Returning after almost 4 years to India, on a partly vacation but mostly work trip for the first time in 26 years, I get a different perspective of this big, complicated, complex, pulsing, alive, in turns frustrating and enchanting, country.
India grabs you by the scruff of your neck and makes you pay attention—there’s no ignoring her nor being indifferent to her—she won’t let you. You are forced to feel—angry, elated, happy, content, frustrated—sometimes all in the span of a day.
In no particular order, here are all the feelings and emotions that run through my mind as I navigate this ancient, modern, fighting, big democracy!
The pain and the pleasure:
“The frustrating thing about India”, said the great Cambridge economist Joan Robinson, “is that whatever you can rightly say about India, the opposite is also true.”
And it’s this phenomenon, while nothing new for India, and certainly nothing new for me as I lived the first 25 years of my life here, that really hits me this time.
I enjoy a luxurious meal in star hotels, and on my way out, am faced with dire and unspeakable poverty within a hundred feet. I get depressed after every great meal.
I travel in cars and while the cars are stopped in heavy traffic, children as young as 5 or 6 risk their lives, stepping in between the stopped cars, selling flowers, trinkets etc. I hate bargaining with them and end up paying whatever they ask. My justification is at least they’re not begging.
The conundrum is, am I really helping them or hurting them? Who is the money going to? Shouldn’t they be doing homework or be in school? Why do some things never change in this country? I don’t mean to pontificate, or sound like the typical NRI visiting and criticizing the homeland—really, I don’t. It’s just that there’s something about this that just weighs heavily on me this time for some reason.
And the dogs! Now that I’m a dog person thanks to my daughter’s mini dachshund Kashew, my heart breaks at every street dog that’s lying on the street, not quite begging, and not aggressive, but clearly resigned to its fate and lives on the charity of whoever cares to feed them.
(Raj absolutely put his foot down on giving them our leftover breakfast: ‘I don’t want 10 dogs chasing us every time we step on to the street’ and so we worked out a compromise and give the food to the grocery shop guy at the apartment who agreed to feed them.)
The other thing that I struggle with is how easy it is to get cheap manual labor for almost anything. I know that sounds like I have lost my mind, especially when I think of how I complain about how expensive it is to get anything done by a person back in the States.
But hear me out. While I understand that it’s the practical thing to use manpower in a country whose population is second only to China, and this is how economies work, I’m still mildly discomfited and shocked every time I get served—from having a cup of coffee delivered to wherever I’m sitting in the office, to getting almost anything delivered with just a phone call.
Let me explain this with some context. There are two rituals I observe every time I visit. The day after I land, my dad takes me to Adyar Anandha Bhavan, popularly known as A2B, a south Indian fast food place. (This time it got delayed by a day because I went straight to my sister’s place in Bengaluru. My sister mentioned that my dad couldn’t wait to take me there!)
The other one is shopping while jet lagged–everyone should try it. Sometimes I look at stuff I buy after I’m back home in the States and have no memory of buying it! Anyway, after a hearty mini tiffin at A2B loaded with ghee, my youngest sister takes me shopping. These are two rituals I must observe, and observe I do, every time. So off we went, the day after I landed here, having packed off my little niece and nephew to school. (The six year old niece very generously offered to stay home from school to help me shop).
I bought a few saris, and needed the blouses made and had no time to get it done in Bengaluru. Now I’m in Pune, on work. So we went this weekend, to the famous Lakshmi Road in Pune (“you have to experience Lakshmi Road at least once” said a colleague), in search of a tailor.
For Chennaites, imagine Ranganathan Street during festival time—or anytime, really. Lakshmi Road is Ranganathan street on steroids. We went in a car, past many shops, and many, many people. If we didn’t go in a car, all we would have had to do was stand at the starting point, and we would have been pushed by the people. And we found this place called Bizzeeland, suggested by a friend who knew a tailor there. It’s a 5-storey building, all five floors occupied by tailors. Imagine! 5 floors of just little tailor shops. It’s a dream for an Indian woman.
We told the driver (yes, we had a car and a driver provided to us) to come back in an hour or so and walked to the store. By now, I’ve been here for a week, and am not paralyzed when trying to cross the streets and can make it across, albeit with a death grip on Raj’s hand. And to think that just 25 years ago, I used to make fun of the returning desis frozen on the streets with panicked expressions! Karma is a bitch! But then I digress.
My friend had called ahead for her tailor to come down to the ground floor to meet us and take my measurements for the blouse. He delivered it the next morning (which in itself is a tiny miracle by US standards), it needed some alterations, and back we went to Lakshmi Road, braving the crowds. He made the alterations while I waited, and tried on. Raj casually mentioned that it was hard to make the trip to his place, and he immediately offered to bring it to our place the next day, with a catalog for the remaining blouses.
Ladies, haven’t we all seriously dreamed about this exact scenario? And yet, I felt awful that he had to come to our apartment on his holiday (the tailor said: “tomorrow all shops are closed, it’s a holiday for Lakshmi road. I’ll come to your place with the blouse.”)
While it was a dream come true, there were also these tiny pinpricks on my conscience. If I had confessed it to Raj, who’s getting a little tired of my sometimes misdirected conscience rearing its head about every couple of hours, he would have said “you’re helping him by giving him business—don’t be so dramatic!”
He would probably be right.
But the child labor and the dogs! That still hurts.
The thing that infuriates me, and that has not changed one bit is this: everywhere I go, especially in shops, the men seem to think my face is roughly about 6 inches south of where it actually is. Raj tries to tell me not to dress in sleeveless blouses or western attire, even baggy tshirts when I go to places like Lakshmi Road. But me being me, I refuse to alter the way I dress. I think the leery jerks need to change their behavior, and treat women as fellow human beings and not as sexual objects. The tailor, who had every opportunity to be a leery jerk on the other hand, was a gentleman!
This is just the tip of the iceberg. The underlying attitude has deep roots–movies that glorify girls falling in love with ‘bad’ boys, age old attitude of ‘boys will be boys’ and countless other forms of cultural cancer, and has manifested itself in many ugly forms–Nirbhaya, Jyoti, and countless others who have given their lives come to mind.
Pure Joy/ Sigh of Relief:
The restaurant scene has pretty much exploded in India. It’s truly a mecca for food lovers. The variety of cuisines, the service, the convenience of not having to ask “does this have any meat stock?” on everything you order! Love you, sweet India!
I’ll stop here for now, look for the next installment of my stream of conscious post soon as I head to my beloved Chennai this weekend!