Being rooted in change

 

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Category: International Date: 16 Jan 05

 

Despite the fact that I kept in touch with my parents for their entire four-month trip home to India through the e-mail, and witnessed family anniversary and weddings through Websites, and the Webcam, I was as eager as any 19th century villager for first-hand news of the country of my birth on their return.

 

We gathered around them regaling them with questions. My son wanted to know the kinds of cars they drove; my husband wanted to know about the politics and economy; my daughter about games and books; and I, with my usual eclectic interests, about the quality of writing in newspapers, the cut of sari blouses and the lifestyle of girls and women.

 

When you arrive here as a young immigrant, barely in your teens, you have a certain vision of the country you left.

 

In my case, it was still a conservative India, where women who strutted about in tiny blouses and see-through chiffon saris, or had too many gin and vodkas, or voiced their opinions forcefully, or left their husbands, were frowned upon as “fast.”

 

The ideal girl was a “simple” one, who excelled in her studies and retained traditional “Indian” values of humility, modesty and service.

 

Naturally, when you measure yourself against an impossible ideal like that, one tends to come up terribly short.

 

I remember one year wearing a carnival costume, thinking “Oh my god, what would my cousins say if they saw me now?” my rebellious nature relishing their imagined outrage at a member of their family walking in the streets in a bikini and a few beads.

 

I remember an India in which Coke was still banned, and foreign cars and designers were rarely heard off, except in very wealthy travelled circles.

 

Even when I was there five years ago, it was the India of my childhood, overpopulated and poor in parts, fantastically rich in others, a land of extremes, an assault on the senses, diamonds and dirt, very little in between.

 

Over the years, a weird combination of Bollywood movies and magazines, Indian magazines and papers, and the Internet has given me a changing face of India.

 

I knew that Bangalore, my father’s old army headquarters, a place where I spent my childhood, had changed. It was the silicone valley of India now, the home of software.

 

I knew from the Web sites shadi.com that young women now find their own husbands, based on mutual interests, interact with possible spouses with less interference from parents.

 

I read in “India Today” of the influx of foreign cars, designer clothes, fad diets, theme parties, clubbing, plastic surgery, of the meeting of Bollywood with Hollywood, of the easy movement of middle class Indians between the salons of Europe and industrial factories of Indonesia.

 

On my parents’ return, I gathered that middle class India no longer felt the need to look back to survive. I heard of the see-through bellbottoms, and the plunging décolletages at parties, of the gourmet meals and strong working women.

 

No Indian cousin of mine can be shocked at anything I wear today. It would probably be the other way. I saw in the popular glossy magazines headlines like “Shopping Sutra—what you buy is who you are!”

 

There is no doubt that a freer economy and technology have plunged massive chunks of India into the prosperity of first world globalisation. Buying power moves the culture.

 

But, two comments. In recent times world renowned economists such as Geoffrey Sachs have said that globalisation, especially in developing countries like Trinidad, like India is making the rich richer, the poor poorer, worse, irrelevant. Is that acceptable?

 

The other is self-indulgent, but fascinating nonetheless to us all on the cross-fertilisation of identities worldwide. It’s in the music, in the clothes, in business, in culture.

 

To close one’s eyes on the rapidly-changing face of the world is to fossilise. To be rootless is to die. We must all walk that tightrope or be lost.

 

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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur