Jul 13, 2011

How is it to return to India after 10 years?

I recently moved back to the US after spending a little over a year in India. It was great to be back in my own country after 10 long years and experience the growing economy first hand. It gave me an opportunity to separate fact from fiction about all the great things that are happening there. Overall, it was a rewarding experience and I am happy I could do this stint. There might be many out there contemplating a move to India either permanently or for a short period. Let me share some of my experiences about what I liked and disliked.

What I liked:
1. Improved Living Standards: One can live a lot better lifestyle these days. There are several nice apartments in Bangalore and bigger cities where one can find apartments with tons of amenities. This was one of the highlights of my India experience. The place I stayed had it's own swimming pool, sprawling garden, a grocery store, restaurant, salon, sauna, spa, health club, garbage service and many other things all inside the community.

2. Conveniences: Given the boom in various sectors, there were many new conveniences. Numerous grocery stories, tons of shops and malls, all kinds of cars, many new restaurants, lots of flights connecting all parts of the country, more entertainment options and I could go on. These are things I hardly knew of when I grew up in India.

3. Cost of living: While the absolute cost of living for an average Indian may have gone up a lot, I felt that it was a smaller percentage of my income than it was in the US. After spending on all the basics (rent, food, utilities, etc.) I had 10 to 15 percentage points more of my income left than in the US.

4. Startup Opportunities: There are a lot of problems to be solved in any growing economy like India. And then there is the hungry youth to solve it. Either they are tired of their bosses in large IT companies breathing down their neck or there are the smart college kids or the NRI returnees. All of them are trying to tap into the startup world. And as my friend Anand Daniel at Accel put it, 'you don't need a grand idea; if you can execute on simple ideas you can succeed in India'.

5. Family: Being close to family was great. There was a lot of interaction with family & relatives who I would have otherwise never had the opportunity to get to know. I attended lot more weddings than I did in my entire time in the US. However, I would concede that if I had to keep up with all the social commitments for more than a year, I would have started to feel the burden :)

What I disliked:
1. Work culture: Having never really worked in India before, it required a bit of adjustment for me to fit in the Indian way of working, particularly at a big company. There's quite a bit of hierarchy, nepotism and bureaucracy. It was quite a risk averse, close minded culture with a very political and heavy top. The boss is always right and others can keep their brains at home. I did see startups with a positive and open culture but it wasn't always the case.

2. Red Tape: Government offices are still rife with politics and bureaucracy. During my stay I had to put up with the passport offices, license office and few other govt related orgs. In all my experiences, there was still a lot of red tape visible. The success stories of india are not because of the government, it's in spite of the government.

3. Corruption: At the national level there were several scandals I witnessed during my stay. From the telecom scam to the commonwealth games scam. There were plenty. I encountered this even in day-to-day dealings. Some of my suppliers I worked with offered to 'take care of me' and were surprised when I refused to be taken care of.

4. No network: If you are a returnee, you will get a sense of being lonely. Most of the relationships I built in the last 10 years were all based in the US. Most of my college friends had also left India. So my social life was practically restricted to friends at work and some family. However, with time you could rebuild a healthy network but there are some logistical challenges along the way (see next point).

5. Traffic: From a lifestyle stand point, this was the biggest challenge. It not only slows you down to get from one place to another, it encroaches on your quality of life. In California, I could squeeze in several activities in a single day. But in Bangalore, I could just about go to work and back. One respite is that you can hire a chauffeur so you could use the driving time wisely.

All in all, it was a special experience and I made some very good life-long friends. I felt a sense of patriotism to live and work there. For those considering a move, I highly recommend it; just calibrate your expectations based on some of the points above.

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