On our arrival at Indira Gandhi Airport in New Delhi, with its gleaming
floors, sleek, efficient, sariclad flight attendants with blonde streaks in
their hair buns. There were girls in skinny jeans, men glued to their
iphones, fast food (McDonald’s India offers a McAloo for vegetarians.) My
first response was, “where is my India?”
The India I lived in as a child, visited as a university student, and a
young married mother had galloped away from me, a knight of globalisation
and economic growth. I complained to my long-suffering husband that the
India that haunts me is that of jasmines and wood roses climbing crumbling
brick red garden walls, my grandmother sitting with the dhobi documenting
clouds of saris, dupattas, sheets napkins which he would wash, iron and
return in a day; afternoon tea and cake, followed by Hindi and Urdu teachers
for whom we would be respectfully changed out of convent skirts and wear
kurta pajamas; the “trunk calls” from city to city that had to be placed
hours before, the hollering into the phone; starched saris; light falling in
diamond shapes through latticed-walls, drying freshly washed hair on the
terrace from which we could see India teeming with its film posters,
traffic, and hum of chaos. In short, I felt India had left me behind.
My India began as Indira Gandhi’s closed and protected country when it was a
big deal to have ten pounds foreign exchange to spend in London; my Indian
cousins were at least ten years behind Western music and fashions slicking
their hair back to Grease and Saturday Night Fever when the Russians “got
it.” My uncle Jitendra would rush to a shop the second I arrived in Bombay
to buy me a kurta so I could change out of my “shameless western t-shirts
Fastforward to the decade when the cousins, both Hindu and Muslim, began
asking, wasn’t I wearing jeans instead of the shalvaar khameez I had hastily
changed into at the airport in Delhi; And in this new century: Calling an
operator in Baltimore, US, to find out the address of the nearest pharmacy
centre only to hear a voice from a call centre from my hometown, Bangalore,
directing me to the exact location.
On my last visit to Bhopal two years ago when I felt decidedly old fashioned
as I refused a drink at the cocktail hour in Bhopal and was clueless as to
Paris’ fashion week, I felt India’s transformation was complete.
Yet, almost everything one writes about India is only a partial truth. She
may be among the fastest growing economies worldwide, yet remains dogged by
threats from China, Pakistan, Tibet from outside, Kashmiri separatists, and
Maoists from within. Her people and culture, be they from the Moguls,
Christians or Hindus, are infinitely polite and humble, yet current
literature tells us of the menace of an underworld brutality that is not far
from the surface.
India’s middle class has ballooned to a massive 600 million people. She
boasts of the families of Ambanis, Tatas, and Mittals among the richest and
most influential dynasties in the world, yet she is home to the poorest
people in the world, with one in three children under the age of three
suffering from malnutrition.
She is a chimera, a mercurial mother, flashing and reflecting a dozen ages,
21 states, 14 languages, thousands of dialects, castes and subcasts, and
more than a billion people, not including a vast Diaspora. Everything
changes, yet nothing is lost, and is absorbed into the subcontinent. She is
shifting sands and solid as the Himalyas.
The signs were there on London Delhi flight when children whipped out their
ipods, instead of screaming like brats. Parents, instead of taking out
tiffins, talking loudly and demanding immediate and endless waitress service
from the flight attendants, did a last check of the iphones and
blackberries, placed orders for their bloody Mary’s and rifled in their
Burbury bags for the latest copy of London Vogue.
The actors of Bollywood films on the in flight entertainment could be
Westerners, the women pale, slim, in barely there western designer wear, the
men incredibly buff and cool. They are only recognisably Indian for their
Hinglish which is a mixture of Hindi
and English slang, histrionic acting, and the energetic music video type
The drive at midnight to New Delhi through the rapidly growing suburbs
(testimony to India as an emerging economic tiger) landed us in an art deco
hotel reminiscent of Miami’s South Beach. While we checked in we could see
couples lining up to get into the clubs, with little Indian reticence in
sight as girls wore almost nothing with high heels, looking exactly like the
girls we’d seen going out in Port-of-Spain a few days back and in London the
night before, with similar looking men listening to the same music.
In the hotels gardens, where swings were arranged around a poolside lit with
lanterns and a German barked into his mobile while tucking into beer and
spare ribs, and the business centre where Americans were clearly being
matched in aggression by their Indian counterparts over business, I got the
picture finally. But just when you think you’ve finally got the new India,
her ancient rituals tug.
An unexpected death of a 42 year old cousin brings a family together in
Kanpur. They fly in from Dehli, Bombay, Aligarh, Bhopal. Cousins escort our
“cousin brothers” body flown in from China in an ambulance for almost 24
hours. A daughter, barely 16, walks barefoot halfway to the cremation
grounds, following her beloved dead father, a young widow sleeps where his
coffin lay cradling her late husband’s photo. In a flash we are all the way
we were when we were very young.
Cousins sleeping in one room. But instead of being cared for, caring for our
parents and aunties and uncles. We keep the tradition, throw away the
oppression. The young girls bring boys into the home that helps. The eldest
uncle’s young widow must eventually remarry although it’s not Hindu
tradition. The daughter is set up with an education fund by the family.
On our way to our next
destination, Shillong, we stop over in Calcutta briefly. We follow the
hotels music to the roof, and find on a raised dais, Ghazal singers, soulful
melodious poetry, giving loss a sweetness I hadn’t known it possessed,
rooting us in the moment. From somewhere, the scent of jasmines wafts
towards us. India put its arms around me all over again.