There is one major decision that stares me in my face everytime I sit back.
Should I stick around in the USA or should I pack my bags for another country, most likely India?
That it should come to this was becoming apparent for some time now. Every time the question comes up the conversation goes
“How long are we going to sit around waiting for a citizenship? It has been almost 10 years for you already. It will be another 10 years before you get a whiff of true freedom, in a country that you so desperately want to belong to but which doesn’t really justify the uncertainty of your annual anguish of visa, paperwork, and happiness”
“We’ll see. Just a matter of hanging in there. India sucks. Or at least the India I saw sucks”
“That’s cos you had a fucked up life back there. It was not like that for me. I loved it. I love it.”
“No, that is because I saw the fuckedupness in life back there. Those who are happy there choose to ignore it or aren’t bothered by it. That is scarier. India just doesn’t make sense”
“To me yes. Not just USA, first world countries make sense to me”
“You are just another softie, making up excuses to want the easy life. You don’t even want to try making it for all your big talks. When will you write your book? When will you start your company? Trauma drama. That is all. You are already 37. We are just wasting away”
“Let’s see. Let’s see. Maybe a couple of years more till we have enough to move back and live life there on our own terms. At least enough to buy a house and a car and some buffer.”
“It’ll never happen. I can feel it. You never will. I’ll be stuck here, you will be stuck here. We will be one of them. The lost generation, bounded and indentured into a job till the life is drained out of us, tired, fat, spent, with a stupid accent”
“But what about Mira?”
I remember I was working on a project in Armonk, NYC, in 2008 January when I got my admission letter.
It was a dark and snowy afternoon.
I had woken up at 5:00 am to take the first MTA bus to a dark station, to switch to the company provided bus. My old pair of sneakers sucked in more icy water than they could hold. At the office desk, a temporary makeshift desk that the company had provided us visiting “techies”, I had slipped off my shoes and socks and was sitting barefoot, my legs withered like a prune, slightly embarrassed at how ridiculous I looked, slightly more embarrassed at the image I was projecting about Indians.
My sneakers were icy cold and I was already sniffling.
After lunch, I opened the letter. I had been admitted into the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, for my full-time MBA.
All I remember from that time was an unclenching of my heart. All the efforts I had put in for the past 2 years were finally coming to fruition. A door has been pried open to step away from the coding dreariness and into the business world. The possibility of at an opportunity, at last, to pursue my interest in a field that I could grasp with both my hands and sink my teeth into was a relief more than a joy.
I finished whatever I had to do, became vocal in my project, delivered what was required of the team much before the deadlines, and over the next weeks was sauntering into the office oblivious to the cold sneakers. I dried them by the heater at night at the place I was sharing with 6 others.
Life was not bad. USA, MBA.
Things were happening. I was making things happen.
I went back to India after the 1-month stint, worked for a couple of months, and quit to pack my bags for the US.
London to USA
Before that, there was Great Britain. The UK was interesting.
I had landed in London in 2006 and the night I arrived at the place I was supposed to stay, I was locked out for 4 hours. My future roommate had arrived earlier and being severely jet-lagged had fallen asleep. It did not matter. I remember sitting outside the locked door, waiting patiently. There was no dust in the air, unlike Bangalore and Mumbai. I could sit there all day if I had to.
London made a lot of sense to me.It had buses where people could sit and actually were usable as transportation.
I stayed in the UK for 2 years; two thick years of conditioning that I regret a bit. I was single, unattached, and all I could think of was making it into a business school in the USA. That was how badly I was conditioned.
I could have traveled, fucked around, lazed about, enjoyed life, but all I did was work and save money. I even finally bought my first laptop towards the end of the stint. The farthest I had traveled alone from Canary Wharf was to Folkestone.
Looking back, there was no way I would have done anything other than that. Coming from an insulated and dysfunctional background, human interactions beyond survival were alien to me. I remember when one of my roommates went “dude, why don’t we go, get a couple of chicks and have fun. I’m sure you can bag a few”, I went “no thanks. doesn’t work for me”. But what I actually meant was “who, what, me? why would anyone even with me”.
There was once this time when a smiling girl brought me a drink and I said: “no thanks I’ll buy my own drink”. This was in my late 20s. That was how much the world did not make sense to me on a personal level. Human interaction never came easily to me.
I could never fathom innate intimacy and trust.
I read though. I read voraciously. I read everything about everything and it gave me an air of invincibility that most people misconstrued as confidence.
It was actually diffidence.
Once again, in hindsight, I realize that by then it was too late. I can never warm up to humans on a sentimental or emotional level. It had all become academic and rule-based. It was like an algorithm of social niceties. First world countries adhered to it. India did not.Hence I did not like India. I also started despising the country from my vantage point of what it had turned me into.
There was this once when I was working in Stirling, Scotland, a cute Pakistani-Scottish girl approached me after a workout in the gym claiming I had dropped my towel at the treadmill. It did not strike me that all the eye contact and heavy workout might have given her the right signals.
I shook my head. Not mine I said without smiling. She was drop dead gorgeous. She had on gray sweatpants, dripping sweat and all of the firmness and eagerness of the early 20s. I still think about her sometimes.
Maybe all she wanted to do was return a towel. I’ll never know.
The trouble was, what I read was how I lived my life, and that was not how humans around me seemed to live. I tried guessing and predicting their behaviors. They always confounded me. So I stayed away from them. Around that time I was also reading about rapes and feminism. So the inherent guilt of harassment and unwanted attention always was/is ever present in my mind.
But there was one epiphany.
Once I was talking to a friend of mine in Scotland. She was studying literature at the University of Stirling. That made sense. Because to me what I studied did not make sense. I did not like it. I did not want it. I just studied it. She said she was about to drop out because it did not interest her anymore. That made sense too. Why study something that one was not interested in?
“But what’ll you do later?” I asked
“Don’t know?” she said thoughtfully.
That made sense.
Life had never made more sense to me than someone actually living like how they wanted to. It had never played out in front of me in India. India to me was always the country where unhappy people stayed married, children studied what they did not like, claimed happiness in petty things, ate and fought over gossips, dressed and fucked like they were at a funeral.
It just did not make sense.
Since then I have always dreaded moving back to India. Whenever I hear admiration of the Indian lifestyle, I blanch and tremble.
It was not that it was bad.
It just did not make sense.
I was happy that I was escaping that mess to more structured sanity in the US.
The United States of Prejudices
By and large, USA has been extremely pleasant to me. Despite its racial hypocrisy, numerous false starts, through all its idiosyncracies America still made more sense to me than India. New York City made even more sense in its vibrant embracing of life.
The zanier people I saw, the more sense it made.
There were happy people. There were sad people. There were hippies. There were financial wolves. There were purple hair and poverty. There were guns and drugs. There were bartenders and musicians figuring out life. There were adults dressed in children’s clothes. There was skin, there was fabric. There were virtue and vice in reasonable public view. It was never hidden from sight, no matter how many attempts were made otherwise.
Maybe that’s how it always has been in India.
Doesn’t everyone travel to another country to find themselves?
Things have changed, friends and family insist. India is no longer restrictive. You get all the chocolates in the US here in India, they say. I look up from Facebook photos of praying relatives and sad looking family members and shake my head. It hasn’t to me. It hasn’t changed one bit.
It is still the same old casteist, materialistic, one track society of conformity and deceit and drudgery. Oh, and shitty role models.
How can it change when I haven’t given it a chance to make up? I sometimes talk to happy Indians and come away shaking my head. It doesn’t make sense. Why would I want to sit inside a car for hours to be badmouthed by random strangers and robbed by policemen? It did not make sense. There is a thrill in narrating the exploits of chaos but it did not make sense.
The people made even less sense. Politics, policies, and life existed in an increasing filthy piece of land, made filthier by the day by idiots. It is spiraling downwards and solutions seemed to be shortchanged.
USA was not without its share of confusions but at least on a basic level, there was a semblance of sense. From here, some of the European countries seem to make more sense.
But moving is not easily accomplished and what does that accomplish anyways? Is life all about trying to find a country to live in? A piece of land that makes sense?
The Apparently Interminable Visa
As I sit around in Brooklyn, there is one thing that does not make sense in the USA for me.
I have to wait for 8 more years for a green card, a piece of authorization that will help legitimize my stay in the US and free me up from work and travel restrictions. 8 years of sticking around sucking my thumb, on a pretty plum job admittedly, but one that I outgrew the day before I joined it.
Not just me. I see many talented, passionate, Indians with the same look of shared secret doubt sitting in the wings. They vacillate between wanting to stay in a first world country, providing a first world upbringing to their children, versus, a guilt and frustration of having to rest their ambitions while waiting for their green cards and take risks and stretch their limits.
I had a couple of colleagues, one from Sweden and the other from France, who are American citizens now, who started their naturalization process after me. They have quit their jobs, taken breaks, traveled, moved onto better jobs, made more money, made less money, visited families, bought houses, argued with their bosses, complained to HR, taken sabbaticals, went on impromptu trips, made plans for holidays and lost or gained weight. I patiently wait for 8 more years for all that.
People have it worse. People are also more proactive than me. They pack their bags and move to Canada. They move back to India and start companies and flourish. I guess it makes sense to them. For now, I am sitting on my haunches and waiting.
I often ask young women in India how they like it there. They almost always are defensive in their answers.
It is perfect they say. There are problems, but I wouldn’t trade places even for a second they say. Then they all bundle themselves into a car, sit for hours in traffic getting to a fancy spot, wear “suitably commonsense clothes” and chill with instagram in a curated cafe and harp about feminism and the ubiquitous Indian male lurker.
It doesn’t make sense.
But maybe the world is not to make sense. Just because it doesn’t make sense to me, just because it will never make sense to me, does not mean it will not make sense to anyone.
My fear is, if India makes sense to Mira, will Mira make sense to me?