All my friends are going to USA. I must join the rat race. But heart wants happiness in India among family, friends and the people who are like me. Head wants money – without which there is little security. Will my journey to USA bring happiness? Will money be answer to my prayers? Will I finally realize that true joy is in the sense of belonging?
It is more than an autobiography. It is the story of millions of Indian youths, who enter the job market each year, with an overpowering ambition to succeed and make money. They run in every possible direction to grab money – perhaps the only indicator of success in their eyes. Mid-way through the pursuit of money, they lose focus or rather gain focus and think about the purpose of all the running around behind mega bucks. They realize that there is more to a blissful journey than money. “Is this I want to do for the rest of my life or there is something else?” The question starts haunting their minds. However, materialistic urges and fear of the unknown, keeps them trapped in the vicious cycle. Sometimes, it is sheer pressure – to do what everyone else is doing – that holds them on the dreaded path, also known as the “rat race”.
Brain creates fear psychosis. It keeps sending stimulus to tell, “If money is lost, comfort will be lost. You will become nobody. Keep garnering cash. Do not digress or you will be a loser.”
Heart’s rumblings are often ignored by the brain. However, if the heart is strong enough, brain will concede and look for a middle path (commonly called compromise). Alignment of heart and head is a must for a contended journey of life. An emotional heart and rational brain will figure out a middle path, which satisfies both.
More often than not, head and heart are in a fight for supremacy. We are torn between what ‘we want to do’ and what ‘we are supposed to do.’
Initially, my head conquered my heart. Finally, the heart won the battle and I am now back home in India with no regrets. I do not want to preach you anything. I just want to share my journey of struggle between the head and the heart; most common in every life. There is no one fixed answer that one must choose. The ultimate goal is living with oneself and be happy. And there are as many ways to be happy as there are to be unhappy. I hope you will choose to be happy; regardless of your past decisions & choices.
I was born in a middle-class, educated family in Bihar. My father’s salary was the only source of income for the family. He was a UGC commissioned lecturer – least corrupt but most demanding job. My mother was also a lecturer in a private college, which never paid any salary, ever. She continued with the hope that sooner or later government would overtake the college and regularize it and she would get the arrears due. She retired with that hope. My siblings and I had to wait until the end of each month to buy any personal items – till father’s pay check. Still we felt loved and pampered. My mother was very strict with our studies. She knew that good education is bread and butter for middle-class. We used to study with kerosene lamps. Electricity was rarely available.
My family was proud when I was selected for a prestigious residential school, situated at south Bihar, now Jharkand, called Neterhat. I was among sixty selected for my batch from all over Bihar and Jharkand. I was twelve years old. I learned the pain of separation with family at an early age. It was a boys’ school, only exception was teachers’ daughters. Teachers also used to live in the school campus. I spent next five years at Neterhat, achieving adolescence, learning discipline, and understanding the meaning of friendship. After 5 years in Netherhat, I completed Intermediate with Science and Math and appeared for IIT JEE exam – the only way for a middle-class student to get decent education as we could not afford to attend high-fee charging private engineering colleges. With a bit (or lot ?) of luck and great deal of hard work, I cleared JEE and chose IIT Kanpur.
Neither a Dude nor a Desi
America was very much alive at IITK. There was a group of students who knew more about America and the American way of life than about the country of their origin. This group was called DUDE. Snobbery and arrogance were considered interweaving threads of this Dude group. Another name for this group of students was Dropped. The logic behind this name was that God was sending these people to USA but accidentally dropped them at IITK. The not so-elite group of mostly Hindi speaking students was called ‘Brahmin Boy’, ‘punter’, and desi. These two groups were always at loggerheads. Fortunately, I was neither a desi nor a dude; I was in the good books of both groups. Reason being, I did not have strong preferences for any language, culture, region or other related things.
Those four years at IITK went off like sitting next to a beautiful and talkative lady. There were a lot of memorable moments. During ragging, I was asked to propose a girl in Hindi and say exact translation of words “Hello Sexy, Would you like to go on date with me” .. Another instance in which, a department topper tattooed initials of his crush in Blood on his arms and still got rejected by the girl. The evergreen fights and squabble between Desi Vs Dudes were always interesting and didn’t let you get bored. And then continuous classes and activities. It seemed that destination came fast and we had to get off. But there were some brave-hearts, who continued for their college journey for another couple of years by flunking some courses. It seemed a big deal that time, but they might not be repenting now. In 80 years of lifespan and a career of 50 yrs, 1 or 2 years hardly makes a difference, so a bit of extra fun is OK. I am of the opinion that spending extra time in college is always good. Friends from earlier part of life become support for the later part of life. Earn as many friends as you can.
So, with some broken hearts, rationality overtaking infatuation, we graduated and most of us took software jobs without actually knowing what software was. We shrugged off the warnings of our esteemed faculty – “In software, you will be dead meat in ten years.”
Bangalore — a Mecca for a College Graduate from Kanpur
I got job in a reputed Indian software company in Bangalore. Bangalore has fabulous weather and equally fabulous pubs. For the next two years Bangalore was my home. I had everything in Bangalore – a salary that was ten times more than the pocket money, pubs, free weekends, lots of college friends who like me landed in Bangalore, free internet in office and email-id. Those days internet and e-mail were privileges. We were in constant touch with our friends who went to US for higher studies.
I was making as much salary as my father was getting and he had just five years left to retire. When I told him my salary, he was so concerned with the higher wages of the software industry that he wanted to write to my company to reduce wages for software engineers. His argument was that so much money in young hands would lead to various social evils. My father used say, “Have lust for life, not for money.” However, slowly, money started playing mind games with me. A year later, I started feeling that what I was making was not enough. I was getting restless for more. Easiest way out was to go overseas, particularly America – where green bucks were flowing for the software industry. Lot of young engineers were leaving Indian companies through placement agencies (derogatorily called dalals) and taking up jobs in American companies. Money played the central role but ‘exposure to cutting-edge technology’ quoted as an alibi for going abroad. I was now getting bored in my job so I began toying with the idea of going to USA and multiply my salary many times. Bangalore also ceased to give fresh kick. Friend circle was shrinking. Many have left for USA.
The time was right and I had enough reasons to convince that going to USA was necessary. I reasoned, many Indian software companies work for foreign clients. Very few companies work for Indian clients. Therefore, whether you work in India or abroad, you end up working for foreign clients – mostly Americans. “So why not work where there is more money,” my brain has now convinced me that there is nothing wrong in going to America and making more money. Looking back, I find it interesting that when I was at IITK, I never prepared for GRE or GMAT kind of exams which were a must for going abroad. I had, in fact, observed the lives of foreign students at IITK who were highly alienated from most of us. I did not want to live like them in a foreign land myself. But now I had found enough reasons to convince myself that going to America is what I need to do. Mind is a powerful thing!
Pilgrimage to America for a better life?
With the receipt of visa papers from the consulting company, my pilgrimage to USA started.
I took overnight train to Chennai and was in Visa queue by 5 AM. By that time, three aspirants had already beaten me! After being in queue for couple of hours I started thinking, is it really worth it? Finally, I went in and after waiting almost the entire day, I was one of the lucky ones who got visa. The journey back to Bangalore became more scenic. As my days to leave Bangalore approached, it started looking better. Idli, Sambar, Kesri bhat started tasting better. MG Road girls became slimmer and prettier. I sent my first resignation letter. I spent rest of the time in Bihar and Delhi.
From Delhi, I took the first flight of my life to USA in mid-May. My elder brother came to see me off. He did not say anything. But I could sense he was proud of me. There were many Indians in the plane on the Delhi to Frankfurt leg. In fact, vegetarian Indian food was served during this segment. I was very comfortable. But the second stretch from Frankfurt to New York was different. There were few Indians. Suddenly I was an ethnic minority. The minority is skeptical of everything because of a feeling of not belonging. Even the best of intentions of the larger group may be viewed with suspicion. Certainly, I was not one of them. I, however, found comfort in the fact that America is supportive of immigrants. Immigrants – European, African, Spanish, and now Asians, have built America. America has a pluralistic society and the rule of law prevails. And soon I was going to be a part of it. I was sitting next to the window and trying to take in and memorize everything my eyes saw. These eyes could now claim to have seen everything – from dusty, rustic Bihar village to New York City – literally a world apart.
The cab drive from Airport to my hotel via office gave me time to reflect on lots of philosophical questions and compare India to America.
- Why is the foundation stone of America. In America, you can ask why without challenging the authority. Americans do not get offended.
- In America, neighbors do not respond, system does. In India, system does not respond, so neighbors do.
- Americans do exactly what they are told to do. Americans have disciplined approach. I feel discipline scores more for society than intelligence.
- In America rich are highly regarded as they are role models for middle class working people since they have risen from the middle class. In India middle class looks at rich people with suspicion – someone who is not very high on integrity and moral values. We do not praise them yet try to copy them.
I started working from Monday. I shared a three-bedroom apartment with my college friends. They were employed by another software company. One of them had an American girlfriend. She loved the attention she used to get at Indian gatherings and Desi parties. I got exposed to America and American way of life. I learned a lot about America and the way of thinking of Americans. I liked in America how fun and work can co-exist, Americans’ passion for what they are doing, their work ethics, kids are not taught that their goal is to make parents happy/proud rather to pursue their own dreams, appreciation and support for good work without prejudice, openness to new ideas and willingness to move into uncharted territories, corruption does not affect day to day life of commoners, sincerity of community to find solutions and discuss problems openly, and their love for books. However, something was missing. When you are in America, you miss Indian culture. In India, you miss “the quality of America”. We don’t seem to be happy anywhere.
My life was becoming routine – get up early to go to office and return late. The initial euphoria about residing in America was subsiding. Travel to NY City was getting more frustrating every day. Magnificent buildings, flyovers, bridges, wallet full of plastic cards stopped impressing me. My frequency of calls to India was increasing. I had started feeling lonely. If I was not traveling on weekends, I was on the phone. It was same for my roommates as well. I needed change.
I switched to a New Jersey based company with substantially higher salary and less commute. I attended my school’s (Neterhat’s) Alumni meet in NJ. I was very comfortable at Edison, NJ. NJ has it all – beaches, casinos, nightlife, farmland, good universities and lots of desis! I got opportunities to visit desi families’ social gatherings. I also found a roommate who was fond of cooking! I realized that as a bachelor, you should be careful of your choice of roommates – they should have girlfriends and love cooking. Then your life will be smooth and interesting. I bought a Jeep Wrangler, learned to drive and got a driving license. With driving license in hand, nothing was unreachable.
I spent couple of more years in NJ. I visited India often. The idea of settling down in India was getting dominant. In spite of all the fun and night life, my life in USA was getting listless and lonely. Sitting eight hours in front of computer screen and then at home phone calls to family and friends for another couple of hours was very much how I used to kill my day. Everything looked so lonely, individual and methodical. Looking at the job, culture, society and money separately, I like American way of life. Then what was making me restless or probing me to go back to India? Was I missing the chaos of living in India? I am not sure. I talked about my desire to return to India with my friends. They all gave their own highly rational suggestions. Going back to India became a recurring theme in my head.
I was become restless. Serious accident of my Jeep in which I fortunately survived, even though the jeep got totaled, only added to my resolve. The whole night I thought about the accident – shaken. It could well have been my last working day. I did not want to die in an alien land. Friends consoled saying that, “Don’t worry about what would have happened? It did not happen. It’s over.” But it was not over for me. My friends asked: Why do you want to go back to India to get stuck in the traffic and work for 1/10th of salary to do mundane and perfunctory work? There are so many people and so few avenues in India; it’s so competitive and a dog eats dog world out there. But my counter arguments of offices are lively in India and competition and comparison is a way of life in India and I grew up with that did not seem to convince them. Then I thought of happiness of my family members. Can I really be happy if my family members are not happy? Counter argument came, “Indian society is so intrusive and judgmental at times. They decide what is good for you. It is irritating. In USA, your individualism is intact. No one tells you what to do.” Another friend said, “America is richer, open and meritocratic. What’s wrong in settling here?” I thought for a moment and replied, “Look, my father is not the richest person on earth. But I will not leave him for a richer person. My mother probably is not the most gracious woman on earth. I will not exchange her for another more gracious mother. I am sure my future wife will not be the most beautiful woman on earth. I will not divorce her for a more beautiful woman. Why should I leave India and settle elsewhere? I belong to India.”
My friends were silent. They were looking for an answer, but I got my answer, “I want to go back because I belong to India.” I had found the reason for the void. I did not belong to USA. The feeling of belonging was missing in USA. It was not a natural habitat for my kind of breed. Adapting to the systems of USA, howsoever perfect they might be, was not natural to me. In USA I felt that I was like a plant being forced to grow in the lab even though the conditions for growth were optimum.
For me growth is not just a biological or chemical process, it is also an emotional process. Emotionally, I would like to grow up where I belong. Regardless of how many years I live in USA, I will always feel a foreigner. I just cannot pretend to fit-in.
Although I felt in peace with my decision, my friends continue to find holes in my argument. “Do you mean to say that you belong to India because you were born there? If this is the case people will not move from one place to another. Everything will be so static, no exposure to new things.” I argued, “No, people must travel, get exposure to new ideas, improve their current societies. Belonging does not mean any change. I know people who are born in India and lived all along in India but they don’t belong to India. They have been fishing to move out of India.
You belong to a place where your mind and heart aligns not necessarily where you are born and where you have lived.” India is a place where my heart and mind coincides. Both feel comfortable. It spurs me intellectually as well as provides emotional stability.
I am glad I found where I belong. Some people spend their lifetime without being able to make up mind as to where they belong. You can make a short-term compromise on belonging but in long term, it becomes melancholic to live with a feeling of not belonging. I had reached that stage.
I gave 2 months’ notice to my employer. The night before the D-day I spent time talking nonsense with friends. In the morning, I was ready to fly back where I belonged.
We encourage you to communicate with the alumnus featured in this story, please post your comments or write to him at email@example.com . Vivek Singh graduated from IIT Kanpur with B.Tech in Civil Engineering in 1996. He is currently a Software professional and a Principal Architect with Yahoo! R&D, India. This story has been excerpted from his book,”The Reverse Journey,” available at Amazon.com http://www.amazon.com/Reverse-Journey-Vivek-Kumar-Singh/dp/9381115354 or at Flipkart at http://www.flipkart.com/reverse-journey-first/p/itmdfjfpke4mybku other stores.