The Return of the Native

In the 90s, the popular refrain in India was “Brain Drain” – educated Indians were leaving the country in droves to greener pastures, to use a cliché. The world has changed drastically since then. India is no longer a leper among nations. Now, we are experiencing brain gain – with many talented foreigners wanting to live and work in India, at least for a short period of time.

We ourselves left India for the USA in early 1996 and returned 10 years later. Many of our friends have returned since then and some of them have managed to actually stay back 🙂 Jan 5, 2013 marks the beginning of the 8th year in India for yours truly.

Countless NRIs have asked us how we took the decision to come back to India for good. Many more have sought our counsel on whether returning to India was “worth it”, whatever that means. So we thought we’ll write a post on WHAT NOT TO DO if you want to move back to India from a 1st world country.

1. Keep your house and car; move other possessions to a storage facility in the developed nation.

If you’re serious about the move, make a clean break. Meaning: sell the damn house & car. Donate the rest of the stuff to charity. If you don’t, in your mind, “Home” will always be the spacious, 2-garage house with a lawn in New Hampshire or Minnesota. It will never be the 3 BHK flat in Chennai, Pune or Hyderabad.

2. One of the spouses continues to work in the 1st world country, while the other returns to India with the kids.

Adjusting to a life in India is tough. Your children may have loved India as a vacation spot, when they were pampered silly by their grandparents. This doesn’t mean they’ll love shifting lock, stock & barrel to a 3rd world nation. You have to constantly field questions from your children:

  • Mom! Why are the roads so dirty?
  • Yuck! I can’t believe that guy peed on the road!
  • Dad! The restrooms in this restaurant stink!
  • But I want to play baseball, not cricket!

Don’t make your return back to India even more difficult by attempting single parenthood.

3. Moving to India without a solid job offer.

Despite all the changes in corporate India in the past 25 years, Indian offices are still old fashioned in comparison. Bosses may still be hierarchical; leaving the office at 6 PM may be equated with slacking; directness will be (not maybe) mistaken for rudeness; your co-workers may not know what professionalism means; peers may argue that piracy is “reuse” & not a crime – we can go on & on.

This makes it all the more important for you to find an organization & a boss that you like working for – before the move. If you have these 2 big things taken care of, you may see the other problems as mere irritants.

4. Evaluate forever the pros and cons of living in India versus the 1st world country; often at the level of minutiae such as how bathrooms in India don’t stock your favorite brand of soft toilet paper.  

We often hear these (& a lot more) from NRI acquaintances:

  • Driving in Europe/North America is a pleasure! Its downright scary in Indian cities!
  • There isn’t a single clean place where I can take the family for a picnic!
  • Why are Indian airports/railway stations so dirty and dismal? Have you seen the trains in Switzerland?

Comparing a 3rd world country – “Developing nation”, if you prefer euphemisms – with a 1st world nation is not an apples-to-apples comparison. But, what are your priorities in life? If driving long distances on pristine roads on weekdays and picnicking all weekend long is your definition of life – you probably should stay put in a 1st world country.

Understand what matters the most to you. If you still think a bleak & smelly airport will ruin your life, see the airports in Hyderabad and Bengaluru (to name a few). India is changing, albeit slowly.

Above all, don’t use dated information to analyze India’s relative merits/demerits. India today isn’t the India you left 15 or 20 years back. We die laughing when we hear these from NRIs:

  • I get a global perspective only when I live in North America.
  • But, there are no restaurants serving international cuisine in India! And I’m a foodie!
  • If I move to India, I can bring my children up with proper Indian culture. You know, no dating or drugs.

5. Trying to move to India without a clear reason for the move. In other words, telling yourself “Let’s try out India, if it works we’ll stay there. If not we will return”.

If you are well settled & happy in the 1st world nation, why the hell are you contemplating a move? Moving to India is not a universal panacea; its not something you have to do. Move if and only if there’s a compelling reason – such as career growth, taking care of aged parents etc. India can’t compete with the infrastructure or the outward charms that a 1st world nation offers. So, if you take India out for a test drive, you will return post-haste to Manchester, Boston or Zurich in 1 year. Guaranteed.

6. Analysis Paralysis on whether to take the citizenship of the 1st world country.

We honestly don’t know why someone would become a citizen of another country if they want to return to India.

  • But I want my child to go to college in the US! (You can’t run your child’s life)
  • What if India becomes unlivable? I can’t stand in a serpentine queue before the US/UK embassy to get a visa! (There’s a new kid on the block in India called “VFS” – Google it)
  • What if I’m not permitted to enter that 1st world country again? (There are 200 countries in the world – pick another one)

The world’s changing at a fast clip & no one has a crystal ball to forecast beyond the next 2-3 years. If you want to get the other nation’s citizenship, go ahead – but don’t try to predict what will happen in the next 20 years.

7. Obsess about your child’s education and extra curricular activities.

Moving to India doesn’t mean your child will endure the same ultra-competitive, pressure-cooker environment as you did, eons back. There are schools now that don’t focus solely on academics, provide a personalized learning environment and have healthy teacher-student ratios. You have to talk to the locals to find them.

  • But I want my kid to play the piano – Western classical! (Yup, you can do that in major metros in India)
  • My daughter learns the ballet! (We’re pretty sure this is feasible in India; if not – would it kill you if your kid learnt Kathak or Odissi?)

8. Mistaking the initial culture shock in the 1st 6 months as what you would feel several years later.

  • I’m used to being independent! In India, I have to rely on a driver, a maid, a cook and a baby-sitter!
  • I can’t handle all the dust and squalor.
  • Why are Indian politicians so corrupt? (Hmm, join the club)

If you want to live in India – be determined to stay here no matter what. Enjoy the pleasures and charms of the country which are many. Focus on what you can do here instead of focusing on what you cannot do here. Yes, there are difficulties. But India is not unlivable like Sudan, Congo or Somalia. Try to explore regional cuisines, travel within India. Get exposed to music, dance and other art forms of this diverse nation. Get infected by the enthusiasm of the Indian youth. Above all, try to do your bit for the society. God knows the downtrodden in India need a lot of support: and every little bit helps.

Please feel free to share this with your NRI friends who are planning to return to India. Don’t blame us if they say their situation is unique and we don’t understand them at all 😉

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  1. Quote
    Ramesh Ramaswamy said December 30, 2012, 6:21 pm:

    Wonderful! Very useful tips for us right now 🙂

  2. Quote
    Dinesh Venkateswaran said December 30, 2012, 6:41 pm:

    Super post. Thanks

  3. Quote
    Rama Sudheer (subscribed) said December 30, 2012, 7:35 pm:

    Excellent Post Priya :).
    I will share this to all my friends who are planning for a comeback.

  4. Quote
    Arvind Chandran said December 30, 2012, 8:36 pm:

    Very nice post, Priya! That’s a great list of things to consider….

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    Nice post Priya. The other thing that I keep hearing is that India is expensive. Not sure what is the basis of this conclusion? According to me India is still affordable.

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    Great post to close the year Priya. I am sure you will be asked this question zillion times. Matter of fact, that is what I would have asked myself if I contemplate a move.

  7. Quote

    Excellent post. Liked your first reco. Sell every damn thing if you want to move. I took a call in 2002 and never looked back. I also lived for a short period in Sudan on an assignment. Not with my family though 🙂 i had my project manager living with his family and kid. Even there if you live in the capital and in a good locality, things are fine.

  8. Quote
    Ajit Minhas said December 31, 2012, 2:03 am:

    Great post Priya…totally agree that considering the impacts one should not take the ride back home mere as an experiment if folks and their respective families are not prepared for it. If one is into it, it should be with one’s heart, mind and soul to make this as a worthwhile experience.

    Hope all else is great at your end and you guys are having good time out there!

  9. Quote

    Take away is “Understaning what matters the most to you”. But, most of the NRIs trying get answer for this question and already would have spent 10+ years. At that time, they say it is too late..

  10. Quote

    Ramesh – Thanks for your comment. I’m sure you guys will manage very well in BLR 😉 You & Geetha are sane people with meaningful expectations.

  11. Quote

    Dinesh – Thanks for your comments & kind words.

  12. Quote

    Rama – Thanks for your comment. Do let me know if any of your NRI friends tell you “This Priya Raju character has no clue what we’re going thru” 😉

  13. Quote

    Arvind – Thanks for your comment & kind words.

  14. Quote

    Sukumar – Thanks for your comment.

    Just thinking out loud. Perhaps people find India expensive when they try to maintain the same lifestyle as in the US? Salaries in India are a lot less than in US/Europe/Japan. So, in comparison?

  15. Quote

    Vamsi – Thanks for your comment.

    I think that I grew when we moved to the US; then again when we moved back to India. Life has come a full circle in some ways. If people think of themselves as explorers of the world, change won’t be so scary. They may actually welcome it.

  16. Quote

    Kumar – Thanks for your comment.

    Wow, lived in Sudan, huh? I guess its pretty unsafe now. But maybe the capital is still safe. Historic country – always wanted to go to Jebel Barkal. Guess it would have to wait for a while now.

    I think if people travel more, their minds broaden & open up; they start seeing possibilities instead of problems. Then the return back – or a move to some other/any other country – won’t seem scary.

  17. Quote

    Ajit – Thanks for your comment & glad to hear from you.

    Its always easier to shift from the 3rd world to the 1st. The reverse can be very hard. Unless – as you say – people put their heart & soul into the move, it won’t work.

  18. Quote

    Baskar – Thanks for your comment.

    I’m not sure how the length of the tenure matters. If people are happy in US/UK/Switzerland/etc, there’s no reason for them to shift back to India. If people have kids & the kids refuse to return – usually this happens when the kids are 8+ – then, there’s a problem. Then again, I think people should understand more about themselves before entering matrimony & parenthood. But that’s a different discussion altogether.

  19. Quote

    Excellent Post Priya! I completely agree with your thought process and had the exact same reasoning while I moving back in 2007. My stay in US was much shorter though (5 years).

  20. Quote

    Good one Priya.

    Your Point 5 is what I ask when people of the some thought reach out to say hey Can I come to India?
    But now I have our article to point out from now. Thanks. 🙂

  21. Quote
    Joseph Korah (subscribed) said December 31, 2012, 11:50 am:

    Refreshing post Priya. As a “RN” Returning Native, I feel that you have hit the nail on most of the points. I made a clean break, except for the house, since the markets were not great when I was moving. It’s a pain to remotely manage your house, but if you have a good tenant, maybe keep the house till the market recovers (with the fiscal cliff looming – not sure how many more years it will take). The only advice I have is to ensure that you have a good Home Warranty Plan and a Property Manager.

    I loved your point about taking long drives on weekends on Pristine roads. If you are able to look beyond the crowded and not well maintained roads, there is so much to see and do in India. India also offers you a better chance at building your network. For example, social clubs like Round Table, Rotary etc are very good avenues to meet people outside your current work / immediate family.

    @ Sukumar, I think your point about expensive is probably related to two things Cars and Houses. Both are relatively expensive when compared to the States. Houses, especially if you want to buy land and build is very expensive when compared to a similar house in the US.

    Happy New Year and have a Great 2013.

  22. Quote
    Vijay Rambhatla said December 31, 2012, 12:08 pm:

    Hi Priya, Excellent article. Well thought through and a pragmatic approach anyone should take before taking the decision. I also think that some of us tend to become quite isolated after returning to India. We avoid using the public transportation, avoid drinking chai in the nearby tea shop. Our apartment complexes too contribute to this. I think once we are in India, if we try and rough it out a bit (travelling by bus, walking instead of using the car), it will greatly help us including the children to appreciate and re-adapt to our culture. This will give us some humility and great appreciation for life. :). Again, a superb article

  23. Quote

    Great post Priya! This is a question that I keep getting asked from time to time…and this post just made my life easier! 🙂 That said, I think the reason why you want to move back to India is the most important one you will have to answer. If that is clear, I think people generally tend to forgive all other shortcomings!

    Happy New Year and have a fantastic 2013!

  24. Quote

    Sourav – Thanks for your comment. Glad to know your move back to India’s working out too.

  25. Quote

    Kumaran – Thanks for your comment.

    Yeah, many NRIs live in a Trishanku Swargam – neither here, nor there. If there’s no reason for them to move back & they’re happy in a 1st world country, they should simply stay put.

  26. Quote

    Joe – Thanks for your comment. Of course, one shouldn’t sell their house at throw-away prices. But they shouldn’t keep the house as “Plan B”.

    I like your point about the dust & grime. 1 of my American co-workers refused to travel to Italy because it isn’t “clean enough” for her. Well, that’s certainly not Italy’s loss. Likewise, if we look past India’s dusty veneer, it has so much to offer – regardless of what one looks for.

    Interesting point about the networks. And you’re right – my network’s so much more richer now than it was in the US.

    Car/house etc – True. I think what Sukumar means is, that’s not a recurring expense.

  27. Quote

    Vijayan – Thanks for your comment.

    I’m not sure if I’m brave enough to drink chai in a roadside tea shop, but I get your point 🙂 Our children have an opportunity to see the downtrodden & understand what a blessed life they have. It also gives us a chance to question unbridled consumerism.

  28. Quote

    Raghu – Thanks for your comment.

    You’re right – people can overlook problems if there’s a clear need to move back to India. Happy new year, 2013.

  29. Quote
    senthil (subscribed) said January 1, 2013, 11:53 pm:


    I strongly object to the use of terms like 3rd world and 1st world.. Its demeaning to the core.. I make this protest as a representative and citizen of what you call as “3rd world country”..

  30. Quote
    Kumaran said January 2, 2013, 8:21 am:


    There are certain terminologies which we use for convenience . It it important to get the content/concept/theme/intention and not fixated on the presentation.The danger is missing the bigger picture.

    I understand you concern here be assured on this group I have been on it for so many years that no one here is judgmental or prejudiced.

    As PKS aka Pammal ‘Bhuaa’ Samandhan say-” Idhayam arayakudhahu anubhavikkanum ” 🙂

    Happy new year.

  31. Quote
    senthil (subscribed) said January 2, 2013, 9:52 am:


    Yes.. i agree.. the content is more important.. my point is that terminologies like 1st world and 3rd world which are part of colonial legacy taints the way in which the message is understood.. the perspective is altered.. these terms take us in to the shoes of westerner’s perspective than being independant..

    For eg, how can a returning native understand indian realities, if he still lives through western perspective? The mental shift can happen only by right words and right terminologies.. we have to strive to see the world from indian perspective..

  32. Quote
    Sundara (subscribed) said January 2, 2013, 10:29 pm:

    Hi Priya,

    As always, a very well written post! You have covered everything spot on. What I have learnt in the last 18 months is that you have positive and the not so good wherever you live. It depends on what is driving you to come back to India. I am realizing that my son is probably learning more about life in India then he would have in Jersey. The trips that we have taken within India over the last one year have given us a chance to talk with Adithya about our culture, see for real some villages and some traditions that I am sure only help.

    On the other hand, I think three things that people should take extra care of before returning. 1 – Job ( you have covered that well). 2 – A community to live in India ( This is very important). 3 – Kid’s school ( you have covered that as well). Take care of the above three and tell yourself that this is sort of clicking a ‘reset’ button – You are not going to save money for the first 24 months ( worst case). Once you are prepared for that, its a fun ride!

  33. Quote

    Sundara – Thanks for your comment & kind words.

    You’re right – every place has its pros & cons. And people have to decide what kind of life they want their children to lead.

    Yes, of late living in a gated community is becoming important. This way, people don’t have to worry about day-to-day maintenance, security, electricity backup, gym, swimming pool etc.

  34. Quote
    Sundar Matpadi said January 29, 2013, 11:51 pm:

    Great post.. I can related to pretty much all the points. I have seen many of my friends / colleagues who went back to India and few of them came back. Pretty much all the folks who went back for good had not ties back in US and the folks who came back after a year or so, had atleast few or all of the points that you mentioned. It is so true. Unless you cut off all the material / safety net in your current place before going to India, the permanent transition is never going to take place. I am going to share this blog in my FB page.

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