Why would you leave the West for India?
- 22 October 2012
- From the section India
Rising numbers of people of Indian origin born in the West are moving "back" to the country their parents left decades ago. With India's economy growing faster than America or Britain's, the BBC's Rajini Vaidyanathan has been speaking to some of the new wave of "reverse migrants" who are seeking opportunities as well as a cultural connection.
I am more Indian than my parents. Officially, anyway.
To me this is more than an irony. Mum and Dad were born in India, speak the languages, cook the food properly, and know all the customs and cultures.
I, on the other hand, was born in Aylesbury in the UK, raised in Milton Keynes, and spent the best part of a decade living in London. I have a very British sense of humour, can just about tie a sari and have still never managed to roll a decent chappati.
But in the eyes of the law, I'm now the more "Indian" one.
While my parents gave up their Indian passports many years back, last October I became an "Overseas Citizen of India" - also known as an OCI card holder. Those with one retain their nationality, but are also issued a lifelong visa for India, allowing them to work and live in the country indefinitely.
The scheme, which began in 2005, is open to the grandchildren and children of people born in India as well as former Indian nationals. Since its inception, it has been taken up by more than a million people and is just one sign of a growing reverse trend, where the children of those who left their country decades ago, are moving to India.
Rajiv Khatri is one such example. He moved to the southern city of Bangalore from America. I meet him and his three friends, all OCI card holders from the US, as they tuck into French fries and nachos.
When Rajiv packed his bags for India four years ago, his parents were less than impressed.
"They were very stressed out and frustrated at me moving here. Even now, they're still praying that I go back to the US."
Rajiv's father left India in 1972, his mother followed in 1978, building a successful and stable life in the US. That their children, (Rajiv's brother has also moved to India) are chasing opportunity on the other side of the globe, is a fact hard to comprehend.
They're not alone, so many of the generation who left India in the 1960s and 1970s (my parents included) find it hard to understand why their children would give up the so-called American or British dream, in search of the opposite, the Indian dream.
Rajiv says he cannot imagine moving back to America anytime soon. As an entrepreneur, he runs a health and wellness start-up - 360living.in - with two other bright and articulate Indian Americans who moved to India, Rahul Thadani and Raj Chinai.
Rajiv says that he, his wife Sarah and their three children have a better lifestyle than they had Stateside, but the real pull was being able to connect to the India he had heard about, but never really knew.
"I was always seen as different in the US, and I always had cultural and ancestral roots to India - so for me coming back to India is a bit like coming 'home' - in so many ways it's where I come from. I wanted to have a greater impact from where my roots are and I think for a lot of people who are of Indian origin that's one of the driving factors."
Being able to straddle American and Indian sensibilities makes the move far easier for movers of Indian origin, as they're already familiar with customs, traditions and language.
"A lot of non-Indians coming here might not be able to relate to Indians as well, I feel like I'm almost a liaison between the US and India," says Rahul Thadani, who relocated from New York to Bangalore seven years ago.
"The talent and education in the US is very strong and people are bringing those skills and applying them here."
I meet Rajiv and his friends in the Bangalore branch of the Hard Rock Cafe. With soft rock piping from the speakers and David Bowie and Hendrix pictures hanging on the walls, it feels like we could be anywhere in the world.
The increasing Westernisation of India has made it much easier and more comfortable for people to move here. It is a far cry from the India this group of thirty-somethings visited on family holidays in the 1980s.
The big change in India came in 1991, when it opened up its economy to the world after years of protectionism and an economic crisis. As governments subsequently slashed tariffs, a middle class emerged and poverty plummeted at the fastest rate in the country's history.
Today's India still has many problems - grinding poverty and malnutrition, corruption, poor infrastructure, inordinate amounts of bureaucracy - but it also has new wealth and opportunity, which is attracting entrepreneurial talent from around the world. The latest figures for the UK, for example, show that a record 30,000 people left Britain to make a life in India in 2010, a figure which is likely to have risen since.
A decade ago, maybe even less, if you told someone you were moving to India, you would be met with a raised eyebrow. One of my university friends told me I'd be "setting my career back" when I once discussed my dream of living in India.
'Money to be made'
For those who moved some time ago, like Rahul Bathija, the shift in attitudes has been apparent.
Born and raised in Birmingham in the English Midlands, Rahul moved to India in 1996, and was one of the few expats in Mumbai, which was then still called Bombay.
"India was a very slow developing economy at that point, and people looked at it and said 'What are you doing in India?'. Whereas now people say, 'Wow, you're in India'.
"Back then, we didn't have the fast food that was here... There weren't a variety of restaurants... Dress codes have changed, the country is less conservative than before and business dealings have become a lot more professional."
Today, Rahul Bathija is an entrepreneur at the helm of a successful mobile phone company, Bling Accessories, which makes cases and screen guards. He saw opportunity in an expanding but nascent mobile phone market in India. But, setting up a company in India is anything but plain sailing, he says stressing that his first few attempts at business in India failed.
The rewards for those who can navigate the hurdles and frustrations can be extremely lucrative. India's economy might be growing at a slower pace than previous years, but it still is expanding at a rate around the 5% mark, compared with Western economies which are stagnating. This is becoming a magnet for some of the brightest graduates, looking for lucrative markets. It's what lured Sid Shah, 35, from Los Angeles to Mumbai - Hollywood to Bollywood.
A hip Californian, who went to a prestigious business school in the US, Shah's company The Wild East works with big celebrities to build brands. He was already doing a similar thing in LA, but decided it made better business sense to move operations to India. The Wild East name reflects the untamed nature of the market here.
"The biggest reason I'm here is because of the opportunity plain and simple. That's the only reason you'd leave a relatively very highly paid job in Los Angeles to move to a place that doesn't quite understand what you're doing... and to a place that is also quite uncertain," says Sid.
The equation for him is straightforward: "I'm here because there's 1.2bn people and a lot of ways to service them, and at the end of the day I think there's a lot of money to be made," he says, adding that even a small dent in the vast Indian market has the potential to be larger than the US population.
There are other reasons why the children of Indian migrants are heading east - a better quality of life, where domestic help means you avoid cooking and cleaning and spend more time with the family, and a lower cost of living are also commonly cited.
But there is another which is harder to define, which Rahul Bathija describes as the "burning question".
"I think every British Indian has it - it's that question of 'where do I come from?'
"Being born and brought up in England you have many questions about your culture - I think you can only answer those when you come here and you realise what's happening in India."
For others like Savitha Vij, who moved to Mumbai with her husband Vikas and their children, living in India means no longer being a visible minority. Savitha says she experienced racism while growing up in the UK, and hopes the move will mean her children aren't subjected to the same.
"In the UK I'm second generation, yet I still get asked, 'Where are you from?'. There's always a question mark that you're not from there.
"What I love about being here in India is that we get looked at as one of our own, for me that's something important I can give to the children."
For so many Indians from overseas who move here, however, there's still a sense of not quite belonging in India either. I still have very British sensibilities, and friends of mine have also been told they're "not Indian enough".
What this new trend is creating is in many ways is a new culture - perhaps like the immigrant culture which has helped to change so much of British and American life - where growing numbers of "reverse migrants" are redefining what the phrase "British Indian" or "Indian American" means.
Almost every day my mother asks me when I'm going back to the UK, but like many of the thousands who have moved here, I'm not sure of the answer.
For now, at least, India is just as much my home.