I am what they call a “US Return.” After more than a decade of living in the United States, I moved back to India for good.
When I announced I was moving back to India permanently, some of the responses I received were:
* “Are you SURE?”
* “Let’s see how long you last.”
* “I am happy to see you walk the talk.”
* “OMG OMG OMG OMG OMG.”
* And the insipid ”Ok cool.”
But why did I move back? Didn’t I have a normal, successful, and happy life in the United States?
Yes, but on paper.
I had a job: I worked for Google, consistently rated the #1 company to work for. I had status: active in the Indian Googler network, organising events for thousands of Indian Googlers. I had a life: living in the city of San Francisco, paying drops of blood for rent to live a more happening life away from the suburbs. I had comfort: I took a leather-seated, wifi-enabled luxury bus to work. I had social circles: platefuls of friends, acquaintances, and girlfriends I could run to for dinner, a party or a good chat. And I had health: I visited the famous Barry’s Bootcamp, I was fit, and had access to the best of San Francisco food experiences.
But I was unhappy.
How much can you hang out with friends? You still sleep alone. My life in Sunnyvale, the suburbs of America, revolved around lunch and dinners with friends in Indian restaurants—Chaat Paradise, Chaat Cafe, Chaat House. I got sick of it. I was too dependent on my friends for happiness that was evasive. I wasn’t exactly happy when I was with people, but always sad and empty when I was alone. Soon, with age, friends started falling off the grid after they got married. Does marriage bring happiness in America? I don’t know. I’d ask, but no one will tell the truth.
“Hate something? Change something” became my philosophy. So I moved out of the suburbs. Moving to the dense city of San Francisco changed that feeling of sickness. There was a lot I could do on my own. Life was better. I could run on the beautiful Embarcadero Road next to the bay, watch the twinkling lights of the Bay Bridge, and eat real Mexican food. I no longer spent my life in a car, and could walk to the shopping centre, or take a bustling train to any part of the city.
But that life soon got exhausting. The high rent I paid meant that I had to save money on other things. Saving money resulted in decisions that led to tiring activities like walking up to places instead of taking a taxi, cooking my own food instead of ordering in ($16 for a masala dosa!), slogging over house cleaning on my own after four hours of food photography and the mess that it necessarily created to achieve the creative outcome. If money could solve that problem, it couldn’t have solved my three-hour commute. I would return home at 8:30pm from a tiring bus ride from office, only to spend 45 minutes washing the stained vessels dumped in the sink.
The pleasant work of writing and photography, the will power-consuming work of exercise, and the unwanted children of cleaning, cooking, organising, and folding, seemed to eat into all the free time I had. And then, exhausted, I filled up the rest of my time with the brainless task of resting with Netflix.
I couldn’t keep up.
I hired a helper from Taskrabbit.com. At $25 per hour, I got a girl who could help me fold my laundry, clean the kitchen, and basically do everything I couldn’t do alone– miraculously, I was up and about and enthusiastic to work when she’d visit.
The relief was short-lived. I could not afford to hire help and I woke up every morning with an emptiness in my heart. I woke up wondering what my purpose in the US was. I woke up missing India. Over three years in the city of San Fransico, I slowly and surely became obsessed. I wanted to help India, like how you’d want to help a malnutritioned child in Africa—but it’s all in the head. Thought, in this case, doesn’t count. I worked hard for the Indian Google Network, my only easy outlet. I thought of a program to make it easier for non-resident Indians to volunteer in India. I created a proposal called Dharti, tried for a tie up with an Indian Institute of Technology, tried to get an impact fund sponsorship. Nothing went though.
It was not meant to be.
Dec. 04, 2015, I was adjusting my sari. I was at my cousin’s wedding in Indore and my eight-year-old nephew looked at me and suddenly asked, “Aye why you stay in America?”
“I …because…I…” the answer didn’t come out, surprisingly. I tried again. “…Because my job is good.”
“Because my job is good?” An echo in my head added a question mark to my answer. It was my subconscious asking me, “Really? A job is the reason to stay in America?” The answer didn’t feel real, or reason enough for an innocent eight-year-old.
That moment, a seed was planted. What is the real reason I live in the US and not India? I questioned myself.
Three months later, it was getting exponentially difficult to manage my apartment. I knew I wanted to pursue food photography and writing but it just wasn’t scaling.
“You must come back to India,” my brother-in-law told me on the phone.
“I’m afraid,” I said, tightening my hold of the phone.
“Why are you afraid?” he asked.
“What if I don’t like it? Silicon Valley has the smartest people!”
“You think there are no good people in India?” he asked firmly.
I went silent.
I set the phone down. I was still afraid. How can I leave this land of opportunity? Can I leave this life? I have a car with a sunroof, I can drive alone at night, I have access to the best people, the place is neat and clean, I am earning in dollars, I can afford an international vacation, the best men are here in Silicon Valley aren’t they—all these founders, engineers, venture capitalists!
I parked the idea aside, unconvinced. And moved along for another month.
But life has its own way of convincing you. After long stares at the beautiful views from the bus window on the way to work, a question soon bubbled up: “What is the one thing you will regret when you’re 50, and settled in Fremont, California, with a minivan and a child with an American accent?”
The answer was always the same: “I will regret that I didn’t go back to India.”
On the night of a weekend in May, I was restless. Chores were looming and I knew I could not keep up. But that night I didn’t want to keep up. I walked to the mirror and looked at the image, the image of a hypocrite. Someone who praises India, misses India, yet stays abroad. I didn’t want to be that hypocrite, rolling in regret every day of my life.
So I made that decision. On my last bus trip from office, I played a song. Aye Mere Pyare Watan from Kabuliwala. You must watch it.