What’s It Like Being Back?

Everywhere I go, people sympathize with me when I tell them I’ve moved back to India after living abroad for ten years: whether it’s at a store, party or work.

Across the board, people lean in, curious: “what’s it like being back? How are you adjusting? Poor you, it must be so hard”. Or they laugh: “are you crazy? Why would you choose to be here?”

I can’t say this often enough: it’s great being back.

As anyone that knows me will tell you: I was strongly reluctant to move back initially. I was worried about the quality of life, work culture, being a working woman in a regressive society. But I’ve been positively surprised. Things have changed dramatically in Mumbai over the past ten years.

Yes, the traffic in Mumbai is terrible: but it’s terrible in LA, London, NYC, and every other major cosmopolitan city. Yes, the work culture differs: people can be less proactive and need more hands-on management. You have to repeat yourself more often, and make granular decisions: but they’re also more hungry to learn, earn, do: and they work harder. Yes, the lack of personal space is frustrating: but it’s beautiful that so many people truly care about you.

I do struggle more here: I work harder. I worry about the air I breathe, and the commute is exhausting. The pay is worse. But I’m also leading the web series division of a fast growing media startup in India. I’m not sure I would have been able to do the same work, at the same pace and scale anywhere else. I get to tell untold stories, to a quickly growing local and foreign audience, that’s hungry for higher quality, relatable content. Global platforms and audiences are increasingly keen to hear what we have to say. There’s a new crop of creative talent clamoring to build a more transparent, meritocratic culture. When did we have such access to the world stage before?

What about the ‘backwardness’ of society? Or how women are treated? Admittedly, my perspective is highly urban, privileged and skewed: but personally, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how women are treated both at work and home: I’ve honestly faced much more subtle and covert sexism abroad. Of course, there are serious problems here. But it’s more in your face, more blatant: and therefore in some ways both more frustrating, but easier to pinpoint and tackle.

Every place has its drawbacks: I’ve lived in London, Palo Alto, Boston, Athens and San Francisco over the past ten years.

The air is cleaner, but relationships are colder: the people are more lonely. It’s harder to connect and be truly known. There are advantages to living in a community-based culture, versus an individualistic one: I can see this as I grow older.

Let’s highlight what we’ve built and the progress we’ve made. The constant comparisons and references to American culture: on the radio and on TV, in the way our companies are built and run, at our dinner tables and in our personal lives is almost sad. The colonial hangover is strong: people assume you must somehow know more or be ‘better’ because you’ve lived abroad.

I’ve spent a significant part of the past five years increasingly frustrated by borders shutting and increasingly regressive immigration policies. I was in London when the Brexit vote when through and in California when Trump was President: but I think this is a seriously positive opportunity for India. We can encourage our brightest minds and talent to move back, versus feel sorry for the people that do.

Our generation has the chance to raise the standard of work, to set a new standard for how we want to live, be treated and treat others. We also get to shape how the world sees us: through the way we perceive and present ourselves. Our words and mindsets matter.

I choose to be here. And I’m excited for what’s to come.

Natasha Malpani Oswal 🦋

Written by

Leading @dicemediaindia. Stanford MBA. Ex-@mattervc + @bigsocietycap. Oxford + Cambridge alum. ❤️ building startups + storytelling. Poet. Author of Boundless.