It is a truth universally acknowledged that at any overseas gathering of non-resident Indians, sooner or later someone in the audience will become wistful enough to insist on rendering that ultimate guilt-tripping ghazal from Pankaj Udhas, ‘Chitti Ayee Hai’.
The ghazal, which encapsulates the longing for home – for watan ki mitti – among those who went overseas in search of fame and fortune, is not without its soulful elements. Yet, nothing can conceivably account for the excessive homesickness and heartburn it induced in an earlier generation of NRIs, even if the rendition was raucously off-key, as they often tended to be. Not even the most favourable dollar-rupee exchange rate could act as balm for the bruised soul of the pardesi or offer a satisfactory exculpatory explanation to themselves of why they were in an alien land so far from 'home' and their loved ones.
Over time, however, the guilt may have eased somewhat, owing largely to communication technology that has abridged the world. But it has given way to two other kindred sentiments that also have much the same capacity to propel the NRI back like a homing pigeon.
One was the notion, reinforced by watching the 2004 film Swades, that it was perhaps time for the Prodigal Sons who had left home and made good to return and "give something back" to the country that had given them so much. Call it the channelling of the JFK sentiment for the new millennium.
The second was the narrative, particularly after the successive bursting of the dot-com and the real-estate bubbles in the US, and the drag-down effect on developed economies, that a resurgent India is where the opportunities of the future lay. That narrative was fed by, among others, columnists like Tom Friedman, whose hyperbolic accounts of flat worlds and limitless opportunities in India rang true for a while – and persuaded more NRIs to book one-way tickets back to India than you could shake a stick at.
And on Sunday, Finance Minister P Chidambaram gave voice to much the same two sentiments when he urged students, at the inaugural of the ISB campus in Mohali, to return to India after making the most of career opportunities abroad.
It was completely natural and a legitimate aspiration for students to want to migrate abroad, Chidambaram said. And talented Indians did have a world of opportunities to tap into, he acknowledged. "Seize these opportunities… spend a few years," he counselled.
But—and you knew there was a 'but' coming - "please remember that there is no other place in the world which can challenge you like India", Chidambaram said. Where else, but in India, was there the opportunity to add 100,000 MW of power, construct thousands of kilometres of roads, bring drinking water and sanitation to over 700 million people, he wondered.
"The greatest challenge," he posited, "is to build India." At some stage, therefore, NRIs should return and help build India.
From all accounts, Chidambaram’s is an earnest appeal and is well-meant. And there are inspirational accounts of NRIs returning to tap into the new opportunities available opening up in India, and also find a satisfactory work-life balance closer to their parents. In some cases, as with this blogger’s family, the sense that the return home has been good is built on the foundation that they have a back-up plan in place: a US passport secure in the closet.
But Chidambaram is also wholly insensitive to the lived experience of countless other ordinary folks who returned in recent years, their eyes gleaming at the prospect of "new-age opportunities" or even just wanting to contribute to India in the way that he suggests. RNRIs (returning NRIs) get a bad rap when they get squeamish about six-hour power cuts or the impossibility of securing drinking water on tap or of the hell world of uncleared garbage mounds and dengue infestation in our cities. But it isn’t just NRIs who are—or ought to be—demanding the most rudimentary civic amenities from their governments.
And on these counts, governments across the political spectrum in India have wholly abdicated their responsibilities.
Which is why many of those who return from overseas with every good intention of staying on in India end up using their insurance policy – and return to the comforting monotony of everyday life in more developed economies.
Last year, one NRI whipped up a storm with his account in the New York Times of how he returned to India after staying in the US for 11 years, but was persuaded to return.
“Our move (from the US to Bangalore) was a success by any metric,” wrote Sumedh Mungee. "My wife and I are software professionals, and our careers flourished at an Indian rate of growth... Our daughter attended a preschool in Bangalore whose quality matched any in the Bay Area. Our three-bedroom flat in Defence Colony, Indiranagar, was so comfortable and so American-friendly that my friends called it the Green Zone."
And yet, he wrote, "Two years and nine months after our move to India, on one of our regular evening jogs along our impossibly leafy street, my wife and I found ourselves discussing not whether we should return to the U.S., but when." And a month later, he said, they were back in California.
A series of lived experiences accounted for Mungee’s family’s reason for giving up on India (you can read about them here), but in the main they relate to the unending and pointless challenges of daily living and the effect it was beginning to have on his outlook on the world and on his interactions with those who others in his ethnosphere.
Much of this has to do with the governments’ abdication of their responsibilities, but it also a function of how for all the noise and fury that characterizes everyday living, we have as a society become undemanding of even the most basic amenities. It also finds expression in the inspirational spin that we put on accounts (here) of how an IAS officer marshalled the community in the north-east to build their own road rather depending on the government.
It is this reality that Chidambaram is blind to when he, with the noblest of intentions, enjoins NRIs to return. As a Minister who is on top of the political heap, he can make the system bend to his will: he is also immune to the daily frustrations of power cuts and dengue infestations and petty corruption that ordinary folks have to live through.
For all the earnestness of Chidambaram’s appeal, it is considerations like those that will eventually influence NRIs’ decisions not to return. Far more compelling than Chidambaram’s invitation are Mungee’s words as he recalls his decision to leave India for a second time.
“When I first left India in 1996, I left for the US,” Mungee wrote. “When I left India in 2009, I left India.”
India’s tragedy today is that that sentiment is so easy to understand. No amount of guilt-tripping can tether them by their umbilical cords to the motherland...