Shikha Bhatnagar moved to India in 2008 with the intention of making it home for at least two years. Armed with years of experience in the development world, including internships with NGOs in India, she was excited about the future. She accepted a job running the Pune operations of an education organisation. That’s when her India dream started to unravel. The rampant unprofessionalism and nepotism at the workplace quickly got to her. An American woman raised to speak her mind, Shikha found that her Indian colleagues did not appreciate her bluntness or her opinions.
The “yes people” in the office were promoted while she was sidelined. “It verged on workplace bullying in some respects, especially for those of us who spoke out the most,” she says. “It was frustrating being there.” Within eight months, she had chucked up her job and was plotting her return to America. “India wasn’t new for me, I knew some of the challenges of working in that environment,” says Shikha, who is now associate director of the South Asia Center at the Atlantic Council in Washington. “What was very frustrating was the complete lack of professionalism.”
Shikha isn’t in a club of one. Many Indian Americans who packed their bags and headed east to pursue their Indian dreams are returning back to the US frustrated by their experiences. The reasons are many, varying between a combination of a slowing Indian economy, an unprofessional work environment, exasperating bureaucracy, the all-pervading pollution, chaotic traffic and the astronomical cost of living.
Interestingly, most of them were also not strangers to the land of their parents and grandparents. Some even grew up in India, while others are tied to it by familial bonds strengthened over the course of regular visits during school and college vacations. But once in India, they all quickly realised that the nostalgia of past experiences seldom withstands the harsh realities brought to the fore by an extended stay.
Rajesh Kumar (not his real name) moved to Mumbai in 2007 as the CIO of a family-owned business. “We thought moving to India would be a good cultural experience for the kids,” he says. After two decades in the US, he had decided it was time to take the plunge. But in Mumbai, he found himself a stranger in the city he had grown up in. The astronomical apartment rents alarmed him. The beach, used by locals as a toilet, disgusted him. And the two-hour commute to work exhausted him. “We thought we were getting a good allowance, but the cost of living in Mumbai is out of this world,” he says.
India’s economy continues to grow at a pace that dwarfs the rates of the US economy, but signs of a slowdown and high rates of inflation are deterring those thinking about making India home. “The rupee has depreciated considerably and foreign investors are not going to invest. It’s a grim picture,” says an Indian American banker who recently returned to the US after a brief stint in India.
The absence of an appropriate work-life balance, unreliable domestic helps and non-existent day-care facilities for toddlers are other irritants often cited by those returning from India. Children’s education, too, is an important factor in the decision to return to the US.
As general manager for Tata Services in Mumbai, Kapil Sharma had the perfect job. Eventually, school admission for his son was one of the reasons he decided to pack up and leave the city to which he and his family moved in 2008. “We were not sure if we could afford the top schools in Mumbai for our children—such as the American School,” says Kapil. In 2010, he and his young family returned to Washington where he currently serves as senior general manager for Tata Sons (North America). As an American living in India, Kapil found the double taxation—being taxed by the US and Indian authorities—cumbersome and stressful. He had to hire both US-based and India-based accountants to file his family’s taxes.
The phenomenon of Indian Americans returning to India is not a new one. Daniel Sumit Ghosal, vice-president with Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi in New York, moved to India in 1996 after his then wife was offered a job in Delhi. He returned to the US three years later. “I couldn’t fit into the work culture in Delhi,” Sumit admits. Delhi, he declares, is a horrible place to work and live. “Everyone is trying to hoodwink one another, and I got tired of bribing people just to get a simple paper pushed.”
Those who stay on in India often have the luxury of extravagant mnc salaries-and-benefits packages. They are also shielded from some of the daily irritants faced by those in less fortunate circumstances. Others remain in India for emotional reasons. “For many people who move back, family is a big factor,” says Rajesh. “To them, these daily frustrations may not matter as much.” In 2010, Ankur Jain, a resident of Hoboken, New Jersey, took a sabbatical from his job as a management consultant to test the waters in Delhi, where his family lives. Two months later, he too was back in the US, disappointed by the lack of appropriate job opportunities. “Those two months made me more realistic,” says Ankur. He did not give up on his India dream and is once again packing his bags to take up a job at a consulting firm in Mumbai. “Settling back in India will not happen like the flip of a switch,” he says. “Once you get used to the work culture in the US, India is very difficult.”
Similarly, Raghu Mamadgi, a Boston-based software developer who came to the US in 2002 to do his masters, returned to Hyderabad in ’08 so that he could be near his parents. He was back in the US by 2011. Mamadgi has mixed feelings about India. “You are a citizen there and don’t have to deal with all the visa paperwork. That’s a huge advantage,” he admits. On the other hand, he was struck by how expensive India had become. “I am so happy here because I feel everything is cheap in America,” he says with a laugh. “I live a more comfortable life now compared to life in India.”