Reality struck like a lightening bolt. I’ve been dreaming of this for 6 years, actively pursuing it for 6 months and negotiating the wording of the contract for over 6 weeks. But the realisation that this is actually happening took a second. When it hit me, I was standing in the compartment of a train speeding through the subterranean depths of the city I have learned to call home. In an instant, my knees went weak, the blood drained from my face and nausea hit my stomach. I staggered off the train at the next stop, and went upstairs to get some fresh air. At dusk, London is at its most beautiful and I was reminded of just how much I love this city.
I came to London in 2003 as a freshly minted MBA. Having previously worked in the rather more exciting world of fashion, my goals were clear – I would save enough money to pay off my student loans and rush back to India on a one-way ticket. Other NRIs have different stories, different goals and different reasons but most have one thing in common – at some level, we all long to buy that one-way ticket. This urge is the strongest when we first leave the country and typically weakens over time. Our excuses to delay the return are varied but predictable – first the need to save a little more money, then the need to pay off the mortgage, then wanting the kids to be born overseas to get foreign passports, waiting for them to go off to college, waiting to get them married, etc. The dream fades with time – but I don’t think it ever dies. My thought process was relatively typical. First pay off the student loans, then save enough to buy some real estate in Chennai, then save some cash for a rainy day. The latest aspiration has been to buy a place in London to spend summer holidays after moving back. First I wanted to have enough to live simply, then to live better, and now to have enough so that I can spend the rest of my life flying around the world First Class and staying at the Four Seasons. If I did miraculously end up saving enough for this, I’m sure I would be 50 years old and suddenly want even more – maybe a private jet would next on the list. I had no shortage of excuses to keep me in vilayat but always proclaimed that we would return to India ‘next year’.
When the news broke that a Director at our office in Mumbai had just quit, I was sitting at my boss’ desk within 30 seconds asking for the job. It was instinctive – I didn’t think about it, didn’t call to ask my wife if it was a good idea and didn’t check real estate prices in Mumbai. I just walked over and demanded the job. That was 6 months ago. Today I signed the contract.
I could not bear the thought of getting back into the Tube. So I started walking – past Buckingham Palace, down Constitution Hill, along Green Park to Hyde Park Corner, down Knighsbridge past Harvey Nichols and then along Kensignton Gardens This walk, my walk home has to one of the most beautiful in the world. The streets are clean, the air is crisp and everything looks like it is straight out of a storybook.
A good friend (also an NRI) suggested that by moving back, I would be turning away from this amazing lifestyle for some romantic notion shared by NRIs that life in videsh will always beat life in vilayat. India is crowded, polluted and cities like Mumbai can be expensive. To enjoy simple things like sitting on the grass and playing with your kids, you need to be a member of some exclusive club like the Bombay Gymkhana or Willingdon. India does not have many parks and the ones we do are filled with beggars, druggies, and frequently used as public toilets.You can hire a driver for £100 a month in India but you only need one because public transport is a joke. Here you get around just fine with a tube pass. In India you will have be able to afford luxuries like a full-time maid but will struggle just as hard as anyone for the basics like electricity that runs 24 hrs a day, potable water, regularly cleaned streets, and orderly law abiding traffic. He urged me to think about what was more important. As a patriot, I got irritated with him for introducing the very notion that there could be a better life for me in Vilayat. But does patriotism necessitate self-delusion ?
As I walk past the exquisite apartment buildings of Rutland Gate and Ennismore Gardens, I cannot help but notice the blue and green circular boards plastered on each building, naming the famous people that lived in them. Almost every single one of these buildings had had someone who shaped history live here. The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea has been home to the rich and famous since the 15th century. There is so much history in this part of the city and it is so exquisitely preserved. This is not my homeland but for now, this is home and I cannot help but feel pride walking through these streets. I also cannot help pondering the notion of ‘home’, which for me a complicated issue – I was raised in Sholinganallur, educated in New York, further schooled in Hyderabad, live in London and travel to some distant destination several times each month for work. I may hail from Chennai but my Tamil is terrible and the auto drivers rip me off just as badly as they would a vella-karran. As a result, home is an imaginary place in my head, which combines the best that the world can offer. For now, I guess the question is – will India be my physical home for the next few years ?
I walk fast Whole Foods, the first European outpost of the American ‘organic-only’ supermarket where I buy my bread, cheese, and the like. Admittedly, its easier to get exotic foods in India than previously but such things are treated like serious luxury and priced accordingly. I was stunned the last time in visited the Taj Connemara when I found them selling bottles of wine that retail in the UK for no more than £5 for over Rs. 4,000 ! Buying Cheese at La Maison de Gourmets in Chennai could hurt your wallet worse than a binge at the Harrods Food Hall. Living the way I do in London will be well beyond my means in India. But in London, I am 10 hrs flying away from a crispy Saravana Bhavan dosai, my daughter is 51/2 timezones away from her grandparents and despite the Union Jack stamped on my passport, the colour of my skin will always make me an outsider. Is it not worth walking away from exceptional bread and reasonably priced Bordeaux for all of this ? Perhaps it just might be…
Things in India are getting better – service on Jet Airways is better than any airline in Europe, Absolute (the restaurant at the Pod in Chennai) would easily take home a Michelin star if it was based in Central London, and the quality of education at Sishya will prepare your child for an Ivy Leage University education. As long as we find the political will to replace wasteful spending with infrastructure development, one day we may even have the ‘simple’ things we get abroad.
I think that I would be making a mistake if I did not give life in India another try – I’m going to give it a shot and see how it goes. Keep reading and I promise to tell you how it turns out !