"Alright Mohan. Go light your bulb." - Swades (2004)
Every Indian student abroad will agree that So do you think you will come back? is the most consistent question that comes their way from folks back home. Not a huge believer in conventional nationalism, I used to honestly answer that I was not sure. I came to the US (to study health policy at Harvard University) last August with an open mind. By January, however, the clouds around my brain started clearing. Headmaster Dumbledore, arguably the most influential modern-day philosopher and radical, once said that it is our choices that show what we truly are. That is a profound truth. On most occasions, as we start thinking about jobs and life and settling down, the single greatest influence swaying our choices is most probably not ideals or principles or philosophy or even sometimes morals; it is money. For the 'well-paying' job (and the associated 'good quality life'), most of us give up most other considerations. It would be foolish of course to belittle the importance of money, but it is also ill-advised to give it too much weight. Understanding this subtle truth is the sine qua non for ensuring that the big choices of life stay choices, not bargains.
Once I realized that, my diaspora dilemma suddenly became eminently resolvable; especially as Gandhi, the Bangs, and Swades had already primed me well. It is not immediately apparent to most of us that Mohandas Gandhi is India's original NRI. He had earned a reputation and great respect for himself as a lawyer in South Africa and had the choice to become very (financially) wealthy by continuing that. But he chose differently and, despite never owning riches or a home or a car, still certainly lived a much fuller life than most of humanity does. Swades, in one of the most apt annotations in movie history, begins with this fascinating Gandhi quote: Hesitating to act because the whole vision might not be achieved, or because others do not yet share it, is an attitude that only hinders progress.
"The purpose of life is to live a life of purpose: we need India to gift our lives a fabulous purpose."
In the lesser-known field of public health in India exist two very well-known magicians, Drs Rani and Abhay Bang. Gandhians themselves, they returned to work in a Maharashtrian village after earning a public health degree from USA's prestigious Johns Hopkins University in the 1980s: a time when the state of affairs in India was extremely dismal and nobody would have blamed them for staying away from the country. Go where you are needed is the mantra I have learnt from the Bangs, who left all luxuries to live and work in the poorest region of Maharashtra. For me as a health professional, there is nothing more meaningful than working in India - a nation where the ratio of doctors:population is very poor. And for me as an individual, the absurdity of living thousands of miles away from my country at a time when it is undergoing phenomenal cultural and political churning has lately become apparent. For example, next time an India's Daughter is banned, I want to be in India, madly sharing the video links and defying the ban.
So now I'm finally at peace, no longer in a dilemma. I may study and tour abroad, but I am certain I will never be working and settling anywhere other than India. The country definitely needs well-trained professionals like me to return and work there.
"I am coming to India not because it needs me, but because I need it."
Oh wait... Did I say India needs me? Woah. To think of it, does it even make a difference to a nation of 1,281,138,000 people if I add myself to it? A powerful, colossus of a civilization needing me actually sounds preposterous. Indeed, India doesn't need us - it is we who need India. The purpose of life is to live a life of purpose: we need India to gift our lives a fabulous purpose. That is what this splendid country, with its magnetic magnificence, has always done - infused people's lives with glorious purposes. Several centuries before Christ, its serenity and natural wondrousness inspired its inhabitants to compose a remarkable body of literature that still spellbinds scholars and laypersons alike; around 500 BCE its poverty and suffering transformed a pampered prince into a highly intellectual sage we venerate even today; around 1000 CE its sensuality and boldness gave temple sculptors a unique purpose whose curvaceous fruits we find delicious even now; in rest of the world's 'dark' Middle Ages its awe-inspiring diversity and richness transformed an illiterate teenager king into one of the wisest and most enlightened emperors ever; in the 1990s its corruption and healthcare woes motivated a London-trained cardiac surgeon to develop a singularly unique system of hospital administration which fascinates experts everywhere; and in 2004, its impoverished little child selling water at a train station convinced a NASA scientist who used to believe 'it's a much better life there' that 'there's a lot I can do here.'
I am coming to India not because it needs me, but because I need it. I want to animate my life with a purpose and a meaning, and nowhere will that journey be more exhilarating than in this ancient and chaotic country. Like Mohan, I hope I'll be able to light my own little bulb.