In my third year of high school in New Jersey, a political science teacher posed the question: Will we ever see a black president in America?
Nobody thought it was possible. Least of all my best friend, a Pakistani, hijjab-wearing Muslim named Saba.
Earlier this week, Saba and I exchanged emails from laptops perched in front of our living-room televisions, thousands of miles and an ocean apart, remembering that class and how we were so quick to dismiss the country our parents had respectively chosen to make their home. And we each signed off with the same thought: In the new America, maybe even our children might become president!
With that thought, I have bittersweet news: Today is my last day at Mint.
It’s been two years since my family and I moved to India, a time span that happened to be the deadline to at least decide if our future lies here or there.
Starting this past summer, my husband and I would stay up late and discuss, debate, even argue. India had been great for his career, he would say. He felt creative and reinvigorated. I largely agreed.
“But I am tired,” I said. “It’s not just working at a start-up. It’s running the household, the uncertainty of water coming out of the tap, the driver showing up. And I cannot have one more parent-teacher meeting about my moral opposition to colouring in the lines. The school thinks I am crazy.”
He remained silent. And we decided not to decide.
Then came the puppy.
She was one in a litter of seven from a street dog. A picture forwarded to us with a plea from a friend of a friend. If we didn’t take her, she would end up a stray. So we adopted her.
Instead of feeling magnanimous, I felt lousy. After nearly two years in India, the best I could do to give back was take in a dog?
It wasn’t the first time guilt consumed. There, of course, came reminders every day as beggars tapped on my windows or, if I happened to sit in an auto rickshaw, they touched and probed. I tried to pack a few extra rotis on some mornings to hand out but there was never enough. And moments abounded where I would be caught off guard. One night, my husband and I walked hand in hand after an amazing dinner at a Thai restaurant with a friend. It was just one of those times where the conversation and booze had flowed and we all were feeling good about the state of the world. And then I saw a group of street children. Suddenly, I hated the world.
Even more intimately came the calls for help from family. For jobs, money, advice. Every other month, I’d leave this decadent existence I live in Delhi for Assam, and I’d wonder when and where these two Indias might meet except in my burning conscience.
I raised the dreaded subject again. Escaping didn’t feel right.
“Before we go, can we try to do something?” I asked my husband.
So next week, my family and I plan to pack up and move to Assam for a few months, volunteering on a mix of employment, education, artistic and journalism projects. My expectations, once high and lofty, already have been lowered—helping even just a half-dozen people access work, information or justice will suit me just fine. If I fail, then at least understanding why India hasn’t shone in this north-eastern pocket might be enough to let me return without as much guilt.
Yes, we do plan a return to the US. There are many reasons for this, personal to professional.
I recall the somewhat arrogant words with which I kicked off this column in February of 2007: “Human resources managers say we are in demand, that we can help be the change agents in an evolving India.”
What I didn’t expect is that a stint in Indian media would actually transform and humble. Working here has helped me better understand how US media could have gone wrong, grown too complacent, failed to innovate. Over the last few weeks, the news in the US yields this affliction as a plague across sectors. So, when a job came up that would allow me to marry lessons learnt here and there, I jumped.
“Why are you going back?” I have been asked. “Everyone’s trying to come to India now.”
For that 16-year-old sceptic I once was, the unbelievable has happened: A black man has become President. But if you asked me then if the day would come in my lifetime that I would see America on the decline, I might also have scoffed. Yet, here we are.
Thus, in leaving, I follow the same thing that brought me to India in the first place: opportunity, a belief in a country and its people, a desire to see it succeed. Thankfully, and partly a result of this column, I know I can have it both ways; I can choose more than one allegiance.
Wider Angle will run every fortnight before it ends its run early next year. But until then, there is much work to do, still much to learn from this home before I can head for the other.
Join S. Mitra Kalita at http://blogs.livemint.com/onthejob for a live chat today at 3pm.
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