Is the grass on the other side really so green

Written by Sandipan Deb | Updated: Sep 21 2006, 05:30am hrs
The only time I have felt a little twinge about the fact that I did not push off to the US immediately after graduation, like so many of my collegemates did, was one evening a few years ago. I was sitting with a couple of friends in Harvard Square, at an outdoor table at a caf called Au Bon Pain. This was the heart of Harvard University, seat of learning more than 375 years old. All around us ebbed and flowed a mesmerising sea of humanity.

At tables near us sat elderly academic-looking men and women engrossed in books and sipping coffee. At the one next to ours, an old man with a snow-white beard nearly down to his navel contemplated his next move in a chess game he was playing with a young man hardly out of his teens. There were tables filled with groups of students of every colour of the human race, excitedly arguing. Up and down the square walked students, some alone, some in chattering groups, book-laden satchels on their backs. At a corner stood a young woman, surely a student, doing a fine juggling act while keeping up a singsong chant with a hat for tips at her feet. Tracy Chapman used to go to Tufts University, not far from here, one of my friends told me. The storys that she used to come here every evening, to Harvard Square, and sing.

At one end of the square stood the imposing Widener Library, named after Harry Elkins Widener, Harvard graduate and avid book collector, who went down with the Titanic. Legend has it that as he was about to get into a lifeboat, he remembered he had left behind a book particularly precious to him, and went back to save it. He never returned. Widener has literally millions of books in more than 100 languages, including, according to horror writer H P Lovecraft, the few remaining copies of the Necromonicon, a centuries-old tome of pure evil. Sitting at Au Bon Pain, I felt a twinge. The air I was breathing, the entire atmosphere, everything all around me, was about a keen pursuit of knowledge, of academic excellence, cheerful debate, intellectual curiosity. I deeply envied each and every one of the students passing by, so young and in a place that exists only to seek and discover. I had been a fool, I thought, not to have taken the GRE out of a mix of vague patriotism and clear laziness. I had missed something that could have been very valuable and enriching by not spending a few years in an American university.

I have never had any desire to live in the US, or for that matter, anywhere other than India. And any Indian visiting the US will need only a few days to figure out that all the hype about Indian-Americans at the peak of every field in the US, from business to scientific research, academia to Wall Street, is, well, hype. Yes, many Indian-Americans have done wonderfully well, are truly at the top of their profession, but they are statistically insignificant. For every Rajat Gupta, every Gururaj Deshpande, there are a thousand Indians who are cogs in the wheel in some gigantic corporate machine, worker bees plodding away (or, in a majority of cases now, coding away), unnoticed and inconsequential. And the irony is that they would have been much better off if they had stayed back in India, or come back here after completing their post-graduate studies in the US.

For every Rajat Gupta, there are a thousand Indians in the US who are cogs in some massive company, inconsequential worker bees
Everyone owns a house in the US, so those parents with their albumsful of pictures of the fine two-storey wooden house that their son has bought in an Austin suburb bore me stiff. Yes, the son works in Dell Computers, but what does he do there He is part of a product development team. Well, my cousin handles Dells business process outsourcing for all of Asia, working out of Bangalore. And his standard of living is far higher than the Indian engineer in Austin.

What sort of social life does he have in Texas Well, there are a lot of Indians who live nearby, in fact quite a few of his collegemates too. They have a lot of fun. During the cricket World Cup, all of them would put on blue India jerseys they bought from rediff.com, and watch every match together. And every alternate Saturday, they have a get together at one of their homes.

My experience of these weekend get togethers has been the following. The men reminisce about their college days in India, or discuss work, or speculate about stock options. The women sit separately (decked up in what was fashionable in India two years before, since that was the last time they visited and bought clothes) and discuss Ekta Kapoors serials. Its all very jolly and comfortable, but smells suspiciously of both a time warp and a cocoon.

When I do an audit of the careers of my college classmates, I find that some have done remarkably well in the US; they are millionaires, or luminaries in their chosen academic or research fields, with, and this is important, a lot of American friends. But the majority of my pals lead comfortable but unexceptional lives. They work hard, earn well, own homes and cars, have a reasonably good social life limited to their own ethnicity. Which is OK. But what bugs me is that they are not making a difference to their environment. If they quit a job, it has no impact on the companys balance sheet. They can be instantly replaced and life will go on, and no one will notice anything. Such a lot of intelligence, such a lot of potential, wasted.

In contrast, most of my friends who have stayed back take strategic decisions, affect the fortunes of their companies, are in positions to delegate authority. They clearly, visibly make a difference to their environments. None of them regret not settling in the US.

But not breathing university oxygen in the US for a few years That, anyone who can, should do. And be a cog in the wheel in the free markets of knowledge.