Home and away

When we were in college, one heard the term ‘brain drain’ very frequently. My own brother, from IIT Kanpur went to the US, and said he would never succumb to it, and would come back. Because he came back due to a family tragedy and never ever mentions it, we will not know if he would have stuck to his plans.

Suddenly, a few years back, we also got to hear about reverse brain drain, when the GDP in India led NRI’s to contemplate returning to India. The 21st century was supposed to belong to India. It almost did, until things went pear-shaped. It’s too early to say if things will change with the new government but we are keeping all our digits crossed.

This is not a value judgment on people who have decided to stay in foreign countries. More power to them and I can completely understand their viewpoint and even appreciate it. The world is a village and I have no patriotic feelings for India simply because of the accident of being born here.

While in UK, during a Durga Puja celebration in Liverpool, I remember one gentleman, a few years older than my husband in medical school, who was returning that year, was asked by another doctor why he was returning. “Would you be able to adjust to life there?’ Subratada was asked. I was in the queue for some bhog and he was directly behind us. He went several notches in my respectometer when I heard him reply, “I spent 26 years of my life there, and was here for only 7. Why would I have difficulty adjusting there?” When we decided to get back, I had a permanent job there, my husband was a consultant and we could have stayed on, but it was never an option we entertained. Which is not to say that I have never regretted it – there have been several moments when I have felt that my son and his precociousness, which gets interpreted as weirdness mostly, would have flowered very well as a gifted child there. But then I think, if we could go later and learn things there, so can he – he needs to put the effort. And he’d better. Or else.

In the IT world, relocating from one place to another, a country, possibly even a different culture- especially to the children,- is par for the course. So is it with medics, to a large extent. But generally those who do medicine in US do not come back, those in the UK do. Or they make the effort at least. During our last 12-13 years of being here after return, we have seen some friends come back and stay on, some of the unlikeliest of people stay back and say they cant adjust to life here, whatever that means. And then there are some who come back with a lot of promise but several reasons, from the ridiculous to the really serious, prompt them to go back.

It’s a difficult country to come back to. The roads, oh yes, firstly the roads (especially if you come from UK to Calcutta), the health system, the irritation with banks and post offices, the non-existent work ethic in most govt. and even some private places, the fact that 50 miles would take me 50 minutes to reach work there, but here it takes anything between 1-1.15 hours on a good day. The distance – 17 kms. But on the up side you have – immense stimulation, visual, aural, tactile, for your child. My son would stare at the window and nary a person would pass by our house in Cambridge. He came here for a vacation when he was just over a year old, loved it – the heat, the incredible assault to his ears, the fact that he was always being passed around as a toy to hordes of willing relatives and friends, the constant cavalcade of cars down the streets, the incredible pedestal the pedestrian was on all the time,- one show of this thin little imperious hand and the huge buses and taxis would stop. He loved the anarchy. And then we went back to the dreary English winter. One day, when he was all of about 1.5 years, when I drew out the curtains to let the sun in, in those rare winter mornings, he turned his cheeks back towards the room, and shading his eyes with his hands screamed, “Kolkata! Kolkata!”.

But when we did get back, he was the one who adjusted the quickest and the best, while my husband and I tried to grapple with the June heat and the traffic snarls, cursing one man and trying very hard to not curse the other. I hate the heat and loved even those dark, dreary winters filled with sleet and snow and black-ice. I remember that June in 2001, I had said aloud once, ‘please, whoever it is that has any hand in the randomness that is our lives, please always keep me solvent enough to be able to pay the AC bills. I can live without eating much, but the heat just kills me’.  It is still the only really important materialistic expectation I have out of life.  It was the exact kind of snobbish behaviour I had always derided in other ‘foreign-returned’ folks. But the time my son gets to spend with his grandparents, uncles and cousins, the fact that irritated as he gets, he is still is able to get help from my father for his homework; the fact that I don’t know what my parents did with their time when we were not here – their entire lives revolve around us now, for all those and more, I am happy we got back.

So there are some ground rules we have about those who want to come back and remain back…..

  • Taking a sabbatical from your foreign job and coming here to test waters, is never going to work. Bin the idea forthwith. It might be a wise thing to do, true, but definitely not the most honest thing you have ever done. Chances and the lure of lucre, of going back will always make you compare, and when has India won in any comparison like that? So, if you really want to stay back, sell the house, the BMW (you get them here now anyway), – make a clean break. Accept that your (and that is very ambitious) 3000 sq. ft flat will never win in a comparison with the plush huge house with a conservatory (and if you are in the US, with a swimming pool etc to boot) and automatic garage in a cul-de-sac. And that you had it for so long, that’s a part of your life well lived there are other reasons why you came back. Concentrate on those reasons. Trust me, it gets better with each month.
  • Stop comparing your host country with this one. Some things have changed. Most have not. They really are like comparing apples and oranges. Just because there is a burgeoning middle-class and posh malls with Gucci and Versace shops, it does not mean the poor man and his 4 member family who have made their little house underneath a blue plastic shield tied to a tree is any the richer. The disparity is more. And it hurts the man on the street more than it does us. Much more. And that man will come and beg at traffic lights, you can’t wish that away simply because you have come with a 6 figure salaried job and stock options running into millions.
  • Driving is a pleasure in the developed world. Here it is scary. Again, the streets and the traffic are not going to change with the swoosh of a magic wand. Even in highways comparable to the best in the world, you will find a tractor coming straight at you, on your side of the street, because the driver was too doggone lazy to drive up the nearest roundabout or exit and do it the proper way. Deal with it. Things are changing but ever so slowly. If you have the courage, drive yourself. If you are like my husband and myself, and are chicken, don’t drive. This is still a country where most of us can afford to keep a person to drive our car. There are enough irritations in life here anyway – why add one more and/or get an aneurysm and spend the money in hospital bills you think you save by not keeping the driver? If you have to drive, try an automatic car. I don’t know why people in India are generally averse to automatic cars. In the 200 meters distance between my house and my parents’, one needs to change gear about 10 times. I would scream like a wounded banshee within the first 100 mts if I had to ever do that. Why were machines invented, if not to ease our lives? And don’t expect me to believe the ‘superior feeling of control’ you get with a manual car. If you believe that…….well you deserve to drive the manual car. Good luck as you watch 5 years get cut off your lives.
  • Don’t come to India for anyone or anything else but your own interest. Your own here also includes your children but excludes anyone else. Coming back for your elderly parents or any other highfalutin reason will never work in the end, other than making you sound and feel sanctimonious. Because filial love flows downwards, you don’t really love your parents as much as they love you and very soon you will start resenting the reason as well as the fact that you came back, and by association resent them. And while the physical distance to them might have become considerably less, the emotional distance will have grown beyond bridging.
  • Don’t think your child is really getting an education much worse than he/she would in whichever foreign country you lived in. This is one area where I myself have some unease – but one has to weigh the pros and cons and the truth is, if you had managed to go abroad, to study and/or work, your child has so much more chance of doing that, and if interested, the child will manage to do it.

The doubts will continue to besiege you. Never doubt that. Never come back thinking it is going to be a rainbow-filled sky with the pot of gold at the end of it. The rainbow mightn’t be there, and even if it is, the pot of gold might never be what you expected it to be. Be clear about what makes you happy in this country. Here are mine:

  • My parents, in-laws and relatives and close friends. I did not come back for them, but I am glad I have them now that I have come back – they are the support system which makes me willing to open the window at the start of another day. Social life would be the single most important reason I love the fact that I am back.
  • Mangoes – all those years of dying to have ‘lyangra’ mangoes and smelling large Gambian mangoes in superstores and keeping them away because they smelt of nothing, are gone. Apparently now they are doing better in terms of procuring mangoes from here, but then there will be EU diktats like this year’s and such things to stop the absolutely wonderful mangoes to reach your mouth.
  • Not having to answer questions as to whether I eat pork or beef and because I do, then having to explain why I do. My reasons around meat-eating are fairly simple (and vegetarians/vegans, you can take your eyes right to the next point) – have the largest animal possible – that way, with just one life lost, you get a lot of meat. I am kind that way. Also, if god wanted me to be vegetarian, why did I spend my blighted childhood reading about the 32 teeth and their names. Why do we have these pairs called canines? But many people abroad refuse to ascribe pure sense to it. If I hate pork, it must be because I am a closet Muslim. Ditto for Hindus and beef.
  • Being able to be grumpy when I want to – I don’t have to stand/sit as an example of how Indians are really. I remember not finding out where the flush was in a toilet in a hospital. I sat inside mortified that when I got out, people would see me and the dirty toilet and all the stereotypes in their minds about Asians and cleanliness would be vindicated. After an interminably long time, I had to open the door and get out (how long can one stay cooped in a toilet?) and the flush went off. Epiphanic moment.
  • Being able to shout at someone who really angers me and not hesitating to think what others will think. The pleasure of being able to do that, to fight with the taxi-driver and jump off his car just because I know I can, to shout at the person in the till because he is being a moron and has no clue how the supermarkets are supposed to work – is a very liberating experience. You get some grey hair in the process, but that is occupational hazard.

But I think my cousin, who has lived and worked abroad and who lives here with her in-laws, sums it up best (I realize it does not work for most people, but still, it makes a good concluding line). “I am never going to live abroad again. Where on earth will I get food ready-made in front of me when I go to work, and be assured of food when I get back from work, however late it is? Who will take my temperature and give me the right food when I am ill?”.

Yes, that is true. It is no picnic being ill abroad. Being ill here is bad enough, but what is the point of being ill if you cannot have mothers and aunts clucking around you telling you how weak you look and stuffing your face and heart with food and attention?


14 thoughts on “Home and away

  1. If at all high quality of observation and advice based on a keen eye and experience is not the strongest point of this blog it is because of the supremely sublime style of writing of Lali- engaging and irreverent, hard hitting and humorous.

  2. Lolita, this story would have made no real sense to me before our breakfast in Kolkata. Meeting you in person in the center of all that is Kolkata changed me. This essay brings it home. Be grumpy and joyful Lolita. You’ve earned it.

  3. We came back from the US 17 years ago after spending 11 years there. Have never regretted it. Yes. There are things you will miss here and there are things you will miss there. You have to make a decision on which things you don’t mind missing. You are absolutely right. Come back for yourself … not for any other reason. I understand family reasons but that means you care which again is for yourself.

    Nevertheless, I do have patriotic feelings about India and definitely would not term my birth here as an accident!

  4. thats a wonderful article. Loved it and like many I can relate this to myself.. have been toying with an idea of going back to India for good.

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