When I first told people that I was leaving America to return to India for good, the responses ranged from the incredulous “Wow!” to the skeptical “Really?” There were a few “You must be kidding” usually followed by a nervous laugh, or “How did you come to this decision so suddenly?” The honest truth is that we had not arrived at the decision in a single moment of enlightenment, illuminated by a bolt of lightning. It was more like a simmering pot, brimming with unfinished conversations about choosing to live in the U.S. versus India, that had finally boiled over.
This topic is standard fare, along with chana bhatura and samosas, at dinner parties of groups of first-generation Indian immigrants who meet regularly at each other’s homes, informally taking turns at hosting these gatherings. Over the years I noticed how this group refers to India as “back home,” while people of other races whose ancestors adopted America as their home refer to their country of origin as “old country.”
In recent times, a fair number of Indian immigrants have headed back to India after spending various lengths of time in the U.S. For some it was a conscious choice, while for others it was a matter of last resort, an unfortunate result of the continued recession. The former quote one or more of several reasons for their decision. For some, it has to do with aging parents who need help. For others, it’s the fear of their inability to cope with the mounting alienation that they sense in their growing children. I don’t doubt the sincerity of friends who prefer to assign other people (parents or children) as the likely causes for their decision. What I doubt is if these altruistic motives will sustain the level of perseverance required to follow through on a decision of this magnitude.
I frankly admit that when I left India, I looked forward to a life with increased freedom and the chance to do more, learn more. I did not do it out of a sense of filial responsibility or to confer the benefits of American citizenship to my future children. I wanted to embark on an adventure. I wanted to explore the limits of the boundaries that had been set by society for me. I wanted to challenge myself. So when the question of returning comes up, I prefer to apply the same reasoning. Is it something I want to do? Returning home is a big step, scary and exciting at the same time, a feeling akin to anticipating a thunderstorm.
Ever since I made my decision public, I have been questioned incessantly, by friends, colleagues, relatives, and even relative strangers.
“How can you quit your cushy job? In this economy?”
I find these questions amazing and amusing. When a young person expresses an interest in leaving India to go abroad, it is considered a natural progression of his or her ambitions. Although some parents may have qualms about sending their sheltered child to a strange country, unless there are financial obstacles, there is general social agreement, encouragement even, for this kind of endeavor.
Why then am I interrogated in such depth now? Is it because the India to U.S. road is considered a one-way street? Anyone stepping on this road is not really expected to return. I am fixed in my mind about my decision but the constant questioning does get me down.
Occasionally, I am besieged by doubts and a general sense of apprehension, even though I am going back to a familiar place. I had no such doubts or ambivalence when I boarded my first international flight that whisked me away to a continent where I had no relatives, friends, or other support system. Of course, I was younger then. With nothing to lose, the risk seemed minimal. Now the stakes appear higher. I am loath to make a major change. Why mess with the status quo? Age digs deep into comfort and encourages complacence. Does my decision to return constitute a clear slap in the face of age then? The personal challenge is to prove, not to others, but to myself, that I still retain the ability to reinvent myself, to start over, to look forward to change and not cringe in the face of it.
Am I really so brave? No. Numerous and nebulous fears lurk in the shadow of excitement. To most Indians, the fact that a person lives abroad enhances not only their spending ability but also elevates their social status “back home.” By returning, will I be viewed as a failure? Will I just meld with the billion others with nothing to distinguish me except stories that are prefaced with “When I lived in the U.S. …”
Will it work out? I am not sure.
I am clear about one thing though. I am returning to India not to make money, but to make a life. Hopefully, a life in which I envision spending more time with my aging parents. A life where I can give my child not an easy ride in school, but a ride similar to the one I had when growing up here, a life full of striking contrasts and homely comforts, a home with grandparents and grand festivals. The time and distance from the homeland have conferred a rosy sheen to these memories, images that the old (or is it younger?) me remembers. But will the new me, the one who has developed a smooth, polished exterior fit into the vibrant and dynamic jigsaw puzzle that life in India truly is, or will I be the proverbial square peg, I wonder.
A few months ago, when I went to the optometrist for my annual eye exam, I decided to try some new disposable lenses. As I inserted the lenses in, I realized that they bothered me in some way. My vision lacked its usual clarity as I blinked repeatedly in an attempt to focus on the letters.
“Take them out and try flipping them over,” suggested the kind lady.
“I thought both sides were identical,” I said as I followed her suggestion.
“That’s not true. Sometimes the curvature on one side fits the eye better. You have to try both to figure it out,” she responded patiently.
That is what it is all about—trying out both sides. The question that remains is: which side fits better?
Ranjani Nellore recently moved back to India with her family after living in the U.S. for 13 years.