“WHAT are Papa and I doing here?”
These words, instant-messaged by my mother in a suburb of Washington, D.C., whizzed through the deep-ocean cables and came to me in the village where I’m now living, in the country that she left.
It was five years ago that I left America to come live and work in India. Now, in our family and among our Indian-American friends, other children of immigrants are exploring motherland opportunities. As economies convulse in the West and jobs dry up, the idea is spreading virally in émigré homes.
Which raises a heart-stirring question: If our parents left India and trudged westward for us, if they manufactured from scratch a new life there for us, if they slogged, saved, sacrificed to make our lives lighter than theirs, then what does it mean when we choose to migrate to the place they forsook?
If we are here, what are they doing there?
They came of age in the 1970s, when the “there” seemed paved with possibility and the “here” seemed paved with potholes. As a young trainee, my father felt frustrated in companies that awarded roles based on age, not achievement. He looked at his bosses, 20 years ahead of him in line, and concluded that he didn’t want to spend his life becoming them.
My parents married in India and then embarked to America on a lonely, thrilling adventure. They learned together to drive, shop in malls, paint a house. They decided who and how to be. They kept reinventing themselves, discarding the invention, starting anew. My father became a management consultant, an entrepreneur, a human-resources executive, then a Ph.D. candidate. My mother began as a homemaker, learned ceramics, became a ceramics teacher and then the head of the art department at one of Washington’s best schools.
It was extraordinary, and ordinary: This is what America did to people, what it always has done.
My parents brought us to India every few years as children. I relished time with relatives; but India always felt alien, impenetrable, frozen.
Perhaps it was the survivalism born of scarcity: the fierce pushing to get off the plane, the miserliness even of the rich, the obsession with doctors and engineers and the neglect of all others. Perhaps it was the bureaucracy, the need to know someone to do anything. Or the culture shock of servitude: a child’s horror at reading “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” in an American middle school, then seeing servants slapped and degraded in India.
My firsthand impression of India seemed to confirm the rearview immigrant myth of it: a land of impossibilities. But history bends and swerves, and sometimes swivels fully around.
India, having fruitlessly pursued command economics, tried something new: It liberalized, privatized, globalized. The economy boomed, and hope began to course through towns and villages shackled by fatalism and low expectations.
America, meanwhile, floundered. In a blink of history came 9/11, outsourcing, Afghanistan, Iraq, Katrina, rising economies, rogue nuclear nations, climate change, dwindling oil, a financial crisis.
Pessimism crept into the sunniest nation. A vast majority saw America going astray. Books heralded a “Post-American World.” Even in the wake of a historic presidential election, culminating in a dramatic change in direction, it remained unclear whether the United States could be delivered from its woes any time soon.
“In the U.S., there’s a crisis of confidence,” said Nandan Nilekani, co-chairman of Infosys Technologies, the Indian software giant. “In India,” he added, “for the first time after decades or centuries, there is a sense of optimism about the future, a sense that our children’s futures can be better than ours if we try hard enough.”
My love for the country of my birth has never flickered. But these new times piqued interest in my ancestral land. Many of us, the stepchildren of India, felt its change of spirit, felt the gravitational force of condensed hope. And we came.
Exact data on émigrés working in India or spending more time here are scarce. But this is one indicator: India unveiled an Overseas Citizen of India card in 2006, offering foreign citizens of Indian origin visa-free entry for life and making it easier to work in the country. By this July, more than 280,000 émigrés had signed up, according to The Economic Times, a business daily, including 120,000 from the United States.
At first we felt confused by India’s formalities and hierarchies, by British phraseology even the British had jettisoned, by the ubiquity of acronyms. We wondered what newspapers meant when they said, “INSAT-4CR in orbit, DTH to get a boost.” (Apparently, it meant a satellite would soon beam direct-to-home television signals.)
Working in offices, some of us were perplexed to be invited to “S&M conferences,” only to discover that this denoted sales and marketing. Several found to their chagrin that it is acceptable for another man to touch your inner thigh when you crack a joke in a meeting.
We learned new expressions: “He is on tour” (Means: He is traveling. Doesn’t mean: He has joined U2.); “What is your native place?” (Means: Where did your ancestors live? Doesn’t mean: What hospital delivered you?); “Two minutes” (Means: An hour. Doesn’t mean: Two minutes.).
We tried to reinvent ourselves, as our parents had, but in reverse. Some studied Hindi, others yoga. Some visited the Ganges to find themselves; others tried days-long meditations.
Many of us who shunned Indian clothes in youth began wearing kurtas and chappals, saris and churidars. There was a sad truth in this: We had waited for our heritage to become cool to the world before we draped its colors and textures on our own backs.
We learned how to make friends here, and that it requires befriending families. We learned to love here: Men found fondness for the elusive Indian woman; women surprised themselves in succumbing to chauvinistic, mother-spoiled men.
We forged dual-use accents. We spoke in foreign accents by default. But when it came to arguing with accountants or ordering takeout kebabs, we went sing-song Indian.
We gravitated to work specially suited to us. If there is a creative class, in Richard Florida’s phrase, there is also emerging what might be called a fusion class: people positioned to mediate among the multiple societies that claim them.
India’s second-generation returnees have built boutiques that fuse Indian fabrics with Western cuts, founded companies that train a generation to work in Western companies, become dealmakers in investment firms that speak equally to Wall Street and Dalal Street, mixed albums that combine throbbing tabla with Western melodies.
Our parents’ generation helped India from afar. They sent money, advised charities, guided hedge-fund dollars into the Bombay Stock Exchange. But most were too implicated in India to return. Our generation, unscathed by it, was freer to embrace it.
Countries like India once fretted about a “brain drain.” We are learning now that “brain circulation,” as some call it, may be more apt.
India did not export brains; it invested them. It sent millions away. In the freedom of new soil, they flowered. They seeded a new generation that, having blossomed, did what humans have always done: chase the frontier of the future.
Which just happened, for many of us, to be the frontier of our own pasts.