Like seashells, we came in with the high tide. Now that the tide is low, we feel exposed.
Often, in the privacy of their computer screens, many NRIs have found themselves Googling the phrase “returning to India,” in the hope of finding out answers to their questions, or even just finding the questions they must ask before making their decision. Often, Google disappoints. Here’s my attempt to answer a few questions for the tentative returnee.
First, we will tackle issues that can be handled mathematically.
Potential to Save: Salaries in India are rising at a very rapid clip—10-20 percent every year. While inflation remains high in India, the increases in salary mean that the potential to save money on a monthly basis is increasing every year. Given that most of the people leaving India had left for economic reasons, this implies that it is now safer to return to India. If you’re Googling this aspect, look for (1) salary increase levels in India and the United States, (2) inflation rates, (3) compute the increase in expected savings.
Career Growth: The Indian economy is booming. Thanks to India’s “demographic dividend,” India will continue to grow fast over the next few decades at rates much higher than the Western world. This means people who are now in their prime careers (25-45 years old) will grow faster in their careers in India compared to being elsewhere in the world. Economic growth would keep fueling the demand for managerial talent. This means faster promotions in India, as well as meatier assignments.
Social Web: Look at your Facebook profile and see which of your friends are in India. If you’re moving to Delhi, Mumbai, or Bangalore, it is likely that you’ll have a richer social circle than in your current phoren city.
If, that is, you can find time to drive one-way for 50 minutes to meet them for a 30-minute, $3 coffee at a Coffee Day in India.
Household Help, Cost of: The typical NRI doesn’t notice it, but every household needs a cook, a cleaner (or two), a driver (or two), a home-delivered grocery service, a clothes washer, a clothes ironing crew and a daily gardener. These “basic” needs of urban life are not available outside India unless you’re Bill Gates. That means that the average NRI helplessly slogs away at these articles of domestic drudgery, while their desi friends in India have all the fun.
Cost of healthcare: Aging parents and growing kids means that healthcare costs are on the rise for the 1990s-era NRI (folks who emigrated in the 90s). U.S. healthcare costs are prohibitive, while in India the healthcare costs are relatively lesser, quality care more affordable and available in the larger cities. However, the quality of doctors can vary widely in India, so “buyer beware” still holds true.
The rational compass clearly points toward returning to India.
We still haven’t taken into account some themes that tend to be more subjective in nature, but may be more compelling.
Generations Apart: For most of the folks abroad, being away from their parents is the No. 1 cause of heartache. Growing up, as we did, in the Indian social milieu where children are supposed to emulate the filial hero of myth Sravan Kumar, many NRIs feel the guilt of having abandoned their parents at their time of need in their old age. Calling parents to the United States is an option for some, but healthcare costs and the mental burden of relocating at an old age could be too much for most parents.
Similarly, some folks want to be “back home” as their children grow into middle school and speak only English. Giving their kids an immersion in Indian culture as well as books is what drives some people back to their homes in India.
The Doorbell Tolls for Thee: There is no respite from the ringing doorbell in India, starting with the early morning milk delivery, newspaper delivery, morning dishwasher, car washer, driver, bread delivery, floor wiper, car washer (returning keys), kids’ driver, lunch cook, lunch dishwasher, driver, driver, kids, kids, neighbor’s kids, vegetables delivery, fruits delivery … it’s enough to drive a sane NRI ding dong. Ding dong. Ding dong!
Power Corrupts, Power Cuts Interrupt Absolutely: So you’ve bought this fancy penthouse flat in a “24-hour power supply building society.” Well, when the six-hour power cuts loom every day in the peak of summer, your society’s generator can only support two fans and one fridge. Go figure! Power supply in India is now 20 percent lesser than the need (by some counts). That means no power when you need it. There are some things money can’t buy. Continuous power is one of these.
Order, Order: Despite the march of progress in India in recent years, things are still chaotic and rarely work as advertised. Service culture has yet to seep in, and Indian Stretchable Time continues to be lax. To the NRI mind, these could be mild irritants, or mind-numbingly irritating, depending on your personal preferences. The lack of order and control over one’s own destiny and phone service can get to one’s nerves.
Changing Social Mores: Believe it or not, attitudes on dating can be found out through carbon dating. Most people who emigrate to another culture tend to freeze their social values when they move. These social values are not updated on contact with a foreign culture. Meanwhile, values in their home country tend to evolve. The same is happening with India. When the 1990s-era NRI left India, Times of India was the “old lady of Bori Bunder,” and not the purveyor of titillating content as it has become now. Item songs in Hindi movies were not “better than Baywatch.” All these things have changed, but the old NRI mind-set has not kept pace.
This means that when they return to India, they will face changed attitudes toward money, fashion, sex, and pretty much every aspect of life. They will likely find a more Westernized version of the country they left (and carried in their hearts with them). They may not like the new “paisa phenk, tamasha dekh” mentality that their noveau riche batchmates have acquired in the years the NRIs were abroad. The only fringe of society that carries their traditional strain of moral values resides abroad, in places like Ardenwood and Evergreen in Silicon Valley.
BLACK SWAN EVENTS
A “black swan event” is defined (by essayist and scholar Nicholas Taleb) as the disproportionate role of high-impact, hard-to-predict, and rare events that are beyond the realm of normal expectations in history, science, and technology. Things that cannot be forecast, but those that will have a heavy impact on the future.
Mao Se Tung: There is a heavy Naxal outbreak in India and according to some reports upto a third of India’s land mass is under Naxal influence. Whatever the reasons behind this rise, what’s possible is that this could explode into a country-wide crisis at any time.
Water Wars: India is largely an agrarian society, and the maximum fresh water is used for agriculture. With one of the world’s largest populations and limited water supply, Indian states are already beginning to fight over water resources. As ground water levels continue to drop all over India, these skirmishes could take a more sinister tone. This could lead to an all out water war between states, cities, communities, and families.
Geopolitical Nukes: There’s nukes and inter-continental ballastic missiles on two sides of the country. Pakistan and China both have unstable societies (China has a stable government with an iron grip, but the poverty differentials are very high there), and a war with India is a couple of missteps away.
Racism Redux: While the United States, United Kingdom, and Australian societies are largely peaceful, if the world economy continues to be poor, there could be a situation where any of these countries might turn xenophobic. While Indians are not the largest or most visible minority in any of these countries, they are still a minority.
SUMMING UP: TO GO OR NOT TO GO
Very clearly, the mathematics of going to India are now more positive than they have ever been. The subjective themes are what drive a lot of the decision making. The black swan events are, by definition, things that can happen under the right circumstances, but making them an important part of one’s decision making is simply a matter of faith.
Quite a few families have now made the move. Of these, many of those families are regretting that they ever went back to India, and have since returned. If you are considering moving, I would recommend talking to your friends who have made the move and see if they have been able to handle the transition.
Some folks have also tried a “trial relocation,” where they would take temporary assignments in order to test out the market and to see if they will be able to thrive in the Indian context. I would strongly recommend this, if you are amongst the lucky ones to have a return ticket option.
All in all, returning to India is a personal choice. Let it be an informed decision.
Gaurav Rastogi is an SF Bay Area-based business executive, writer, and blogger. He travels to India frequently on business.