Monday, October 24, 2011

Re-leaving (or relieving) India!

Today, almost first thing in the morning I got an email with just one link (with an implied expectation- have your own opinion :)

Email was from a New York based friend, and link that of a blog post in their city newspaper (with an international reach ;) New York Times. The article was by Sumedh Mungee (lets call him SB for convenience) explaining why he left India-again. This sounds familiar!

Hundreds of involved comments, this sounds familiar too ... reminded me of another India-bashing article which attracted loads of comments (it even had some funny co-incidences in my life).

By late afternoon I got another email with links to Chetan Bhagat's response to the SB's article. Hmm...

Choosing to leave or live in a country is a very individual decision, supported or hindered by multiple intra-personal, interpersonal, as well as social/systemic factors. Though with post-globalisation-fluid-boundaries, a new highly-skilled migratory class has emerged and is swelling everyday.
With respect to India, discussions over brain-drain and songs like 'Chitthi aayi hai...' are old story. Although India related articles often attract heaps of comments from non-resident Indians (NRIs) betraying their continued strong preference/aversion for India, I am choosing not to focus on that group. I don't think it is required or even desirable for every NRI to return back to over-crowded, bursting-at-the-seams, metropolitan cities of India. Even if spread across a map, they can always share the spirit of 'one-world-one-family' (ancient Indian saying - vasudhaiv kutumbakam) beyond any cliched ideas about 'Desh'.
Those who happily return & never regret, are a class apart and I am not even discussing them here.

I'm more intrigued by a small proportion who return back to India with (apparent) hopes of 'till-death-do-us-apart', and then one day suddenly leave - again, with bitter taste in their own mouth, and thus I guess, bad-mouthing India in the popular media. I am tempted to look deeper and analyze further... I can't help it, its a professional habit!
So I will pick only SB's article and try to understand something about others too. I also hope at least one or more person reading this blogpost will think deeply before making similar choices in her/his life. So let us start...

(I don't know if it was sheer creative liberty, or really 'Swadesh' was being played in the flight to India. Truly a very interesting co-incidence due to its underlying contrast).

Motives behind the move

Victor Frankl, a psychotherapist and holocaust survivor would often mention what Friedrich Nietzsche's said, "He who has a Why to live for, can bear almost any How''. 
This 'why' is about having a deep meaning in life. However SB's primary motives were purely functional, a mix of personal preferences and professional reasons. He was going back to 'an India that offered global companies, continental food, international schools and domestic help; an India that offered freedom from outsourcing and George W. Bush'.
So he was clearly looking for an escape from one comfort zone, due to economic and political reasons, and expecting another. He was not looking for something uniquely Indian, there was no acceptance of the Indian reality and certainly there was no commitment to the place. Certainly it was a bad start! (Btw, Acceptance & Commitment Psychotherapy tries to help people deal with inevitable problems in life).

Relationship with India
Since SB has used the metaphor of a 'break-up', I am tempted to use a well known theory applicable to love relationships.

Honeymoon phase: This phase is 'the best', for sprinkling the fairy dust on everything and making it look good, feel good. Our author too had a good start. 'Our move was a success by any metric...'. Career, life style, children's education, all was well.
But the inevitable next phase always comes too soon ...
Reality dawns: This is 'the most important' phase of any relationship. Things which seemed neat, nice and pleasant earlier might shock you now with their ugly shadows. Most people are not ready for this dis-illusionment. Our author too could not digest the reality bite as he says ... 'But then the metaphors started to fade and the daily grind set in'...
Separation: In this phase there are only 3 options, separate, manage the differences, or grow. Separation without some kind of understanding leads to anger, while with it leads to deep sadness.
Much of SB's article indicates this transition from anger to sadness. Being fair to SB, he did try to navigate the local rules 'Within weeks, I had joined the honking swarm driving in Bangalore', but then 'That’s when it started going wrong'... and he 'hated what I was becoming'.

In such times the only real move towards sanity (or peace of mind) is 'serenity to accept what one cannot change, courage to change what one can and wisdom to know this difference'. Clearly serenity of acceptance was lacking from the start, and courage to be the change-agent was not in the agenda.
But it goes to SB's credit that he had wisdom to know the difference... he not only knew what he can change, but also did act upon it. Leave India-Again!

It is more interesting to notice the afterlogue, the reflection process ...
- SB shrugs off any suggestion of betrayal by mentioning he is not even at home in US.
- Indicates some sense of lingering belongingness, because, India hurts more.
- There are traces of guilt, almost like checking-in one's old parents in an old age home, because they have become too inconvenient.
- There is also a shame of letting oneself down 'Everyone in India has to deal with this, but I coped in the worst possible way: by dehumanizing her and other people like her, ever so slightly, ever so subtly — chronic amoebiasis of the soul'
- And an acceptance of something lacking within to contribute to the emerging India 'It’s just that I’ve realized — I’ve resigned myself to the fact — that I won’t be a part of that future'. He is too impatient for the outcome, he can't be bothered about the process of change.

American psychologist Barry Schwartz, in his book paradox of choice (2004) referred to what economist and historian Albert Hirschman wrote in his book 'Exit, Voice, and Loyalty' (1970). Hirschman theorized that when one is unhappy, people have two general classes of responses available- they can exit the situation, or they can protest and give voice to their concerns. In the marketplace, exit is the characteristic response to dissatisfaction and so we exit from restaurant, breakfast cereal, favorite vacation spot etc. 'One of the principal virtues of free-market choice is that it gives people the opportunity to express their displeasure by exit.
However social relations are different. We don’t dismiss lovers, friends, or communities, the way we dismiss restaurants, cereals, or vacation spots. Treating people in this way is unseemly at best and reprehensible at worst. Instead, we usually give voice to our displeasure, hoping to influence our lover, friend, or community. And even when these efforts fail, we feel bound to keep trying. Exit, or abandonment, is the response of last resort'.

In his book Barry Schwartz goes on to give many advices for chronically dissatisfied people (you can watch TED video here). Some of the ways to increase one's happiness applicable in this situation are: don't be a picker, satisfice more, make your decision non-reversible, practice attitude of gratitude, regret less, control expectations, learn to love constraints etc.

The sense of entitlement sans concern/ duty towards 'other', not only plays havoc in relationships, even if it is with one's country of origin or of current living, it also never brings any real happiness to oneself.
So my advice to SB would be, at least now, do not continue being an 'alien' in USA. Be there and belong there, commit yourself to its growth instead of living like an outsider, everywhere, forever.

And let one man's pain be others' gain. Those who nurture 'some day I will return' dream in an ambivalent manner, should remind themselves that living in any country including India has its own demands. Look within to find if there are basic value conflicts, between what you want and what a place has to offer. Then you will not have to grumble in public someday.
Finally, there might be some truth in what J.F. Kennedy said, 'Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country'. Those who had asked this question before landing back in India, usually do not regret that decision. For them it has been mostly a journey of fulfillment!

(Update: I noticed this blog post was featured on NYT, as well as on Mr. Mungee's website and a couple of other places)


  1. There are two India's - no one in their sane mind should want to live in urban India.
    But then who knows how long the real rural India will stay intact under the onslaught of modern progress and development.

  2. There's also a bit of grass is greener on the other side to this. Having a good life in the US often lulls one into thinking more and falling into nostalgia traps, etc. People tend to discount what they have and run after things they don't have.

  3. I agree with you vishal.
    Geographical fluidity, without any sense of committment to any location, without appreciation of any place, critical of every space one inhabits, in the end leaves a person with a vague yearnings for a real 'home'.
    It doesn't make global citizens, as we would like to believe, but 'aliens' (as this author feels even in USA).

  4. couldn't agree more with VS

  5. Jyotsna, I found your observation on "exit" response acquired through a market mentality quite interesting and true. Gone are the old world values of commitment, fortitude and courage. We all want instant gratification. Anyways, this attitude of becoming footloose is what the market promotes and validates. As you rightly observe, social relations cannot and should not follow market dynamics. But sadly, this has happened. The situation seems grim to me. Only a few, shall, if-ever cross over to a saner life based on transformations of the soul

  6. Thanks VS for your comment.
    I agree that living in a developed country like USA lulls you. But I also think that some professions offer more cocooned lives than others. In my University, new students were taken around to the poor neighborhoods so that one knows how it contrasts with the shining US. I myself work in a project with poor parents, so within a year my exposure has been more than what Silicon valley crowd gets in years. It has certainly made me more aware of the complexities of context and culture, instead of painting broad strokes.

  7. Yes Anurag,
    In an age of comfort, the digitally distracted population has very low tolerance levels for anything beyond their own ego. It is a sad story of our times that the basic paradigm went wrong somewhere. And now when it is starting to change at the core, it will take ages to change at the circumference of the society. Although some are hypothesizing that once we really realize this, we will change at a war footing. Let us be optimistic...

  8. Its not unique for Universities to spread awareness in the US. Its more the norm and universities have strong charity and awareness efforts underway all through the year.

    I disagree that the Silicon Valley crowd may not know about the poor in the US. I believe awareness is quite good in the US among the Silicon Valley crowd generally speaking. Now, they may turn a blind eye to it because its not in your face or I'd like to believe that people probably participate passively via donations, etc.

    However, and regardless, I didn't get your point in the context of leaving US.

  9. This is nice analysis. It has echoed to a large extent what I had thought of SB's article. I think this is his personal story without making any generalization about India as such. His own inability to deal with what was reality or displeasure with what he was becoming in order to be there. So lashing out at him for suddenly making India seem bad seemed to be missing the whole point. That there is no point. It is his story.. and I completely understand your point of view for people who have this ambivalent feelings, sense of betrayal (love hate relation if u will) and guilt, the point that you should try to wholeheartedly accept the country you live in else the tearing of yourself will continue.. Bit its tough.. people and so are emotions complex, who am I to tell you this, you know. But I will say this based on my limited understanding.. feeling of longing something you can't really achieve has some romanticism attached to it and may be because of this reason your subconscious cannot let it go perhaps..

  10. BTW just to give context to "what I had thought of SB's article" this is what I tried to comment on that article..
    I understand the author's point of view and while many comments to the article seem to castigate him and suggest that he is making a judgment about India itself I disagree. It seems as if he is making a point about himself and what he had become.
    India is a chaotic country in my view and to be part of it you have to dive in that chaos and embrace that chaos perhaps. Small things like roadside accidents may involve verbal abuse to get to what is fair instead of amicable resolution. Maybe maid not being entirely honest and doing her due diligence and in order get that out you may have to fight with her too. I have seen all these growing up in India. And while I dont dare to generalize this, it holds largely true. You have to be a fighter, you have to stay on top of each other which also generates the ensuing chaos. This turns you into a person, more so in cities, who may be more agitated, always running and hardly seeming to be at peace. Of course this is a crude generalization. We have seen many Indians rise above all this. But it requires work, work from yourself.
    When you have stayed out of India (in US) for long where you get used to more orderly system where you have become less of a fighter for getting everyday things done, you end up liking what you have become. You have become somewhat peaceful.
    And now when you go back and have to become what you saw and were growing up it would suddenly seem harder. And to rise above and not make judgements on your maids, and call everyone a liar (subconsciously that is coz you still think that such is not true) requires a lot of work from yourself because what you see around you makes it harder for you to keep honest and fair perspective.
    So I do relate to the pain the author is going through of seeing himself become someone he perhaps didn't like (categorization of people).

  11. VS,
    I commented about an easy and sometimes cocooned life, in the context of staying / returning to US.

  12. Yes Kimish,
    I do agree India is chaotic, as well as multi-layered. And whether one decides to stretch oneself to 'fit-in', often depends upon what one values in life.

    I had blogged elsewhere about 'India explained' in similar vein. Will try to post here after editing it a bit.

    Happy Diwali!

  13. ok, I don't want to keep posting comments here. However, just had another thought on this easy lifestyle issue. Its actually the opposite - life in India is easier for the upper middle class (which every NRI usually is) because they can hire domestic help, etc. Infrastructure disadvantages don't hurt them as much. It would be indicative to ask an NRI if they would move back if they could not hire domestic help and a driver in India. This sorts out the issue for me in the most basic terms.

  14. VS,
    There can be two kinds of reasons behind a decision-
    * those which makes life easy and removes the irritants/ stressors etc. (money, domestic help, driver, right environment etc)
    * those which basically brings happiness / joy/ delight (love, creativity, freedom, connection, support, encouragement, acknowledgement etc).

    (Organizations play them very well to keep their employees).

    There are people who remain stuck with the factors like security / comfort etc, but for large number of people, their decisions are based on things they value in itself.
    Though that differs individually. (family can feel like a source of support for one and feel too intrusive for another).

    I am also hard pressed for time now, so I will elaborate, if required later.

  15. I liked this blog for its detailed unbiased analysis. It helps to understand my own ambivalence.

  16. Anon,
    I'm glad you are figuring out your ambivalence.
    This is the starting point of wisdom :)

  17. Honey are you a nationalist masquerading as a psychologist? I mean does every contented person living in india feel so strongly about giving back to his/her country, as you have tried to portray by invoking JFK's statement..If that was true then India is full of miserable people who can't force govt(another bunch of unhappy people) pass a bill(lokpal) that can potentially make them happier on everyday basis. SB had a lapse of memory, he forgot what India was like in reality, so he made a mistake checking back the reality, found out he was wrong and corrected the mistake.. What's the big deal about it? This is just a course correction in psychological terms.. Atleast people on other side saw competence and ability in him to give him that choice.. Millions of other fellow indians don't get that kind of choice..They have to spend life in misery caught in indian reality, would spend tons of money to get out even to countries like Dubai, Thailand, Singapore etc..


  18. Anon,
    Pls re-read the last paragraph to understand what is said and what is NOT said there.

  19. eh, me was here. too. caetera desunt.

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