Being Indian turned out to be so much more than owning a black-and-gold passport.
Some say it’s the weather. Others cite family and friends. For many, quite unabashedly, it’s clearly the food.
A UN survey on international migrant trends, released early last year, documented India’s diaspora population as being the largest in the world, with about 16 million Indians living outside the country in 2015. For many who left the motherland in pursuit of lucrative careers or world class education, life abroad proved to be a wonderful, multicultural experience. However, there are several who chose to return, united in their nostalgia for the subcontinent that never stopped being home.
The Better India caught up with some ‘foreign-return’ NRIs on what they missed most about India, why they came home and what they’ve been upto since they arrived on desi soil.
Santa Clara: Photo used for representation. Source: Wikimedia Commons
It has been four years since Samta and her husband left Singapore for a life in India. The couple always knew they wanted to return. “We thought we’d stay for two years, but it ended up being six-and-a-half,” laughs Samta, citing her kids as the main reason behind the move. “We wanted them to grow up close to family and friends.”
Sujata Gore, a Bombay girl who relocated to California as a newlywed, agrees. “My husband and I both grew up with big families and we wanted that for our son too. We moved back to India when he was two. It was a great decision and our son loved it. In the US it gets lonely, but we stay in a gated community here so there are always kids around for him to play with.”
Dr. T R Raju, a Senior Professor at NIMHANS, left home at 22 and spent a little over a decade shuttling between Canberra, Boston and Sydney. In his case, concerns about his ailing parents were what drew him back home. When asked whether he returned to a vastly changed country, he replies simply, “One has to accept India for what it is.”
Like him, former Santa Clara residents, Srinivas and Asha, who moved back to India with their daughters Gaana and Raaga after eight years in America say they never found struggles with identity to be an issue. “We have always been Indian, it’s not even a question for us,” they explain.
But somewhere along the way, tupperware boxes filled with frozen parathas and the last spoonfuls of homemade pickle, carefully salvaged from the last trip back to India just didn’t cut it anymore.
Srinivas declares, “India is my country. I love the culture here, I love the food here. I can live with Rs 20 or Rs 2,000 for a day, and there are hardships, but the family is here. That’s why we came back.”
However, the move was fraught with some difficulties, particularly during the initial years. Asha recounts how her eldest had trouble becoming accustomed to the change of scene. “I was worried about the kids because Gaana took one year to get used to it,” she remembers. “To begin with, she was not very happy with it. She didn’t like it, it was different and hard initially, but she couldn’t stay back because she was too young.”
What did help, fortunately, was the extensive research the couple invested in selecting the right school for their daughters to shift to.
Asha explains that they chose it very carefully, and recommended it to other Indian friends who relocated to the city from California.
Photo used for representational purposes only. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Despite the perks of being home — Sujata laughs about how spoiled she feels with access to maids and drivers, Samta gushes about the weather — in most cases there were some things that required a considerable adjustment period. Several found themselves returning to a changed homeland, remodeled to fit a “modern era”, albeit struggling to touch up the errant pothole or deliver unfailing wifi.
“Nothing tragic, but I never drove in India before I left for the US, but coming back, even sitting in a car in the passenger seat – I used to get scared that someone would come and hit me because they were all so close,” Srinivas admits. “For eight years I could not get used to it.”
“The traffic!” exclaims Sujata, articulating what seems to be a universal complaint.
What is interesting to note, is that decisions to renounce their NRI status were often met with skepticism from peers. Samta describes how she and her husband were confronted with stories of maladapted families who regretted their move back to India when they first announced their plan to pack up. “We were told of people who came back to Singapore after leaving it because India didn’t suit them. But we haven’t regretted it. There are so many things you learn subconsciously. Singapore is very convenient and there’s so much about Asian life that’s similar there that it really doesn’t let you miss India. But it is a smaller country and when you live there you get only one perspective of life. Back here you get an entire spectrum.”
It turns out that some of the biggest concerns that non-resident Indians have about returning are a dearth of medical facilities and a lack of knowledge about living situations in urban India. Many of these are complete myth, according to Samta.
“A lot of expat Indians don’t know how great accommodation in India has become,” she says. “I feel that my house here in Bangalore is better than my home back in Singapore. It’s better planned, there’s more space and the landscaping is lovely. Urban India is also very cosmopolitan.”
Photo used for representation only. Source: Wikimedia Commons
What is amply clear in all these cases, is the fact that moving to India was a conscious choice.
Suchindra Kanakanapalya describes this best when he says that India is “the story he wants to be associated with.” After university in Chicago and full time work in New York, the engineer quit his job to move to Chennai and marry his longtime girlfriend.
Suchindra and family.
The slump brought in by the 2008 recession and the vast distance between the US and India made him sure he was making the right decision. Before long, he found himself determined to understand “the real India,” and began questioning how a global education could be applied to the Indian context.
Returning has also allowed him to engage with causes he believes in. He is a hardcore trekker, funds Go Sports, contributes to the Nature Conservation Foundation, champions the conservation of wildlife, organises discussion sessions on India’s position in a global environment and has even started the Bengaluru Trifits, an international group with members spanning nine countries and 20 cities, all of whom have lived in Bangalore at some point in their lives.
“We have regular, international challenges,” he explains. “We’re always either doing a burpee challenge or a 30-day ab challenge. We indirectly also support causes all over the world. And of course, when those who live abroad visit India, we take them all over Bangalore.”
Dr. Raju, too, has found that he and his wife have more time to pursue regular social work. They also enjoy travelling within India.
“When people complain that nothing works in India I argue back,” Suchindra says. “It doesn’t help if you sit in your AC office, get into your AC car and then complain on Facebook. Get out there and do something! Meet with tribals, trek in forests, play chess at 2 in the morning with auto drivers in Pondicherry!”
After assuring me he was quite serious about the latter, he continues, “If you engage with the real India you realise that it is full of people willing to work hard every day, to give up family time and come out and help each other. Neighbours drop in and share food here. In India it is somehow okay to expose your weakness and ask for help, because people really help you.”
“It’s home sweet home,” affirms Dr. Raju.
Sujata agrees, adding thoughtfully, “Somehow we just couldn’t imagine growing old anywhere else.”