Friday, July 14, 2006

Some Random Points on Reverse Migration

(This post is mostly for the NRIs who are ensconced in the USA. But others can also read it for fun)

I can’t believe I have actually completed my ‘reverse migration’ to India, after having lived in the USA for centuries. The first, tentative steps were taken nearly three years ago and at every step, there was this danger of the ‘N+1 syndrome’ cropping up and dooming the entire move. The good thing was that I had enough dough tucked away in all kinds of investments, which made it possible for me to kind of ‘retire’ and not be a wage slave – I didn’t really have to find a sucker Indian corporation which would treat me like a brown saheb.

I have been getting several requests on how one actually pulls off this Mayflower-in-the-reverse trick. As a summary response, I have recorded ten points, which I am going to share with you.

(1) It is important to go slow on making the move.

First of, I took my own time to make the transition. India has changed so much in the past n years that you have been in the USA and you need to get familiar with the new place. Even your relatives and friends have evolved and you don't get that impact during your once in a few years visits to India.

Since the last time you visited it, there has been a telecom revolution in India. And this has completely changed the landscape. Just to give you an idea, there are now a hundred million cell phones in India (with a hundred million unique ringer tones for them), which is double of what we had just last year. It’s only a matter of time before every single man, woman and child in India will be armed with a cell phone.

Everybody has a favorite cell phone story to tell. Mine is about our family Punditji, whose cell phone accidentally fell into the sacred fire while he was performing some holy something. (I bet his colleagues around the fire quickly chanted “Om Cell phonaaaya swaahaaa…” or something) The man tried to exchange the charbroiled cell phone for a new one, but even though the gods were on his side, the Nokia guy apparently refused to budge.

Thanks to modern technology, India is also now a land of junk courier mails. The most inane and useless pieces of paper are mailed via courier and one has to affix his or her precious signature and pick up the trash.

Most of you probably haven’t been to hell yet. But if you want to witness something close to it (and get a glimpse of new India) all you need to do is visit your corner school in the evenings. You will see two hundred cars and a thousand two wheelers parked every which way outside the gate. And come the school closing hour, there will be sheer pandemonium, with honks tooting and vehicles revving up their engines and children crisscrossing, lugging their thirty pound school bags. Remember how you walked to school?

But then, India is a country of contrasts – where the ultra modern shares space with the ancient. A country that is littered with cell phones and couriers still has people who use Morse codes and telegrams. Even as we manufacture jet engines, our roads are open to bullock cart. There is good news and bad news about eco-friendliness in India. The good news is that most traditional things that people use are bio-degradable. But the bad news is that the damn thing bio-degrades in front of your house.

The point is India has changed while you were away. So, wake up and smell your coffee – in a trendy coffee shop and pay nearly a dollar for it.

(2) Take a lot of stutter steps first.

I visited India many, many times before my final move.

I know it is an expensive proposition. But unless you actually ‘taste’ the new Indian life a few times, you may be quite surprised when you actually make the big move. You can include a few ‘things to do’ with each such trip – such as finding out if you can afford that latest condo they are building in the poshest part of your city or if the elite school you want to put your children is so exclusive that you need a letter from President Kalam to get them in.

(3) Import only the sentimental and 'familiar' things from the USA when you move. Everything is available here.

I had a tough time abridging my 3500 square foot Colorado home into twenty five boxes. Except for my sentimental collection of classical music, photo albums, etc. (a lot of which got damaged in the floods a few months after I received them. But then, that’s another story)

There are furniture stores in India with IKEA catalogs who will readily build you that fake IKEA piece, if you wish. Instead of wading through JC Penny’s in search of that elusive pair of pants which fits you exactly, in India you have the luxury of getting it tailored to suit your weird NRI derriere. So, don’t overload the boat.

(4) It takes only a few weeks to get used to the dirt, dust, rudeness, inefficiency, heat, potholes, relatives' chatter etc. (Well, actually, you may never get used to the Indian rudeness.)

After about the first week, I got over the urge to reform every single Indian that I came across. The following week, I even managed to finally see a commercial on TV without Amitabh Bhacchan in it. You get ‘immersed’ fairly quickly. Cricket is still everything in India and they still talk about ‘uppish’ shots or fielders ‘shying’ the ball. I soon re-learnt exactly how to slouch over a sofa and ask a bunch of similarly-slouched folks ‘All out for??’ and be instantly accepted by them. You will realize that the Barry Bonds-like hulk who slugs the balls away, is called M. S. Dhoni and that he is the latest heart-throb of every teenage girl in India. (It is Sania Mirza for boys, but then, she probably deserves an entire blog)

If you want to endear yourself to the older generation, all you need to do is to look your cynical best and complain ‘Hmm. They have increased the Railway cancellation fee to forty rupees. What can the public do?’ even though you have no clue as to what the fee was earlier or what it ought to be.

You will see that you can easily comprehend a staid newspaper like ‘The Hindu’, because it divides itself into the Blood Bank page, Obituary page and the Sharapova page. In fact, I have been privy to every move of Sharapova after I got back to India. You will realize that the picture of the dignified lady, staring out of the newspaper, is actually that of Lalu Prasad Yadav’s. Among other things, you will discover that the Sensex they talk about here in India has nothing to do with the Sensex marriage we have in the USA. You will also get the feeling that with every passing week, the magazine ‘India Today’ looks and feels more and more like an airlines in-flight magazine – a far cry from those days when it used to be the gateway to the happenings in India.

Basically, getting back into the swing of things in India is very simple – much easier than you will realize. Somewhere in the very back of your mind, you have actually stashed away all your Indian survival instincts and sensibilities and they will all rush to the forefront right with your grand entry into India.

(5) Establish your own norms and priorities here.

Don't become another 'body' available for family functions. Sure, meet and spend time with relatives. After all, that is one of the reasons for your transition back. But don't be consumed by the extended family.

You will find that every other day someone or the other is either getting married or celebrating their kid’s second birthday and that you are ‘specially’ invited. But there is no end to it. Watch out for the eightieth birthday celebrations – they are major traps which will suck you in for hours. That’s where you will meet a hundred of your senior citizen relatives and other hanger-ons (each of whom has a son or daughter in New Jersey). The food is usually good, but remember there is a high price to pay for it. .

(6) Don't get hung up about the USA.

India has become quite modern too. Familiarize yourself with the modern banks, schools, computers, plane reservation, shopping, investing etc. Qualitatively, there should be very little difference in all these activities between the USA and India.

For those of you who are completely out it, the Indian dollar is called the rupee and is literally only worth about two cents. Even though there are dirt-poor people in India who would kill each other for a rupee, you will have plenty of it, because with your American bankroll, you will most likely belong to the filthy rich class here in India. Learn to divide everything by fifty and pretty soon you will realize how things are cheap in India.

You will see that you don’t have to give your right arm for that dental procedure, even though your Indian dentist’s office is more plush than your American tooth fiend. For the price of a couple of large pizzas, you will be able to travel first class, A/C from Delhi to Kanpur. And you can make reservations for it on-line and get your ticket in a few hours by courier and even thank Lalu for making it all possible!!!

(7) Whatever maybe your chosen profession, be that mover and shaker and help push the Indian economy a bit further

I teach Production and Operations to MBA students in one of the top colleges in Chennai. But I made sure it is only an Adjunct position, just to give me enough traction to stay in action, and not be a careerist. Since I have worked quite a bit in factories and Production, I have a passion for Manufacturing. I am slowly trying to spread my message and hopefully in a few years, I can graduate a few good Production Managers. Indian planners firmly believe that close on the heels of IT revolution and the IT enabled Services revolution, we are going to witness a major increase in Manufacturing activity – watch out, China!!!

India is booming economically and there is so much of excitement that it makes up for everything else. I am really kicked about all the possibilities. Contribute to India’s growth. Think of it as a debt repaid – for, the government did spend hundreds and thousands of its meager rupees in educating you in the IITs and the IIMs.

(8) You should have some extra activities to get more out of your India return - music, dance, religion, writing, travel and whatever

One of the reasons I moved back was to further my writing career. Strangely, over the past three years, I have hardly written anything, even though several Tamil actors have been wanting scripts from me. One of these days, I hope to settle down enough to write. I hope!!

(9) Come back with the intention to give something back to the society and when you do give back, do so actively and not just as a dole to some charity. (which is also okay, if you think about it)

A good part of my return to India is also altruistic. I have a large surrogate family of underprivileged kids whose education and well-being I sponsor. I have recently put three of them in engineering colleges at great costs. I spend a good part of my weekends teaching them Laplace’s transforms and ‘spoken’ English. It is such a pleasure to see every positive step these children take – especially considering they had pretty bad upbringing. I wish I could write more about my experience. But it is too personal. Maybe in a later blog…

The point is, there are so many wonderful organizations in India, NGOs and other non-formal outfits. You may be able to identify with some of them. Or if you have a cause very dear to your heart, go for it. You can make so much difference to the society around you that it will be a sheer joy to see the change you have effected.

(10) Attitude is everything

Finally, it is not as traumatic as people make it out to be. People who meet me don't even realize that I had spent dog years in the USA. (These days, I have begun to call the letter z 'zed', I am at least half an hour late to all my appointments and I eat gulab jamuns with my bare hand - just kidding about the last two) Don't expect to be treated like demi god just because you were in the USA, although people just might. You will meet so many amazing people in India and you will discover that those wonderful people (and even celebrities) are highly accessible here, (unlike in the USA) that you may feel that the whole of India is shrinking into a tiny India Association. .

So, come back to your old motherland!! I strongly recommend this to you, if it agrees with everyone in your family.