With some 16 million Indians living outside the country in 2015, India has the world’s largest diaspora population. From better infrastructure, facilities and standard of living in some countries, to finer career prospects and financial stability in others, the reasons why Indians move to foreign nations are numerous.
And the number of those who consciously choose to return are, understandably, very few.
In 2011, Venkatesh Panchapkesan took a year’s sabbatical from work and moved back with his family to India, after having lived in the United States for nearly two decades. The finance professor at IIM-Bangalore wanted to give his two children, both of whom were born and raised in America, “a chance of growing up in India”, since he felt they were getting “disconnected” from their extended family in India.
Their move at the time however was just an experimental one. The family would fly back to Connecticut if they, especially the children, faced any major issues like health and adjustment related ones. “We were not sure what was going to happen. So, we had one leg in America and the other here,” he says, adding that they were ready to leave if anything went wrong.
“It was a very soft landing” for them, courtesy the research they had done beforehand. “The research helped us avoid mistakes that I had seen other people make,” he says. Instead of moving to Chennai, where Venkatesh hails from, they relocated to cosmopolitan Bengaluru which boasts of pleasant weather round the year. The children were put in an international school, keeping in mind the language gap and their interests.
The boys weren’t very eager initially about their parent’s decision to move, though. “My younger son had more adjustment issues, like cleanliness and traffic. He felt it more intensely and took two years to get out of it,” says Venkatesh.
Venkatesh Panchapkesan with his family in the US
However, what Venkatesh found most challenging was the absence of a proper “system” in place for how things are done around here. This despite him and his wife living in the same system for almost 20 years before they shifted abroad. Everything is, what Venkatesh calls, very “people-based”. “You don’t have to be nice and soothe people’s egos to get things done in the US like here.”
With time, they have managed to work around issues: “It was tempting to just go back. The credit goes to my wife who was persistent.”
“Professionally, though, it was a bad move. I was at the prime of my earning potential. The kids would have got better education there. Health-wise too, we are definitely worse off here,” he adds.
But once the dust settled, it became clear that their stay could be a lasting one. Venkatesh’s parents moved from Chennai to India’s Silicon Valley, where most of their relatives also live. Festivals and family gatherings are now a big, fun affair with Venkatesh’s sons getting along with their cousins.
While they lived a “perfectly manicured suburban life” in an upscale white neighbourhood in the US, they felt they could never integrate completely. Venkatesh, who is hitting 50, used to imagine what life would be like for them in another 20 years. “A lot of older Indians there feel the same but cannot move because it is more difficult to adjust as one grows older. Some are also happy in their cocoons. We moved at the right age.”
It has been close to two years since Govind Nandakumar (38), a gastrointestinal surgeon, and his wife Pallavi Patri, a nephrologist, shifted base from the affluent neighbourhood of the Upper East Side of Manhattan to Bengaluru. Govind, who is from Bengaluru, left for the US when he was 18. It was in medical school in New York that he met Pallavi, who was born in Mumbai, but had spent most of her formative years in Hong Kong and later moved to the US.
The couple got married in 2005 and in February 2015, they made the life-altering decision to shift.
“I feel less torn between my work and kids now,” Pallavi says. However, it was “culture shock” for her at the start. Her husband, she says, “had this burning desire to move back”. But Govind also saw it as a good career opportunity. “The healthcare industry in the US is very mature whereas in India it is still growing and there are more opportunities here,” he explains.
Even though both loved their work in America, life became all the more strenuous after the couple’s two kids were born. “I had one nanny. My life practically depended on her,” Pallavi says. Now they have more family members around and most importantly, more time on their hands. “I have more time to spend time with the kids. More time to do things for myself. Like occasionally, I get a haircut or get my nails painted,” she laughs.
Pallavi Patri and Govind Nandakumar with their kids.
While their children are much younger when compared to Venkatesh’s, the concerns about adjustment have been the same. Govind and Pallavi’s older son, who used to study in a co-ed school in NY City, was put in an all-boys school in Bengaluru. “He was shocked on his first day to school. He came to me and said ‘there aren’t any girls in my class!’ He had issues settling in,” she says.
He has now picked up local languages and can “slip into an Indian accent back and forth”.
For Pallavi, who speaks English, relatively fluent Tamil and Telugu and a “spattering” of Spanish and French, speaking Kannada has been a problem. “Communicating with patients is difficult. I do get by, but it is not easy.”
Talking about the difference in work cultures, she says that while in the US no one bats an eyelid or is concerned about the ability of a medical practitioner based on their age or gender, in India, respect is generally reserved for older male doctors and some can be very dismissive of younger ones.
Then there are the usual issues like traffic, poor condition of roads and overall safety which makes getting around difficult. They miss the walks down the streets and parks or even driving to places whenever they wished to.
“Bangalore has changed considerably since I left. But I have learned to adapt,” says Govind. While both miss their life in New York, Govind says “it is harsh to compare” Bengaluru to the former.
Pallavi too is beginning to feel more settled in. “We have given ourselves 2-4 years to take a final decision. We have a little bit more time on our hands here,” Govind says.
In the nearly one year since Aakanksha Sadekar relocated from Aberdeen in Scotland to Mumbai, she has founded two start-ups, including a failed one.
But she is quite content with her decision to move to the country she was born in from one where she grew up and practically spent most of her life.
She was eight when her family moved to the UK and 20 years later, in November 2015, she quit her job as a petroleum engineer and left for India to “pursue her entrepreneurial dream”. “I am finally doing what I want to,” she says.
Growing up, she always had a feeling that India was supposed to be her “home”. And yet, the image she grew up with of the country, was starkly different in reality. “It is in a different limbo. It is neither completely Indian, nor is it completely western. It fails to strike a chord with me,” she says.
From the way things are done here, to the work culture and the “maturity” of the society, she notices these contrasts in her everyday life. “I had a sort of romanticism in my head.”
There are a few things she misses about Aberdeen. “I miss the Marie biscuits in the UK. They taste very different from the ones in India,” she laughs. “I miss the whole city I grew up in.” Including her friends. Aakanksha had a pretty active social life in Scotland and as someone in her late twenties, making new friends has been a challenge. “I have two friends here,” she says.
Despite the initial hiccups, Aakanksha has no qualms about her decision and says things are working out “pretty well” for her. “I would prefer to stay here.”