I am, what they call, a US Return. After more than a decade 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 was given 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? Wasn’t it a normal, successful and happy life in the United States?
Yes, but on paper.
I had a job: I worked for Google, consistently rated #1 company to work for. I had status: active in the Indian Googler network, organizing events for thousands of Indian Googlers. I had a life: living in the city of San Francisco, paying drops of blood for a 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 girl friends I could run to for dinner, party or a good chat. I had health: I visited the celebrity 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 a 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 waters, watch the eyeful 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 center, or take a bustling train to any part of the city.
But the life soon got exhausting. My high rent meant that I had to save money on other things. Saving money led to tiring decisions like walking to places instead of taking taxi, cooking my own food instead of ordering in ($16 for a masala dosa!), slogging over house cleaning on my own after 4 hrs 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 3 hour commute. I would return home at 8:30 pm from a tiring bus ride from office, only to spend 45 minutes to wash the stained vessels dumped in the sink.
The pleasant work of Writing, Photography, the will-power consuming work of Exercise, and the unwanted children of Cleaning, Cooking, Organizing, Folding, seemed to fill up every open space of 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, a company through which you could hire house help. 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 3 years in the city of San Francsico, I slowly and surely, got obsessed. I wanted to help India, like how you’d want to help a malnutritioned child in Africa– but its 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 NRI’s to volunteer in India. I created a proposal called ‘Dharti’, tried for a tie up with an IIT, tried to get an impact fund sponsorship. Nothing went though.
It was not meant to be.
4th Dec 2015. I was adjusting my sari. I was at my cousin’s wedding in Indore and my 8 yr old nephew looked at me and suddenly asked.
“Aye why you stay in America?”
“I … because… I…” the answer didn’t snap 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 myself –“Really? Job is the reason to stay in America?”. The answer didn’t feel real or reason enough to give an innocent 8 year old.
That moment, a seed was planted. By my nephew. What is the real reason I live in the US and not India? I questioned myself.
3 months later, It was getting progressively and 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 the hold around my 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, VC’s!
I parked the idea aside, unconvinced. And moved along another month.
Life has its own way of convincing. After long stares into the beautiful bus view to office, 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. The weekend chores were looming on me 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, but 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.