script. Let me do my Masters. Let me work a couple of years. How about a green card? Almost without realizing it, I was putting down roots. The car. The house. Relationships. A favorite taquería. A spindly-legged Chihuahua. Meanwhile over in India old ties were snapping. My father passed away. Friends scattered all over the world. Every time I went back, India seemed a little more unfamiliar. A favorite movie theater had turned into a mall. The whole country, it seemed, was turning into a mall. My mother ticked off “must-cook favorite dishes” for me from a hand-written list she kept on her bedside table. It was a list that didn’t ever change. But I had changed. India had changed. And every time I went “home” I’d wonder, can we really come home again?

It seems if ever there was a time to go back, it’s now.

Though exact figures are hard to come by, “reverse migration” is the hottest topic at Divali potlucks. “The trend has significantly accelerated, with three-quarters of all departures occurring in the last five years,” says Vivek Wadhwa, Wertheim Fellow at Harvard Law School and executive-in-residence at Duke University. His study about Indian and Chinese returnees comes out in January 2009. Wadhwa estimates that at least 50,000 Indians have gone back in the last 20 years. “But what was a trickle,” he says, “is going to become a flood.”

The U.S. green card queue is backlogged. Over a million skilled immigrants are waiting for green cards, 35-40 percent of them Indians. Meanwhile, the Indian economy is overheating. Goldman Sachs pegs long-term growth rates in India up to 2020 at 8.4 percent. You do the math.

“It’s boom time in India,” says Sumana Kasturi.

And the Kasturi-Dasus are not the only ones going back.

The Returnees97ee3d27ba2bd11f5fc07dc09c42c894-3

Manu Ittina worked on Shrek 2 and Madagascar for Dreamworks. These days he runs his own animation company and school in Bangalore. It started with three people and now employs 120.

Raju Narisetti spent 13 years at the Wall Street Journal becoming its European editor. Now he’s the editor of The Mint, a brand new business daily in India.

Gitanjali Pande came to the U.S. in 1990. She got her Ph.D., married an American, and settled down in New York. In 2007, her consultancy with a development organization was ending and her husband’s company was going through layoffs. They moved to New Delhi that very year, with 40 boxes of books and some high-end tequila.

Sanjiv Narayan had done the typical desi circuit—IIT Delhi, UC Irvine, Boston, and Silicon Valley. His wife, Anshu Sharma, was in a Ph.D. program. By the time they moved back to Delhi in 2000, Sanjiv had been in the U.S. for 12 years, Anshu for six. Now he manages the India-end of a California-based chip design start-up.

Swati and Ramesh Ramanathan came back to Bangalore in 1998. She’s an architect; he worked for Citigroup. Today they run Janaagraha, an NGO that promotes civic engagement.

Darshan Jani came to the U.S. in 1995. He was the sixth employee of a startup. In 2007 he moved back to Ahmedabad. His wife, Stuti, followed with the kids, leaving behind their new townhouse and her job with a travel agency in California.

Sanjay Agrawal had been in the U.S. for over a decade when he joined American Express in 2001. Now he heads American Express’ ICSS Risk Center of Excellence in Gurgaon, India. His wife, a professor, took a sabbatical when they moved to Japan. When they moved to India, she had to resign.

Kitty Singh was well settled in her life in California. All her family lived in the United States. But her husband’s family lived in Delhi. She agreed to move to India for 900 days. It’s been 4 years.

Mom’s Cooking and More

When you ask Indians why they are heading back to India, it will usually circle around to the same two answers: family and job. It’s usually family first. “I was missing home,” says Gitanjali Pande. “I’d come home once, even twice a year.”

“My sons get to play Monopoly with my father,” says Sanjiv Narayan.

But elderly parents were there in 1997, just as they were there in 2007. The real difference is the same jobs weren’t there in ’97. Now it seems you can move back and not feel like you are sacrificing your career or your standard of living. A McKinsey Global Institute study says India’s real aggregate disposable income was $165 billion in 1985. In 2005, it had reached $515 billion. “The initial wave of returnees came for family reasons,” says Raju Narisetti, editor of The Mint. “Now the jobs are more interesting, and the quality of life is commensurate.”

Today’s India Inc. is no longer yesterday’s hardship posting. And coming back is about more than mom’s cooking.

It can be about an exciting new adventure. “It was less about India and more about getting the chance to launch a newspaper,” says Narisetti. He loved the Wall Street Journal, but sitting in his office in New Delhi under a photograph of Nelson Mandela, Narisetti says, “If we were launching a paper in the U.S. we’d still be in focus groups. In India you launch now and fix the problems later.” It took one and a half years of 18-hour days, but The Mint is on the newsstands.

It can be about entrepreneurship. The license raj that drove thousands like animator Manu Ittina to America is being dismantled. At 25, Ittina got to start his own company, Takshaa, an animation studio and school, and shave 10-15 years off his career path. A few more years of experience at Dreamworks would have been useful. But Ittina felt he had to move now. “You have to be in the right place at the right time. Otherwise you are out of the top 10.”

It can also be about reinvention. “We came back as nobodies,” says Ramesh Ramanathan. “I didn’t want to come back and run Citibank in India.” The Ramanathans re-started from scratch, building up an NGO. Seven years later, the conference room in their airy Bangalore office is covered with maps of Jaipur. Janaagraha is working on a master plan for that city.

And of course, it’s still about family. “My grandmother is turning 90. It’s wonderful to see the kids with her,” says Sumana Kasturi.

Kids. That’s one other factor in timing any move. “If you wait too long, kids will be culturally bereft,” says Swati Ramanathan. Kids are resilient, but the Janis aren’t taking chances. Stuti and the kids have not been back to California since they moved to Ahmedabad. “We’re grounded for a year,” laughs Stuti. It’s an effort to give India our best shot.” It seems to be working. Stavan, 5, has lost his American accent completely.

“In the U.S. we’d speak to them in Gujarati,” says Stuti. “Here we speak to them in English.” Shukan, 3, is loudly singing Old McDonald, except the lyrics sound a little different: “Lakshman-chacha had a farm, ee ei ee ei o,” she trills.

Stuck in Traffic. Be There in a Few.

With more and more Indians going back to India, there’s no shortage of advice on how to make the move. The Kasturi-Dasus read articles and checked out the R2I (Return to India) blogs. But when a job opened up at Microsoft in India, Vikram started having cold feet.

“Valley culture is very energizing,” he admits. “Here I can breathe fresh air. The kids have parks. Sumana can wear her slippers, get into the car and go to Safeway at midnight without thinking about it.”

But in the end you figure that surely you can adjust to the country you grew up in. After all, it was a much bigger challenge to come to America.

Maybe.

The next time I meet Sumana Kasturi, she’s already in Hyderabad. She and her children have been there for over a month. We are lunching at a restaurant done up like a British-India era railway car, on the top of a mall in the posh Banjara Hills neighborhood.

“I miss the old Hyderabad,” Sumana sighs as she asks the waiter if the water is protected by Aquaguard. “But I am in the mode of trying not to complain. But I am complaining anyway.”

Her first week in India was bad. When Vikram landed, she wanted to give him three days to get over jet lag before unloading her worries. “But on the way back from the airport I said ‘My god, what are we doing here?’ I wanted to get out of the chaos.”

Now she’s a little calmer. She has a job working with American students which gets her out of the house. “It’s a life-saver,” she says. The kids are in school. But, she says, the lure of a “booming” India that has drawn many desis back is a double-edged sword.

When she wondered where to take the kids for the weekend, someone suggested a resort. “I was just thinking of a park,” says Sumana. “I’m still reeling from the adoption of consumer culture.”

For decades, the handloom austerity of Mahatma Gandhi meant that there was a kind of guilt around consumerism, or at least around the display of wealth. No longer. The McKinsey Global Institute study estimates that consumption will reach 69.5 trillion rupees ($1.5 trillion) by 2025, making India’s consumer market the fifth largest in the world, bigger than Germany. More than 50 million Indians subscribe to cable television. In August 2008, Bharti Airtel, India’s biggest cellular service provider crossed 75 million subscribers. Bangalore is adding 20,000 new vehicles to its streets every month.

Which brings us to the most common NRI peeve: the traffic. “It’s really, really bad,” says Sumana. “There’s a Rolls Royce dealership. But the roads seem to have gone back to the Stone Age.”

It’s not just Hyderabad. In Bangalore, construction of a new underground system has traffic snarled at all hours of the day. In Gurgaon, the potholed roads that link the luxurious gated communities are waterlogged after a monsoon downpour. “Just save a text message that says ‘Stuck in traffic. Be there in a few minutes,’” Kitty Singh in Gurgaon advises me when I’m running late. “This is India. Everyone will understand.”

She’s right. Later that evening, I get a message on my phone from the person I’m going to meet: “Stuck in traffic. Be there soon.”

But Singh says other aspects of India have been harder to adjust to. “The kids are sick all the time,” she says. “They’ve got asthma. Nobody has seen stars in the four years we’ve been here.” The monsoon season has brought a rash of dengue fever. “We can keep stray dogs out [of our gated community]. But mosquitoes don’t need permission to come in,” she says. Her relatives in Agra wonder how you can get dengue on the eighth floor of a high-end apartment in Gurgaon.

Gurgaon looks like a corporate Las Vegas—a mirage of malls and multinationals springing out of the scrub. But it’s India. And you need a higher level of tolerance to live here.

You have to tolerate the fact that the guy who will come to repair your air conditioner will say he will come around lunch time but not show up until 4 p.m. “Now I tell people there is no such thing as lunch o’clock,” says Kitty Singh. You have to tolerate the fact that you might be stuck in traffic for over an hour.

“Last Thursday it rained and it took me five hours to get home,” says Sanjay Agrawal at American Express.

But there are pluses, too. As we sit in Agrawal’s office with its whiteboard and American Express posters, his wife calls. She’s wondering if they can put up a mirror in their new apartment. “Yes, yes,” says Agrawal affably. “You can do whatever you want. This is not like Japan. It’s India.”

But the toughest thing to accept is that “you’ve become an expat in your own country,” says Narisetti at The Mint. “I was gone for 18 years. Those have been tumultuous years of change for India. I think it’s a harder transition for me than it is for my American-born wife. For her, this is just the way it is.”

But Sanjiv Narayan says it’s all worth it to be near family. “I no longer get calls at 3 a.m. from some time zone-challenged cousin. I used to get a heart attack each time thinking something had happened.”

“In America,” Narayan says, “you can be comfortably unhappy. In India you can be uncomfortably happy.” These days you might not even have to be that uncomfortable.

(Never) Mind the Gap

In the breathless hype around the new India, what’s often lost is that although the GDP might be growing at 9 percent, the gap between rich and poor is yawning wider. The beggar with stumps for hands comes up to your car. The little boy darts through gridlocked traffic with trays of dusty strawberries. Most Indians just roll up their windows.97ee3d27ba2bd11f5fc07dc09c42c894-2

But Gitanjali Pande in New Delhi says she can’t. She’s okay with having to get up 6 a.m. to fill buckets with water in case the electricity goes out. She’s okay with having to pay through the nose for broccoli. But the chasm between the two Indias is hard to digest. “Everyone keeps say things have changed, and you look around and it’s just 0.01% of the population!” she exclaims. “I am not able to block it out and just live my life.”

Pande’s decided she’s had enough. In 2009, she and her husband, John, will head back to the U.S. Her mother is sad but her dad is understanding. “It’s been more down than up,” she says, sitting in her kitchen. “We are really not happy here.”

Sure, the returning tide of NRIs lifts some boats. Thousands of maids and drivers go to work in gated communities with names like Laburnum, which is a step up from trying to beat a living out of a patch of land in a dusty village.

But the servant-master class divide is a minefield for even the most well-intentioned NRI. Kitty Singh remembers one of the little servant girls at the building watching her sons play tennis. She tried to organize a racket for her. A neighbor immediately called, upset that she was letting the staff play with the residents. Singh backed down. But she still can’t go past that little girl without feeling a twinge of guilt.

She picks her battles more carefully now. For instance, Singh makes her kids carry their own school bags. Every morning she sees the same scene all around her: First, someone’s maid comes down with the school bag and hands it to the driver. Ten minutes later, their kid saunters down. “I tell my sons Driver-ji will not carry your bag,” she says. “You are American.”

There is a hidden price you pay as well for having servants catering to your every need, says Sanjiv Narayan. “In the U.S. we did laundry together, groceries together. It was family time. Now we spend far less time together.”

“But I don’t miss having to make my morning cup of tea or cleaning the garage,” interjects his wife Anshu with a smile.

What Will Papa Say?

The conventional wisdom has been that returning NRIs are bringing a global work culture to an India positioning itself for take-off on the world stage. But as they are finding out, India moves at its own pace.

Darshan Jani says managing a software team in Baroda has been an eye-opening experience. It’s not about intelligence and expertise—there’s plenty of that. “But if there is a katha (religious ceremony) at home and a release is at stake, they’ll go back home. They will say ‘I can’t help it. Papa has told me I have to go back,’” says Darshan.

In a culture based on collectivism rather than individualism, work and family are intertwined. Everyone knows everyone else’s business and that includes salaries.

Sir, you gave her a 10 percent raise. What about me?

Madam, I have been here two years. You have to make me senior engineer. Otherwise what will Papa say?

“Emotion is the last thing you deal with in the U.S. workplace,” says Darshan. “Here someone is crying. Someone is calling their parents. A girl comes for an interview with her mother. I am having to say Namaste-ji to her. But once you connect with them, the loyalty is unparalleled.”

What’s more challenging for Darshan is the “sir-madam culture:” “I have to teach them that if you have a monthly meeting with your CEO and the CEO asks if there are any questions and you are silent, it’s a loss.”

“In India people think my job is done when my supervisor says it’s done,” agrees Manu Ittina at his animation studio in Bangalore. He’s hoping his school and company will change that. “I want to people to feel the job is done when you feel it’s done,” he says. “That’s the work culture I learned in Pixar.”

But Ittina says that what India has in droves is talent, youth, and a bursting sense of optimism: “The kucch bhi nahin hoga (nothing will ever happen) generation is gone. Now people think they live in one of the best countries in the world.”

As a boss though, says Narisetti at The Mint, “it means you are swimming upstream in a booming economy.” He knows if he pushes his staff too hard, as you’d expect in an American startup, it’s easy for them go to another paper. “The psyche has changed,” Narisetti says. “From envying the West to saying, ‘that’s interesting, but we can do it our own way.’”

Sitting in the club house in Delhi, Sanjiv Narayan agrees. In 1988, he says, 26 out of the 32 graduates of his class at IIT-Delhi ended up abroad. “In the latest class, there are 60 grads and only two have applied for U.S. scholarships. The lure of abroad has definitely gone down.”

It has also meant that the stock of the “foreign-returned NRI” has plummeted. “Today, when the NRI comes back, they find this confident India. They are more unstable in this new unfamiliar India,” says Ramesh Ramanathan of Janaagraha. When they came back before the boom, the Ramanathans told themselves they “were giving up financial and professional comfort.” Today’s returnees are coming back for financial and professional comfort.

54 percent in Wadhwa’s survey stated that professional-advancement opportunities were much better in their home countries.

That’s led to what Sanjiv Narayan calls the “company manager syndrome.” “People think no matter what mundane work you did in the U.S., when you come back to India you think you need to be head of India operations,” says Narayan.

Wake up and smell the curry.

“Three years ago, NRIs were still in demand,” Wadhwa explains. “But India has built up its own managerial class. Now if you have been abroad for more than seven years, people think you are out of touch.”

He predicts that Indians going back will still get jobs, “but they won’t get top dollar. Indian companies want them but with a little more humility. You have to go back with your tail between your legs.” He says that’s very different from China, which still heavily relies on its returning “sea turtles” for innovation and research.

If you are not in the IT-sector, it’s even tougher, says Stuti Jani. Her long experience at a travel agency in California didn’t count for much in India. Like many returning NRI wives, she’s suddenly a homemaker again. “I really miss work,” she says. “I am not the kind of person who can just sit at home. But I haven’t found the right opportunity.”97ee3d27ba2bd11f5fc07dc09c42c894-4

But some things are still a premium in India. Romi Malhotra once headed up Dell Computers in India. Now he’s running his own company from his home in the lavish Palm Meadows gated community in Bangalore. “Forget the Dells and the IBMs,” says Malhotra. “A lot of young startup companies need CXOs—CEOs, CFOs, CTOs. There is a demand supply gap there. The pool of people with 15 years of relevant experience in India is finite.”

Sanjay Agrawal brings that kind of experience and contacts from having worked in the head office of a multinational. More importantly, someone who has been an immigrant has also learned to be self-reliant. Manu Ittina, for example, built his company brick by brick. “I had to break the grills in the windows of my apartment to move in the computers,” he laughs. “We had no conference room. We’d go to café next door. I think they eventually stopped free internet in the whole chain because of us.”

There are other less tangible things than a Rolodex and notches in the resume that an NRI might bring back to India. Swati Ramanathan says the U.S. taught her how to participate in a democracy. The first time the Ramanathans volunteered to go clean a park near their home in Connecticut they did so because they wanted to meet the neighbors. “People criticize the U.S. as inward looking. But [in India we] don’t give a rat’s ass about our own civic commons,” says Swati.

“It’s easy to comment on Kashmir, but how do you solve the garbage problem in your neighborhood?” wonders Ramesh.

Go East

As the economy worsens, companies in the U.S. are just focused on survival. But when they come out of it, warns Vivek Wadhwa, they will find a large pool of their talent has gone back to India and China. The Chinese, he says, often leave their families in America, keeping one foot in China and one foot in the U.S. But the Indians are going back to stay. “This,” Wadhwa says, “is a lose-lose for the United States.”

“My prediction,” he continues, “is that you’ll have another 50,000 going back in the next five years. That’s about as many as went back in the last 20 [years].”

Some will go back because their jobs on Wall Street have disappeared. Some will return because immigration has become a headache. But for others, it’s the same economic pull that once brought them to the U.S. “The U.S. is not the only magnet anymore,” says Wadhwa. Over 80 percent of the returnees he surveyed felt that conditions back home were better than those in the U.S.

Narisetti is not surprised. India today is entrepreneurial, vibrant, full of hype and bravado. “It’s a bit like the Wild West,” he says. But this Gold Rush could come with its own pitfalls in a worsening global economy. “You have to also remember this generation hasn’t seen much adversity. So you forget that a 9 percent [annual] growth can’t be sustained forever.”

But while it lasts, it looks like a lot more Indian Americans will be booking one-way tickets “home.”

 


New America Media editor Sandip Roy-Chowdhury traveled to India on a World Affairs Journalism Fellowship administered by the International Center for Journalists. The fellowship is sponsored by the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.

 

 


 

 

Related Articles:

Welcome to the Bubble“—Why the biggest shock for returned-NRIs may be the inability to plug back into their old social lives.

The Return of the Homemakers“—How both women and men deal with new domestic and familial expectations upon their return to India.

Key findings from Vivek Wadhwa’s survey.

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