In order to fully appreciate my thoughts and impressions as a freshly returned American Desi, it's important to share with you my personal evolution during my six years in the US. I moved to the States in the summer of 2007, at what seemed to be a perfectly good time. With some luck, I found a job on Wall Street and an apartment in Manhattan. Life was pretty darn swell for about five seconds, following which all hell broke loose. Turns out, I had relocated just in time to witness firsthand the worst economic recession since the 1930s. Over the next six years, besides the economic chaos, I watched closely the election of the first black President and arguably one of the most vitriolic congressional phases in American history. To my mind, this tumultuous period underscored an inescapable truth - democracy is an inherently messy process. Even the US, the greatest democracy on earth, was no exception. That said, what made America great wasn't its current place on the democratic continuum, but rather the untiring efforts of its people towards a better future. This powerful lesson gave me a new appreciation for the problems that India faces as a democracy. I felt hope that with the committed involvement of the electorate, the same tools of democracy that have made America great, could over time, bring about substantive change in India. You'd think this view would be palatable to other Indian immigrants, right?
Wrong. Apparently, I was the only Desi on the entire Eastern seaboard who subscribed to this view. Whenever I hung out with other Indian folks, I spent most of my time ardently defending the motherland against their relentless and scathing criticism. So who were these Indian people, you might ask? They could easily have been your next door neighbours in Delhi, who ran traffics lights, bribed cops and elbowed old aunties to jump queues. Once they set foot in America however, they were magically transformed into cop-fearing, self-righteous, model citizens with no recollection whatsoever of their questionable past lives. What these reformed Desisalso unfailingly had in common, was their penchant for India bashing. They sermonised at great length about the lack of civic sense in India, the corrupt politicians, drivers with a death wish, cows with a death wish …you name it. While some of these complaints were hardly contestable, I would focus on the change that was indeed happening and underscore the futility of their apocalyptic "India is a banana republic" routine. But hey, who wants to think uplifting thoughts about the future of 1.2 billion people on a Saturday night? Its so much more fun to get wasted and rant about your birth country going to hell!
In the spring of 2013, following a prolonged illness and a growing desire to live close to family, I decided to move back to India. As I walked the streets of Manhattan one last time, I knew I would miss the big Apple - its unique energy, its potpourri of cultures and the constant sense of possibility that I felt in the city. But the loss I felt was overwhelmed by the prospect of being close to family, after almost a decade of living away. Also, there was one thing in particular, that I was happy to get away from - the excruciating, patently Indian double standard that I'd had to contend with the last six years. After all, once in India, the land of everything and everyone Indian, there was bound to be self-respect; a positive energy; an inspiring vision of the future. Right?
Wrong. Allow me to elaborate.
When I returned to Delhi, the first few weeks were a blur. I was busy reconnecting with family and overcoming my own personal version of the inevitable reverse culture shock. What I could not overcome however, was that growing, sinking feeling in the pit of stomach. I was finally beginning to understand why Desis in America were bursting at the seams with negativity. It was because Indians in India were doing the same.
An alarming majority of the people I'd encountered since my return, embodied an aggressive cynicism coupled with a perversely pragmatic resignation vis-a-vis the current state of affairs in the country. Everyone was dissatisfied, enraged even about a lot of things, but no one seemed interested in doing their bit to make a change. Why? Because and I quote, "nothing was ever going to change". Because "why should I do the right thing when most people around me don't care?". Because "you're a naive simpleton for thinking that every little act matters".
One night, I used majority of my facebook page trying to explain to a friend, why Aabid Surti, the award winning Indian author who has saved more than 1.5 million litres of water by plugging leaky taps for free every Sunday in Mumbai's far-flung suburbs, is a national hero. My friend contended that what Mr. Surti was doing did not matter since India was going to the dogs anyways. "We need a revolution" he said. "Evolutionary change is not enough". Who was being naive now?
I began to wonder why this realisation about the general attitude back home hadn't hit me this hard before? I wasn't some wide-eyed, bumbling tourist. I was born and raised in India. If this was so painfully obvious to me now, how could I be oblivious to it before?
The truth is, subconsciously, I've always been uncomfortable with the negativity I encountered even in my formative years. Given it's virtual omnipresence however, I just learnt to accept it as normal. I never thought to question it, until destiny took me thousands of miles away to a new land. Far away from what I'd known my entire life, I was exposed to a nation where participation in the democratic process was celebrated; where millions of volunteers were stepping up to help the President fight for the middle class; where the hope for a better tomorrow drives the struggle today.
Let's be clear, no country is without challenges. Least of all, the US, which recently faced a very public humiliation with the government shutting down as Congress held the nation hostage. The American economy remains weak, the future of healthcare uncertain, mass shootings alarmingly frequent and lawmaker tantrums an absolute nightmare! President Lincoln must be rolling over in his grave right about now.
Does that mean though, that there's no hope? Certainly not. What it means is, it's time to get involved and keep pushing till a better state is achieved. This by far, is the most important lesson I learnt in the US. While long-standing Indian traditions of diligence and family are well recognised and appreciated in America, what we can imbibe from American culture is their innate determination to participate in their democracy and strive for a brighter tomorrow.
Granted that India's challenges make first world problems seem like a walk in the park. Agreed that it’s hard to feel national pride in country where a woman is raped every 20 minutes. But I don't agree that negativity, despair or resignation is the answer. There are those amongst us who are doing their bit to make a difference. It's time for the rest of us to join them. It's time for an evolution.
—The author has been an investment banker and researcher with SBI Capital Markets, Mumbai, J.P. Morgan Securities, New York, and Cowen and Company, Boston