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
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
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
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.