The unthinkable option

Although I never asked my parents, I know that leaving India was difficult for them. Fresh out of India’s premier medical institution, they left, along with a majority of their peers, to fill a dearth of specialized physicians and medical researcher positions in the United States in the late Seventies.

While in the United States, every week they would write letters on blue aerogrammes which would take two weeks to reach my grandparents. They filled the margins with scrawls in Bangla and read over the responses received over and over. Sometimes, they would go on long drives in the countryside. My mother would listen to songs of Tagore pensively. My father would find lakes where he would go fishing just as he had in his childhood. When they saw another desi – perhaps a lady wearing a sari in grocery store, they got visibly excited. From what I can gather, it didn’t happen very often in suburban Texas back then.

In the Eighties, we all moved back to India. It was a different India back then. There was no cable TV at the time. You couldn’t buy a decent pair of jeans in the country or a bottle of Coca-Cola anywhere. Very few movie theaters showed movies from Hollywood. Thomas Friedman would have hated this India.

And so my formative years were spent in both the United States and in India – two countries in which I have spent roughly an equivalent amount of time.

My parents never told me that they had been homesick. They didn’t have to. When I decided to leave for the United States to get my PhD, I knew exactly what they had felt decades earlier. I was educated, upwardly-mobile, as fluent in English as any native speaker of the language, and as capable as the other researchers in the academic setting I would be joining, but I felt a bond with those who had left Calcutta for places as distant as South Africa, Guyana, Mauritius, and Fiji a century earlier. Perhaps, even those who left as indentured laborers kept a spark of hope in their hearts that they would someday be returning to the country of their birth, even as the passing of seasons made it more improbable?

My generation is not disenfranchised like the earlier generations of immigrants who were indentured laborers. But are we completely in control of our fates? No one wants to admit it, but moving to any country is more an impulsive decision based on random life-events than a calculated undertaking. Situations change and we rationalize based on the outcomes.

Go to any party attended by first-generation desi immigrants who have lived in the United States for a few years and you will run into people who have bought homes and apartments in India with the goal of returning someday. Who knows if they ever will? I am like those party guests. I can never completely rule out returning to India without acknowledging that I would have to abandon my parents and family for good. That is a price I am not ready to pay.

I am fine with those who decide to stay in whatever country they are most comfortable in and whatever rationalization they use to justify their decisions.

For me, it is not about the traffic. It is not about who does my laundry.


7 thoughts on “The unthinkable option

  1. 🙂
    It’s a personal choice right?

    ps: I had a feeling that New York Times would spurn a few posts at the very least. I’ll be doing one too, hopefully.

  2. I have felt every word you wrote here and suddenly it feels to good to know someone else out there is part of the same process. Conversations in parties involve a lot of judgements and rationalizations to the point that it feels like the real emotional journey of immigration gets lost amidst discussions about home prices and when was your last trip to homeland.
    I have seen an immigrant son whose father died of a combination of dementia and depression over not seeing said son more often and another immigrant son who regretted leaving his mother behind at the mercy of old age and a fast moving India that no longer respects it’s elderly like it used to 30 yrs ago. I sometimes fantasize that I will manage to find a magical answer that gives me the freedom of US lifestyle and the ability to take care of my aging parents. But so far I have come up empty. In 10 more years I am likely to feel miserable about any choices I make. Perhaps this will be another impulsive decision.

    1. Thanks for reading and for commenting. It is a difficult decision. I know a lot of people who are miserable in the United States because they miss their family. Conversely, I know people who went back to India, and sacrificed their careers.

      Sometimes, I wish someone would make the decision for me. 🙂

  3. Nice post, but can’t say I agree with you fully here. I particularly don’t understand why moving to a country are ‘impulsive’ decisions and ‘random’ events, not calculated? Did you not take a conscious decision to come to the US to study for PhD here, full in the knowledge that employment opportunities after graduation would be limited back home?
    Those R2I-ers are also often taking conscious decisions to move back to their home country.
    (PS: I could be missing a part of your argument here – cold medication doesn’t always help in comprehension)

    1. Thanks for reading and commenting. You raise an interesting point and I certainly didn’t mean for my statement (which was somewhat reactionary to other statements which have been made in the last few days) to come across as binary. I think we’re talking about two different things in two different time-scales. Let me elaborate that cryptic statement a bit.

      My point is that desis who never leave India, desis who leave India but never return, and desis who leave India to later return will all find valid arguments for their decisions. Usually, the reasons offered will be emphatically presented. There is nothing wrong with that: my entire blogpost revolves around a set of rationalizations too.

      In my experience, these strong reasons are usually accompanied by other extenuating factors. There are certainly people who know exactly what they want and where they want to be at any point in their lifetime. There are people who will always wish they were elsewhere. And there are people who go with the flow. I’ve always fallen in the last category – my decision to go the US came quite late in my life like many things. If the admission letter to Ohio State came a few days later, I might have been elsewhere or might not have come to the US. I know many others who fall in that category. They offer their own reasons for staying in India, and might berate me for mine (but they might just as well been here had an admission letter come a few months before an appointment letter).

      I think those that leave their homeland are certainly driven and know what they want in the short to medium term. Random events such as loss of employment, birth of a child, and sickness of a parent can shape outcomes. The finality with which we offer opinions tends towards a deep-rooted sense of philosophical entrenchment in these decisions, when there are many underlying causes.

  4. US of A was populated by foreigners who seesawed between homesickness and its reverse. You, Anirban, are no exception. Choosing one of two grossly dissimilar cultures always gives you a queasiness akin to the feeling before you para-drop. The choice, whether personal or otherwise, must be taken before you are irretrievably torn between the two. Go ahead with no regrets but with a sense of nostalgia that we all feel for our roots sometimes.
    Nice post.

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