Friday, December 22, 2006

Dollar Dreams from Andhra

It’s almost New Year now and a time when friends have their regular get together discussing the hits and misses of their lives over a dinner or a couple of drinks. This year also marks 10 years when I left my school to enter a new world .While contemplating a meeting to celebrate this, I realized that I am among the rare species of my batch who’s decided to not to pack my bags and flee India. There are just so many guys out there in the US that a get together there makes so much more sense than here.

What is that makes the average Andhraite so obsessed with the idea of going abroad or more precisely the US of A? He may not have any great visions on what to do when he goes there but he sure wants to land there, irrespective of the kind of work he does there. I have had friends working in petrol pumps and in bars in US which they would have never thought of doing in India. I attribute this to the mindset and the upbringing that has led them to believe that a Green Card ensures that the grass on the other side is always green.

I remember when I had given my job interview in ICICI Bank, I was asked how come I had done engineering and then moved over to MBA. I had answered that as a proper South Indian, I had become an engineer. May not be the best answer to give in an interview but that was the truth. South India generally suffers from a certain genetic disorder which forces them to become either engineers or doctors and I guess the problem is more accentuated in Andhra Pradesh.

The peer pressure of becoming an engineer and going to US is pretty high for the Andhraite. Right from childhood, he is constantly fed the mantra of “IIT” into his ears and by the time he is through with his primary school, he is ready to enter the haloed corridors of the IITs. In Andhra, students join coaching classes who tutor them to join Ramaiah or Krishnamurthy IIT coaching factories. These institutes then coach this select group of students for the IIT entrance exam. So, the crème-le-crème of the state is selected to train them into becoming IITians. For all those who do not enter IIT, we have a host of other engineering colleges which cater to this huge demand for engineers.

Post-engineering, most of the students take their GRE exam to do their M.S. abroad. Now this is of course a laudable attempt at higher education but you realize that the idea in many cases is not inspired by the concept of higher education but by the mere idea of going abroad and fulfilling the dreams that have been sown in their minds, for all these years, by their friends and family. They could be forgiven for assuming that it was for quality higher education. This argument must have made sense sometime back but now?

When one of my classmates had come down recently from Canada, he gave me gyan saying that the problem here is that people do not recognize you for your efforts unlike in the West and that there’s no strong incentive to work in such an environment. Nonsense, I say, what the hell am I doing here then? With a thought process like that and an outlook which fails to understand the progress we have made, I am really not surprised at such a remark.

The dowry amount is a strong incentive that drives parents to dream of their kids ensconced safely in California and elsewhere, while they spend days waiting for them to come back one day. So a B.Tech guy who commands a dowry price of say, Rs 10 lakh, would probably move into the 25 lakh+ category once he carries the “American abbayi” tag. I have seen palatial houses here constructed on the basis of the dollars sent back home but just a lonely couple waiting for their loved ones to come back one day and share their moments with them.

Friends tell me that this kind of exodus of people from one’s state is not a solitary case and they cite the classic example of Kerala where at least one member of every family works in the Gulf (more than 2 million of them in the Gulf). Numerically and statistically, the argument works but honestly, there’s no comparison between the 2 states when you look at the reasons for this. Majority of the Keralites employed in the Gulf work at lower strata in the Gulf society and do not represent the well-to do crowd there. This emigration is more to do with Kerala’s vehement anti-employment policy, which encourages people to look for other avenues for jobs.

But it is not my point that this flight of intellectual capital is wrong and that people should not leave our shores. After all, merely working in India does not make us any more patriotic. I am not even deriding the claims of subsidised technical education at the IITs though that can also be avalid point.Working outside India is a natural consequence of globalization where we export our most abundant natural resource-labour. This has also lead to a great deal of knowledge transfer that has been of immense utility to the country. The NRI remittances from there also contribute to a great deal in sustaining their families, though I also believe that this inflow (along with the IT pay packages) has fuelled to quite an extent Hyderabad’s inflationary real estate prices.

There’s something less tangible that we probably lose as we stay away from our roots; something I feel at a micro level when I am staying about 1500 odd km from my hometown. My point rests at a more emotional level about a sense of loss and erosion of identity that happens over a period of time.This becomes more pronounced as each generation goes by; somewhere akin to the loss of a certain genetic material found in us. Maybe it’s a purely emotional thought but as we go further away from our roots, there exists a certain loss of identity which is hard to regain as time passes.


  1. Well true the dollar dreams are quite strong.... and why only south it is true Pan India.... Gujjus, Panjus may only differ with the fact that theirs is either Pound or Canadian dollar dream.....

    But something much more scaring is the repercussion of the entire trend of children migrating to greener pastures leaving behind their elderly parents behind with empty nest syndrome….well the dollar earnings & good lifestyle promise does overwhelm in the initial days but alas it does not last long…..the trail of sadness & emptiness is all that is left behind. Parents longing to meet their child…waiting to hear them over phone … to see them once a while thru video conferencing (certain well to do city bred can think of that)…and the seldom fulfilling dream of meeting in person… the dollar is then no longer the ultimate attraction but the few moments of holding your offsprings hand…hearing a loved one complain…have a banter…. Crib on life… cook for him/her…. Minute pleasures of life suddenly seem to be the major ones then. Things people never cared for, moments never even realized leave alone cherished before are the ones to die for now.

    Innumerable parents who have encouraged dollar dreams in their child…tutored them to achieving them & later realized the emotional vaccum left in the aftermath of the successful dollar flight. Now all that is left is their vacant palatial ‘house’ build from the dollar remittances, much larger & emptier than their earlier small ‘homes’. Silver framed photo of their son/daughter with their luxury cars sent from abroad rather than the person they called their own. The parents are never going to travel in that luxury car with their kids… live in that luxury home…& the kids will never be able to come back to reverse the cycle, for the lure of money/luxury will be too overpowering by then for their minds which has been conditioned from childhood to think only about more & more money…(well who is to be blamed).

    Children don’t wish to come back once abroad for one they think ‘India’ stinks and no longer worth their presence…when the actual fact may be the lack of leave from their offices…cost of commuting … to their own children who do not know anything of their parents hometown & are more familiar with a Newyork or London….and hence not interested to travel down…

    All that remains with the people who nurture the dollar dreams is a ‘photograph’ of their sons & daughters… the garish huge empty ‘House’ built with the remitted dollars…and a wish for their remaining life to see their own…well isn’t that what they started out for?

    Happy dreaming!! remember there is a nightmare that awaits too

  2. sure hit the dot.
    The inherited Andhraite Flight is driven by a sense of rupee disparity and a need to showcase.

    Your value increases if you are "US returned" and is tremendous if "US settled". Back there the aim is to save as much as possible and hence familial ties take a backseat.

    But, as usual, the tone was slightly bitter, I see you have tried hard not to sound sarcastic.

  3. Good one Pradeep,

    My favourite is the Engineer or Doctors syndrome. I also liked
    the "Kerala" example which kind of strengthened why you chose to
    emphasize on A.P. You have a very strong hold on your writing.

    I wish you did not generalize some points. You have to be unbiased
    if you wish to publish such articles.

    Good job.

  4. What is that makes the average Andhraite so obsessed with the idea of going abroad or more precisely the US of A?

    It is the same thing that used to drive so many people to work in the middle east or the south east. It is the same thing that must have driven many people in the ancient times to move from the villages to the cities with royal palaces, business and entertainment. The only difference being that people had to travel fewer miles to reach their destinations while it takes the same effort to reach these longer distances now.

    South India generally suffers from a certain genetic disorder which
    forces them to become either engineers or doctors and I guess the problem is more accentuated in Andhra Pradesh.

    I believe that this isn't a genetic disorder but lack of right career counseling. Unlike lots of other developed countries, India does not provide any income to its unemployed families and every person would want his future to be financially secure. An MLA's/MP's kin would think of getting into politics, an actor's/actresses' kin would think of being an actor/actress. The environment in which they grow makes them feel confident about being able to work in that kind of a profession.

    Few people choose the tough/right way to earn better while most of us would want to come it the easy way. Few people achieve big in other fields. Everyone do not happen to recognize their talent for the right field.

    Looking at it at a different perspective, since most of our friends are either Engineers or doctors or have settled abroad does not mean that a major population is in the same drive. Had you been in jewellery business, you would have found lot of people being in the jewellery business. A period when you feel you have a high competition in the jewellery market you may start feeling, every guy wants to be in the jewellery business.

  5. Pradeep,

    The "loss of identity" that you spoke about was so much in view when I spoke to the owners of a mallu store here in Austin. The couple who run the Indian Grocery store moved to the US in 1975 and 3 decades of life here has left them regretting about almost everything - loss of identity, cultural alienation of their children, emotional stress of not having anyone to fall back on in times of need... And every sentence that they spoke ends in the ray of hope that they would be able to go back to their home town in Kerala soon once and for all. On the other hand, I doubt if they would ever be able to throw away their possessions and memories here and leave US forever. Classic example of being neither here nor there.

  6. Hi Pradeep.,

    I fully agree with your perspectives. I am one of those 'late' victims of the dollar dream (in the sense that I moved to Europe in early 30's). I experience the parents trauma (my parents never wanted me leave them in the first place)

    One thing that I never regret about leaving India - is about culture and roots. Today India is at cultural cross roads. Family values and traditions are eroding must faster than the polar ice caps. There is little respect for the elders. It is for the fact I know, how many IT and neo-rich youngsters are taking care of their elderly parents. At least the people living in the west worry about their parents out of guilt or otherwise and send dollars or funds - but the new wave in India is least bothered about them. I never bothered about my roots and culture while in India but now, we really work hard to preserve the same.

    The bottom line is as parents, irrespective of where your son(s) live, future is bleak!

  7. @Roopesh: You are probably right in calling it an all-India phenomena but I would like to write about what I have witnessed first hand.

    @Shashi: While we all move to cities or outside India in search of better jobs, I have always felt this one track obsession of the people around me to go to US - the land of dreams. As mentioned by me, this is not the same as the Middle East travel by Keralites. I agree we require better career counselling to understand that there's more to life than "medicine" and "engineering" but I do not buy the point of my opinion being biased because of my engineering background.. I look at myself as a banker now and I have met many other people since then and I continue to think that this place has a mad rush towards being the enginner/doctor types.

    @Kurur: The identity crisis is really the biggest issue, I guess. After sometime, you are neither here nor there. One reason I would not like to leave my country and go outside.

    @Kishore: I guess you are right, sometimes, the farther you are, the closer you try to get to your roots. Could be a sense of guilt or maybe an attempt to retain one's perceived sense of identity, when abroad. But hey, don't be so desperate, I always liek to dream of a brighter future.

  8. Perception is not always reality.

  9. Pradeep,

    Excellent article......Mirror of the facts. This is applicable domestically too. Its all a matter of money, status and society perception.

    Inspite of this, there is a huge vaccum within all such individuals...a feeling of weariness of being constantly in this hollow race.

  10. Really a nice article views are 90 % matching with urs.. but my post is still in my draft ..

  11. The Kerala example is interesting since you mention that Mallus in the Gulf are lesser qualified than Gults in the US . All Mallus in the gulf know that they can never permanently stay in the Gulf and will have to return . This is in contrast with the highly educated Gults who find it easier to secure permanent residency.
    I do get a feeling that money is fast losing its worth in Kerala . There is not enough resources in this state for the splurging Gulfees .

  12. This post is made in 2006. Now the dowry rates are 5X. In top circles, crores are spent only on the wedding. Though there are thousands of engineering colleges rolling out lakhs of graduates each year, the demand far exceeds the supply. so our engineers really dont need to do jobs. They can invest or deposit dowry somewhere and sit idle in their offices poking fun at other less fortunate folks and 'managing' things.

  13. As long as one is able to take care of their parents it should not matter. The social structure in India is fast changing. The present day educated girls would not like to be doing home making at inlaws place and rather choose to have her own family once she gets married. hence whether the new generation is back in India or in US it hardly makes any difference. Rather the distance and occassional visits by parents to US and children to India may improve love and affection for each other rather than constant tug of war between mother in law and daughter in law.

    The job nature really does not matter. It could be nice if one could afford good qualification in USA (this is expensive now) otherwise it is fine as long as the person does a job. Doing work in petrol bunk or shops is not in any crime and any job should be respected.

  14. Thanks, Prabhu for dropping by...It is true that with both the set of spouses working, there may not be able to give enough time to their family, even when in India. But the proximity gives you that much more time to be together if you want - living in the same city but in separate houses and visiting parents a couple of times in the month is something that many couples do now. This advantage is not available when you travel so far away from them..

  15. Hi! I came upon your article when I was searching for exactly this topic. This obsession is too such a level that this has become a recurring feature even in Telugu movies!

    I am from Maharashtra and this obsession is common there as well. And it poses a great problem to people like me who are directly or indirectly told to stay outside India once we have gone to some country for higher education. It is really difficult for the parents and relatives to understand the loneliness that sets in after a few days into your course. I am still waiting for my parents to stop telling me that they will be glad to see me settled outside India, in spite of the fact that I would like to stay close to them.

    In spite of the readymade tea bags and canned milk, sometimes all you want to have is a cutting chai.

    I agree with the point of erosion of identity. When one is India, one is a part of a large family or group. When one is in the 'developed' countries, he/she is lost in the crowd. The supposed 'contact' that they may have with their family during the yearly December visits have no impact on the kids whatsoever. They are entirely American/British/Australian, and at best can be said to be of 'Indian origin'.

    All that people in India see when they imagine the life in countries outside are the clean roads, basic amenities and the fact that everybody has a car. What they don't see is a monotonous life of work on weekdays and cleaning on weekends and, the fact that it takes months of saving to buy the car, which in most cases is second hand.