Timshel, Thou mayest — East of Eden, John Steinbeck
In early 2005, the three spoken words that often made me break into a cold sweat were Wanna get coffee? Coffee shops were an epidemic across Bangalore, as were Lance Armstrong's yellow wristbands. Why anyone would want to spend ten times the money for a hot beverage in an air-conditioned coffee shop rather than drinking coffee at a local eatery was beyond me. Wearing a piece of plastic on one's wrist when daytime temperatures mandated the use of deodorant was even more incomprehensible. I had left Bangalore to study in America when I was eighteen and returned seven years later, only to find that time-travel was indeed possible, even on Air India. I felt I had been gone for over twenty years.
Being an engineer, I spoke almost exclusively in Star Wars analogies, often inducing puzzled looks on the faces of my more amorous coffee-buyers. I thought it was normal to encourage people by saying, 'May the Force be with you!' Perhaps what they really expected from me was that I hold their hand, lean in and say something different, if at all. I was unaware for many moons that being 'foreign-returned' meant that I was considered to be eligible to those who could afford expensive coffee. I had been a scholarship student most of my life and held jobs that required me to wash dishes, stock shelves, teach classes or write code outside of my college work for at least twenty hours a week. I considered myself the kind of blue-collar girl who drank beer out of a bottle, not a chilled glass. The air-conditioning soon got on my nerves and I stopped drinking coffee and beer altogether.
I had convinced my parents to allow me to stay by myself — that had been our agreement on my moving back. I did not want to be a cranky roommate and my own space offered me a chance to keep my old life in America intact, as much as I could.
I quickly started acquiring new clients from among the abundant technology startups in Bangalore and stopped asking American- educated questions such as Can I get some bottled water?
I spent most of my working hours setting up a small business in Bangalore with the help of my brother. We worked out of an office housed in a windowless basement — for someone who loved sunshine, this was a harsh dose of reality. When the monsoons arrived a month later, the first day of torrential rain flooded the entire office. Since the entrance was on an incline, the water was going to come in, no matter what. The outside drainage had clogged up and what unfolded was a character-defining experience. My brother and I sent the staff home, rolled up our shirts and pants, got on the floor and started mopping. There was never any discussion about what needed to be done. With the help of a broomstick, the drainage was also unclogged. When we sat down to dinner that night, my brother and I grinned at each other, as if it was our own little joke. We both preferred to strike out on our own, even if it meant mopping floors.
We would stay in that office for seven years to come, and it was the best office of all. If you asked me why, I'd tell you that it was because it taught two city brats that dreams are not built on fresh air and sunshine alone, and because it embodied everything a small business should. I quickly started acquiring new clients from among the abundant technology startups in Bangalore and stopped asking American- educated questions such as Can I get some bottled water?
Starting a business in India in 2005 was a tiring prospect. We named the company PatNMarks and positioned ourselves as a product company building prior-art search databases for Indian IP information. I had graduated with a bachelor's and master's in computer engineering and writing computer programmes was really all that I knew how to do. Building a search-engine to work with an antiquated database seemed like a really cool problem to solve.
Just as most of my cherished trinkets come from my mother, so did this idea. She explained to me that searching for information on any patent, trademark, or other intellectual property filed in India was not an easy, automated task. It involved physical visits to patent offices in the metros and hours of sifting through files. She outlined the problem simply enough for me to jump in head first, ready to tackle it in the best way I could. It did not ruffle or embarrass me that my initial funding came from my father. I felt empowered and humbled by the fact that he believed in me and supported my decisions. My father has fended for himself since he was seventeen. He had also built a successful business, along with my mother. Even if I did not enjoy it or agree with it at times, I listened to my father's advice keenly. I resisted the urge to rent a building and buy myself a grand desk, as the capital we had was better spent on more important things, such as setting up a website and hiring people.
I realized a little re-organization of letters was all it might take to convert my quandary into a vision of heroism
The Bangalore I had returned to was just not the same place I had left behind. I tried reconnecting with my childhood friends, but I found that I didn't understand them anymore. Most were married and had their own families to attend to. A lot of things in life came easy for many of us; our parents owned homes, we had hired help when we needed it, babies were washed, cleaned and burped by someone else and laundry was a heavenly non-chore. Staying in touch with my friends in the US was proving difficult; we did not have smartphones yet. My best friend from college and I tried to stay in touch via email and phone calls, which cost a pretty penny. On one particularly long call, he told me that his groovy girlfriend of many years had left him. He was sobbing on the phone while I tried to convince him to turn to David Sedaris instead of other forms of stress relief. We recalled a famous line from his audio CDs, all the rage before I left America, in which he talks of his brother's attitude towards adversity: 'Shit man, when shit gets you down, just say "F-it" and eat yerself some candy!' I felt terribly alone and helpless that day. I wanted to ape the good things about my time in America, riding bikes, thinking freely, seeking out friendships that lasted. My human-ness seemed to be up for constant evaluation, but when my best friend misheard that as 'Hanuman-ness', I realized a little re-organization of letters was all it might take to convert my quandary into a vision of heroism, of a monkey-faced god carrying Sita's belongings out of burning Lanka.
Excerpted from Anywhere But Home (Harper Sport, Rs 350) with permission from HarperCollins Publishers India.
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