Come May, and a memory that comes by is of a day almost exactly 18 years ago when I returned for good from the US to become an entrepreneur in India. And with that is the memory of the day I first landed in the US in September 1988. Let me start with the latter.
I landed in New York on an afternoon on the Labour Day weekend in 1988 just ahead of the orientation week at Columbia University. A friend was supposed to come and pick me up, but didn’t. This was in the pre-cellphone era, so I had no way to trace him. I had made a booking at YMCA, so went there by cab. The Lufthansa flight had left me very tired and with an upset stomach.
I reached YMCA and promptly fell asleep. The jet lag was taking its toll. I was feeling feverish, and was very hungry but didn’t want to go out on my own for some reason. My friend finally came in the evening, and that was a big relief. My first meal in the US was at Pizza Hut! It was my first taste of pizza. Post-dinner, I went off with my friend to stay at his graduate housing at Columbia – my housing request hadn’t yet come through.
For some reason, the memory of that day has stayed on. It wasn’t a particularly enthralling day. But it was the first day in the land that was so different from India, and a start of a fascinating four-year journey.
My US stay that began in September 1988 ended with my return to India in May 1992. I had quit NYNEX six months ago and spent that period in California working at a company as a precursor to coming back (with a friend) in a possible JV.
My return journey took me via Singapore. That was the most convenient way to come to Mumbai from San Francisco. The transit time in Singapore was about 12 hours. I went to meet a person who ran a big trading business out of Singapore. I still remember meeting him at his office and seeing the huge Singapore port in the window from his office. He talked about Singapore and all that it had accomplished. I was riveted with his success story — after all, I was en route to India to become an entrepreneur.
When I landed in Mumbai, I had a distressing experience. The Customs officers would not pass my PC which I had got on Transfer of Residence. They arbitrarily assessed it at a high value, and wanted money to clear it. The odds were stacked against me given the discretionary powers vested in the officers.
I spent the next 6 hours (my first 6 hours back in India) at the airport going from one counter to another — I was determined that I would not pay them anything that was not official. My mother waited patiently outside. It took inordinately long to get the paperwork done – and I left the airport in the wee hours of the morning without the PC. For that, I had to come back the next day to meet some Assessment Officer, and pay money (by cheque) before I could get the PC out.
The contrast between Singapore and India that encompassed a single day could not have been more stark. And even today, as I look back 18 years ago, even though things have improved in India, I cannot but help think of our lost decades that stunted a generation. Even today, we are still not able to outgrow the wrong turns we took post-Independence.