Chocolates, My Mom, and My Journey Home

Dec. 2017: In New Zealand with my parents

Upon hearing the news of my move to India this fall, many have followed their congratulations with, “Your mom must be thrilled!” She is, in fact, thrilled. She’s also intimidated.

Neeti and I made our decision in late October 2019. My parents were in the United States at the time. We had kept not just the news, but also the possibility of this move and opportunity from our families. A few days before their return to India in November, we told my parents on a Sunday morning after breakfast. It was a big surprise for them, and a pleasant one. They knew we were considering international opportunities, but didn’t know that India was one of them. Not wanting to disappoint them if we’d decided to go with something else, I had talked to them over the last few months about every option except Enabling Leadership (EL).

We discussed the details of the move with them. The work particulars with EL, as well as the personal ones. We told my parents:

  • I’ve only committed to EL for ten months. If it’s not a good personal or professional fit, I can easily return to the United States, join another non-profit, foundation, or even go abroad to lead another school.
  • Neeti will stay in Atlanta, keep her job, and grow her own business as an interior designer. There’s no need to uproot her too if this adventure is only ten months long. I can move jobs more easily right now, but she’d lose her momentum, contacts, and business that she has built so far.
  • She will commute to Mumbai every 8-10 weeks, and we will travel within India and Asia, both for pleasure and for my work.
  • Since I‘ll be traveling extensively for EL, I’ll stay with my parents. I don’t know how to set up a home in India, never having lived or worked there as an adult. It’d be as foreign to me to do so now, as it’d be for someone of non-Indian origin who grew up in the US or another country. And, if this is all for only ten months, then there’s no reason for me to take on one more responsibility or adjustment.

My dad started with several questions, clarifying and verifying at the same time that we had thought it through, that it wasn’t an impulsive decision, we had considered every negative, and it wasn’t some idyllic prodigal-son-returns-home story that we’d bought into here. He didn’t want us to be disappointed. His older brother had tried to do something similar in 1980 with his family, and repatriated to India after having lived in Germany and the United States for several years. My uncle and aunt couldn’t settle, and feeling frustrated with daily life in India, they returned to the United States with their two daughters a year later.

My mom then shared her reaction. She said that she was really, really happy, having given up hope many years ago for my return. She also said she had one condition. “I don’t want you to change my lifestyle,” she said. “If I want to eat chocolate, I’ll eat chocolate. If I want to eat lots of chocolate, I’ll eat lots of chocolate. I don’t want to hide my chocolate from you.” Neeti looked at me and said, “Do you tell your mom she can’t eat chocolate?” I replied, “No, I don’t! I don’t know what’s happening!”

On a recent trip to Asheville, Neeti and I went to dinner, as we do every time we visit, with Jay and Jess, my mentors, guides, and now friends from Asheville School. We were narrating this chain of events and conversation with my parents in response to Jess’s comment, “Your mother must be thrilled that you’re going back!” Neeti reflected to them on my mom’s reaction, and it suddenly all made sense to me. I’m stuck in my mother’s head and heart as the 16 year-old who left Mumbai in August 1996. She hasn’t seen me grow up. I’ve spent, collectively, less than 52 weeks with them in the 24 years since, and at any one time, we’ve not spent more than two weeks together since I was 22. Now that separation and independence may be normal or natural for many American families as children transition to adulthood and make their own lives and families, but it isn’t so where I was born. My parents don’t really know me as an adult, living 8,000 miles away. We don’t share a home, culture, community, or values anymore. My chosen profession is also foreign to my parents. They know the details of my life, but the separation between us is more than just the difference between two hemispheres; we are different because of opposing cultural attitudes and values, mindsets and lifestyles. My mother’s excited that her 16 year-old is coming back, and she’s intimidated that what has replaced him is a 40 year-old American, adult, and head of school who will now try to parent her in his way.

In an earlier post, I talked about change and sitting with the loss of what is, even as we try to articulate, and get excited about, what will be. Even though I’ve not been sixteen for quite some time, for my mother those are her most cherished and lasting memories of me. I’m not older for her because she hasn’t witnessed my growth from a child to an adult. She knows only the consequences of my choices over two decades, not having lived through the joys and struggles of those choices with me. I became independent of my parents too soon than is natural for any parent-child relationship. Now, as I head to Mumbai in August 2020, she will embrace who she remembers as her 16 year-old son, and she will learn to live together, again, but with a 40 year-old man. She is as excited as she is terrified, gaining and losing, almost immediately, two versions of her son.

As we talked about all of this over dinner in Asheville, Jess said to me, “Nishant, go easy on her.”

That’s good advice for all of us in this move.

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