A Reversal of the Tide in India

Bala J. Raman sits in his Madras, India office. He lived in the United States for several years, he said, but moved back to India in order to pursue better job opportunities.
Bala J. Raman sits in his Madras, India office. He lived in the United States for several years, he said, but moved back to India in order to pursue better job opportunities. (By Andrea Bruce -- The Washington Post)
By S. Mitra Kalita
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 28, 2006

MADRAS, India -- In 1997, Dutt Kalluri left India to work for a Canadian software company, hoping the overseas experience would do his résumé good. A year later, he was promoted to head U.S. operations from Rockville. But as he returned to India for business and to visit his elderly mother, he marveled at the changes sweeping his homeland: new stores, more cars, enthusiasm for technology.

In 2001, not wanting to miss out on this transformation, Kalluri gave up a six-figure salary and the family's townhouse in Gaithersburg for a job here with an Indian conglomerate. His wife, Uma, gave up her daily syndicated dose of "Seinfeld." Daughter Lakshmi said goodbye to her Montessori preschool classmates.

These return migrations have become increasingly common; Indian expatriates such as the Kalluris are finding that, at times, the best way to move up is to move back.

They bought a beachfront house here, arranging the contents from their former home just as they were in Gaithersburg. But other transitions were not as simple.

They do not drive anymore; chauffeurs do that. Dutt Kalluri is one of the few executives arriving at meetings on time; his colleagues follow "IST" -- Indian Standard Time, which is to say, late. A wistful Uma Kalluri longs to make Folgers coffee instead of a sugar-and-spice-laden South Indian java and is adjusting to living with her mother-in-law.

Yet the Kalluris brush off the cultural disconnects, saying they have simply followed opportunity to the United States and back. "If you want to be in the latest trends, you have to be in India," said Dutt Kalluri, who heads data warehousing and business intelligence at the information-technology division of Larsen & Toubro Ltd., India's largest construction and engineering company. "Technology development happens in India. Technology consumption happens in the U.S."

President Bush travels to India this week with an ambitious agenda that includes boosting U.S.-Indian commercial ties. Such ties have strengthened in recent years, as Indian workers have migrated back and forth between the two nations. Largely over the past five decades, that migration has been outward as millions of Indians left their homeland to seek riches abroad, from the United Arab Emirates to the United Kingdom to the United States. They earned graduate degrees, launched careers in medicine and engineering, or took jobs as gas-station attendants and hotel clerks. They sent money back to their villages and delighted relatives with gifts such as Nike sneakers and Pringles potato chips during visits home. But since 1991, as foreign firms have poured billions of dollars into a more open and deregulated Indian economy, some expatriates have found the best thing they can give back is themselves.

"In the IT industry, there's significant value for people coming back," said Prakash Grama, an Indian native turned U.S. citizen who now lives in Bangalore and runs an association linking returning Indians with volunteer work. "And here you are not just accepted into society, you're recognized at the top."

Other countries are experiencing mass returns as well. The 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown spurred some of China's most entrepreneurial minds to flee, but with a thriving and more open Chinese economy, they are going back. Immigrants from Africa and Latin America, too, are starting businesses that allow them to divide their time between multiple homes and countries.

Here, members of India's diaspora are known as NRIs, or non-resident Indians. They are a revered lot, presumed to be successful due to their international experience. Those who return to India -- known as returned NRIs, or RNRIs -- tend to fill jobs on the higher rungs of the corporate ladder. They are the country's new elite, living in gated communities, networking in golf clubs, celebrating holidays such as Halloween and Thanksgiving -- transplanting their foreign lives in Indian soil.

Tens of thousands of India's best and brightest have made these multiple migrations, helping businesses on both sides of the ocean navigate East and West and providing a big boost to India's development.

The cultural impact on their nation is visible and visceral. The New Delhi suburb of Noida boasts a collection of luxury homes known as an "NRI Colony." Meanwhile, returning stay-at-home spouses confess they miss the freedom and distance of America, far from the prying eyes of in-laws and nosy neighbors.

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