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Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Resident or non-resident?

Recently, in Delhi, as a Delhite historian friend was showing me a historical site, she said the architect of that monument was from Persia. I shot back, saying: "He must have been the first NRI, Non-resident Iranian, I mean."

Professor Atish Dipankar was a non-resident Bangladeshi (NRB) who went all the way to Tibet after a stint in Malaysia to teach in the early 11th century. He returned home nine centuries later in a coffin in an independent Bangladesh.

Globalisation has many casualties. The title of an interesting book on telecommunication generated globalisation is: The Death of Distance (Frances Cairncross, 1997). In addition to distance and to some extent, time, NRB or NRI, or whatever, too is becoming a casualty of globalisation.

Who is a resident and who is a non-resident has been blurred by globalisation. Once someone asked Professor Saskia Sassen, a prominent author on the subject of globalisation, where she lived. She answered: "While not on a plane, I live in Chicago." Like Sassen, now at Columbia University, New York many in this globalised world have become footloose, unanchored.

While Channel i news showed a clip of NRB conference in Dhaka recently, the news featured four speakers: Dr. Atiur Rahman, Dr. Kamal Hossain, Professor Jamilur Reza Chowdhury, and Professor Bazlul Mobin Chowdhury as speakers of various sessions. For those who live in Bangladesh, these are familiar faces and names. For me, though I do not live in Bangladesh these days, these are familiar names as well.

Dr. Atiur Rahman is an economist, or, more appropriately, a famous socio-economist, an NGO activist, a columnist, a powerful writer in Bangla. Dr. Kamal Hossain, an internationally famed jurist, one of the founding members of Transparency International, former law and foreign minister of Bangladesh and close confidant of Bangabandhu. He studied economics at University of Michigan before returning to do a Ph.D. in law at Oxford. Professor Jamilur Reza Chowdhury a brilliant engineering professor, now vice-chancellor of Brac University, also served as an adviser to the caretaker government. Professor Bazlul Mobin Chowdhury, a sociologist Ph.D. from Aberdeen University, Scotland, is currently the vice-chancellor of Independent University of Bangladesh (IUB).

These four individuals are not only wonderful human beings and scholars of distinction, they are in one sense NRBs too. They all went and spent time overseas. But they also returned to their base quietly without the glare and glory of NRBs. They were potential NRBs. In fact, many in Bangladesh who helped place Bangladesh on the global map in a favourable light are NRBs except they were not called as such.

Professor Muhammad Yunus and Mr. Fazle Hasan Abed are the two names that spring to mind. Professor Yunus did teach at a US university before heading back to Chittagong University. Mr. Abed returned to Bangladesh after the liberation of Bangladesh. Both of them worked for the liberation of Bangladesh while they were away in US and UK, respectively.

The editor of the newspaper you are reading left a cushy job with Unesco (imagine all the great postings in Paris, New York, Bangkok, and the perks) and returned to Dhaka where one of the avocations of a journalist has become facing baseless law suits or threats. And there are other young journalists who left promising overseas careers (even legal career in US) to return to Bangladesh. They were not targeted by any government department. They did it on their own. Let's say that they missed home-cooked food.

One young woman who shares my last name (but unrelated) was teaching in a college in US. One day she saw the college president to tell him that she was quitting to return to Dhaka. The president could not believe it, but she meant what she had said. I can give a long list of people who could break the temptation of overseas living and returned home. Others stayed but their hearts were in Bangladesh, their bodies were overseas. As globalisation deepens, people will live in multiple localities. And they will have multiple jobs. A friend of fine, a Kolkata-born economist educated in US has worked his way up to be a professor in a mid-sized US university and now helping set up a private university in Bangladesh (Chittagong) using his experience of setting up one in Venezuela.

The life of Mr. Carlos Ghosn who is an NRB (non-resident Brazilian) illustrates the point most eloquently. He is the CEO of Renault, which he turned from a loss-making to a profit-making company. His reputation spread. He was hired by Nissan as CEO but he did not quit his French job. He is CEO of two companies in two different parts of the world at the same time and spends a lot of time commuting between Paris and Tokyo.

In the mid 1990s, I knew some promising Indians who had fabulous jobs in banks and other private sectors in Singapore, but had returned to India. Yes, the Indian government was supportive, but they were allured by the new opportunities in India following the economic reforms. I tracked one such family who lived very well in Singapore, but now live in opulence in a posh New Delhi suburb.

I know one NRB who left a high paying teaching job in Brunei and returned to Dhaka, but after a while one fine morning, he packed his stuff and headed for a new destination. He teaches in an Australian university now. I know another academic who very much wanted to live in Australia but Australia would not keep him. He found his way to Dhaka via Singapore to a private university. And eventually moved back to Canada. In a globalised world, we are all NRBs as we are all non-NRBs. The so-called creative class, as Richard Florida calls them, has become footloose. And globalisation is going to make it more so.

The world is our oyster.

The author is a professor of sociology at Zayed University, Abu Dhabi.

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