A passage to India

Why I went east – and many other young British Asians are doing the same

29 September 2012

When my parents emigrated from India in the 1960s, they sought what might be called the ‘-British dream’: stability, opportunity and the chance of a better life in the world’s third-largest economy. So when I told my parents that I was moving to India for the same sort of reasons, they were shocked. India may be going up in the world, but what about the corruption, bureaucracy, pollution and overcrowding? Would I really earn enough money and live in a nice house? It made no sense at all to them that, aged 32, their daughter had chosen to go east — and join a steady exodus which is passing almost entirely unnoticed.

Immigration has dominated the British debate so much that there has been little discussion about the opposite trend: that each day, about 1,000 people pack their bags and leave. That any Brit might leave for Mumbai seems strange even to Indians of my parents’ generation. India has, to be sure, huge problems and is home to a third of the world’s undernourished children. But this image of a poor country, which my classmates at my old Aylesbury school would describe as ‘backward’, obscures another image very clear to my generation. This is of India as an emerging superpower with a booming economy. A land of great opportunity for anyone with a decent education, a cultural understanding of the West and a grasp of Hindi.

Our elders may not understand it but the equation makes perfect sense: why stay in Britain, with its massive youth and graduate unemployment, when in India jobs and business opportunities abound? The top rate of tax is 30 per cent, and freelance contractors are charged just 10 per cent. India’s definition of an economic slowdown is growth of merely 5.5 per cent — which is still ten times faster than the growth of the British economy. Seven years ago, seeking skilled young people to help it grow faster, India introduced its ‘overseas citizen scheme’, which grants a lifelong visa not just to emigrés but to anyone with a parent or grandparent born in India. As of last April, it had drawn in 1.1 million workers from around the world.

One of them is my friend Dhillon Singh, an Essex-born 30-year-old with a comprehensive education and a Surrey University degree. If he’d stayed in Britain, he might well have become a casualty of the financial crisis, like many of his former colleagues. Instead he’s in Mumbai with a high-rise apartment looking out over the sea and a well-paid job as a trader for a foreign investment bank. ‘The opportunities are huge, it’s like the golden age to be here,’ he says. ‘I have a driver, a cook, a cleaner. I go to five-star hotels. I was a very ordinary Essex boy — the next thing I know I’m living the life of a superstar in Bombay.’

Singh’s parents emigrated from Punjab to Essex three decades ago. Barely speaking English, they took up jobs as labourers, sending hard-earned money back to relatives in India to help build a big house in the village. Their son is now sending back the rupees he earns in India — what he calls ‘reverse remittances’ — to help pay for the family home in Essex.


While Indians may still be confronted with the prejudices of the caste system, foreign-born Indians aren’t seen as part of the same kind of hierarchy. There is nothing barring expats from the upper echelons of Indian society, whichever caste or village their ancestors were from.

Priya Kishore, a graduate in PPE from Oxford, has performed a similar generational U-turn. Her Indian parents left Idi Amin’s Uganda in 1972 and set up a successful interior design business located on the Kings Road in London; she left Britain seven years ago to set up shop in Mumbai. She runs a successful boutique called Bombay Electric, selling designer clothes and jewellery.

When she first arrived in India, no fewer than three local accountants advised her to return to Britain. But as a former financial -analyst, specialising in the leisure -industry, she saw huge opportunities in the Indian retail sector. This is where Brits are seen to have an advantage: they have been raised in what Napoleon disparagingly called ‘a nation of shopkeepers’, with an entrepreneurial culture which Kishore’s -parents used to their advantage. She saw similar potential. ‘It became obvious, even back in 2005, that things were slowing down in Europe and that Asia was on fire,’ she says.

And so it has proved. Back in the 1960s, when my own father emigrated from Madras (now Chennai), India’s economy was closed to the world, in the grip of protectionism, overregulation and corruption. Business depended on permits, which depended on contacts — which resulted in economic turmoil. A debt binge in the 1980s led to a profound crisis, and out of this came reform in 1991. As India started to open up to the world, successive governments slashed tariffs and investment came pouring in. Growth flourished, a middle class emerged and poverty plummeted at the fastest rate in Indian history. Of course, it hasn’t all changed even for the entrepreneurial middle classes: bureaucracy is still rife and corruption is still endemic. Friends who’ve come here to start businesses have been asked to pay bribes (most refuse) to secure contracts and permissions. But India, particularly in its cities, now barely resembles the place my parents departed.

Chicken tikka masala may still be Britain’s most popular dish, but there were more decent curry houses in the vicinity of my old flat in Tooting, south London, than there are in the suburb of Mumbai where I now live. While Indians back in Britain hanker for chai and watch Bollywood films, the upwardly mobile in India are sipping lattes, eating pizzas, drinking wine and lining up to watch Hollywood blockbusters. Plusher areas of the city are becoming populated with fancy European and pan-Asian eateries. This collision of cultures is where the opportunity lies. Indian consumerism is developing in a way that makes perfect sense to expats of Indian descent.

A record 30,000 emigrated from Britain to India in the year to March 2010, and at that point the figure had trebled over five years. It is true that four times as many Indians emigrate to Britain — but the more significant difference is qualitative rather than quantitative. Those of us leaving Britain are the ones countries can least afford to lose: graduates lured abroad by better employment prospects and a brighter future. An OECD study taken after the last round of world censuses showed that more graduates — 1.3 million — had left Britain than any other developed country. No fewer than 15 per cent of Brits deemed to have ‘high skills’ have left to live abroad. That percentage is likely to have increased in the ten years since the survey was taken.

The culture of working abroad is nothing new to a Britain whose empire once accommodated two fifths of the world population. But that several of my British-raised banker friends here have chosen Mumbai over New York, London or even Hong Kong is a symbol of a changing world order. Not since the days of the East India Company have so many Brits come here looking to make their fortunes.

I’m still fiercely proud to be British in Mumbai. My home country is what defines me here, and the way I see things. But I have a newfound affection for India too. It’s as magical as it is maddening, as inspiring as it is inexplicable. It has an addictive energy, typical of a country which is changing and growing up fast — and inviting workers of the world to come and help it grow.

‘Why do you want to live here? Wouldn’t you rather stay in England?’ asked the officious man at the Overseas Citizenship of India office as I applied for my lifelong visa. I doubt he’s asking this now: since I arrived here almost 18 months ago, applications have nearly doubled. A generation of British-born Indians are asking a different question: why on earth would they want to stay away?

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