It was the spring of 1993 in San Jose, California. We were preparing to go back to India for good after spending nearly 12 eventful years in the U.S. Years that were marked by intense struggle and exhilarating reward. I had handed over my modest consulting company in CAD software and IC design to Richard Johnson who was one of the founders of the company. I had withdrawn my sons from the San Jose schools. Chitra, my wife, had negotiated a deal to sell our house in San Jose and we were waiting for the deal to close. We, at last, had decided to sever the umbilical cord of dollars to the land of promise and prosperity.
We were all going through an emotional roller coaster. Chitra had come to love her independence in the U.S. and the material comforts of life. My older son, Aditya, was 9 years old. He knew what it meant to move to India since he had been there several times. He remembered how hot it was and how his whole body had swollen with rashes because of mosquito bites. Abhishek, at 5, was rather young to fully realize what was going on.
Win Some, Lose Some!
I had taken a job with a French joint venture in semiconductors at Delhi. We landed in Delhi in April 1993. We spent the first three months in various guesthouses and hotels. Renting a house in Delhi was not easy. The rents were exorbitant and they were a far cry from the houses in the U.S. We rejected most of the houses we saw. Aditya and Abhishek changed schools in quick succession. They had to take admission tests with Hindi as a required subject and they did not know a word of Hindi! Between house-hunting and changing schools, they would go to school from the hotel or guest house wherever we happened to be at that point of time. We were living out of suitcases.
We finally settled for a sprawling house in the outskirts of Delhi. Our baggage had not reached until then. And when it did, I had to camp in Bombay for several days to claim it. It was quite an ordeal to get it cleared by the customs. Although I had the right “connections,” I still had to pay a sizable sum to the customs handlers. I was told that I was lucky. Those without connections had to pay in lakhs of rupees (hundred thousands) to get their baggage cleared depending upon what they had brought from the U.S.
At last, we started setting up our new home at Delhi.
Aditya and Abhishek finally got admission in a school they liked. The school was primarily patronized by NRIs, businesspersons, and the diplomats in Delhi. The school was very expensive but they had excellent infrastructure and staff. It was a great relief to see them finally settled at the school.
Life chugged along. We had a lot of guests initially, generally our close relatives who had not seen or spent time with us since Chitra and I were married 12 years ago. (I had left for the U.S. within a month of getting married). The spate gradually subsided. My job required frequent overseas travel and therefore the home and hearth were left to my wife. We faced all the problems people talk about; heat, dust, severe power cuts, unwieldy traffic, corruption, official callousness, water shortage, long lines et al. However, we were able to take care of most of the things by hiring help to do chores and run errands. We employed drivers, a cook, and domestic help to make life palatable. We had help to run most of the errands such as paying electricity and telephone bills, booking train tickets etc.
We gradually settled down in the midst of the hubbub of life in an unwieldy and unmanageable metro that is Delhi. Even the frenzied life becomes routine in due course. And as we settled down, we realized that we had become too dependent on others. Our middle class mentality did not sit well with the dependence we had developed. We consciously started making efforts to do things ourselves. Chitra would stand in line for booking train tickets, paying electricity bills, telephone bills etc. I would do the same occasionally. These are non-trivial tasks and may take several hours of standing in line in inhospitable environs. Chitra got rid of the cook and took over the kitchen herself. One help we never could dispense with was the driver. At times, we had two of them. We found driving in Delhi just too taxing and difficult. Besides, given the distances in Delhi, I would spend at least an hour-and-a- half every day in the car.
The kids learnt Hindi, starting with the alphabets. We made a very interesting observation. Although our children did not know a word of Hindi when we arrived in Delhi, they never had any problem communicating with their friends, cousins, acquaintances and shopkeepers. English is common in Delhi. Not knowing Hindi was a minor hurdle in communication! At times they were teased by their friends for their Yankee accent, but by and large they were accepted with open arms by their schoolmates.
Delhi being a metro and the nation’s capital, offers all the luxuries of life. For the Yankee taste buds, there are McDonald’s, TGIF, Pizza Hut, and Domino’s. You can buy Benetton, Arrow, Louis Philip garments. You can watch the latest Hollywood movies and of course, the old and not so old re-runs of American sitcoms. You can walk about in Nike or Reebok or Adidas or you can drive a Mercedes, if you can afford one or you can settle for a Daewoo, Opel, Ford, Toyota or the good old Maruti. You have access to all the trappings of American life in India.
For a couple of years we extensively used the stuff we brought with us. The replenishment came from my frequent trips abroad. At times my luggage would be bulging with the largest pack of peanut butter, Ragu Sauce, Hershey’s Chocolate Syrup, undergarments, thermals … We gradually switched to using Indian products, except the coffee filters for the coffee maker. They are still not available in India.
Several years passed by. Aditya did very well in his CBSE Class X (tenth grade) examination. He was yearning for bigger challenges. Most children in his school came from highly privileged families and seemed to lack the fire in the belly. He shifted to Delhi Public School (DPS), a school known for its competitive environment and large class size.
Aditya had barely attended DPS for 3 months when I accepted a job offer in Chennai in September 2000. There is little in common between Delhi and Chennai except that they are both in India. I had lived in Bangalore for several years before migrating to the U.S. and was somewhat familiar with Chennai. Chitra and kids had traveled to the cities in the south several times but had not lived in the south. Tamil, of course, was Greek to all of us. I tried suggesting that they continue staying in Delhi until Aditya finished his Class XII (12th grade). This was promptly shot down by Chitra and kids as sheer nonsense.
So, we moved again. It was September of 2000. We locked our house in Delhi leaving heavy furniture behind. Once again, we spent the first couple of months in a guesthouse. It was a nice place though. We had taken the entire floor that was big enough to accommodate our family and an occasional guest or two. The cook pampered our taste buds with South Indian delicacies. He would humor Aditya and Abhishek with aloo-paratha and other North Indian dishes when they made noises that they had had enough of southy food.
Finding a house in Chennai turned out to be much easier than Delhi. Several expats were returning to their native countries pushing house rents down. We soon moved to a spacious 5,000 square-feet newly built house. Finding schools for kids turned out to be another story. Aditya and Abhishek both had opted for French as the third language at Delhi. Aditya did not have to take any language other than English since he was in Class XI (eleventh grade); but Abhishek’s case was different. He had to take a third language. Sanskrit and Tamil were out of question and there were few schools in Chennai that offered French. The principal of one of the schools that took great pride in propagating Indian culture gave us a long lecture on why our children should be studying Sanskrit and not French. Enlightening as it was, it was not very helpful in solving Abhishek’s dilemma.
After visiting umpteen numbers of schools Abhishek, at last, got admission to a missionary school that offered French. But what a change it was for him. From a school that had earned notoriety for pampering students with the best of facilities, he joined a school that did not even have doors in the classrooms! Toilets were so stinky that he would not use the toilet the whole day. He gradually got used to things. He made many friends. He participated in every possible extra-curricular activity and brought home trophies and citations. When he got a chance to change his school after he passed Class VIII this year, he thought long and hard and decided to continue with the same school!
Aditya did not have to face his brother’s ordeal since he did not have to have French. He got admission to Bala Vidya Mandir, one of the best schools in Chennai.
Our kids surprised us. We had not thought that they would adjust to a new place, language and people so quickly. But they did. They both love Chennai. They speak a smattering of Tamil (just a few words actually), enjoy Tamil songs, know a lot about Tamil movies and love local food. In fact, they are not keen to go back to Delhi! Chitra thinks she speaks Tamil with her maid though the maid does not seem to think so. Actually, she speaks a mixture of Hindi, English, and a few Kannada words rolled into a labored Tamil accent!
A question that always haunted us was, “Did we shortchange our kids by bringing them to India? Did we deny them the opportunities that they could have had in the U.S.?” This triggered a feeling of guilt that, at times, troubled my conscience. It had not been easy to find an answer to this question so far. The answer became somewhat clear in the last few months.
Aditya did extremely well in the Class XII CBSE board examination. He also did very well in SAT and SAT-II. He has been accepted by several highly-ranked universities including Carnegie Mellon, Georgia Tech, University of Michigan (Ann Arbor), Ransselaer, and Rice University. They have all offered him full financial aid. After agonizing over the choices, he decided to join Rice University with Computer Science as the major.
Could he have done better if he were in the U.S.? Possibly. Could he have gone to an Ivy League school? Possibly. But then, he does not seem to have missed a lot on education front.
Win Some, Lose Some!
On the other hand, what did they gain by being in India for nine years? A lot, I assume. They have a strong sense of identity. They have developed a view that allows them to take things in the right perspective. Aditya was equally open to studying at a college in India, U.K., Singapore or U.S.A. They are widely-traveled and exposed to different cultures. They are not awed by the West and not appalled by India. For them, India is not a country that only conjures up images of poverty, filth, bad roads and mosquitoes. They have also seen her soul. India will remain an option for them to live and work. In my personal view, these are no mean gains.
What about my wife and me? Chitra sure lost her independence since she could not drive in India. She has to depend on drivers. She has been teaching off and on and generally keeping herself busy. We even tried to publish a fortnightly newspaper when we were in Delhi and lost loads of money. There is a great deal of interaction with her family. She had to sacrifice certain material comforts she had in the U.S., but it seems that overall the quality of life we have in India has been as good, if not better, than what we had in the U.S. (I guess “overall” is the operative word here). This, of course, is a highly personal and arguable statement. Besides, this may not make sense to those who unload stock options to buy million-dollar homes cash down and to many others who are perfectly in peace and harmony with themselves in the U.S. Or, would it?
I think our move to India has been a rewarding experience. I attribute three reasons to our successful transition to India. Firstly, we returned to India with no career expectations. Secondly, we were not fired by great idealism. We just wanted to be in India. And, thirdly, we were able to muster up resources to afford a decent living in India. Many NRIs underestimate the amount of money it takes to lead a good life in India.
Today we might look like we are making a tally of what we lost and what we gained. But this certainly was not on our mind when we decided to move to India.
We love U.S.A. and miss living there. Having lived in that great country for 12 long years, it is not possible not to miss it. Now since Aditya will be in the U.S., we hope to spend more time there. We would like to divide our time between the U.S. and India.
I believe we ended up having the best of the both worlds.