Several years ago, I had lunch with the then finance minister of India Manmohan Singh and his family in their sprawling government bungalow in New Delhi. During lunch Dr Singh had a brief private conversation with me. He told me that things had improved substantially in India and the country needed people like myself -- foreign educated MBAs (one of the two master's degrees I have earned in the US) to come back and work there.
Twenty-three years ago, I was a young student, when I first moved to New York City and in these past two decades so many people have asked me why I do not move back to India. There were friends who suggested that I should return to India to take over my father's successful publishing business; aunts, uncles and cousins who hinted that I should come back and live in India to be with my parents who are now in their mid-70s.
Last year, another politician -- the former Indian minister of state for external affairs and a friend from university in India, Digivijay Singh, said this in so many words. "What are you doing in America?" he asked. "Come back to India, and work for a newspaper there. So many more people will read your writing." And two weeks ago a journalist friend from Mumbai asked why I live in the US where I really do not belong.
All of these thoughts and words played through my mind last night as I watched a preview of Ashutosh Gowariker's ambitious, but at times flawed and way too long new film -- Swades. In brief, the film is about an NRI, who visits India to look up his childhood nanny, and in the process rediscovers his connections, roots and falls in love with the land of his birth. The film is handsomely shot, with heartfelt performances and charming songs in the tradition of Gowariker's last project -- Lagaan.
Swades is very long -- the second half could have easily been edited down by at least half an hour. Gowariker attempts to tackle so many problems that the film's focus seems cluttered, just as the mind of its protagonist, the NRI scientist Mohan (played by Shah Rukh Khan). I wish Gowarikar had cut down the endless and rather boring scenes set at NASA -- where Mohan works and instead have shown more of his life in the US. The conflict in his mind, whether to return to India for good would have seemed much more real.
But I felt connected with the film. A R Rahman's haunting voice, set to his composition, a piercing piece shehnai and Javed Akhtar's lyrics stayed with me the entire night and even now as I type on my keyboard:
Yeh jo des hai tera
Swades hai tera
Tujhe hai pukaaraa
Yeh woh bandhan hai jo
kabhi toot nahi sakta...
I know Swades is a movie, a piece of entertainment, an artistically made, commercial venture, which I hope will succeed. But perhaps it is a state of mind I have been in for the past several years. Swades spoke to me.
My 23 years in the US have been full of ups and downs. First the downs -- three-and-a- half years ago -- five months before the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, a fire burned down my apartment. Twenty years of my life in the US -- at least the material life -- was completely destroyed within an hour. A few months later my marriage of 16 years ended.
These are tragic events that can have devastating affects on people and their lives. But I am still standing here -- in New York City. It is my home and I do belong here. I am a part of the city, its large and visible desi community. I am on the board of the South Asian Journalists Association. I spend my free time watching foreign and indie films in Manhattan's many art-house theatres, attend book readings, political talks and panel discussions, and hang out in the city's cool bars and restaurants. I often attend desi parties and dance to bhangra and Bollywood music, with my fellow NRIs.
I have a 13-year-old son, who was born in the US. More than anything, my son gives me a sense of belonging -- the Saturday morning trips I take to Harlem for his baseball clinic; watching him play drums in his school jazz band; dancing to hip-hop music at a friend's son's bar mitzvah; and on Diwali night listening to him recite the Gayatri Mantra at his maternal grandparents' apartment in the city.
I made my adult life in New York City and my world is here.
India is also my life and I cannot seem to shake that out of my system. Each trip I take to my other home -- visiting my parents in New Delhi and friends in Mumbai, I watch, observe, and breath the changes that have taken place in the last two decades. I have friends who have moved to India (some have since then returned to the US) and I am always very curious about how they live their lives in New Delhi or Mumbai.
I left India when there was one television channel and that too in black and white. I now return to India where young kids and adults in the cities are SMS'ing each other from movie theatres and the streets. My father demolished the house I grew up in South Delhi and built apartments on the same plot of land. It is the exact same location, but it does not feel and smell like my childhood home.
India has changed a lot and sometimes I do not recognise that country.
Maybe as Manmohan Singh said, India needs me. I have not figured that out yet. But I know my parents need me, but out of choice and other personal reasons I continue to live in the US.
After nearly three-and-a-half-hours of film time, Swades' Mohan makes his choice and resolves his conflict. He goes back to his nanny's village. He is able to give it all up after Rahman's voice and Akhtar's lyrics speak to him.
My life is not as simple as Mohan's. I have not made any decisions about where I will live for the rest of my years. But I know I will be in India, next year, for a vacation.Aseem Chhabra is the New York-based contributing special correspondent to India Abroad, the newspaper owned by rediff.com