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India's Returnees Seek Suburbia in Bangalore

After years in the U.S., the country's brightest are being lured home by a thriving economy. California-style enclaves ease the transition.

October 09, 2005|Tim Sullivan | Associated Press Writer

BANGALORE, India — Off the potholed road where chauffeur-driven cars jostle for space with oxen-drawn carts, past the gatehouse and the cluster of polite, uniformed guards, you'll find a vision of America.

Palm Meadows, it's called -- an enclave of gently curving streets, Spanish-tile roofs and lawns manicured to putting-green perfection. Before Christmas, colored lights go up around the windows of its tidy homes. At Halloween, costumed children ring doorbells up and down the block.

Here on the fringes of one of Asia's foremost high-tech cities, not far from where the industrial parks give way to rice paddies in the southern tip of India, a new generation of Indians -- young, affluent professionals back in India after years in the United States -- retreat into a walled-off echo of suburban America.

Because coming home isn't always easy.

"It's mayhem once you leave the gates of the neighborhood," said Yamini Narayanan, an economist and stay-at-home-mother who was born and raised in India. After living in the United States for more than a dozen years, she recently returned with her husband and two children.

The first months were tough: The filth disgusted her, the servants confused her, the chaos of the streets worried her. "It was horrible," she said as her two American-born children, 8 and 5, ran in and out the front door. Then she added cheerfully: "Now I'm a pro."

In a nation where success used to be defined by how quickly a university graduate could snare a British or U.S. passport, and where up-and-coming doctors, bankers and software engineers often did all they could to get somewhere else, India's best and brightest are coming home.

The economy is growing at 7% a year, the infrastructure is improving, and salaries -- once dwarfed by the pay in the West -- are catching up. These days, India's small but growing consumer class can get everything from a decent latte to a pepperoni pizza (delivered in 30 minutes or it's free, the relentless Pizza Hut ads promise on TV).

Bangalore, once a quiet retirement town, has become the booming nexus of India's high-tech outsourcing world. It is also the hub for the returnees, many of them refugees from the Silicon Valley meltdown.

Between September 2001 and March 2005, about 30,000 information technology professionals returned to India from overseas, according to a study by the country's main software trade group, Nasscom. The Indian media call it the "reverse brain drain."

Many of those brains came to Bangalore.

Narayanan and her husband, Sean, 36, arrived three years ago, moving from northern Virginia where he was an information technology consultant. Both are naturalized American citizens.

"India was starting to become part of the information technology world," Sean Narayanan said of his decision to return. He had been watching the situation in India since economic reform took hold in the early 1990s.

"I saw that I could do something different in India, something bigger," said Narayanan, now a top executive for Cognizant Technology Solutions, a major player in Indian outsourcing.

"Five years ago, six years ago, there was never the opportunity to come. You'd have to take a huge hit in your lifestyle," he said. "Five years ago, if I wanted to, I could get a car here, but I'd have to wait a year."

Now, he says, living in Bangalore is 70% like living in America.

Also, the Narayanans wanted their children to be nearer their grandparents -- and their Indian culture.

But when the expatriates return, they often find themselves forced to navigate between two countries and two cultures, between Western comforts and Mother India's tug on her prodigal children.

Their kids soon lose their American accents, but "it is the parents who watch 'Friends' and 'Law & Order' to take the edge out of the transition," Ranjani Nellore, an Indian-born scientist who left the San Francisco area behind for the Indian city of Hyderabad, wrote last year in the magazine India Currents.

Nellore says she knew when it was time to come back home. After nearly 14 years in the United States, she still found herself confused by the culture, and worried she might be ill-equipped to guide her 7-year-old daughter into an American adolescence.

"I thought of all the problems I wouldn't have been able to help her with growing up because I hadn't been raised there," Nellore said.

But it can be a shock to arrive in India from an American suburb.

Although wealthy customers can wander through India's air-conditioned shopping malls, this is a country where more than 800 million people survive on less than $2 a day. Even the rich confront crowded cities, where malnourished children are commonplace and railroad tracks double as open-air toilets.

The returning expatriates worry about the country's pitifully slow ambulance services, and wonder what to tell their children about the beggars tapping on car windows at stoplights. And in India's blistering heat, they sometimes yearn for the pleasures of a first snowfall.

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