A few days ago, I received one of those mass emails that always seem to flood your mailbox. It listed India’s contributions to the world, ranging from ancient ayurveda, chess, the concept of zero, to the more recent IT success stories. The email was sent by an Indian friend to other Indians and exhorted the recipients to be proud of being Indian. At the impending first anniversary of our return to India, the timely arrival of the email persuaded me to take stock of the preceding 12 months. The question of whether we had chosen the right path, both for ourselves and for Aparna, needed to be answered.
Undoubtedly, it has been a remarkable year; mostly exciting, sometimes tiring, but always interesting. For having spent an entire year in India, the physical changes are fairly obvious; Aparna has added a few inches to her height and lost some baby teeth. There is a small, pale circle on my forehead where I apply my stick-on bindi every day, a spot that has been spared direct exposure to intense sunlight. The other changes, though not as noticeable, include Aparna’s gradual, but complete loss of her American accent and her newly-acquired Telugu vocabulary. I have amended my language to occasionally say “shhedule” and don’t have the same craving for roadside chaat as I did in the first few months.
India itself had an unusual year with the mammoth nationwide elections, conducted entirely using electronic voting machines, and concluding with a major surprise that shocked the rest of the world, the drama heightened by Sonia Gandhi’s decision to decline the prime ministership. Women figured prominently in the news and not just for winning international beauty pageants. Industries other than IT made headlines. The spectacular success of Biocon India’s IPO that made Kiran Majumdar Shaw, its CEO, India’s wealthiest woman, exemplified the possibilities of making it big in India today.
I am often reminded of my husband’s roommate, who claimed that he would return to India when the signs on the highway said “Vijaywada—next four exits.” That was almost two decades ago. The signs still don’t say that. But what is commendable is that there are multi-lane highways and road travel for a vacation is a viable option. Along with snake charmers and elephants, India has STD booths and Internet cafes that dot the countryside. Previously a destination for Western tourists seeking exotic locations or alternate philosophies, India is now the choice workplace for job seekers from Europe and other countries who want to gain an edge by adding the experience of working in an emerging market to their resumes. Having the beaches of Goa and ashrams of spiritual gurus within easy reach is an added bonus. The success of the IT industry has created a blanket of credibility for other industries in the global business world. For biotech and related businesses that are on the verge of the next big boom, in spite of uncertainties, the general atmosphere is filled with enthusiasm and an overriding sense of excitement.
For me, as an Indian working in India, the greatest professional satisfaction has come, as expected, not from the financial rewards, but by the feeling that my work contributes to the success of India. India’s growth would have occurred without my presence, but by being here, I have moved from being a silent spectator to the middle of this wave, an experience that is difficult to quantify in dollars.
While the rest of the world seems to have woken up to India’s potential to be a major player, the stereotypical image of a third world country doomed to be at the receiving end of the generosity of the West is being held ironically, by those who left India to make their fortune abroad. I no longer have to defend my country to the ignorant outsider who questions my English fluency or asks if we ride camels to work. Disappointingly though, at a recent international conference, the group that questioned me most extensively about choosing to return to India, were people of Indian origin, including the taxi driver who drove me from London’s Heathrow to the hotel.
Going back to my initial thoughts of returning (“Curvature,” IC, December 2003), I must admit that the year has lived up to my expectations by being nothing short of an adventure. Although I don’t live in the same city, I have been able to see my parents four times and was able to help out at the time of my mother’s surgery. Last year Aparna saw Navaratri in Mumbai, experienced Divali in Hyderabad, vacationed in Kerala, and if we plan it right, she may witness Puja in Kolkata next month. What else will Aparna gain by growing up here? I hope the intense competition will inculcate a keen drive to succeed; the disparities will sow kindness; the differences will instill a sense of fairness and justice. She may not need to leave the country to secure high quality education or phenomenal career prospects, but I hope that living here will give her the tools to make her mark anywhere she chooses. In spite of the enormous challenges that the country still faces, a child growing up in India today has a quiet confidence. Yes, India continues to be a land of contrasts but the chance to make a big splash is very much within the grasp of its citizens.
I sincerely believe that personally, I made the right choice, at the right time. Would the decision to return to India work out for you? Asking me to answer that question is like consulting the turbaned guy who promises to predict your future by asking his pet parrot to pick a card. As an individual, you make choices everyday; how things unfold, ultimately, depends on your attitude.
This essay concludes an 11-part series Ranjani Nellore wrote after moving back from the San Francisco Bay Area to India. The entire series is archived on www.ticg.wpengine.com.