BOMBAY — So, you're an Indian living in the United States, making megabucks in Redwood City, Calif. A big shot.
But your aging parents are back home in India, alone. What should you, as a good Indian son or daughter, do? Call or send an e-mail to yourmaninindia.com, who will do everything from paying the family bills to just sitting down and being your mom or dad's new best friend.
It's an example of the ongoing nuclearization of the Indian family, and it's the latest trend for the thoroughly modern, upwardly mobile expatriate Indian.
"These days, people don't want distant relatives to get involved. So you get a professional service to do it, and that's where we come in," says P. Sunder, chief operating officer of yourmaninindia.com, in Bombay (Mumbai).
Five or 10 years ago, a company like yourmaninindia might not have worked. Many Indians abroad would have still preferred to travel to India to complete jobs themselves, or relied on relatives to get odd jobs done. But now, many young expatriate Indians - often several in the same family - are moving abroad and deciding to stay there permanently, adding long-distance complications to family relationships that only work when members are physically close.
"It's a real dilemma," says Dipankar Gupta, a sociologist at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. "People have to be equally committed both to the traditional commitments to family and to their individual futures in a more modern society."
The tug of commitments are felt most during emergencies, when a relative back home is sent to a hospital, says Mr. Gupta.
"When times get bad, if a cousin gets sick, the whole family is needed," Gupta says. "Doctors don't take care of the patient completely. Families have to stay there in the room to keep an eye on the doctor, because he tends to disappear."
For Indians living abroad, "you have to have a surrogate," says Gupta. "It's almost like you've outsourced your responsibilities."
After just four months of full time operation, yourmaninindia.com receives 70 to 80 inquiries each day. Ask P. Sunder what services he provides, and he'll answer, "anything." The company's motto is "ho jaayega," (it will happen).
In the company office in downtown Bombay, Mr. Sunder runs through a list of current requests:
• A man in Australia asks for help finding a puppy for his young daughter living in the Punjab. He lists the preferred breeds in order of priority: 1. Pug. 2. Lhasa Apso. 3. Cocker Spaniel. 4. Norwich Terrier.
• One Indian student in the US wants a birth certificate from his home village in Tamil Nadu so that he can apply for a work permit. The fee is $20. If the student had flown home to do it himself, the airfare alone would cost about $1,000.
• One man in New Jersey, who starts his e-mail by writing "It's a little complicated," says that he needs to locate a child in the south Indian city of Chennai in order to disperse money from the estate of a deceased relative. The child appears tied to an extramarital affair; family members in a case where family honor or personal gain is involved could not be trusted find the child themselves.
Fees for these services range from $25 to obtain a birth certificate in a large city ($40 for a distant village); $150 to manage an apartment, and take rent from a tenant; and $400 for parental care, including escort to weekly medical checkups.
Yourmaninindia.com only has 25 employees of its own, but it joined up recently with theTTK Corporation, which makes, among other things, pressure cookers and condoms. With its network of thousands of TTK dealers, yourmaninindia.com is able to reach into almost every town and village in India. Not only do they get the job done, they tend to do it much more quickly than the average Indian could do it himself.
Sudan Ayanam Varadachari, a student looking for a computer job in Georgia, had tried for five months to obtain a letter from his college in India, certifying that he was proficient in certain kinds of software. Then he turned to yourmaninindia, and Prasad Gokhale, a manager who got the job done in 40 days.
"I was very much shocked," Mr. Sudan writes in an e-mail message. "I thought it might take a couple of months to get a positive result."
P. Sunder, himself a 20-something product of the Internet age, says that his company can only succeed if it breaks out of the old mind-set of "Indian Stretchable Time," where an hour-long task can stretch for days. "Indians, when they live in the US, start thinking differently, that one should stick to a time schedule," says Sunder. "We have to be able to provide service at that same level."
But while the vast majority of requests are paperwork tasks, the job that puts yourmaninindia.com to the greatest test is its ability to look after a customer's family member to a client's expectations.
Consider Ramu Iyer, a manager at a high-tech consulting firm in Seattle. Back home in Chennai, his father had died four months ago. His mother was suddenly all alone. Part of him, the good Indian son, felt he should return to India to make sure she was taken care of. The other part, an ambitious college grad, felt he should pursue his career.
Yourmaninindia.com allowed Mr. Iyer to follow both paths. Now he can make sure that his mom gets to doctor's appointments, takes her medicine, and pays her electricity bills.
Before, the best that Iyer could do to check up on his mother's health would be to ask her directly. Her answer was always the same: I'm fine. Now, yourmaninindia.com sends an employee named Charu to talk to Iyer's mother once a week to act as Iyer's eyes and ears, and to keep her from feeling lonely.
"Charu makes a personal visit to see my mother and spends at least an hour in conversation," says Iyer, writing a reporter via e-mail. "This helps me stay connected and gives me more 'peace of mind' than a phone call. As a result of Charu's visit, I am able to learn the most current, up-to-date status of how well my mother is doing."
Iyer's mother seems happy with the arrangement. "If something goes wrong, immediately I call Charu," says Kausalya Venkateswaran. "After 47 years of marriage, I suddenly lost my husband four months ago. Normally, I would call my family to help out, but in this case, my children are all abroad. So if I have some problem, and I have to talk with [someone] confidentially, Charu is there."
Sugandha Srinivasan, another customer of yourmaninindia.com, says that she prefers being looked after by a strangerthan living with her child in the US.
"My son wants me to be there, but oh God, it's so boring," says Mrs. Srinivasan, recently returned home to Chennai from a trip to the US. "Here I can be very independent, I can go to the Ladies Recreation Club. There I have to be dependent. The whole day, I have to stay home."
If something goes wrong, she just calls Saru, an employee of yourmaninindia.com.
"She's like a friend," says Mrs. Srinivasan. "Once a week, she comes to talk with me. If the phone goes out of order, or if some odd thing is needed, Saru helps me take care of it."
Srinivasan has a vast network of relatives in Chennai, but she considers them unreliable. "Their attitude is that 'their own children don't care for their parents, so why should we care?' This way, I can be very independent."