Happy Diwali (and why I am still here)

Dear All,

I have never really reacted to a piece written by someone else before. However, the  “Why I left India (again)”,  (do read this to make sense of what follows) made me want to share my own thoughts.

The well-written article talks about an NRI (non resident Indian), who returned to his country and then found enough reason to leave again. The reasons he cites, probably genuine, seem to revolve around the inability to fit in with certain aspects of the Indian way of life – be it the treatment of servants, the poverty or the traffic rules. In a commendable, bold manner the writer claims he did not like the person he had become in India. Thus implying that in India, we become part of a terrible system and become terrible ourselves. Finally, he and his wife returned back to the USA, where they now live in California.

So why am I reacting to it? Well, I am doing so because I am also a returned NRI. I lived in Hong Kong for 11 years, worked for American investment banks until I finally returned to India in 2008.  Given this, many NRIs often ask me what is it like to return to India. I am usually too busy writing books or columns and never get a chance to share my relocation experience much.  The article above talks about one guy’s relocation (that didn’t work out). I felt I could provide a different perspective, especially to those thinking of moving back to the country.

Please note, I am not offended by the article. I am glad he wrote it. This is something many NRIs feel. Certain foreign media houses love to carry stories about the ‘poor little pathetic India’ stereotype or the ‘real muck beneath the shining India’ stories anyway. After all, everyone has the right to write, express and feel whatever they want.

I am not going to counter argue the points raised in the article. I will simply share some of my own experiences in the situations mentioned in the article. I must also add I don’t  want to come across extolling my virtues. However, it is important people who have read the above piece to get another side of the story as well. So here goes:


We moved to Mumbai in 2008.  Both my wife and I worked in banking jobs then, and domestic help was imperative given our 3 year old twin boys. We had an older helper who had been with us for a while. She joined us and brought along her young 18-year-old daughter.

I was particular that the young girl does not become a full time maid. She was to help her mother, but essentially help play with the kids and not do hard domestic chores. I saw potential in her, and enrolled her for a basic computer course. This meant she needed to go out of the house everyday. Almost everyone in the house protested. My mother and in-laws, both from a somewhat older school of thought,  didn’t seem too enthused. They felt I was the classic NRI idiot, returned from abroad and now trying to push his modern reform agenda. Even the girl’s mother (our elder maid) didn’t seem that excited but approved it. The girl however was excited and over the moon. They only taught her data entry, but there was a Maharashtra government certificate at the end of it. She started to perform well at the course and soon her mother warmed up to me as well.

Then, the proverbial disaster struck. The girl had a boyfriend from her native place near Bangalore. He came to Mumbai and eloped with her. This was done while she went to her computer classes. Apparently the girl’s mother had opposed the guy for an year. Hence, the girl only saw this as a way out.

Of course, hell broke loose. Everyone in the building mocked me, for sending my servant to computer classes. We didn’t find out about the elopement for two days, and everyone in the house had sleepless nights as we went to various police stations.

Finally, we found out the girl had married the boy. She never spoke to me, but sent me a message that she felt ashamed to have let me down. I was told by my family not to interfere in how servants are managed.

Around the same time, we also had a driver. He was extremely good at his job, and soon the family began to trust him. He used to come to South Mumbai (where we lived) from far sub-urbs and dreamt about moving closer (to a slum, of course). After an year of work, he asked me for around fifteen thousand bucks, to pay the deposit for his new place. I asked several questions to establish veracity, and he gave me reasonable answers.

I gave him the money. He disappeared. I found out later he had moved to Dubai, as he found a job there. Again, my family lashed out on me, given my stupidity.

Hence, you can see that I wasn’t exactly off to a great start in India. Much like the gentleman who wrote that article, I also was told “all of them are thieves” and to “keep them in their place.”

Unfortunately, or fortunately, that is not the person  I am. I cannot assume a person is a thief as default. To me, a person helping me in the house is giving me enormous service. To treat them badly is unthinkable. I hate abuse of power to the core, and yes, many Indians abuse their domestic helpers without even realizing it.

Anyway, the idiot me continued with my welfare approach to domestic help. We moved to Bandra in a year, and our driver then, used to live in South Mumbai. I didn’t want him to quit. However, his commute using public transport would be hard. He asked for a bike. I bought him one. He didn’t run away with it. It’s been over a year. He still hasn’t run away with it.

We had another set of two maids. One of them is another young girl, around 20 years old from a village in Ratnagiri. I told her she has to learn something. She chose English and found a set of classes near the house. Everyone opposed me again. I told her to go ahead anyway. She has joined classes. She has not run away. This morning she said to me in slow but perfect English “Bhaiya, would you like your breakfast”, smiled and I felt it was worth it.

In my house, nobody is allowed to call the maids servants. We call them helpers, the kids call them ‘didis’. There is no question of separate cutlery. They eat what we eat, and are paid enough that they can afford good clothes, soap and shampoo that the hygiene standards are at par with us.

I also found the helpers quite bored in the afternoons. That is when the dissent, negative gossip and nonsense starts. I installed a small TV and Tata sky in their room. My elder folks flipped again. They told me they will ‘sit on my heads’. I ignored them and their barbs. My helpers run my life. I am grateful to them. A TV costs nothing these days, but dramatically improves their quality of life. It also gives me more privacy.

This summer, I even installed a small AC in their room. I didn’t tell anyone at home (for more barbs would have come). I just did it. It’s hot and humid in Mumbai, and they have a tiny room.

My elder maid has kids in Bangalore. Every summer, we call them to our house to live with us. They play with my kids, with their toys. When we go to Bangalore, my kids spend a day in her house. They haven’t fallen sick because of it.  Whenever she wants leave, if it is reasonable, we send her home. Every week, both maids have a day off. Every Diwali, we give them a bonus and a raise, given the high inflation rates. This year, I had a new book which did well, hence the bonus will be bigger.

When a cookery show wanted to feature me in my kitchen (Secret Kitchen), I insisted my maids are featured on the show, as they do my cooking.  Both of them dressed up on the day of the shoot. The episode has one dish cooked entirely by my maids.

Day after tomorrow, on Diwali day, all of us will go see Ra.One together at a Multiplex. My driver will also get tickets for his family to watch it near his house. Altogether, 17 of us will watch the movie. That is what is fun about India. I am fortunate I am able to make a difference to these people’s lives – without it costing me that much.

Yes, the traffic bugs us. It bugs my wife more. She has often told people to stop before the zebra crossing. Her public social crusade sometimes embarrasses the hell out of me. We know it won’t change the country.  However, us being there means another example of how things can be different. Because of me, another friend has bought his driver a bike. Someone else bought movie tickets for their maid. It is still a trickle. Most of India still doesn’t treat servants well. However, it is fun to be part of the trickle. It is nice to imagine that one day this trickle of positive change will become a flood. And that you, in your own little way, had something to do with it.

And this is the most exciting part of coming back to India. To be the ambassador of change in your own world. You don’t have to be a celebrity, authority or a powerful person to effect change. You just have to change yourself, and set an example for others. Slowly, people will see the right path.

Of course, you can also quit. You can take the ‘you bloody Indians’ approach people have taken against my country for decades.  I won’t judge you. I really won’t. I really wish the person who wrote the article above is happy in the USA. I love America, it is a wonderful country that understands creativity, talent, freedom and equality. It has drawbacks, but I look at their positives more. I wish India will adopt many of those positive qualities one day. But until that happens, I don’t wish to quit. I love India too much to quit. I want to be here, till the last servant is mistreated and the last person breaks traffic rules. I want to be here, not to be perfect, but to try my best to not succumb to all that is negative in my country. I want to fight it, for simply fighting it feels good to me.

Meanwhile, on Diwali day, my maids are going to pack paranthas and Mithai for the entire crew so we are not hungry during the Ra.One show. We are going to wear new clothes, watch the movie and have our lunchß. In the evening, we will light diyas in the house, burst crackers with the kids and pray to God. I feel lucky to be in India, for I have spent many Diwalis abroad and no matter how many high-class NRI parties you go to, it just doesn’t feel the same as the Diwali back home. Home, yes, that is what India is to Indians – and will always be – home.

Happy Diwali everyone. And wherever you are, stay happy and stay positive.




Leave a Comment

  1. Renuka says:

    Hi Chetan, i enjoy reading your articles and books. very natural and realistic touch in our writings.

  2. Ramesh Santhanam says:

    Nice one Chetan. I had tears in my eyes after reading this post. The Great Man once said…. Be the Change, you want to see.

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  6. Ravi says:

    Chetan, unfortunately I’m choosing the QUIT path after a two year stint.

    PROFESSIONAL LIFE: I thought of bringing outsourced contract manufacturing work to SMEs in Coimbatore and have given up. I was able to rope in $8m worth of overseas enquiries. However after some trials, I noticed most SMEs here are very unprofessional, have no sense of on-time delivery, no sense of commitment, etc. They also don’t have methodical costing or manufacturing systems in place. Most business owners are at the grace of their selfish poorly skilled workers. These workers don’t have a clue on what global competition is. Due to this our businesses are no where near competitive as China. Government support to exporters is non-existent.

    EDUCATION: Childrens education is another big concern. This is one of the reasons why we choose to come here in the first place. There are new schools mushrooming all around and teaching resources have been ridiculously diluted. Quality of schools and teachers are not the same as what we enjoyed during 70s & 80s.

    HEALTH CARE: In most cases even cattle are treated better in the western world. One of my friends recently lost his 63 year old dad after a very reputed private hospital extorted 1 lakh/day for 30 days (i.e. 30 lakhs). He brought in a physically fit retired army teacher into the hospital and ended up carrying a dead body.

    POLLUTION: We live in a fantastic upmarket gated community with lawns, pool, sports complex, etc. Our children play outside every day and come back like they were working in a mechanic shop, they leave black stains everywhere. The grass on lawn may look green but there is too much vehicular/industrial pollution. I used to see nearby mountains from my house window during 80s, it is a distant dream now.

    Above items are basic necessities of life that we used to enjoy in India during 70s and 80s and even 90s. It is slowly deteriorating.

    Hopefully recent changes in the political landscape will bring in some change.

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  8. Jaya Kaushik says:

    What you say is true. The good feeling can spread. My Aunt mentioned that on Woman’s Day this year, she gave Rs 500 to her maids and asked them to go and eat nonveg in a hotel( she is a vegetarian). They enjoyed their day and on their way back, brought her a glass of sugarcane juice. This Aunt’s brother sent his man Friday on an all expenses paid holiday to Bangkok. These are little things but how much they matter to those who help us run our households.Loved your article.

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    Awesome message. loved it. As always very heart touching :)

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