Archive for February, 2012

A couple of days ago an Indian woman recounted her sister-in-law’s tale of US tourist visa chasing. For all subhumans—non-Americans—this is an unsettling process. What with all the gun-toting meatheads, it’s much like I imagine being probed in the middle of an arms fair would feel. For an Indian housewife with a son working in the West, it’s a Salem-like bind: Gitmo for Amma if she says she hates America; more commonly, if she appears to like it too much she’s clearly going to become another of the illegal hordes leaching dry the Western teat. The patriotic border control officer threatened to terminate her application with extreme prejudice.

But, argued the sister-in-law, the quality of life in India for your buck is far higher than in the West; I’d be a fool to move to your miserable country. We’ve all seen The Wire* (or at least, the cheekily pirated Indian soap version, in which Omar is replaced by a crack-shooting nonagenarian called Auntie).

Is this true? That’s one of the great questions I’m going to test over the next few months. (Unfortunately, my benchmarks are a bit warped given that at home I haven’t made my own bed for three years, and sometimes my toilet paper magically folds its end into attractive shapes. But anyway.) Let’s try out a couple of preliminary hypotheses.

1. Everyone secretly wants servants

In India, unskilled labour is cheap. ‘All mod cons’ uses a century-old definition of ‘modern’: it definitely includes a maid, and maybe a cook, guard, and driver too. This is quite handy—and almost exactly like being in an Oxbridge college. It also means that I feel disproportionately aggrieved when chopping my own onions, and feel a little horrified at the thought of taking the bus. At least I get to practise the beautifully colonial imperative-laden Hindi that the missionary-training schools still teach up in Mussoorie (Drive faster! Stop, imbecile! I shall have a salwar sewn!).

2. You’re automatically part of an embattled expat team

Other perks are a bit more ambivalent. Because I’m whiteish and don’t wear those hideous Aladdin pants, I automatically appear to be part of the Gora Mafia. This is great in that I keep being introduced to people far more interesting and senior than I am, the sort of people who generally treat me like a benign but sentience-deprived amoeba when asking me to waft the claret back home. I imagine they’re all having cutting-edge affairs and own pearls. Fairly odious when conversations degenerate into whinges about mosquitoes and the level of football, though. Note that not all these people are videshis: the Gora Mafia especially welcomes wealthy Indians who are willing to moan about their own country, its recalcitrant natives, and its lack of good pesto.

3. It’s just like back home, anyway

Ugh.

Lest you need reassurance back there in the UK, upper-middle-class life in the two countries is weirdly similar. Families here in my bourgeois suburb grow organic food in their allotments, teach their kids French, bitch about the triteness of Bollywood and the absence of cheese varieties, employ landscape architects, holiday in ‘the States’, sip Laphroaig, buy their underwear at M&S. In the tiny neighbourhood market, for an insanely antisocial price you can buy Pedigree Chum, used to feed creatures like this particularly redundant canine specimen. When he wasn’t running in circles trying to befriend his own thoroughbred arse, he was bemusedly being tortured by a particularly innovative Franco-Indian toddler. Given the amount of attention he paid me, though, it was clear that I’d sat in something unpleasant earlier in the trip. As I seek to expand my haute-bourgeois circle, this was probably worth knowing.

* Disclaimer: I have not in fact seen The Wire. This Charlie Brooker-baiting avoidance might stem back to my youth, when we were banned from watching Power Rangers because it was too gritty. In fact, I might as well come clean: I’ve also never seen The Sopranos, Seinfeld, Arrested Development, Curb Your Enthusiasm, or even really The Office. I grovel for forgiveness, and will now retreat back into my ivory tower. Toodlepip.

Coming in from the cold

Posted: February 26, 2012 in Delhi life
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Home sweet home

A brief update: I’m no longer living under a bridge! Finally found myself a place to rest my head and books for the next few months.

The flat is big, light, airy, and much cheaper than several of the other quasi-London-priced pads I looked at. Thrillingly, I have my very own desk, and can sneak into other housemates’ bedrooms for air conditioning when the summer gets brutally hot. The flat also has a maid who erupts into my room at the crack of dawn and shovels dust onto my things, although she spends most of the time gossiping on the phone. It’s in a nice southwestern suburb of Delhi, filled with arid little parks, Pilates classes, and supermalls, and only a suicidally quick shared-auto trip away from the metro. I have, inevitably, just ordered my first organic veg box.

There are only a couple of disadvantages. First, the mattress is a solid stone-like block that almost fractured my phone when I dropped it. It has been benevolently engineered by Gandhians in order to strip sleep of all pleasure, and makes mornings a joy of semi-paralysis. Second, the flat lies under a gigantic flight path, so when I do sleep I dream of Aeroflot crash landings and urban-mythical blocks of frozen poo plummeting from the sky.

Living with addiction

Posted: February 24, 2012 in Delhi life
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Housewife's Revenge?

During my first days, I enormously abused the wonderful hospitality and kindness of a friend’s family. Throughout all my foolish claims that ‘I’m definitely going to move out tomorrow!’, they provided friendship, advice, and good cheer. They were probably the only things standing between me and a homicidal rampage through the streets of Saket.

They also provided a deliciously bemusing array of dishes from Maggi noodles to Bengali fish head dal to soy nuggets. All were excellent: but there was one special feature of dinnertimes that struck me. When I arrived, they noted that British people eat their evening meal very early—around 6pm, let’s say—whilst Indians typically dine a lot later, at perhaps 8.30 or 9. Not this family. Immediately they warned that dinner would definitely be after 10, and maybe as late as 11pm. Why?, I asked.

Then came the shamefaced revelation: ADDICTION TO SERIALS.

At first, I misunderstood and thought this was some late-night jonesing for the Honey Monster, a little Ricicle-snorting—and we’ve all been there. (My healthy morning self-loathing back home has led me to buy Oatibix: by 10am you’d knife your own grandmother for some to Frosties to rub in your eyeballs.) But no, these are good ole-fashioned soap operas, and there are HOURS of them each day, drip-fed in tiny ten-minute crack-morsels in between adverts.

These serials are quite clearly directed at the advertisers’ beloved demographic of podgy but well-meaning females. The men are either rugged child-schlepping love interests, or (once they’ve been pinned down by a woman) feckless, lazy, incompetent buffoons shepherded by their eye-rolling but loving daughters/mothers/wives. The protagonists are all in their mid-twenties and implausibly good-looking and doe-eyed with vast hair, whilst the villains cackle a lot whilst staring loonily over their luxuriant moustaches.

Luckily, there’s so much English in the dialogue (“bahut complicated hai”, “Arre, yaar, goodbye aur best of luck”) that I could get the gist of the least ludicrously implausible, identical-twin-free episodes. Leaving aside chauvinistic mythical dramas like those about the Maratha anti-Muslim hero Shivaji, the plotlines lurch through all sorts of worthy subjects: official corruption, child marriage, wife abandonment, and the relationship between the dreaded mother-in-law and her daughter (hence the name ‘saasbahu TV’). All this to a thundering sub-Carl-Orff soundtrack punctuated by inexplicable lightning strikes at moments of particular high tension, e.g. doors opening, chai being served. In one ten-minute segment, nine minutes were in slow motion, fourteen people got married, brothers whipped out guns and jerkily fought with cartoon thwacks, a bhang-addled middle-aged woman attacked people with tridents, and a lot of mobile phones rang whilst the camera swooped to and fro into each overacting OMG WHO IS CALLING ME face.

Dyspepsia, sleep deprivation, a strikingly poor grasp of martial arts: these serials are the scourge of the New India. Time for cold turkey.

Flat-hunting in Delhi makes White Tiger look like a stroll in the park. There are some similarities, though: the casual brutality, the huge sums in grubby notes changing hands, the overreliance on dodgy taxi drivers eyeing up your optimistically deposit-filled wallet.

I bounded off the plane filled with foolish confidence. In a city of perhaps 22.2 million—if we include the towns it’s chomping up daily—how hard could finding a place be for little old me, right? Surely I was a catch, what with my dazzling student salary, charmingly dubious grasp of Hindi, and adorably specific need for 4.5 months’ accommodation. On Friday 17th February, Day 1 of the Hunt, I leapt awake, humming as I bucket-washed, certain I’d have a room of my own by sundown.

How wrong I was. Oh the agony, the terror, the degradation!

There was the Safjardung Enclave flat up eight flights of stairs, where the Craigslist price mysteriously leapt by 35% once I ‘revealed’ I was white; the kitchen had yet to be constructed, and the bedroom walls were so thin that I could hear the creepy old man on the other side breathing. Then the peeling Malviya Nagar place where even the landlord had the decency to look embarrassed as he named the rent—though he did point out that the junction in the yard was so orchestrally busy that a lady could stroll about in safety. There was the room entirely enclosed within the swanky GK1 home of a retired couple, who ominously offered to ‘treat me like their own daughter’; the Lajpat Nagar place demanding almost £1,000 up front; the sinister hostel owner who casually allowed me to poke around in other people’s rooms and offered to tell my parents when I died; the Green Park woman who was keener than keen until I got almost to her doorstep and then she ceased all contact; the beauty contests in which several prospective tenants all awkwardly met and vied to ask the most penetrating questions about fan speeds and pretended to be relaxed (‘Yeah, I’m so open-minded and laid-back, sure, I love early-morning vuvuzela concerts, cool yeah this is a good space for a crack den, yeah man go right ahead and sublet the corner of my bed to the Forestry Commission, I’m, like, totally chilled about personal space’).

… Plus several others of nondescript inadequacies. And they’re just the ones I rejected: the worst were those that immediately rejected me, with flats disappearing within minutes of being advertised, or deranged German interns bidding from Frankfurt in advance of their world-saving arrival. By Day 3 my morality, never my most robust attribute at the best of times, slunk off for some sightseeing and chaat. I honed an ingratiating smile and a patina of white lies like some nymphomaniacal estate agent—what a charming cosy place! what a simply divine concrete view! of course I didn’t think ‘furnished’ meant ‘contains a bed’ or expect running water—and flirted with every single flat out there. Yeah, yeah, I’ll call you, you’re the best I’ve ever had, the only one for me, baby.

Chor Minar, Hauz Khas

Admittedly, the search was ‘intermittently encouraging, as I realised that Delhi is not (only) the sweaty, honking, insolent, groping lecher of a city that I remembered experiencing the first times around as a tourist’, as I wrote in an embittered email; ‘…my dreams of Dilliwala life are therefore ironically rising just as my spirit is being crushed’. I got to stroll around some nice bits of town—spotting this lovely tower in Hauz Khas where apparently 225 thieves’ heads may have been displayed back before the advent of India’s exemplary contemporary police force—and see exactly how nice upper-middle-class life in South Delhi can be. Greenish parks, vintage boutiques, and the alluringly glossy metro were all dangled before me and cruelly snatched away by the wiles of Fate/my own pickiness.

A brand new festival, Saket

Another day, I headed further south to Saket, famous for its malls packed with designer labels like M&S, Zara, and Accessorize. After being thoroughly groped a few times and pumped with enough X-rays to cut the subcontinent’s fertility rate, I was inspired to see the place full of gaudy red hearts and Richard Branson’s wares. More naked consumerism in the shape of a festival, I hear you cry—but actually this could be a progressive addition to a calendar that otherwise revolves around fasting and praying for husbands/brothers/sons. Unfortunately, the Saket flat lay alongside a gigantic open sewer, pungent enough in February that by April I expect the suburb to be enveloped in an eye-watering swarming black mass. I was, however, delighted to see clear signs of open defecation on the sides of the road. New and Old India merge!