Business, Finance & Economics

India: Bangalore morphs into Silicon Valley?

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BANGALORE — Ragini, 14, and Malini, 11, are California girls — some might even refer to them as ABCDs.

The acronym stands for American-Born, Confused Desi (Desi is slang for people of Indian origin). But they hardly seem confused. Ever since they were transplanted to their father’s native Bangalore, they've found a balance between America and India. And every weekend they strike that balance with a ritual.

On Sunday mornings, the girls tie up their cleats and head for the soccer fields, which in India are an almost exclusively male preserve.

And there in the suburb of Sarjapura these hearty ABCDs, who came of age in the youth soccer programs of Silicon Valley, kick it around with the children of other returnees and expatriates.

The girls’ father K. Srikrishna, 46, (who goes by a single name, as is common in some parts of India) left the country for the United States two decades ago, first in pursuit of a Ph.D. at the University of California at Berkeley and then to build a career in the semiconductor industry.

Three years ago, Srikrishna gathered up his family and returned to India, for three good reasons: job prospects, to be close to his elderly parents and to offer his daughters a chance to get acquainted with the land of their ancestors.

Bangalore, particularly, as well as Mumbai and Delhi, are magnets for Srikrishna and the thousands of others like him who are increasingly being pulled from America back to their native India by emotional ties to family and financial opportunities offered by the recently buoyant Indian economy.

Beyond all the over-achieving and the high-earning — signature characteristics of so many ABCDs — they ultimately miss their native land, culture and families.

Cities like Bangalore have a particular draw because they offer western-style work environments, competitive paychecks and comforts not entirely different from those the returnees are used to in San Jose or New Jersey.

Some years ago, returning Indians routinely packed diapers and dental floss for their short visits home. Now they bring resumes and referrals, said Prakash Gurbaxani, who returned after 14 years in the U.S. construction industry.

“The quality of life has changed dramatically,” said Gurbaxani, who has been a serial entrepreneur since his return some years ago, first in the outsourcing industry and now in real estate. “And the serious growth of the past decade has thrown up tremendous entrepreneurial opportunities.”

“The possibilities, the excitement, the adrenaline … India is the place to be” said Srikrishna, who founded Zebu Communications, a still-in-stealth-mode software start-up, a few months ago.

At Bangalore’s Read-Ink, a document analysis and handwriting recognition start-up launched by retired Stanford University professor Thomas O. Binford, a quarter of the employees are returnees.

Binford’s wife, Ione, co-founder and CEO of the firm said, “Many returnees desire to extend their U.S. experience by working on the very latest technologies.”

The flurry of entrepreneurial activity gives Bangalore the same vibe as Silicon Valley in its early days, said Anuradha Parthasarathy, a cross-border executive search specialist based in Menlo Park, Calif. She notes a multi-fold increase each year in the number of Indians looking to trek homeward.

That influx was adding to India’s global branding and competitive advantage, Gurbaxani said.

Added Parthasarathy: “From housing to schools to best work practices, the returnees are setting new benchmarks in India.”

In Bangalore, many returnees flock to the profusion of suburban, gated communities such as Prestige Ozone and Palm Meadows, or to downtown high-rises such as St. John’s Wood or Acropolis, which buffer them from the struggles of transition.

The communities offer California picture postcard-like views and a surfeit of amenities such as heated indoor swimming pools, squash courts, spas and poolside barbecues, not to mention Indian conveniences like the on-call services of gardeners, plumbers and electricians.

The new residential developments, which some Indians criticize as "artificial islands of prosperity," stand out starkly against the general chaos and confusion of India’s urban sprawls, where garbage overflows in street corners, the traffic noise is deafening and residents wear surgical-style face masks to keep from gagging on the pollution-laden air.

Within these developments too, returnees lead a life in which both strands of their cultures — American and Indian — are woven together.

Last year, for example, children went trick-or-treating for Halloween. Just a few days later, during the very traditional Indian karwa chauth festival, married women adorned their hands with mehendi and waited to spot the moon to break the day-long fast as they prayed for the well-being of their spouses.

On a stroll through these communities, you can see homes that have auspicious Indian rangoli decorations at the door front as well as overflowing, American-style garages.

Occasionally, strains of Beethoven or Bach played on the piano waft through the evening air to mingle with voices singing classical Indian music.

Srikrishna himself has watched as returning Indians turned from a steady stream to a near-flood. When the Srikrishnas went to the local school to get their daughters admitted, the head of the school told them she had lots of children join recently from their daughters’ Cupertino school district.

The Srikrishnas choose to live in relatively modest surroundings. Their high-rise complex comes with most of the modern trappings of the west, but without the liberal sprinkling of expatriate residents. Their children often eat at neighborhood restaurants, inexpensive standing-room-only self-service joints that provide wholesome local food.

Srikrishna said his relocation looks even more appealing when he realizes how far money goes in India.

“In the Bay Area, a $200,000 salary is not much, but even half of that is really sweet in India,” he said.

Yet, despite the excitement and the raw promise of his surroundings, there is much to complain about professionally. College graduates are smart and energetic but lack any practical knowledge, he said. Workers have little communication skills and even less real-world experience.

“Technological innovation is not even a tenth of what it is in the United States,” Srikrishna concluded. “Bangalore is no Silicon Valley.

"Yet ...” he added after a pause.

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