Monday, May 28, 2012

The Question of Return

Someone remarked about my recurring conversations about returning to India some day: I saw it as an unremarkable everyday conversation of any migrant's life. Identities are indeed transient, but home isn't. I may adopt a certain lifestyle and work in a certain way, but having spent the first thirty years of my life uninterrupted in one city, it would not be easy to make some other place my home. This is what it really is: As long as I live elsewhere, I see this as a life out of a suitcase. I am not tired yet, and I see my identity as a traveller, but I am not resting till I finally return home.

It is usually a recurrent conversation every morning, when I shall meet other expats on my regular compartment on the 833 to London Bridge and talk about nuances of going back to India: Our realities may be different, but the desires are similar. There is nothing new to talk about - the conversations follow a similar arc, the tremendous opportunity, the stifling corruption, the lack of freedom to live as you wish, and finally the very personal desires to be loyal sons and daughters to our ageing parents. There are things we don't mention, though: We know that in our adapted country, we must live in our place, a specific role, being a cog in the economic wheel, to be useful. It is a deal we do not mind; in fact, we have chosen it ourselves. However, there are moments during the train journeys when we wish to be human, when sentiments such as being ourselves matter more than what we can do or have.

It is easier to talk about the opportunity in India. Despite the difficulties of life - one can not take anything for granted - there are people and there is demand. On both counts, Western economies look quite dead now. I am setting up an education company which is dependent on demand from Asia. My friends are in IT, full of ideas how things could be done more efficiently in companies they have seen or worked for previously. All of us would like to believe that India is a rising power and be the place to be in ten years time. We eagerly quote every newspaper report, every facebook mention that support this assertion. In summary, we want to believe in the tremendous possibilities that a return will present to all of us.

Among the believers, challenges shouldn't matter, but we all know that while we talk about return endlessly, we don't end up doing it. Moreover, we complain about the life in India every time we go there. We talk about the corruption and the fact that one can't depend on day to day institutions, police, medics, schools, of middle class life. We all enjoy the fruits of capitalism but seem to resent the jungle variety that modern India seems to represent. We wonder how much freedom and opportunity India really presents to an individual entrepreneur, as it earns its name as a tycoon economy. We find it handy that the current Indian government is corrupt and inefficient: It only allows us to linger the discussion and find justification for our fears.

However, in the end, it is neither the opportunities nor the challenges that matter. Hand on heart, we know that we have become aliens, used to a different mode of life. It is not India that we have escaped, but all the trappings of our social position. It is ironic that we have traded the monotony of being what we were born to be for the limited economic usefulness in our adapted country. Our expectation of return isn't pure, but we expect a somewhat red carpet homecoming, where we are handed out plum jobs and fantastic salaries because we happened to live abroad. This is the classic puzzle that stand at the heart of our problem: India is exciting because of its demand, and this demand, typically, comes from inner India, the towns such as Ambala and Anand, and the villages surrounding them. We believe that our unique experiences in Zurich, New York and London give us a special gift to be able to make the best out of these opportunities, better than people who lived all their lives in those towns. There is some truth in this, but we also know this is arrogant, particularly as we expect to be paid three times as much as the man from Anand or Ambala. This, more than any other reason, come in the way of return.

But there is an easier way. We are migrants, that variety of footloose people who can make a living out of nothing. We came with no expectations and we have settled and succeeded in different countries; if we failed, we decamped and moved on to a place where things worked for us. This is a gift, the ability to start afresh, to work hard and to make the best of limited opportunities presented to us. When the conversation stops, and we return to our lonely, warring selves, we know returning to India will be exactly as we have done before: Going and settling in a new place. It would require exactly the same amount of effort, may be more. It will mean starting from scratch. It would mean the same hard work and knowing the ways of life, yet again. It would mean winning a space to live, inch by inch, minute by minute. It will mean taking all the unpleasantness, as India is an inward-looking civilisation with a deep suspicion of people who left once, but making it work again. Our greatest advantage will not be that we are Indians, but that we are migrants, conversant with the terms such as settling and making do.

Returning, then, is actually embarking on a new journey. The idea becomes easier, in a way, then. As migrants, we fear the past, but we make new beginnings, almost habitually, every day.

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"Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs even though checkered by failure, than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much because they live in the grey twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat."

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Will be to arrive where we started
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