Monday, 27 April 2009

Telling a person by their clothes...

On my second day in Beijing, a member of the foreign affairs department of my office said to me rather gleefully, “Today you are looking more Chinese!”

I didn’t know whether I should take that statement as a compliment or as something that was being said to me sarcastically, given my Indian birth and Chinese ancestry. When I looked quizzically and queried, “…Mmmmm…more Chinese? What is that supposed to mean?”

I was told. “On the day you reached and even yesterday you looked very colourful…But today, you are sober like the Chinese…”

On the day I arrived, I was wearing white slacks and a brightly embellished aqua blue kurta with an equally bejeweled pair of Kolhapuri sandals. And, on my first day at work, I topped up my rather formal (and sober) outfit with a deep purple sweater, hurriedly borrowed from my friend Marisha Thakur, after I was caught unaware by Beijing's wind.

On Day 3, when I was told I "looked more Chinese", I was wearing a grey sweater.

Yes, the Chinese may be a little less sober than the Americans when it comes to the colour of their work clothes, but they are still not half as adventurous as Indians.

Their choice can be traced back to their history. First, emperors and kings dictated what they wore (during the Sui Dynasty, in the 500’s AD, the emperor ordered his subjects to wear only blue or black, while royalty were permitted to wear colourful clothing). Later, during the Cultural Revolution, most people wore military uniforms as a symbol of the revolution.

I guess I should take the statement of me “looking more Chinese” as an indication that the person who said it to me, embraced me as his own. I am happy, if that was the case.

However, that will not change my choice in colours...I am happy to "look" Indian :):):)

Friday, 24 April 2009

When I get lost...

If there’s one thing for which I never had a problem in India, it was being recognised. And, even though I never was inclined towards any hanky-panky, that was probably what subconsciously kept me from it :)

On my annual visit to Mount Mary, which could pass off as the kumbh mela for its sheer number of devotees, I always told my friends and parents: “If I ever get lost in the crowd, look for the Chinese face!”

That WAS a novelty in India. And, I often revelled in it!

Alas, on my first trip to Hong Kong in 2005 I realized those tactics would be useless there. With its sea of people, all with Mongoloid features, it would be futile to look for the ‘Chinese face’. Now I had to tell my parents, “Look for the darkest, shortest and fattest Chinese-looking person, who is not smooching someone in the middle of the road!” (Yes...Yes! The British rule has left them with a stiff upper lip that needs to be chewed on by another stiff upper lip, so that both sets of lips are moisturised and nourished to seem perky!!! What’s that they say about two negatives making a positive!)

When I first landed in New York in August 2007 and went to the dormitory allotted to me by Columbia University, I swear I thought: “Oh my God! The Chinese have invaded the earth! Run all you mortals who are not Chinese!” The ratio of Chinese to the non-Chinese in my dorm was definitely 10:3. I later learned that, yes, there was a considerable population of Chinese in New York, but the Indian population was also quite sizeable. That put me in a unique situation. Now I would tell my friends, “Look for the Hindi-yakking Chinese-looking person! That has to be me!”

It is now the spring of 2009 and what do I know – I am here in Beijing wondering what I should tell friends here, in the event that I get lost...I can’t tell them “Look for the Chinese face!” – there are too many around. I can’t say, “Look for the darkest or shortest or the one that’s not smooching” – most people here are more or less my height and colour and are not as smooch-loving as their Hong Kong counterparts. I can’t say, “Look for the Hindi-yakking Chinese-looking person!” – because in China if you don’t speak Mandarin, you ARE lost(and it doesn't matter even if you look Chinese)!

I guess I have finally found a place where I CAN indeed get lost...So, all my dear friends in China, if I am ever lost please do just one thing – GO TO THE POLICE STATION!!!

Thursday, 23 April 2009

Tadka maar ke...Indian ishtyle

When I left for the U.S. my cousins were teasing me about returning with an accent (“Oh! So will you be one of those people who go to the U.S. for a couple of years and acquire a fake American twang!”), not being able to have the street-side food that I so pig out on (“When you’re back you will say, ‘Sheeessshhh…that is so unhygienic!” and “Oh! I can only drink mineral water…”) and in fact, not returning to India at all (“Everyone says they will come back, but no one does….”).

“Hell no way!” I said, then.

Today, after eating Chicken schezwan fried rice on the pavements of Free Press Marg, drinking cutting chai from a tapri at Fort and indulging in bambiya bolbachans with everyone from the taxiwallah to random strangers to my very many friends in Bombay…I can still proudly say: “HELL NO WAY!!!”

I wouldn’t say that my cousins were wrong in their impression of people heading to the ‘land of opportunity’. I have seen my fair share of that species – ones who become allergic to the dust of Bombay, cringe at the humidity and heat, curse the crowds and wish for nothing more than to go back. Those that go to a country and culture not even their own, for a couple of years, and allow it to completely wipe out the 18-30 years of their prior life and experience. People who don’t realise the worth of growing up in a culturally rich country like India, just because it does not offer them the convenience of a cushy lifestyle or the zany packaging that they have gotten used to or the aesthetic satisfaction they seek.

I feel pity for such people. I never wanted to be one of them.

When I was leaving for New York to do my Masters in Journalism at Columbia University, I always knew that I wanted to return home and I knew that I would. Call it patriotism or obsession or passion – for me my home is where my heart lies. And, that place is India.

Its dust, grime, humidity, heat, warts and all, is like the masala in my chai, the tadka in my dal and the lasoon chutney in my vada pav.

I could do without them, but then life wouldn’t be so chatpata!

Thoughts as of: March 26th, 2009.

Wednesday, 22 April 2009

‘Cheap’ thrills…

There’s one good thing that came off my time in the U.S. – I appreciate India's standard of living more now, than I did when I left for New York in August 2007.

Being a typical bambiya, it has always been my birthright to bargain for anything and everything I buy. However cheap something was I just had to haggle…A roadside store owner in Bangalore once asked me, “Madam, aap Indian toh nahi dikhte hain, par agar aap Hindustani ho, toh aap zaroor Bombay se hain.” When I asked him how he was so sure about me being from Bombay, he answered, “Sirf Bombay ke log yahan aake bhaav karte hain.” And, I have pretty much, always, lived up to that reputation.

However, after spending (pun intended!) two years in New York barely managing to cover my rent, yet never having been able to bargain there, I found India liberating…to say the least.

In the three weeks that I spent in Bombay, I surprised myself and didn’t bargain for anything even once. My experience in New York had redefined the word ‘cheap’ for me – $15 hand gloves at Old Navy was what would be considered ‘cheap’ in New York. So, anything that cost less than that in India thrilled me to bits!

Shoes: Rs. 700 (“It’s lesser than $15!”)
Sandals: Rs. 400 (“Not even $10…”)
Clothes and accessories: Rs. 100-450 (“Wow! I can get so much in $10!”)

My mother wasn’t too pleased with me comparing the prices in India to those in the U.S. “You are not earning in dollars to be converting Indian rupees into USD…so stop converting!” she said.

I guess she is right, but I figured that I’d rather be ripped off by a small store owner selling his wares on the pavements of Bandra and Colaba, than burn a hole in my pocket at stores like Gap, Old Navy, Forever 21, Charlotte Russe and Express – which more likely than not will have clothes, shoes and accessories ‘Made in India’.

Thoughts as of: April 10th, 2009.

Indi-aahhaaaaa!!!! Wah wah!

Two things never fail to give me goose bumps. Jana Gana Mana, the Indian National Anthem and the first sight of India’s land mass from a couple of thousand feet above.

Today, was no different.

I was finally returning home to India for good, after a not so good two years in the United States; and anything that even remotely signified India – the airline, Indian ladies with embroidered kurtis and bindis, the food, the sight of the Indian flag hoisted purposefully on the aircraft’s tail, the imli sweets and even Hindi movies on the flight’s entertainment system – made me feel a gush of emotion, pride and love. And of course, the first glimpse of the motherland gave me goose bumps all over.

The general consensus among my friends is that I am a sucker, and I mean SUCKER, when it comes to India. And, I unabashedly agree. But, as I was gliding over the clouds in the darkness of night, just 10 minutes and a couple of hundred miles away from landing, I was pondering over whether I overdo the patriotic bit. I wondered, “Ok! So, India is a great country, despite its flaws, but then so are many other countries. What is it about India – apart from the fact that I was born and raised here – that makes it so special and why exactly do I need to get the goose bumps?”

I concluded that I’m probably just an emotional fool and in my head I promised myself to consciously pull back at the tug on my heart strings the moment the ‘I’ of India was mentioned.

When we finally landed, I rushed off the plane, skipped down the stairs, onto the tarmac and into the waiting bus which would take us to the airport for immigration clearance. As I boarded, I could already smell the musty air, feel the moisture on my skin and see myself relearning the art of standing in one square feet of space per person. And, even as I was feeling a strange excitement about all of it, I chastised myself for overreacting again. I lugged my overweight cabin bag into the bus and balanced it on my feet (which were precariously holding me up).

Rrrrrrrr...the bus started. I swayed. The people around me swayed along. And just as I was swinging back and forth for the nth time, I felt someone nudge my arm. I turned around and saw an elderly couple sitting on a two-seater. Both of them shifted towards the outside of their seats to make a small space and insisted that I sit between them.

Embarrassed, I thanked them and resisted (not once but thrice!) saying I was fine and that they should sit comfortably. They persisted, “You are like our granddaughter and we don’t want you to stand with your heavy bag. You must sit here.”

By this time, the people around me were obviously privy to the conversation and decided to add their bit. “Betaaaa, if elders are telling you so much, you must listen. Please sit.”

Reluctantly, I gave in and squeezed myself into the tiny space provided. And, suddenly I felt the goose bumps again.

However, this time, I just let it be. I let my heart rule my head, like I did before my needless pondering. I didn’t care if I was being an emotional fool.

THIS (the people), I realised, is what makes India so very special.

Thoughts as of: March 19th, 2009.