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Home is where the brain is

By Benjamin Schrier, Photograph by Michael Rubenstein | August 13, 2009 | Story

He is here somewhere, hidden like an Indian Waldo in a throng of bleary undergrads and Palo Alto ladies who inspect flowers and jewelry from behind sunglasses as big as fishbowls. Beautiful, interchangeable machines slide in and out of the shopping center's lot, their purring engines a paean to balmy Saturday mornings and money to spend. Then I see him, resting lean and languid against a white Camry. I've shown up expecting a ride to a party, but Gaurav Rajani looks dressed for a funeral.

He landed on the California coast in 2002, riding a shining wave of Indian immigration. It wasn't the first of its kind. For decades, those swells traversed the Pacific and smashed to rolling white breakers south of San Francisco. India's best and brightest swept inland, helped turn a valley full of orchards to Silicon. And Silicon turned to gold, as baby-faced kings with Coke-bottle glasses made millions overnight.

At 22, Gaurav left the noise and squalor of Mumbai far behind. He started out as a lonely grad student, dirt-poor, scared, and baffled that a few bananas could cost a whole dollar. With no car, he walked everywhere, miles at a time. But soon he found himself breathing the rarefied air of Google, high-tech's Shangri-La. He put down roots and thrived, grew his dark hair long, bought a Prius.

They kept coming to the Bay, men and women just like him, drawn to the univer­sities' regal gates, the salaries unimaginable in India, and the chance to work on technology's cutting edge. By 2005, more than half of all the engineers in Silicon Valley were foreign-born, and a full quarter of those were Indian.

But times are changing. American jobs for American workers! cry the protectionists, as they always do when the going gets tough. Go back to where you came from! cry modern-day Know Nothings, as they always do when people are scared enough to listen. And for the first time in American history, the immigrants are going back, by the tens of thousands. Some go by choice, as India's pull grows stronger by the day. Some—casual­ties of contracting payrolls and unforgiving visas—have no choice. To Delhi, to Bangalore, to Chennai trickles the lifeblood of innovation.

When the human waves came crashing through, we reaped the benefits. In the fat years of harvest, we grew complacent. But waves that scramble up the beach, no matter how massive, always recede. We turned our backs on the ocean, and forgot about the undertow.
It's hot, too muggy for a Bay Area day in early spring, but Gaurav wears black from head to toe. He looks at my white T-shirt and jeans and shakes his head. “Dude, are you going to be OK?”

He has taken every precaution for what lies ahead. His wallet, cell phone, and keys are stowed away behind layers of plastic. I hand mine over like I'm checking into prison. We leave the shopping center and pull into traffic on El Camino in his friend's car, with the windows down, blasting Indian music. They've waterproofed the leather with garbage bags and old beach towels.

[Photograph by Natasha Bronn]

But as we arrive and walk out of the parking garage, Gaurav knows it won't be enough. Chaos waits just ahead, around a bend in the landscaped path. His step quickens into the jaunty bounce of tall, thin men. Sweat beads on his forehead and trickles down through his goatee.

“We could be in Mumbai,” I say.

“No,” he snorts. “If we were in Mumbai, I would have had to change my shirt three times already today.”

It's been seven years since he's dealt with monsoon season there, which I've been told is like walking through a hot shower with a hair dryer blowing in your face. Gaurav came to America for the same reason more than 70,000 other Indians do every year—to study at the best universities in the world. He was accepted to the University of Southern California's graduate program in computer science—one of the country's finest—and hopped a plane to LAX in hopes of finding a job when his studies were complete.

Gaurav joined Google two years after graduation, but jumped ship a year later and carved out a niche at WebJuice, a small South Bay tech firm. The gourmet lunches were hard to give up, but he'd found that the energy and pace of the startup world were a better fit for his personality. Gaurav is a laid-back guy, his speech pattern infused with enough dudes, mans, and sweets to make him sound from time to time like a Santa Barbara surf bro with an Indian accent. Don't be fooled, though: He's smart, scrappy, and full of passion. He also has a few ideas for businesses of his own, though he's playing them close to the vest.

It could be that startups are in Gaurav's blood. For hundreds of years, from the West Indies to Uganda to New Jersey, the entrepreneurial gumption of the Indian diaspora has helped kick-start stagnant economies. Most recently, it's been Silicon Valley's turn. Though Indians make up barely half a percent of the U.S. population, between 1995 and 2005, they founded more than 15 percent of all the startups in the greatest technological center the world has ever known. Ind­ian immigrants to the U.S. started more tech and engineering companies than their counterparts from the U.K., China, Taiwan, and Japan combined.

“I don't think of myself as Indian, and I don't think of myself as American,” Gaurav tells me, without a trace of self-righteousness. “I mean, I happen to be an Indian national, but I think it's time for our generation to be truly global citizens.”

It's a nice sentiment, but his passport tells another story. Just a month before I met him, as the economy went from bad to worse, Gaurav was laid off. He lost his visa along with his job, which means he has a few months to find something new before he's forced to pack his bags. That's half the time it can take a tech company to hire a new employee.

Our short walk is finished, and Gaurav signs us in at a small folding table. He hands over our $13 tickets. Then he adjusts the glasses resting on his nose, and we step between two wooden stakes into utter mayhem.

On the outskirts of Stanford University's sprawling campus, Sand Hill Fields have been turned into pulsating mud pits. Bass thumps from a DJ booth on an improvised stage, blasting bhangra music over the heads of four thousand Indians painted head to toe in neon yellow, phosphorescent green, fluorescent pink. Arms wave wildly in the air as shoulders shake and hips buckle. The grass is torn to shreds. On the fringes of the tightly packed dancers, groups of young men drag their victims toward the icy spray of garden hoses on full blast. People of all ages pelt each other's sopping bodies with brilliant shades of powdered dye. It sticks as if it's magnetized.

The last time I saw a group of people rocking out to dance music at three o'clock in the afternoon, it was a bunch of Russians tripping on Ecstasy at a rave in St. Petersburg, and I kept my distance. But these are not drugged-out hooligans causing wanton destruction. In fact, the net IQ on that little patch of grass would give a Mensa meeting a run for its money. These are some of the smartest students, engineers, and entrepreneurs India has to offer, and they're “playing Holi”—celebrating spring's most raucous Hindu festival. It may be Gaurav's last in America, but right now he's more concerned with fighting off an indigo assault from a flirtatious female.

Like so much of India's culture, the colorful traditions of Holi trace their roots to ancient stories. Legend describes Lord Krishna's favorite consort, Radha, as surpassingly beautiful, her skin golden like lightning. But Krishna's skin was dark blue, like a lotus in bloom. Displeased by the contrast, he petitioned his mother—couldn't she do something? So she applied color to Radha's face, probably a lot more gently than Gaurav's friends do to mine as they leave me made up like an extra in Braveheart.

“You should see Holi in India!” Gaurav's voice carries over the shrieking laughter. “They use oil paint. It stays for weeks.”

That's probably convenient enough over there—Holi lasts for 16 days in some regions. Even though we're using organic dye, a smear of red leaves a ring around my neck, like I've been throttled by Andre the Giant. Anyone with hair lighter than coal comes away with a troll doll's green highlights that won't wash out for days. Within minutes, Gaurav is a human rainbow, targeted by friends and strangers alike in this massive game of hand-to-hand paintball. He cracks a smile, bright white teeth his only unaffected feature.

Most of the people at this party are like Gaurav, their identity split between their country of birth and an adopted home grown dependent on their skills. This relationship has worked in the past: Despite the songs in Hindi and Urdu, the foreign accents, and the smell of Indian spices on a lazy breeze, the scene feels somehow distinctly American. Young men in polo shirts and flip-flops tend smoking barbecues. Asians, Latinos, and whites mix freely in the crowd. Someone throws a football.

But dig a little deeper, and everything has changed. An antiquated visa policy and the worst job market in memory have sown the seeds of uncertainty. For the first time, many Indian immigrants are asking a question their predecessors never would have: Why stay? Without green cards or citizenship, they're discovering that the lives they've carved out for themselves and their families are subject to a jittery eco­nomy. A layoff almost always means a trip home, and that is very bad for business.

“What America's basically saying is, ‘We've educated you, we've trained you, we've taught you all about our markets,'” says Vivek Wadhwa, a successful Indian-born tech entrepreneur turned Duke University professor, and the leading U.S. expert on Indian immigration. “‘Now you have to get the hell out of here. Go out and become our competitors.'

“We couldn't have a more stupid national policy than we do,” Wadhwa adds. “These people don't want to be competing with America. They want to be competing for America.”

[Photograph by Cody Pickens]

You don't have to look too far back in Silicon Valley's history to find its Made in India pedigree. Relative to demand, “the supply of native-born engineers began to dry up in the '80s and early '90s,” says AnnaLee Saxenian, a UC Berkeley professor who has coauthored several groundbreaking studies on the Bay Area's immigrant entrepreneurs. “The fact that there were large numbers especially of Chinese and Indian graduate students in engineering and computer science at universities around the country allowed employers to keep growing by sucking them into the job market.”

Those students did more than program and compute—they innovated. In 1982, when Google's Larry Page was still climbing jungle gyms, Vinod Khosla cofounded Sun Microsystems with a handful of guys from Stanford and Berkeley. Oracle bought their brainchild last April for $7.4 billion, and Khosla is now one of the most influential green venture capitalists in the world. Sabeer Bhatia, another Stanford grad, founded Hotmail in 1996, which Microsoft bought a year later for $400 million. It's still the world's second-largest email provider. It's no wonder that in 2000, Bay Area VC colossus Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers told a Time reporter that 40 percent of its portfolio was invested in companies either founded or managed by Indians. “This is essentially how Silicon Valley grew,” says Saxenian.

Because of their educational and tech backgrounds, most Indian immigrants working in the U.S. have had special recognition—of a sort. The government can designate them as “skilled workers,” which results in a different visa classification (H-1B) from, for example, that of a Guatemalan agricultural worker (H-2A). Google and WebJuice both sponsored an H-1B for Gaurav, which guaranteed him a spot in the U.S. for only as long as he kept his job.

The terms of the visas are restrictive, but that's not the worst of it. In 2004, Congress cut the annual H-1B quota by two-thirds, to 65,000, its original level back in 1992. More recently, Congress tacked a provision onto the stimulus bill barring companies that receive bailout money from hiring foreigners through the H-1B program if they replace American workers. The protectionist message seems to be getting through. In 2008, the government got more than 65,000 applications on the first day of submissions. This year, it took four months for 45,000 to come in.

In the worst economic climate since the Great Depression, you can't just snap your fingers and find another job when a Valley startup goes bust or an industry giant starts shedding staff. Even those who will ride out the recession unscathed face a daunting prospect: There are an estimated one million skilled workers (many holding H-1Bs) and their family members queued up for a paltry 120,000 green cards. They may wait as long as six years for the elusive passkey that will make this country theirs for good.

As a result, many of America's greatest minds are being forced to leave, or at least to think about their lives in the U.S. in new terms. In the last 20 years, Wadhwa has found, 50,000 Indians and Chinese have left the U.S. for their home countries. He thinks that's just the shifting of loose rock before the mudslide.

“We'll lose 100,000 more Indians, plus their families, in the next three to five years,” Wadhwa says. “The vast majority are very well educated. They're the cream of the crop. They're exactly the kind of people we want to be here to fuel the economic recovery.” Without that talent, Silicon Valley may need to start replanting some apricot trees.

There is precedent for a region's loss of its economic edge. Ask a group of young techies about Route 128 today, and if they're not from Massachusetts, you probably won't get more than a bunch of vacant expressions. Yet until it was supplanted by Silicon Valley in the late '80s, that busy hub west of Boston was the country's high-tech capital.

“Silicon Valley left Boston in the dust, and immigrants were the critical ingredient,” says Wadhwa. “It's not that an Indian has to create new innovation alone. He could be number three in a group. But you have to bring in as many smart people as you can, because they inspire each other. That's why Silicon Valley leads the world: It's a melting pot of brilliant people, and they're not replaceable. And Indians are the largest foreign group. If you go to any tech company, they're often a quarter or a third of the employees.”

If America stays on its current course, it might wake up to find the world's tech nexus has moved again, this time outside its borders. Listen to the pundits and politicians on network television for long enough, and you're bound to hear someone argue that we don't need these engineers—that there are plenty of Americans to fill the void left by homeward-bound Indians. “It's an incredibly stupid position,” says Wadhwa. “They're thinking of tech workers like factory workers. Maybe you can replace one politician with another,” he says, with a short laugh, “but you can't do that with tech workers. These politicians don't understand that technology is a creative field. It's very likely that an Indian will develop the next Google here. The next iPod, too.”

"I play a game sometimes when I'm driving in Fremont,” Nish­ant Garg says, as the sun sets through the bay windows of his Inner Richmond apartment. “I like to watch the cars coming the other way and count the number of non-Indians. Sometimes it takes a while.” He chuckles and leans back, sipping a Fat Tire. “It's like—whoa, there's a white guy!” If the Dragon Gate on Grant Avenue marks the entrance to Chinatown, and Nihonmachi's roots lie snug in the Western Addition, then the beating heart of Little India is flung far outside San Francisco's city limits. It's somewhere in the middle of a rough triangle formed by Sunnyvale, Milpitas, and Fremont, an area that an Indian American friend of mine calls Brown Town. As of 2007, there were more than 200,000 Indians in the Bay Area, the second-highest concentration in the country. Most live in the cities of the South and East Bays, close to the Silicon Valley jobs they disproportionately fill. Fremont alone boasts an Indian community of more than 36,000, up 16,000 in the last nine years.

Their story has been one of unqualified success. Nearly 70 percent of Indians in the U.S. hold at least a bachelor's degree (compared with less than 30 percent of all Americans), and more than 35 percent hold graduate degrees. This strong cultural emphasis on education has paid off, as the country's two and a half million Indians enjoy the highest household incomes of any Asian subgroup—$30,000 greater than the national median. Almost two-thirds work in professional or technical occupations; more than half own homes. This past February, a column in Forbes deemed Indian Americans the country's “new model minority.”

Nishant is happy to be among them. He's a big man with a big laugh, funny, and irreverent. He's pretty typical of the Indians I meet: bright, hospitable to a fault, and full of choice words about American immigration policy.

He gets me a beer from a fridge stocked with more options than most restaurant menus, and tells me his story. It isn't an uncommon one among Indian engineers: Math whiz grows up in Chandigarh, dreams of designing something shiny with moving parts, realizes that chasing opportunity means heading west. In Nishant's case, it was cars that filled his daydreams.

His epiphany came the first time he stepped into a lab in Germany, on a summer internship. “It was a big difference from India,” he recalls. “I realized I should try to apply to the U.S. and Germany for higher education. So I did, and luckily, I got into Stanford and I had to come.”

Nishant was issued a coveted student visa and left the Himalayan foothills of his childhood for the redwoods of Palo Alto. He remembers the good-natured grilling he received from an immigration officer at the airport, who quizzed him on Stanford's school colors and mascot. He felt welcomed by the government and the people he met.

His days as a grad student were lean, just like Gaurav's. But he settled in, kept his head down, and in 2004 finished a master's in mech­anical engineering. Everything was going according to plan, and Nishant seemed right on track to do what he had always dreamed of—design cars in America. Then it came time to apply for jobs, in an auto industry already feeling the recession's pinch.

“I had an internship call from Ford, but once they realized I didn't have permanent residency or citizenship, they said, ‘Well, we don't know.'” He sighs. Even now, years later, some of the frustration leaks through in his voice. “GM actually invited me over for an interview, but they weren't in a good position even then, and it's a financial commitment for them to sponsor a visa.” To stay in America, Nishant shelved his plans completely and found work at an East Bay software company.

President Obama promised sweeping immigration reform during his campaign, but with Kim Jong Il firing missiles off like firecrackers and an economic recovery a long way off, the issue has been put on the back burner. Political will to fix the problem was lacking before the recession. Now, with the state unemployment rate above 11 percent, Californians are less likely than ever to pressure elected officials to reform the governmental rat's nest, largely unchanged since the 1960s, that is our national immigration policy. In the meantime, Indians are getting tired of the tedious wait to become permanent residents.

In Wadhwa's survey of 1,203 Indian and Chinese immigrants who had either worked or studied in the U.S. and then decided to return to their home countries, almost a third of Indian returnees said visa issues were a significant factor in their decision to leave. Nearly two-thirds, however, cited something else, a rationale you wouldn't have heard 10 years ago: “better career opportunities at home.”

“In the past, America could afford to be arrogant,” says Wadhwa. “The difference is that for the first time in history, you can be successful anywhere in the world. You can be more successful in Bangalore and Beijing than you can be in Boston.”

These days, if you want to live in Central Park, you don't have to be homeless—at least, not in India. The emerald core of New York City shares its name with an exclusive residential complex in Delhi, far from Manhattan's skyscrapers. In cities across India, gated communities with English names like Palm Meadows and Millennium City have sprung up seemingly overnight. They offer all the amen­ities of Western life without the hassle of a 6,000-mile relocation.

“They're as good as anything you see in Los Gatos or Woodside,” says Seshan Rammohan, a Minnesota Gopher who left India 40 years ago. He was a charter member of Silicon Valley's chapter of Indus Entrepreneurs, the largest entrepreneurial organization in the world, and now directs the India Community Center in Milpitas. Today, he says, the best neighborhoods in India's cities boast shopping malls, sports clubs, gyms, and restaurants, as well as teams of security guards paid to keep out undesirables. Private generators and water-purification systems ensure what the Indian government cannot: reliability. The construction of these enclaves hasn't been free from the quotidian delays and corruption of Indian life, but their price tags stand as evidence of a lucrative market for privacy and space, and a rising middle class with disposable income.

It's all a product of what many Indians simply call “the Boom,” a suitable name for an expansion that has been earth-shattering. India's economy is now the 12th largest in the world, as measured by GDP, and the third-fastest-growing among the G20 countries. Since 1980, the Indian per-capita GDP has increased by almost 300 percent. As a result, Indians no longer have to leave the country for a little peace and quiet and an address in a leafy suburb.

In the past, American companies didn't have to be creative to attract top talent from India. A pile of cash and a sponsored visa were enough to lure the best engineers from overseas. But now, given a narrowing salary gap and a lower cost of living, a top tech worker in India will actually save more than his American counterpart. The work itself can be exciting enough to lure Western-trained Indians back home, too. According to a study led by Wadhwa and Saxenian, at General Electric's John F. Welch Technology Centre in Bangalore, where they are “designing some of the company's most advanced technology,” 34 percent of the research and development staff are recent returnees from the States. And returnees make up half of all PhDs at Bangalore's IBM Research.

“You see that your friends have gone back home and they're doing really well,” Wadhwa says. “They have the social stature. They have servants and chauffeurs. They have all the economic benefits and impact. Why in the world would you be in America when you could be back home doing that?”

“When I was growing up,” Nish­ant says, “I would ask people who were studying or working in Amer­ica, ‘Why do you go?' They would always tell me that it was for the money. So I would ask them, ‘If the money was the same here, would you leave?' And they would say no.”

But it's not just about the money. It's that India, once a dead end for startups, has become fertile ground for the go-getter. Entrepreneurship used to be dominated by the moneyed houses of the upper classes, the only institutions that could afford the up-front capital needed to start companies in competitive markets. So smart guys with great ideas came to Silicon Valley, where they had a much better chance of securing stakes in their own success. But two things are different today: First, most modern high-tech businesses are no longer capital-intensive, meaning Indians living in India can often finance them on their own. Second, the cash is starting to flow into home­grown Indian startups from within the country. Venture capital still functions more like private equity, focused on increasing the profitabil­ity of existing companies instead of paying for new ones to get off the ground. But that's changing, too.

“If you really want to put a marker on how Bangalore is today,” Rammohan says, “maybe it's not '75, when Microsoft started. Maybe it's '79.” He leans back in his chair, hands behind his head. “They're going to get there much faster. Maybe 15, rather than 30, years.” He sounds more than a little proud.

If you walk into any bookstore, you'll find the bestsellers section piled high with the work of pessi­mistic prophets. They forecast America's downfall with a mixture of terror and awe: The center of the world, they say, is drifting inexorably eastward. There is a great deal of truth embedded in the hyperbole. But, although India's rise has been meteoric, America has selling points that can't be matched anywhere.

As we smoke flavored tobacco in a hookah bar down a Palo Alto side street, Gaurav hasn't lost hope of getting an 11th-hour job offer spectacular enough to make the visa headaches worth bearing. But with time running out, he has had no choice but to send seven years of accumulated stuff to ride a container ship across a choppy ocean. And still, he's stuck on the States.

“I value freedom of speech, freedom of expression, personal safety,” Gaurav says. “They exist in India, but not as much as they do here.”

A soft rain falls outside in the early-evening light. We sip sweet Arabic tea as pipe smoke lingers over our table like smog.

“With that kind of culture, you can form your own opinions when you come across a new issue,” Gaurav says. “Take, for example, gay marriage. In India, it's not even a topic for discussion. It's assumed that if you're gay, you have a disease. And then you come here and you walk around in San Francisco, and you're like, how are these people in any way, means, shape, or form posing any kind of hindrance to my lifestyle? So why does it matter? My life philosophy now is live and let live.”

“When you grow up in India, you're very constrained in the way you think” is how Nishant put it to me. “What has changed for me after coming here is that it's more about your choice, what you want to do in your life. If something gives you pleasure and it's not harming anyone, go ahead and do what you want.”

If Vidya Venkat ever leaves America, she'll have to be dragged. She's a 27-year-old Delhi native with a stylish bob and enough enthusiasm for three people. A green card seems impossibly far away, but she loves her job at Yahoo! and the South Bay's easy living. It's a rare commodity in India. “You'll get paid a good amount when you go back,” Vidya says, “but you can't stop the traffic jam from happening. You can't stop the bureaucracy. These are things you have to deal with on a daily basis: water cuts, electricity shortages.”

For a young woman like Vidya, life is less stressful in Sunnyvale. “Delhi's not safe for girls,” she says. “In India, if I don't come home by 10 at night, my dad doesn't sleep. When I'm here, he knows how my lifestyle is—sometimes I'm out with my friends and I come back late, or in the early morning. But he knows I'll be fine.”

Freedom—that nebulous, most holy concept of the American civic religion—is what makes Vidya want to raise her children here, keeps Nishant happy at home with a fridge full of microbrews, and leaves Gaurav dreading what he'll miss if he moves away. Freedom from hardship, even inconvenience; freedom from oppression, corruption, and a stifling social order; freedom from crowds and overcrowding, from too little for far too many.

This is the American advantage we may never have to cede. Liberalize the path to citizenship for talented foreign workers, and they'll keep coming, just as they always have. Because they want to.

It's a few weeks later, and I'm back at Gaurav's Mountain View apartment. We share a pizza and more of the sake he always seems to have in reserve. Somewhat sheepishly, he takes out a cigar. “Dude—do you know how to smoke one of these?”

I tell him I'm by no means an expert, but that I've clipped a Dominican or two in my day.

“Good. You can show me. I've never had one before.” He turns the $10 stogie over in his hands. “I want to try everything I can at least once before I leave America.”

Tally another for the undertow. Gaurav is moving back to India. He's giving up his job search, which was halfhearted to begin with, and his apartment is almost bare. I sit on the floor in front of a lone glass table. The detritus of a busy young man's life litters its speckled surface: Bollywood movie cases, an ashtray, a few magazines.

Maybe he was just unlucky. Or maybe, like many of his friends, he took a good look at the situation and realized that going back makes more sense.

“I was at this fork, this crossroads, in my life,” he says. “A lot of considerations came into play—family, finances. It's a great time to be back in India, because now India is a market, not just an outsourcing shop. It can be its own thing. There's growth, there's talent, there are a lot of people heading back, there are new ideas.”

Like many young Indians, Gaurav feels a need to be a part of it all, to play a role in the grand adventure: the moment in India's history when it reclaims its former glory, real or imagined, and moves into the world spotlight. Construction cranes work through the night, bank accounts drown in a deluge of rupees, and the blue flames of blow­torches illuminate naval shipyards filled to capacity with the imposing hulks of half-built destroyers. The clarion call has sounded, a 9 a.m. steam whistle beckoning Indians scattered across the world back home to work on a great national project.

There's a good job at a defense-contracting firm waiting for Gaurav in Mumbai. There's a bed waiting in his parents' house, too, where he'll stay while he sets up his new life. Gaurav will let himself be swept out with the tide, but not before he gets a final taste of the Bay Area nightlife he's come to love.

A few days later, we're at his going-away party. “This,” Gaurav says, “is the first place I got drunk in America.”

We're at Molly MaGees, in Mountain View, where a cosmopolitan scene plays out as I sip my Guinness in the corner. A jovial, inebriated crowd of young Asian immigrants, mostly tech workers, is packed into a wood-and-brass, low-ceilinged Irish pub, the legacy of another group of immigrants who have made their own mark on Bay Area history. But instead of Dannys and Patricks, Prasads and Sanjays crowd the bar. They're seeing off one of their own, and the atmosphere is part wake, part wedding. I know what many of them are thinking: Will that be me someday? Someday soon?

Gaurav has become a friend, and I'll miss him when he's gone. He invites me to Mumbai for a visit, hawks the benefits for body and mind of a sublime week under the sun in Goa. Then he's pulled in three directions and nearly drowned in shots as his buddies and colleagues jockey for a final sampling of his irrepressible warmth.

There's one last question I need to ask him before he leaves. I'm a political junkie, so I have to know: What are his thoughts on that poster boy of Indian success and assimilation, Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal?

Gaurav doesn't miss a beat.

“Weirdo,” he says, and smiles.

It's a response only an American could give.

Benjamin Schrier
is a law student, freelance writer, and Bay Area native.


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