By Kashyap Deorah
Let’s just say that our move to India is done and we are now completely a part of the problem. It has been nearly 22 months since we moved back. Two Diwalis and two Holis later, Independence Day has now moved back from July 4 to August 15. The fascination of big weddings, auto-rickshaws, street food, fresh mithai, monsoon rains, cutting chai, tangdi kabab, patiala pegs, haggling street vendors, gymkhana memberships, high-school reunions, first-day first-shows, live cricket matches, festive crowds and high-honking lane cuts has now transformed to the little compulsions and compromises of life, sometimes trading off health with politeness, and sometimes freedom of choice with practicality.
After more than a year of parasitic living at our parents’ home, we are now on our own as a working couple managing a household with daily interactions with a maid, cook, driver, dhobi, nariyal-wala, milkman, newspaper boy, kachre-wala, watchman, car wash guy, and monthly interactions with the local cable goon, Internet provider, repair technician, plumber, carpenter, electrician, landlord, home delivery guys, and a barrage of brokers. I commute 10 minutes to work, while wife Shruti commutes 45-90 minutes depending on her traffic karma, to cover a distance similar to Mountain View to Palo Alto.
Besides moving from the US to India and from parents’ home to ours, some significant events in our life include a recession, starting up from scratch, Shruti’s career path change and seeing my sister’s daughter grow up. Actually, Zoya mirrors our life in India since our move happened during my sister’s third trimester. Our new life in India is as old as hers in this world. We have now started walking on our own and have started mumbling some sense, in between violent shrieks and tears when we are not well understood. Here is a sequel to part one written in March 2008.
Aspiration Vs Experience
A common theme across Indians, bar the extremely poor (about 35% of India) and the extremely rich (about 2% of India), is aspiration. Some aspire more than others, but we all aspire. Some aspirations are ambitions to jump many steps in the ladder at a time, but it remains perpetually apparent that we are all on a ladder. Each Indian seems to have a story of where they started in life, and where they are today. A story of struggle and a highly developed ego about how well-earned the cup of tea is this morning. Ironically, between steps in the ladder is a black-hole with infinite ability to suck energy. One can expend a lifetime without hopping a step, or one can swiftly curve right around and jump a few notches. On the other hand, the American’s story in the sports bar is about his experiences. The places he went, the women he was with, and the cigars he smoked. The American way of life focuses on being yourself and having unique experiences, no matter how much gas it guzzles. Of course, Indians keep finding their ways to be different while Americans participate in pissing contests to conform.
Survival Vs Progress
From the blue-collar working man to a small business to a corporation, the fair price of a product or service for the Indian market is based on the perceived cost and not the perceived value. Negotiations at all levels end up being cost justifications rather than value justifications. There are two reasons that together make this happen: competitive gaps are quickly filled by entrepreneurial energy in an over-competitive market, and the collective natural capacity of Indian customers to tolerate pain and out-wait you ensures that someone will blink on margins. The only way to de-couple pricing from cost seems to be exclusive rights to a scarce tangible resource. Think of all inorganic growth stories in India, and you would discover that it started with a certain license or right or exclusive ownership won early in the game, or persuasively prohibiting market entry for other players by force or tactic. For instance, real-estate in Mumbai is like stock options in the Bay Area. It is the most probable reason your high-school friend is driving a Porsche Cayenne. On the other hand, the American dream rewards the guy from the mid-West who sold the hot-dog machine that could produce thrice the number of hot-dogs a day and now has a star by his name while sipping Pina Colada in Lanai. The American market at large adopts small innovations at scale in the span of time before competition catches up, and original ideas can successfully be protected from being copied. Going back to the Sequoia and Banyan Tree comparison, the Indian ethos is optimized for continuous survival while the American ethos is optimized for continuous progress. India is growing, but only at a pace that is essential for survival of a billion people. Perhaps this is not an economically underdeveloped society, but an overdeveloped one.
Chaos Vs Order
Before moving to the US, my political views were right of centre. After coming back, they parked left. As an immigrant, your lifelong beliefs are questioned. The rules you were brought up with stop applying, and in order to build the next set of rules on your own, you must go back to first principles. Decisions based on first principles require more processing cycles per day compared to quick look-ups of a rules-based system. After moving back, you can live on first principles for a while and look beyond your preferences and embrace the environment with open arms. Sooner or later you would start forming rules that help you live easier. In India, a better part of those rules would apply to people and would take the form of stereotypes – quickly judge people, then accept, reject or ignore. You would be one of a billion mutinies, with a certain set of impenetrable views, albeit unique and changing. In philosophical debates your conscious mind would argue on first principles, but in real life, your unconscious mind would be asserting these rigid rules. Indians end up with a fair degree of order in personal life, perhaps as a survival technique in a high chaos environment. Perhaps, this is not a socially underdeveloped society, but an overdeveloped one.
Man Vs Nature
Some of my most memorable experiences in the US were with nature. These were moments that made me feel closer to life than ever before, feeling every drop of blood in the body, aware of how insignificant we are in the face of nature, marvelling at how much the human race has achieved starting with a world of forests, mountains, deserts, oceans and volcanoes. Some of my most memorable experiences in India have been with humans. Moments that make you feel more alive than ever before, seeing the extremes of human resilience and adaptability, the fragility of human life, contrasts in the value of a human life, acts of selflessness and selfishness, kindness and cruelty, shallowness and depth, and the extremes of human ethics. You would be well advised to take a break from humans when in India and give yourself some mind space in what nature has to offer within Indian borders.
Immigrants are a cursed species. The merits of the place we live in are taken for granted, and the merits of the places we travel to or stay away from monopolize our thought. No matter where we live, the mind always wants the best of both worlds without accepting the merits and demerits of a place as two sides of the same coin. You cannot have one without the other. In general, those who move back to India after many years in the US choose to forego some obvious material comforts of life. There is a certain higher purpose that pulls one back home for fulfilling a human need closer to the soul. When moving back to India, I felt like the monk who sold his Ferrari (in this case, an Audi), only to realize that I am no monk. What seemed like a promotion to a higher plain of awareness is only the beginning of our pursuit of happiness. It would be a lie to say that we do not miss our life in the US. Life in India is much tougher, and as Calvin’s dad would say, it builds character.
At the same time, it is true that no matter what you choose to do here, you would be solving more fundamental problems and real needs compared to the US and making that much more impact on people’s lives; even if your expectations of being compensated or recognized commensurate with the impact might take a beating by US standards. Look at it as a journey towards self-realization and an opportunity to end up farther ahead as a world citizena after your life and experiences in India.