February 22 emerged as a shocking bolt from the blue for Indians in the United States, as an unprovoked attack claimed the life of Srinivas Kuchibhotla, a Telangana techie based in Kansas. In the next 10 days, three more Indians or persons of Indian origin were assaulted, all in suspected cases of hate crimes.
In just a matter of days, the very tenor of the conversation has changed for Indians, as anxiety about their safety in the US began to peak. That’s where Mani Karthik, a resident of California for the last seven years, comes in.
Even as Indian expatriates seriously consider returning to their home country, the techie has built a DIY website to help his fellow countrymen return.
Hailing from Kochi, Mani Karthik was initially “reluctant” to embark on his American dream, but finally settled down in California with his family for seven years. However, the February 22 incident has raised second thoughts for him as for many other Indian expats.
“My mom (who lives in India) called me in a panic. My wife was worried and my in-laws called up to check if we were ok. My friends were pinging me on WhatsApp. Things escalated from there quickly. Call it selective perception, but I was reading more hate crime news in the US,” Karthik tells The News Minute.
“And then it hit me. What am I doing here? I could feel the uncertainty building up. All the desi WhatsApp groups I'm part of lit up with discussions on how to stay safe when in public. Some even said things like, ‘Don't speak in your native language when outside’ and ‘Stay low for a while. Don't go out.’” Karthik adds.
For Karthik, the sudden wave of anxiety was unlike anything he had experienced in the US before. “I thought it was crazy. This is not the America I had known or seen. I don't want to stay low. I don't want to be cautious about what I wear in public. What happened to land of the free?”
It was at that point that Karthik decided to something besides letting his anxiety build, and landed on the idea of creating a website to help fellow Indians looking to return India.
“We planned all the things we should do before returning and although there was information around, it was all over the place and outdated. Being passionate about the web, I decided to do build something useful,” says Karthik.
Acting immediately on the thought, Karthik bought a domain on February 28, built the site on March 4, and had the final product up by March 5.
Karthik’s website, “Return to India Kit” is a straightforward, no-frills guide, that offers returning Indians advice on everything from how and why to get an Aadhaar card to changing postal addresses from the US to India to settling loose ends with the IRS (the US tax agency) to getting OCI cards for American-born children to finding jobs in India. Along the way, it also has resources on setting up start-ups in India, transferring wealth back to India and so on.
It also makes a few contributions on the cultural front, advising returnees to do a goodbye tour of the United States and on what to expect socially and culturally in India. While the website doesn’t always offer radically new information or resources, it looks to clarify things by laying out a variety of issues and concerns in a step-by-step manner.
Elaborating on the thrust of the website, Karthik says, “I wanted to build a website where people who thought about returning to India, could get a quick DIY kit, sort of a quick bookmark-able checklist of things to do before returning to India and after.”
Karthik says that the response to the website has, so far, been more overwhelming than he had expected.
"It's been crazy. At any point, there's more than 300+ visitors on the website and I didn't expect this. I just wanted a good experience on the site and focused on it, not the growth. But people seem to love it and are sharing it over social media. At this point, I'm just worried about my servers blowing up,” he says.
“Since March 4, the site has seen 100,000 visits,” he adds, pointing out that the numbers have only been rising.
Crisis v/s Opportunity
Karthik feels that the current situation could spur a movement of “reverse brain drain”.
He says, echoing author Devdutt Pattnaik, “If all NRIs put their collective effort forward, I strongly think we can make a difference. I believe that India is the tiger for this century. Of course, we have our problems, but I subscribe to the idea that in her chaos, lies a unique pattern and it's unfair to be comparing that with the straight lines of the West.”
On his own plans after his return to India, Karthik says, “I want to go back to my entrepreneurial roots and contribute to society in whichever way I can. I'll go back to blogging for starters.”