Future past. Impressions of an exile. India 2.


One of the books I am reading now is Santosh Desai’s MOTHER PIOUS LADY, a compilation of columns he has written over the years observing the quirks and idiosyncrasies of middle class India. It is funny, full of sharp observations and often nostalgic about Gen X growing up in a pre-globalised India. One reviewer likened it to RK Laxman’s Common Man cartoons. Those who grew up in India and still live there know what I am talking about. The hardships, the ‘can-do-must-do’ attitude, the emphasis on dignity, the little treats once-in-a-while, the first time a family bought a television/scooter/refrigerator/electronics/even a Prestige cooker, arranged marriages, native villages as origin and end etc. Most of all the chalta-hai, we-are-like-this-only demeanour.

Now that has changed. Liberalised, aspirational middle-class India does not know that eating ice-cream happened only at wedding receptions (Cassata anyone?) and on rare occasions otherwise. Or that trunk calls used to be made from post offices and generally meant bad news; otherwise people sent telegrams. We used to get post cards for 25 paise-I am not sure they are around any more. Still, this is not an exercise in nostalgia. Economic liberalisation, free-trade market, globalisation and related states were inevitable. Young Indians look into the future with positivity. The mobility, entrepreneurship, consumption, independence and individuality-to some extent. They seem to have it all. Yet the chalta-hai, we-are-like-this-only demeanour.

Grounded in complacency and denial. Perhaps I have a ‘Western’ outlook to discourse and democratic responsibility and I want analysis. Every time I argued about civic process, populism and the relationship of the polity with the populace I was told ‘You have stayed away too long’, ‘We are an emotional people, we don’t like change’, ‘New Zealand is a small country so run differently’, ‘We should give the people what they want’ etc. No doubt India is a tough country to govern and Indians are complex. The culture does not make it easy either. Isn’t that precisely why Indians should be more self-aware? Shouldn’t the easier access to knowledge, information (not government process-but that is another story) and communication make us argumentative for the better?

In one of his articles Desai observes that Indians change at a pace that is comfortable with small, almost invisible steps which do not seem to disturb the status quo but actually is. Fine. But the pace at which ambition, aspiration, consumption and social behaviour is zooming such small steps create a massive disparity and inability to deal with the situation. Thomas Friedman, the great propagator of free market and author of THE WORLD IS FLAT praised India’s liberalisation and could only foresee a bright future (=money+material). There was no analysis of the social and cultural impact on Indians so deeply rooted in their traditions and structures. Here is what I thought.

Young India cannot deal with the material glut because there is no precedence. Then it turns to the past. There it is safe, there is reassurance, solidness and warmth like a mother’s bosom. Then we can chalta-hai, be like-this-only complacent because there is no need to examine the disparity between what we have, how it affects us and how we react. Because apparently everything will be alright!

Square Peg. Impressions of an exile. India. 1.


I see that I meant to write this on 17 October, soon after arriving back in Aotearoa but got occupied otherwise. So many times I ran the text of this intended blog through my head and edited it such that I could write short, sharp stuff rather than ramble on-which I tend to do.

Many times, in the weeks after I came back to Auckland, I caught myself just standing in my living room, in the silence that surrounds my house, staring at the little artefacts scattered, nah strategically placed all over. The shells from various Auckland beaches, the mini papier mache Eiffel Towers and Arc De Triomphe from Paris, the Ganeshas from Bombay and Banares, clapper board from Berlin, the books, Tibetan paintings from McLeodganj, the $30 couch from Salvation Army, the ‘donated’ television set on which I cannot watch TV One or TV2…I still do not have a proper coffee table and I dine Indian style crossed-legged on the floor. They all spoke to me. About my journey so far in life. That I am finally at a place where I can be comfortable with myself.

It took me a long time to figure out that I was/am a misfit. I was a curious child, always asking questions and not very happy with the answers. Consequently angry and disobedient. Hence bad. Not in a ‘black sheep’ way but someone who apparently needed to be firmly on a leash and kept within the patriarchy. Life was meant to be an education (a formal, school type education-for which I am very grateful), a job, a career making money, then marriage and kids. Until the day you die. No wonder I was a misfit. Going back home I am still a square peg in the round, all-sucking, Indian hole.

It took me a long time to figure out that it does not have to be like that. To get over the guilt of not thinking like everyone else, to reach this space and place that no one, not even me, thought could be a reality. Now I have to justify living this space; the unshackling and the so-called lack of responsibility in my life. I try to be blase and so does everyone else back in Bombay but the sub-text is too obvious to ignore. Then I just meditate to keep me calm.

Come back, they say. India has changed. You can be as free as you want. Be single, do live-in, shag around, whatever. As if this is what matters. What about the enquiry of existence? Or challenging the existing? Blackberry in one hand, vodka in another, designer mini dress  and preparations for karwa chauth. How is that a change? In a parallel universe I live this life. With straightened, bottle-blonde hair.

Not that I am not a misfit in New Zealand. Here I am a dark-skinned ‘ethnic’. Always classified as Indian-not that I mind it because I do not have to justify this or anything else. Such as being single, living on my own, working in mainstream media. No one tells me I ask too many questions or why can’t I be like everyone else. That is the difference. Palpable freedom with inherent responsibility and respect for choices. Of course it is not without problems, this society. It is still conservative and closed and racist and not as egalitarian as it makes out to be. But I am not judged by the money I make, the car I drive, the clothes I wear or the caste and religion I belong to. I can fully participate in the civic, democratic process without affiliating myself one way or the other.

It is true that I don’t do structure very well. Not structure imposed on me anyway. Because I work with the structure of the universe. Because nothing really is unstructured. That is where I fit in, in the bigger picture. For all my square peg-ness. New Zealand lets me be and I will go back to India only on my own terms. In conjunction with the universe.

Summer gardening.


Before I get into my travels and related angst. Pictures from my urban garden. First the beans. Broad beans I planted in autumn.

Don’t they look just beautiful? Although I would not know what to do with just 6-7 pods. I think I will put them in a ziplock bag and freeze them until some more grow. Then maybe I will saute them with garlic in olive oil.

And here is the mint. This is the naughty child in the garden. It was in the herb planter but I uprooted it and put it in this little pot and in a corner. This is the only way to control it. Not like I need a lot of mint in my cooking.

BTW the ants were back but I had my weapon of mass destruction ready. Ant Sand! Now to see if they invade my tomatoes and brinjal.