The biggest shock for returning NRIs isn’t the garbage, or the mosquitoes, or the traffic.

It’s the realization that you can’t just plug back into your old life. It’s tough to build social networks when you are no longer a college student. “Delhi’s social circles are clique-ish” says Raju Narisetti, editor of The Mint. “It’s about who you know. And you can be an outsider forever.”

If you are single like Manu Ittina, forget about those late night parties at 1015 Folsom in San Francisco. Bangalore shuts down by 11. “In India social life totally revolves around food,” he says. “I’ve put on a lot of weight after coming back.”

70 percent of the returnees are married, according to Vivek Wadhwa’s survey of Indian and Chinese returnees. Gitanjali Pande is married but has no children. Most of her old friends in Delhi are married with kids. “They constantly want to know why I don’t have kids,” she says. She misses the strong group of friends she had in New York, many of them Indians who grew up in the United States. She misses “the 2 p.m. discounted moving, packaged sushi for $3, renting a car and going to the mountains, the fact that I can step out of my house and walk to the store.”

Young parents with children find themselves gravitating toward the parents of their kids’ classmates, often other expats and NRIs like them. But Stuti Jani wishes there was more for kids to do. Ahmedabad is not as cosmopolitan as Bangalore and Delhi. “The malls are not kid-oriented; there’s no library,” she says. “I took the kids to the zoo in Baroda. And I felt so sad. It was so bad. I felt I had lowered their standards.” Her husband Darshan agrees. He says when he sees his son get excited over an aquarium with a few sorry looking fish, he wishes he could take him to SeaWorld or Monterey Bay Aquarium.

But you can’t move your family to India and then complain about SeaWorld. Except perhaps to each other. Few NRIs intended to hang out with other NRIs and expats when they came back to India. But it turns out that that’s the crowd that “feels the pain.” And knows the answers. “There are all these expat groups online. And you can just ask, ‘what is the best gym for Rs 5000 a month near Friends Colony in Delhi’ and you’ll get the answer,” Narisetti says.

When the Khanderas were moving back from Marin to Delhi, Natasha Khandera didn’t want to move into a gated community. “I’d never lived in an apartment,” she says. “I felt like my child needed to run out into a backyard. I wanted to look at farmhouses.” Now she’s glad she moved into a gated community. Especially with a one-year-old baby. “Within days, everyone meets you. You just need to show up in the commons area,” she says.

At her Laburnum complex in Gurgaon, a luxurious gated community sprawling over 13 acres, at least 50 percent of the residents are expats or NRIs. Khandera knows it’s a bubble, but she says it’s a relief to have everything close by: “the dry cleaner is here, the doctor sits here, there’s a pharmacy, restaurants. If the air conditioner doesn’t work I just pick up the intercom and call someone.”

“I know expats who thought they’d live on their own in places like Vasant Vihar,” says Khandera. “I am not surprised many of them are deciding to go back. But every day they have to call the electrician or the plumber.”

It’s a privilege that comes with a hefty price tag. It’s not just the price of the condos. Real estate is skyrocketing in India. In Bangalore’s Dollar Colony, the upcoming Pebble Beach condos will start at Rs 1.85 lakhs. Already 35 percent of the project has been sold, though the first phase won’t be available until 2009.Raheja Shristi 3-4 bedroom condos in Gurgaon, varying in size from 1695-4096 sq. feet, are listed at INR 5,042,630 to 14,001,250 ($120,062-$333,630). Parking is extra. The American School has automatic admission for U.S. citizens. But it costs $20-30,000 a year. The DLF Golf Club in Gurgaon costs $3,000 a year in membership and needs a two-year commitment.

Kitty Singh says that living inside the bubble can be a surreal experience. “On the day of the nuclear proliferation vote in India nobody was talking about it here,” she remembers. “The women were talking about what they didn’t eat that day. The trainer comes in the morning. The massage therapist comes in the afternoon.”

She remembers going for a jog one early morning. As she left the gates of her Belvedere housing complex, she noticed all the people who sleep on the sidewalks right next to it. It was the first time she’d really seen the rest of India, pressed up against the walls of the bubble.

In this bubble, even dogs have to behave like, well, American dogs. Signs around the Laburnum complex warn resident to ensure their dogs do not “perform” around the buildings and the gardens. “If ‘dog poo’ is found, the person walking the dog should clean up the mess,” the notice warns. “Defaulters will be lived a cash penalty in the future.”

On a cheerier note, there was a bhangra performance for 5-12 year olds for Divali.

 

Sandip Roy-Chowdhury is on the editorial board of India Currents and host of UpFront, a news-magazine show on KALW 91.7 produced by New America Media.
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