Conversations with a Desi: Spilled coffee, Rule of 72 and Kheema-Pav

I was at a snazzy uptown coffee shop a few days back when I accidentally bumped into a “Desi” and spilled some coffee on his shoes. After an initial round of apologies, he asked me “Indian?” to which my head bobbled into a yes. “Student?” And my head bobbled a yes again. And that was it. That was all we needed to start a conversation. What followed after that was a very interesting conversation that made me take a hard look inside and at least think about my goals, if not reassess them. For the sake of convenience, I am going to address the person I bumped into as Mr. Rao.

After 11 years in Canada, Mr. Rao had it pretty good. He owned a house in Mississauga, a snazzy car and a motorbike that he took on weekend road trips. He liked his job as an investment manager for a big bank and he liked the work hard (but not too hard), the play-hard culture that prevailed in his wide circle of friends. It was just the life he had envisioned when he came from India to university in Canada, with the hope he would get a job offer and be able to immigrate afterward. He was living “the dream”. But now, he has rather dramatically gone off the script: He sold the bike, sold the car, rented out the house and is moving back to India soon.

Mr. Rao was drawn to Canada for security; for clean, quiet cities; for jobs and for easy access to good education for his children, compared with India’s ferocious competition for college and even elementary school seats. But now he feels that India can offer him “the best of both worlds” – there is ever-growing access to high-quality housing, education and medical facilities there, in increasingly cosmopolitan cities with booming economies, where people can be close to friends, family, and their cultural roots. In fact, he told me that just last month he made a pitch at an event held by a local Indian community telling Indo-Canadians that today there are possibilities back home that they couldn’t have imagined when they left.

So I proceeded to ask him about the opportunities that he sees in India. “Canada and India are roughly about the same size economies today, but in 10 years things will be pretty different. And being in India now is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see a society really change. Second, I want to take advantage of the dynamism at the top end of the Indian economy that allows young people with good ideas and some resources to take risks – and reap bigger rewards – that would be much harder in Canada. Third, in Canada, you don’t see the tailwinds that a big GDP growth gives you in India. If you give me 50$ in India vs 100$ in Canada, I would take the 50$ because I know that with an 8% growth rate, I could double that in 9 years and quadruple it in 18, whereas with a 2% growth rate it would take me 36 years to do that (The Rule of 72). It’s simple Math. You should know. You are a Finance guy”. I bobbled a yes again and quickly made a note in my head “Remember, Rule of 72”.

Makes sense, but I just left behind a cushy job, my friends and my family to pursue “the dream”; I wanted to find a flaw in his reasoning. “But you are a Canadian citizen now, won’t you have to give up so many rights – free healthcare, free education for your children, a better and more comfortable lifestyle to do all that?.” I asked.

“For sure. You have to give up all that? Plus it’s more competitive in India; work-life balance does not exist. In Toronto, my friends are taking 4-week vacations every 6 months. They are learning Japanese, taking drum or salsa lessons after work. They don’t have to worry about being stuck in traffic for hours every day and neither do they have to fight a war to commute to the office every day.” Mr. Rao responded and I smiled sensing a win. “But then, with all that I give up, I also get to be ‘back in India’, be closer to my roots, my friends, and family. And I can treat myself to Kheema-Pav and Misal every once in a while.” He added. That wins it. Kheema-Pav and Misal over “the dream” any day of my life. There goes my victory.

After a few moments spent salivating over Indian food and wondering what mom might be cooking for dinner back home, I try and take stock of what Mr. Rao meant. Canada has traditionally competed for India’s skilled migrants with Australia, Britain and the United States. But now there’s a new country in the mix, a destination with increasing appeal for young, educated and ambitious Indians: India.

To quote my Dad here, “We were lucky to be the generation that saw the introduction of economic reforms in India. But your generation will witness the true impact of those reforms.


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