Clinging to old loyalties in India


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Category: International 24 Mar 13


Mommy and I set off to the bank in Delhi wrapped up, and shed our layers with the warmth of the sun. India is an assault on the eyes with its endless vignettes—the businessman scolding an employee, a newly married couple off on a scooter, the memsahib in Prada shades stepping out with her ayah and children for a day’s shopping in the marbled designer mall, the desolate man sitting under a construction site.

Mine is the India of a child. Indira Gandhi’s iron rule—the emergency must have come and gone, wars were fought with Pakistan and China. I didn’t realise the bubble army families lived in—I had very little idea of the world outside contonements, officers’ clubs, messes. I was used to my father’s long absences and sudden appearances in uniform armed with chocolates, treats, the promise of a doll house; my mother giving out prizes to soldiers at the officers’ mess in Bangalore.

Mine is an India of a child, carelessly flung bolts of silk saris on white sheets, crowds of people walking and holding a transistor close to their ears for the latest cricket score.

It was a childhood of colonial echoes that have become part of India cricket grounds, army band’s drums, trumpets and bagpipes, spicy South Indian Dosa breakfast mornings in rose gardens of army clubs, of the sounds of piano, and learning as a North Indian to wrap my voice around unpronounceable names and alphabet of the South, of smatterings of Kannada of Bangalore, Tamil of Madras, of sleeping on the roof in hot summers in Delhi, ten, 15 cousins, packed like sardines.

An India of hill stations, of picking mushrooms in misty woods in Sagar, of an unending field of sunflowers in Simla, of picnics, gingham sheets, lime juice under guava trees, boating, tall pines, deep gorges, of stopping while travelling across India to warm our hands with readymade tea in small glasses thrust through a train window, of watching the grown-ups waltz to Chopin on gleaming wooden floors.

An India of driving along a perilous, winding mountain, pine everywhere, of walking every Sunday to the officers’ club to watch an “English” film, of walking home with a group of merry officers and wives who have had their fill of whisky, bridge, flirting, rummy and gossip while us children ran wild unobserved along the streets, with the constant view of snowy Himalayan mountain peaks, snow fights with leftover patches on slopes.

In recent times, as I’ve rebooted, I’ve looked at, visited, eager for reality, read up more, followed India’s politics, her massive growth, wildfire technology, a swelling number of billionaires, a middle-class that’s now among the biggest in the world, where poverty, greed and corruption co-exist, where tension between India and Pakistan (both with nuclear arms) at the disputed Kashmiri border remains perceptually hysterical.

As the second fastest-growing economy in the world, Indians are hugely materialistic, astute business people, discerning consumers. On the way to the bank we pass the fashionable Sarojini Nagar Market; the popular South Extension Market; past Baba Kharak Singh Marg, an Aladdin’s cave state-run emporium of jewelry, furniture, art, marble, sandalwood carvings, brass, gold, carpets of each of the 28 states.

There’s the past Janpath, stuffed with sari shops; Panchkuian Road known for ethnic cottons; Khan Market which has everything—from fantastically priced jewelry to the coffee shops where wealthy housewives gossip about their “servants” (who are now sending their children to universities); and Palika Bazaar, an electronic heaven for techies.

We arrive at Connaught place, a many-pillared arcade of shops, banks and restaurants—with the fourth most expensive office destination in the world. My mother and I get in the elevators to the bank on the fourth floor that would probably fetch a tidy sum in London’s Sotheby’s as an antique collector’s item—such is its rattle.

Once there, I head to the information desk only to look up and see my mother marching straight into the manager’s office to conduct a small transaction from an almost forgotten account. India may have become a superpower but her people cling to old loyalties. The manager remembers my mother.

I meekly follow and watch as he respectfully greets her with a “Namaste,” offers her tea, pulls out faded files from 30 years ago and the two settle in with cordial inquiries about the other’s families. My mother smiles sweetly at two irate greasy businessmen looking at their US$50,000 watches.

Despairingly, an hour later, I leave unnoticed in search of a sim card. I return two hours later after an adventure with grinning boys in booths, having had a passport photo taken in a basement by a man singing Bollywood songs, surrounded by posters of actresses in deep cleavages. I am protected in all transactions from many hustlers by my diminutive bodyguard (self-appointed) taxi driver.

I leave and wind around streets this time searching for a tailor who would make a blouse in 24 hours, find him in an ancient bazaar of tailors, get measured on the pavement and I’m wondering if I will ever see my material or the tailor again, when he whips out his call card and puts in my number on his iPhone.

Back to the bank an hour later, I take my mother away from the manager who, mission accomplished, is now offering to share his lunch tiffin packed by his wife. The line of bejeweled surly businessmen which has grown remains ignored. By evening my blouse is delivered. My phone is working. Some things never change in India. Such old world courtesy as we found in the State Bank of India persists. It’s why despite all her contradictions, she can be contained in the realm of dreams.


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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur