It was August 9, 1999 when I left my home in a train for Mumbai with a suitcase I borrowed from my aunt . I was home sick within about twenty minutes into that two day train ride, but also very excited to join TCS as a trainee in their Borivali campus – called the “Nortel building”. Twenty years later – yesterday, in an elementary school auditorium in Casa grande, AZ – Dhanya and I, along with 245 other immigrants from 53 countries became proud US Citizens !
As the day of the naturalization ceremony was coming up, a lot of memories have been flooding through my mind.
Few months after I joined TCS, I interviewed with a client in Colorado Springs, CO to be a developer on an SAP project. A couple of weeks later – I was on my first international flight ever ; BOM-LHR-JFK , with the $200 TCS travel desk gave me, and with practically no knowledge of how things worked on this side of the globe. But I was sure I could do a decent job at work – and till date I think the three months of training I got from TCS was the most valuable experience in my life. I also made some life long friends from that time.
My first two experiences in this country were two extremes. The first was a guy outside JFK who tried to convince me that the taxi fare to Laguardia was $200 . He ran for his life when I walked over to a cop to verify the fare :). The second was a very kind lady who realized quickly that I was lost (and stressed out) in the Denver airport – and took it on herself to call my manager and get directions on where I should go next. She yelled at him on the top her voice on the phone (he would tease me for a long time on what I did to him) , and then bought me a coffee and then walked away before I could even say a proper thank you. Till this day I believe she was an angel !
Most people who know me also know that I love Indian food. I have driven through snow storms for several hours in strange countries to find an Indian restaurant . When I first landed in Denver, I did not know how to cook – nor did I know how to find an Indian restaurant. I was miserable. A fellow Malayalee who was a senior to me in TCS invited me home and his wife fed me an amazing mallu dinner. Angels come in different forms !
I also remember a colleague in Kansas City when I was working for Cap Gemini Ernst & Young . She had heard about the convenience shop owner who would go stand near his gun chest and stare at me every night I picked up a TV dinner on my way back from work. She started driving me there – paying no attention to my protests – and would stand there staring at the shop owner. Did I say angels come in many forms ?
When I started in consulting, there were not a lot of partners who looked like me that I could learn from . But then two senior partners – Ken Englund and the late John Leffler – took me under their wings and I eventually got to the executive ranks as well.
All those angels – these folks I called out above and many many more – far out number the evil I have encountered in my life. I have lived and worked in three continents, and this has been true everywhere. I think these very kind folks are the primary reason I firmly believe in the idea of “Paying it forward” , loosely along the lines of what the principle of “Karma” teaches us. I don’t know if I will ever come anywhere close to what others have done for me – but I intend to keep trying.
For the first 6 years or so of living here – we had no intention of settling down here for good. The idea was just to make some money, gain some cutting edge tech experience, see a few places , and go back and live in India. But then the country grew on us. We had our daughter, our first dog, We bought a house, we made a lot of friends and IBM applied for my Green card. Just my luck – my application went into a lot of audits (including a court battle between the law firm that filed it with USCIS which they thankfully won). It took five or six years to get the Green Card. Another five years – more fur kids, changing houses and so on – we applied for Citizenship and finally got it yesterday. The legal immigration path is long and complex and it tests your patience. We respected the process and went through it – like many others – and it all worked out. I still need to figure out SSN updates, passport change and how to get an OCI card. But then again – I am sure the patience I gained through this long process will come to help 🙂
I am very proud of the country where I was born and raised. My love for my family in India, the schools and colleges I went to – and the teachers and class mates I had , my belief that there is no better cuisine than Indian food, my life long craze for Ilayaraja’s music, my conviction that Malayalam literature deserves more global recognition than it gets….none of that is ever going away.
I grew up in Trivandrum – where a the city center has a Hindu temple, a Church, a mosque and a fish market all right next to each other. I was born a Hindu. I attended a Hindu primary school, a Christian high school, a Muslim engineering college and a government run Business School. I am fairly sure if I ever counted – I have more Muslim and Christian friends than Hindu friends. Consequently – I am very secular in my belief system and certainly have no doubts that no religion is morally superior to any other. The idea that we are all equal and have the same rights – that is a deep rooted belief that India has ingrained in me.
Most years I get a chance to go to India for work and/or vacation. There is no feeling like landing in TRV airport seeing the shore line and endless coconut palms as the plane descends. I try to visit the local schools and colleges when I am there and share my thoughts, and engage in debates – something that I enjoy doing in US as well. I have some investment in India and I pay taxes for it. And like many other Indians who live outside India – I have always done what I can to contribute to help educate the children, fight poverty and help with disaster help whether it is in India or USA. Borders are important but ideally they belong to maps – they should not get in the way of doing the right thing.
When I finished my engineering college and B School – employment opportunities were scarce in India. That is not the case now. India is now a happening place and a fast growing part of global economy – even my sleepy old home town is buzzing these days. I often wonder if I would have ever caught that train to Mumbai if I got a good local job after college. If I grew up in the current Trivandrum – I probably would have never left . But that was not the reality when I was job hunting a couple of decades ago. And when I look back at the time I have lived in USA, it has been a huge net positive and fulfilling experience. So if I rewind the clock – I still think I would have taken that flight to JFK without a doubt !
The judge who presided over our naturalization ceremony asked us to stand up when each of our 53 countries were called out – and answer proudly one last time before we took the oath. It was a very emotional moment for me to stand up when I heard the clerk announce “India” – and I have no shame in admitting that tears ran down my face for a good few minutes. Later, after he declared us as Citizens, he added “This is a diverse and plural country – you should be proud to continue your traditions and continue to speak your language as you live as US Citizens”. I believe those words were also from an Angel !
Thank you India, and Thank you America – you both made me what I am today, and I will be grateful forever !
Many thanks to all of you who sent your good wishes to Dhanya and me yesterday on social media – We really appreciate it !
I saw that some folks from India – none of whom I know from before, and only a small percentage of those who commented – got very offended on Linkedin that I said I am proud to be a US citizen . It is unfortunate that they leaped to an unkind point of view that my post meant that I am not proud of my Indian heritage, even though I said no such thing. Please be assured – that is not at all the case !
I also want to point out that I totally respect their right to voice their opinion – just as I have a right to express mine. Thankfully the constitutions of both India and USA guarantee that right . I am not sure that calling me a Jackass is covered by the right to free speech though . I made my post in public domain, and I did it fully knowing that some folks who read it might not have empathy for the topic. There is a humorous and ironic side to the criticism as well – many of the “You are not a REAL Indian” crowd are employed at American companies like Apple, Amazon, 3M etc 🙂