R2I Profiles – Launching a New Category

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My WordPress dashboard stats tell me that a lot of organic traffic comes from folks searching for “nris returning to india” or “indians returning to bangalore”. When I started this blog in 2008, this was the primary target group I had in mind. If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, then you know that we moved to Bangalore from SF Bay Area when our kids were 5 and 2.5 and that our kids are attending school at NPS Koramangala (a CBSE board school, not an International/IB school). You may have also noticed that most of my posts in the second year are categorized under Settling Down instead of Returning to India.

Sure – I’ve written about how we picked schools for our kids, our escapades with the drivers and of becoming one with the Bangalore traffic. But that’s merely one perspective. What if you are considering Hyderabad or Delhi/NCR because you have family there? What if your older kid is 10 years and you are wondering if you’ve waited too long? When to keep a cook and driver? and when not to? When does it make sense to send your kids to a CBSE school vs. an international school? Answers to these questions can only come from the hordes (yes “hordes”) of Indians with heterogenous profiles who have returned before and after us.

Without further ado, I present to you R2I Profiles (short for Returned-To-India Profiles) – a new category that shall feature interview-style posts with other folks who have made the bold (or foolish) move back to the motherland. Stay tuned! (Hopefully not for too long)

….

And the posts have started to come in…

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Hum do humare do…bina exhaust ke

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2-day old Blue Reva fresh after car-puja – in kissing distance of older sibling (SX4)

Title translation (for non-Hindi readers): Hum do humare do is an old 1970’s era government initiated family planning slogan to promote  family of four (hum do = we two, humare do = our two). Bina exhaust ke = without exhaust.

So… two months shy of our 2nd year anniversary of returning to India, we purchased our 2nd car – a blue REVAi. If you’ve not been tracking electric car trends, RECC (REVA Electric Car Company) has been selling REVAi electrics in India since 2001 and in UK since 2003. For possibly a few more years, RECC remains the only company in India selling electric cars. The wikipedia entry for RECC accurately describes REVAi as an urban electric micro-car seating two adults and two kids. Did I say accurate? I meant ‘nearly accurate’ because it should read two adults and two kids (under the age of 10).

Now that we’ve established how small the REVAi is, let’s move to other specs. For this, I shall borrow liberally from this 2006 review of the REVAi in The Hindu…

The first thing that hits you when you look at the car is its size which makes you think of yourself as Gulliver, the giant when you sit inside. The steering is a wee bit too close to your chest and the A pillars close in on you.

Ok – so I wasn’t done talking about the REVA’s size. If you don’t step in gingerly to the driver’s seat, you could easily brush the lever to make it high beam. If you turn your head around suddenly (to see what your 4-year old’s doing in the back seat), the rear-view mirror would need readjusting.

The Reva’s a full metre shorter than the Maruti Suzuki Wagon R but around 100kg heavier than Maruti Suzuki 800. The body is built of hard ABS (acrylonitrile-butadiene-styrene) plastic and a tubular space frame holds everything together. Eight deep discharge batteries sourced from leading American golf cart battery maker, Trojan, sits in the middle of the chassis, with the controller and energy management system parked under the rear section of the car. The motor itself, a Bulgarian 13KW DC unit from Kostov, sits beneath the chassis and powers the rear wheels. The job of the energy controller is to make sure current is drawn equally from the batteries, especially during high load requirements and there are no surges and spikes.

The golf cart lineage certainly shows with the quiet humming of the motor. Our li’l one’s take on that humming sound – “it feels like we are in an airplane on the runway”. By the way, the rest of the comments in The Hindu review are slightly dated since the new batteries are supposed to extend the driving distance to the 70-90k range depending on your use of air-conditioning).

The REVA buying decision was somewhat analogous to our returning to India decision. There are a lot of reasons why one would NOT want to buy this car and only a few reasons why one should. Turned out those few reasons were crucial.

Reason #1: (Zero emissions) This is a dead-obvious reason but needed to be stated. Until public transportation becomes a viable option in Bangalore (will it ever?), we needed a 2nd car and it just couldn’t be a traditional petrol/diesel one.

Reason #2: (Automatic transmission car) Ever since our adventures with The Janus Man came to an end, we haven’t employed a full-time driver. I’ve  become scarily comfortable driving the SX4 in various types of Bangalore traffic conditions but the kids’ dropoffs and pickups from school, ferrying them to after-school activities has required a combination of part-time drivers from EZiDrive and auto-rickshaw rides. P has been on the threshold of to-hell-with-these-drivers-but-I-cant-drive-a-stick-shift-car. Getting the REVA is expected to be a watershed moment for her. First the learner’s license, then driving in Sunday traffic, then driving in Saturday traffic, then driving solo on weekends, and…voila! one day she goes solo on weekdays as well. We are not sure if she or the kids are more excited with this prospect.

Reason#3: (Minimalism) What’s the smallest car that can get us around and keep the kids protected from the air pollution? Turns out the only answer in 2010 is REVAi. Small is indeed beautiful.

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The things you can learn from an auto driver…

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Taxi drivers anywhere in the world are a chatty bunch. Well, guess what? Auto drivers in India are no different. Below is the exchange between my wife (P) and the auto driver (AD) after the younger one had been dropped off to school. The conversation took place in Hindi but I’ve transcribed Hindi & English for AD’s dialogues and English only for P.

AD: Is school ke liye kitna donation lagta hai? (What’s the donation to get a child into this school? School in question is NPS Koramangala)

P: This school doesn’t require any donation.

AD: Kya? Donation nahin lagta? (What? No donation?!)

P: No, thats one of the good things about this school – one of the reasons why it is in demand.

AD: Fees kitna hai? (How much is the fee?)

P: Annual fee for first year is Rs. 7o,000 but, for subsequent years, the fee actually reduces.

AD: Acchha. Maine Rahul Dravid ko teen bar dekha. Uska beti yahan jaata hain nan? (I see. I saw Rahul Dravid thrice recently. His daughter goes to this school, right?)

P: No. His son goes to this school. It’s Kumble’s daughter who also attends this school.

AD: Aakpo pata hai Dravid kahan rahta hai? (Do you know where Dravid lives?)

P: (vaguely recollecting) Indiranagar?

AD: Nahin. Indiranagar mein to uska maa baap rahta hai. Dravid to Forum ke pas bada building main rahta hai. (No. It’s Dravid’s parents who live in Indiranagar. Dravid lives in Koramangala, near Forum).

P: I see. At the Prestige Acropolis?

AD: Haan. (Yes.)

AD: Kumble to Basavangudi mein rahta hai. (Kumble lives in Basavangudi)

P: (exclaiming) Wow! he comes to drop his kid from that far?

AD: (continuing) Jis building mein Kumble rehta hai, woh usi ka hai. (Kumble owns the building he lives in)

P: (now impressed) Is Dravid a Kannadiga or Tamilian?

AD: Arre! Dravid to Madhya Pradesh se hai. Bas – uske maa baap yahan aake settle ho gaye! (Dravid’s not even from this area – he’s from Madhya Pradesh – his folks came and settled down in Bangalore!)

AD: Haan! Kumble yahan ke lagte hain! Kannadiga hain. (Kumble, on the other hand, is a bonafide Kannadiga)

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The darndest things you see in India

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1 year 10 months and 3 non-SLR camera phones later, below is a partial collection of India-defining frames I’ve found interesting.

Yes – there ARE parking signs in Bangalore. Just need a modicum of luck & a Holmes gleam.

TVS Moped with less than regulation (i.e. 20%) load

This is a glass-half-full kinda kid – “look at all the traffic we are AHEAD of!”

Where else in the world do we have Midnight Marathons? Venue: Whitefield Road, Month: Jan

This may seem like graffiti but it’s NOT – I insist that this plot is NOT FOR SALE!

One sign, two messages! For some strange reason, reminded of that famous pre-Independence sign “Dogs and Indians not allowed!”

Sign inside Bethany High School boys

If at first you don’t spell it right, you must try and TRY again!

In case you haven’t noticed, India’s spelling bee champs have all moved to USA.

How many spelling mistakes can you spot?

Indians love to pun.. really!

A yr after being commissioned into service, this stainless steel vessel one day just gave up! 7 vertical cracks appeared simultaneously after a rasam production!

Wish we had this sign in OUR apartment complex..Then we could fret about dog owners ignoring it.

It’s not just the BMW and Mercedes you’ll see on Bangalore roads. Toyota MR2 for the discerning.

Time to visit the optometrist? Don’t bother. Any of these store signs can be used for vision check.

The next post in this 4-part series – The darndest things you see in India (Part 2).

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A blogger’s lament

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One of the challenges I face at the beginning of many new posts is the realization that a prequel needs to be written first. I would argue with and convince myself “but there’s this background I need to provide..” The background becomes the first paragraph and before I know it, it becomes chunky enough to warrant its own post but … the prequel post still isn’t ‘done’ so, you see, I can’t hit the PUBLISH button. Meanwhile, the original post still sits unfinished in the Drafts folder (actually my ‘handwritten notes’ courtesy my relatively new Lamy fountain pen). Talking of the Lamy, I must mention that I acquired it in early April from William Penn after a year of hobnobbing with my pen connoisseur/friend (Aunindo Ghosh) who, by the way, has just written this amazing post about a walk in the forests of Wayanad, Kerala. Returning to the Lamy, I ought to mention that the inaugural handwritten post I wrote is entitled The keyboard of the nineteenth century — it’s two pages long and nearly complete (which means that it needs a final ink writing session before the WordPress.com upload/edit).

When I started this post (on WordPress), the title was Of ABCDs and FOBs, a post which I had nearly completed (on Lamy ink and paper). After typing the first two sentences (which weren’t present in the original ink draft), I realized that I wasn’t going to complete it tonight so one thing led to another… The Of ABCDs and FOBs post itself was going to serve as a prequel to another post that’s been in the hopper for… (Err..Let’s see) a mere 6 months – Indian Born Confused Desi (IBCD).

So I end yet another weekend where I promised myself that I’d publish one of the 3-5 half-finished posts and…broke my promise. Yet I managed to write this lament and, surprisingly, had fun with it. Moreover, next weekend is another weekend (thank you, Scarlett O’ Hara – thou queen of all optimists!)

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I am Bihar (an ode)

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Bihar District Map (courtesy topnews.in)

Back in Nov 2009, we had a big reunion of St. Xaviers Bokaro alumni and their families. If you haven’t bumped into anyone from Bokaro (formally known as “Bokaro Steel City”) yet, you need to know that the mere mention of Bokaro is enough to send them into raptures and wax eloquent about this utopian steel township in a part of Bihar that’s now Jharkhand. For all the Bokaro alumni, it was a thoroughly enjoyable evening and I daresay the non-Bokaro spouses had a decent time too. A few mini-reunions later, I heard about Bihar Foundation from one of my classmate’s husband. Ajit Chouhan’s blog post Bihar Foundation – Connecting Biharis Worldwide does a good job outlining the foundation’s charter and ambitions.

For a variety of reasons, Bihar doesn’t rank high on India’s list of states (on many indicators – be it socio-economic, literacy, or governance). When I found this ode (authored by Mayank Krishna), it felt like a gust of fresh air. I present to you – I am Bihar (a proud and optimistic ode on Bihar)!

(Reproduced with permission from the author Mayank Krishna)

I AM BIHAR

I am the history of India,
I gave the world its first Republic,
I nourished Buddha to enlightenment,
I gave world its best ancient university,
My son Chanakya was the father of Economics,
Mahavir came out of my womb to found Jainism,
My son Valmiki wrote Ramayan, the greatest Epic
Rishi Shushrut, the father of surgery, lived on my soil
My son Vatsayana wrote Kamasutra, the treatise of love ,
My son Ashoka – The Great was the greatest ruler of India ,
I gave birth to Aryabhatt, the great ancient mathematician ,
I gave Ashoka Chakra that adorns India’s national flag ,
My son Dinkar is the national poet of India ,
I gave the world its first Yoga University ,
I gave India its first president ,
I am the land of festivals ,
I am brotherhood ,
I am humility ,
I am the past ,
I am the future ,
I am opportunity ,
I am revolution ,
I am culture ,
I am heritage ,
I am intellect ,
I am farmer ,
I am power ,
I am literature ,
I am poetry ,
I am love ,
I am heart ,
I am soul ,
I am yoga ,
I am global ,
I am inspiration ,
I am freedom ,
I am force ,
I am destiny ,
I am Bihar ,
…Come with your dream
I will make it a reality

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And I thought I knew Koramangala Roads…

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What are those serpentine patterns?

On closer inspection... studded belts perhaps?

For someone who’s done a lot of running (and walking) on Koramangala roads in the past 2 years, I was surprised to discover these patterns on the stretch of road right opposite Raheja Residency. The ‘what is it’ mystery was solved quickly enough — Koramangala’s tall majestic trees shed seed shells that are similar in appearance to the imli (tamarind) – see middle picture. I hope one day a botanist will stumble upon this post and educate us all on what kind of tree this is.

For some strange reason, the most inane things pique my interest. I started to wonder how so many seed shells were impregnated on this road. I recalled that sometime last year, 7th Cross Road (first two pictures are of that road) was relaid. What may have happened is that these seed shells dropped on the road between the road-laying phase and the road-rolling phase. I felt satisfied with this theory for a few days until… I realized that this seed-shell-impregnated-onto-roads phenomenon was not localized to 7th Cross Road. Almost every Koramangala Road I walked in the next few days sported the studded belt pattern — it seemed almost that they were spiting me for my lack of observation during the past few years. The original theory was still credible but I wondered if this seed-shell-impregnation process was also happening well beyond the road laying stage – especially on hot summer days when the tar starts to turn semi-solid.

And then a week later I found several seed-shells impregnated on concrete pavements off 80-Feet Road – whoa! How to explain this??? Time to call Guy Noir I say…

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Why we are in India (Bollywood Inspired Version)

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Movies were never a dominant part of my entertainment. It’s not that I dislike them – it’s just that there always seem to be more interesting things to do. It’s thus a tad bit ironic that I found inspiration to explain our migration in two Bollywood movies and one Hollywood movie.

 

Pic: courtesy 1morefilmblog.com

Close Encounters of the Third Kind: Rob Neary (played by Richard Dreyfus) becomes increasingly obsessive about a mountain-like structure after a UFO encounter. He eventually learns that the mountain structure that’s haunting him is nothing but Devil’s Tower in Wyoming. He heads towards the site along with others with similar experiences. The US army apprehends most of the civilians headed to the UFO site but Rob (and a handful of others) make it to the mountain. After a mothership UFO appears and ‘returns’ the people abducted over the years, the US Army determines that these are apparently ‘peaceful’ aliens. As the aliens emerge from the mothership, Roy is invited to join them in their travels.

I’m not saying that I was seeing visions of Bangalore during my years in America but there was just that subtle subliminal pull that just refused to go away.

 

Pic: courtesy glamsham.com

Lakshya: The movie centers around Karan Shergil (played by Hrithik Roshan) – a young man with no actual goal in mind or plans for his future. His inability to take anything seriously causes a strain in his relationships with his father (a successful businessman) and his girlfriend, Romi (played by Preity Zinta), a student activist and motivated reporter. He eventually joins the Indian Military Academy (IMA) mostly on an impulse. When he drops out of IMA, it’s the last straw for his girlfriend who dumps out. His parents aren’t too happy either. Stung by the dumping followed by a period of introspection, Karan rejoins IMA with a newfound dose of commitment. When the Kargil war breaks out, Karan’s unit is deployed close to enemy lines and faces heavy losses. After Karan’s unit is assigned the task of taking back a strategic high-altitude outpost (from the Pakistanis), he declares his lakshya (i.e. goal) is to succeed in his mission — at any cost.

So what’s my lakshya in life? Simple question but no simple answer. According to Buddha, “Your work is to discover your world and then with all your heart give yourself to it.” Problem for 99% of folks (yes – I’m in that big bucket) is that it might take an entire life to ‘discover’ their world. As I wrote earlier on this topic (see Why are we moving back to India now), it’s not that we were miserable in America, it’s just that I felt there was a higher probability of finding my lakshya in India than in America.

 

Pic: courtesy searchandhra.com

Delhi-6: Roshan (played by Abhishek Bachchan) accompanies his dying grandmother Annapurna (played by Waheeda Rahman) to their ancestral property in a crowded neighborhood of Chandni Chowk, Delhi. Roshan is initially stunned by the mad rush of neighbors and the commotion that’s Old Delhi. However, Roshan eventually warms to the place, wholeheartedly embraces the sense of community, and gradually becomes steeped in the culture of the place. He also starts falling in love with local lass Bittu (played by Sonam Kapoor). The pivotal point in the movie is when Roshan decides to stay back in Delhi and his professed reason (to his parents in New York) is “It just WORKS in India!” He goes on to describe how, in spite of the chaos he has experienced in the recent past, there’s something inherently ‘right’ about it.

I personally think the screenplay writer took the politically correct approach by saying “It just WORKS in India!”. What he really meant for Roshan to say was “It just DOESN’T WORK in India and I want to understand why it doesn’t work and be a part of a change for the better in India.” Ok – so that was rather wordy and we know why the dialogue writers picked the verbiage which they did.

Apr 15 Update: Today I stumbled upon this Gaurav Bhatnagar’s slightly dated but very relevant post Why return to India.

My favorite extracts from his post:

Mahatma Gandhi’s quote: “I cling to India like a child to its mother’s breast, because I feel she gives me the spiritual noursihment I need. She has the environment that responds to my highest aspiration. When that faith is gone I shall feel like an orphan withut hope of ever finding a guardian.”

This lack of a definite answer was a bit unnerving. I suddenly felt that perhaps my decision to go back was not well thought out. Perhaps I had made a choice based on emotions. And yet strangely I was feeling a quite confidence in my decision. Even though I could not justify it, I knew it was time to go back. I couldn’t see myself anywhere else but in India. Funnily, it seemed obvious to me that I needed to be India even though I couldn’t think of many rational reasons for that. There was almost an urge to go back, an invisible force pulling me back. So I think my decision to go back is based on faith. A faith that I can fulfil my ambitions and aspirations in India. A faith that a brighter future awaits me there. Clearly this is blind faith because I don’t have any solid reaasoning to back it. But I am not scared, not even apprehensive. I have never felt so confident of my choice.


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Changing Mobility of Four Generations of Kurugantis

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One of Vizag's many beaches (Pic: courtesy indiashots.com)

If you haven’t inferred from my surname yet, my lineage is from the state of Andhra Pradesh. My great grandfather was a Sanskrit scholar and taught Sanskrit in Visakhapatnam (aka “Vizag”). He lived in Vizag his entire life. Mobility score: [1 state, 1 city].

My grandfather was schooled in Machilipatnam (a port town which dates back to at least 3rd century BC) and attended college in Calcutta. Attending an out-of-state college was a big deal in the early 1900’s. If you consider the fact that he was being raised by his mother (a widow at that time), a progressive and remarkable lady, it’s even more impressive. My grandfather completed his B.Comm degree and joined Andhra Bank and worked there until retirement. He proved his mettle as a branch manager and, as a consequence, was frequently transferred to new towns to open and stabilize branches. Partial list of towns he lived/worked in include Vijayawada, Guntur, and Kakinada. Mobility score: [2 states, 5 towns].

Machilipatnam beach at dawn (Pic: courtesy Wikipedia)

My father attended school in Vijayawada and engineering college in Kakinada. He worked for two Public Sector Undertakings (PSUs) – SAIL (Steel Authority of India Limited) and RIN (Rashtriya Ispat Nigam). He started his career in Bhilai (Madhya Pradesh->Chhattisgarh), then moved to Rourkela (Orissa), a long stint at Bokaro Steel City (then in Bihar, now in Jharkhand) and finally retired in Vizag (Andhra Pradesh). Mobility score: [4 states, 7 towns].

Bokaro Steel Plant (India's 4th integrated steel plant, built with Soviet help)

I grew up in Bokaro Steel City, completed my high school from Vizag, attended college at Ranchi (Bihar->Jharkhand), worked for a few years in Jamshedpur (Bihar ->Jharkhand), 16 years in America (Houston->Chicago->San Francisco Bay Area), and presently in Bangalore (Karnataka). Mobility score: [2 countries, 3 states, 5 Indian towns, 3 American cities].

The fourth generation (our 2 boys) haven’t quite hit their 7th birthdays yet but their mobility score already reads: [2 countries, 2 cities]. I wonder what their score will be by the time they hit their 40’s. Me wonders if new mobility dimensions like planets and space stations need to be added by then…

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The Three Bubbles Revisited

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When I wrote The Three Bubbles back in Oct 2008, the perspective was biased around cushioning the India landing. Clearly the 3 bubbles represent a fairly minimalistic view of life. If one were to just shuttle from the “living bubble” to the “working bubble” via the “commuting bubble”, there’s a strong likelihood of slowly going mad… unless you are one of the workaholic types who’s all-consumed by work. For the rest of us, a fourth bubble is what the the joie de vivre doctor ordered.

The fourth bubble is an activity you do at least once a week, usually on weekends, and is something that delivers large doses of joy, pleasure, and exhilaration. Physical pain may be a side effect sometimes but..(heck) it would have been worth it. Lest the hyperactive imagination of my readers go off in strange directions, let me cut to the chase and elaborate on what I’m talking about 🙂

Pranshu Gupta (buddy and ex-colleague from Yahoo who returned to Delhi in 2002) spends weekends offroading his custom-fitted Jeep up-and-down steep ravines and sloshing through muddy swamps on the outskirts of Gurgaon. For company, he has 8-10 other folks vying with each for bragging rights on offroading adventures, jeep modifications and towing equipment. For a taste of what these guys do with whinnying machines, check out Offroading in Behrampur/Gurgaon.

Soumya Banerjee (who returned to Delhi from Boston in 2001 to start Sapient’s India operation and is now working on a startup in Mumbai) is a thoroughbred wanderlust who doesn’t let a single weekend go by without exploring yet another picturesque part of India. After experiencing the best of Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh (during his Delhi days), he’s now busy exploring Maharashtra and the southern states. For photographic evidence, check out his travel blog at Soumya.org – be warned! the travel bug might bite you.

Manjula Sridhar (a budding entrepreneur and endurance athlete who returned to Bangalore from Silicon Valley) has a menu of endurance activities to choose from every weekend – from running to cycling to “Lost-style” adventure competitions. I kid you not! This gal chalks up cycling and running miles like…well… I don’t know what to compare her with. As though this were not enough, she’s also a trained martial artist and she teaches karate. Clearly she has conquered time.

Sridhar Ranganathan (serial entrepreneur and good friend who moved to Bangalore ~ 7 years ago) does not miss his Sunday morning round of golf at the KGA links for anything! His golf handicap is steadily getting better I’m told but I strongly suspect he’s sneaking in an odd round during the week as well (there! that’s how rumors are started).

Ajay (my colleague who moved from San Diego to Bangalore 3 years ago) gets his weekly dose of adrenalin by playing several games of squash at his apartment club house.

When we moved to Bangalore ~ 2yrs ago, I had grim forebodings that my dormant asthma might flare up (see Asthma, Bangalore and me) so I had to choose a physical activity wisely. My choices narrowed down to squash (which I absolutely LOVED) or running (which I kinda sorta liked in a bursty irregular way). Running eventually won out because there were no squash courts within reasonable driving distance. Boy! Did I get lucky or what? I was introduced to a rabid Koramangala/HSR running gang and before I knew it, had run ~ 1200 km in 2009 – completing my second and third marathons (see Running the Course – Mumbai Marathon 2010) were merely a side effect.

The Three Bubbles will keep you nice and cozy during your initial year (a ‘necessary’ condition in The Art of Returning to India) but I now believe that it’s the fourth bubble that’s the high-order bit (‘sufficient’ condition) in staying-put for the long haul.

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