Friday, May 16, 2008

Staying Home

ABC News profiles a 21 year old girl from India who is happy in Mumbai and would not trade her life for anything. She scores bonus points for not knowing who Brad Pitt is. Nisha Mehta is neither an anomaly nor does she represent her generation or the state of present day India as seen through the eyes of a 21 year old.

Back in my day when I was 21, India was a very different place - there was not a plethora of career options. The only sure bets were medicine and engineering and it was no walk in the park making it to a decent school. The kids who could not keep their nose to the grindstone and get an education that would translate to a job had very limited options at home. America looked far more promising in comparison.

It took a student visa to get their foot in the door and anything was possible after that. Today the average kid has choices that never existed in India before. They are not compelled to step outside their comfort zone for a good life. Also, the whole "idea of America" and moved to their backyards. They don't need to travel to experience any of it. Needless to say, the absurdly difficult immigration laws have proved the greatest disincentive of all.

Who in their right mind would want to waste the best years of their lives waiting for a Green Card far away from family and familiar culture when they could have been doing much better staying right at home. There are more flexible continuing education options than ever before, job opportunities abound for those who are motivated to succeed professionally.

To someone who has grown up in India and never lived for a significant period of time anywhere else, the many things that ail India is an intrinsic part of their socio-cultural experience. Just like you cannot graft out the most annoying traits of your family members and still have them be your family; they don't consider making over India the only way they can get along with her. They have accepted it as part of the package - flawed, imperfect and yet comfortingly familiar.

There will be some whining and complaining but they'll still remain together. And when an outsider asks them if they would rather be elsewhere, the answer is likely to be "No" because the negatives distinctly outweigh the positives today specially when there is not a direct comparison point.

As in my time, there are 21 year olds even today who queue up outside the American Consulate from the wee hours hoping to get their student visa approved but they are probably not counting on being able to make America their home given the vagaries of the immigration process. They might give it a shot but they may move to a more immigrant friendly country and best of all they may head home to dream up the next start-up.

These are heady times in India and its not surprising that young people feel like they could achieve everything they want right at home - confidence and prosperity are correlated. Whether that will prove to be yet another case of irrational exuberance ending with a large bubble bursting, only time will tell. In the meanwhile, Brad Pitt notwithstanding, America has done quite a bit to become an unattractive destination for young talent from India.

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