“Family considerations are amongst the strongest magnets pulling immigrants back to their home country,” says researcher Vivek Wadhwa.
But sometimes you have to be careful what you wish for. It’s one thing to go home for vacation. It’s another thing to live with your family. Though few will admit it, many botched returns come from not being able to, as Indians put it quaintly, “adjust to family.”
“My friends definitely told me before I left that I was letting go of my freedom,” says Stuti Jani in Ahmedabad. Her husband Darshan’s parents, both working doctors, are extremely supportive. Before Stuti and Darshan came back, his parents even installed carpet in one room and hardwood in another, just like their home in Sunnyvale. “I don’t have to cook unless I want to. She doesn’t let me do housework,” says Stuti.
But it’s still not her own house. The giant metal Ganesh they bought for their Sunnyvale home has been installed in a corner here. The orange-gold curtains she never had a chance to use in America are now hanging in the living room in Ahmedabad. But it’s not her house. And the extended family is just a doorbell-ring away.
“People visit at night, just when we are giving the kids their baths and getting them ready for bed,” says Stuti. “If we are upstairs with the kids, they think we are too American. We take too much care of the kids.” She smiles as little Stavan lies on the couch playing with a toy camera. “My sister-in-law says everyone has a right to comment on an Indian daughter-in-law.”
For couples moving, the wife often bears the brunt of the move. Sanjay Agrawal at American Express says that if he has one piece of advice for any man planning to come back to India, it’s this: “Talk to your wife. Make it a joint decision.”
“Too many guys say, ‘let me get the job offer and then I’ll talk to my wife,” says Sanjiv Narayan in Delhi. “You have to check with your wife first.”
It’s the men who are usually moving. For women like Stuti Jani, Kitty Singh, and Natasha Khandera, India has also meant that they’ve turned into full-time homemakers. Natasha Khandera loves being with the kids but “some days I want to lie down and just read a book. I don’t want someone to come and ask what to cook.” For some it’s a luxury, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. When his wife Mitra Kalita got the chance to come to India from Washington, D.C., to work on The Mint newspaper, Nitin Mukul decided he’d become a full-time artist and look after their daughter, Naya. It can be annoying when TV programs keep asking to feature him because he’s a curiosity: a stay-at-home dad. But he also just had a solo show in New York where he sold almost everything. “I’d rarely sold a piece before,” he says.
Natasha Khandera remembers that when her husband first set up house in California, he had a cleaning lady who came once a week. He left the key under the mat and never saw her. Around Christmas, he left her a gift. At their beautiful Gurgaon flat, with contemporary Indian art on the walls and sculptures on the side tables, they have two maids, a part time cleaning lady, and two drivers. “There is no privacy at all,” says Khandera. For all parties. Her maid has acquired a boyfriend and is on the phone all the time. Khandera is privy to the ups and downs of that affair. The phone rings all day long. “99 percent of the time it’s for the maids,” she laughs. “The doorbell rings as much in a day as it did in a month in America.”
Mukul, the artist and full-time dad in New Delhi, says he knows that well. “A quarter of my day goes with dealing with the door. There’s the guy who brings the newspapers, the dhobi with the ironing, the fruit seller. You can’t escape all these people who come to the door and need to be catered to.”
But Khandera also recognizes the huge luxury of having help— the cup of tea already made and steaming, just the way you like it, when you wake up in the morning. “But when I go back to our place in Tahoe, I just love the idea that there is no one in my house,” says Khandera. Most of all she loves getting into her car and just driving.
In her shorts. “I can’t go out in my shorts like in New York,” says Gitanjali Pande with a smile. “And I’ve never gotten used to the feeling of being watched here. People just stare.”
“I tell them I am not Aishwariya Rai,” laughs Kitty Singh. Singh lives in a gated community and can’t really go anywhere outside without a driver. Pande lives in a quite residential neighborhood in Delhi’s South Extension and takes autos and taxis everywhere. But even she knows not to go out after dark.
Pande says that although she came back to India because she missed her family, “the family lunch dinners petered out a while ago.” Much of her family lives in Gurgaon, quite a hike from her home in Delhi’s South Extension. “And we learned the hard way that no one has dinner at 8 in India like we are used to,” she chuckles. “So we just eat before we go out. Otherwise by the time dinner is served we are ready to go to bed.”
Now Pande and her husband, Joh,n have decided they are going to go back to the U.S. in 2009. She’s told her family. “They are not surprised,” she says. “Here the standard of living is three servants, two cars. My ideal is accessibility to anything and everything.”
Outside her South Delhi home, the vegetable seller trundles past, his cart laden with vegetables: cauliflowers, stubby carrots, and beans. Pande still hopes she can find a job that will let her come back often, maybe 3-4 months at a time. “Let’s see how it goes,” she says. “I guess we all live and learn.”
|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.|