Monday, 29 March 2010

Attack of the feral expat wife

(still from the French and Saunders expat wife sketch; sadly unavailable online)

I'm not religious, or even spiritual, in any way, but I do believe there is some kind of universe-wide magnetic force at work. Like, what you put out, you get back. If you emit toxicity into the world, toxicity will come back to you. This belief has been, many times, played out in various corners of my life. 

Consequently, while life here certainly isn't easy, I really try not to write about those times here. I don't want to be a whinger, and I don't want certain types of people to read it and take it as further proof that India is less civilised, less intellectually developed, and generally inferior to, say, Australia.

I also only read other expat blogs that have the same bent: that are for the most part positive and embracing of this great experience the authors are lucky enough to have. White Indian Housewife and neo Indian are two of my favourites.

Unfortunately, the other side does exist.

I had the misfortune of stumbling across an expat blog, written by another Australian woman living in Delhi, that was so staggeringly supercilious, superior, badly written and self-aggrandizing that I choked on my yoghurt. I actually feel sick. I'm not going to name and shame or link to it because that's bad net behaviour, and possibly spreading toxicity.

Sample post titles: "god this place is so backward". "Sickening account of Indian ineptitude". And then there's another post in which she spends a good few thousand words dumping on her inept staff at her sprawling farmhouse, paid for by her husband's generous expat package. In it, she repeatedly questions their intelligence, their honesty, and their general ability to function without her ever-watching eye. She also laments that her gardening staff refuse to pick up their dog's poo, and ends the rant with a line that, and I paraphrase, pats herself on the back for being so efficient before logging off to go and get her nails done.

The whole thing smacks of precisely what locals despise in expats: thinking they're better than Indians. Who the fuck are you, lady, to think you are better than anyone else? You can't even spell.

I suggest she, and anyone else prone to criticising others who've not had the good fortune of a Western education and consequently don't quite get the innate superiority of Global knives over local brands, gain a bit of perspective. You might be living a life of privilege, but you are still a guest in your host country, and consequently it is not seemly to dump on it or the people in it.

You are not better than anyone else because you were lucky enough to be born rich, white and blonde; it was simply a trick of fate that assigned you there. (Or perhaps you did something right in a former life.) If you want to remain in your bounteous life of farmhouses, imported cheese, international schools and a household staff of 12, then I suggest you act - and write - with a little more humility and grace, responsibility and positivity. Otherwise, return home. You are not needed here.

Freaking appalling.

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Family fun and a wedding: Bangalore

I spent the past week ensconsed in the bosom of the family in Bangalore. A host of relatives flew in, from interstate and abroad, for my cousin's wedding. Usually family gatherings like this can be somewhat fraught affairs, such is the volatile mix of personalities jostling for attention. We all have great fun for the first few days, then around about day four there's some kind of combustive meltdown followed by loud arguing in the corridors, and everyone can't wait to get away by day six. And then there's the organisation, or lack therof; trips outside the house or hotel, say to go shoe-shopping or for dinner, is an experience best likened to trying to herd cats with ADHD. 

Thankfully, this time there were no such dramas. Apart from a bit of tension over my maternal grandmother and her failing short-term memory (like asking when it would be my turn to get married) and her bizarre latent religiosity (like having twice-weekly fast days in which she eats nothing but potato chips, and refuses to take a glass of water from the non-Hindu maid), everyone got along famously. There were even tears as we said goodbye - of sadness, not joy.

On Saturday night there was a cocktail party at the Bangalore Club

My cousin's mother (seen above to the left in red) is a fabulous Page Three socialite type; her friends arrived early, glittering with jewels and giggling into their mai-tais. "I was Bangalore's first aerobics instructor," one told me, proudly.

Then on Tuesday, there were three events. It kicked off with the baraat: the procession by the groom and his friends and family to meet the bride's side. With both mothers from the Coorg region, the baraat incorporated traditional customs from the region. 

This bit was fun: we danced down the street while my cousin strode down, wearing a white robe with a dagger stuck in the belt, under an umbrella. Vis the lack of organisation or timeliness, my aunt found herself wheeling a suitcase filled with the groom's clothing changes down the street. 

Then there was the ceremony. Here, a few hundred of the closest friends and family stand around, half-watching but mostly chatting and catching up. This required another clothing change.

Then more people arrived for the reception. Hindu weddings are auspicious occasions; no meat or alcohol are generally served - hence the cocktail party a few nights earlier. 

Unlike Australian receptions, which are boozy affairs filled with speeches, dancing, and frivolity, the Indian wedding reception is exceptionally, teeth-grindingly boring. There is no structure: no MC, no bride and groom arrival, no sit-down meal, no speeches, no dance, no cake, no sentimentality. Rather, the bride and groom sit on thrones on the stage, while a long line of guests snakes around the room, clutching gifts. They slowly shuffle forward until it is their turn to greet the couple, hand over their gift and have their photo taken. There are hundreds of chairs set out in the hall facing the stage but no one is sitting; everyone is either in line or in the dining room next door, standing up with a plate of (vegetarian) food trying not to spill the palak paneer on their Kanjeevaram saris. Once they've eaten they go home, change into pyjamas and watch the cricket with a tumbler of Teacher's. The couple and their families must wait till the 700-odd guests have eaten before they get to dine, usually around midnight. Then there are a couple more ceremonies before we're free to go home, change into pyjamas and sink a few G&Ts to get over the day.

(all images thanks to Jason Staines)

Saturday, 13 March 2010

Bomb scare on my Bangalore-bound flight

(Image via Flickr)

Despite the constant, omnipresent threat of terrorist danger faced by India, today's events have left me wondering whether those actually at the coalface have any idea how to deal with such an attack, or even just the potential of one.

My morning flight to Bangalore on the budget airline Indigo left Delhi on time. It was comfortable yet no frills, and it arrived at Bangalore before time. (After too, too many flight delays, I've come to appreciate this punctuality).

Unbeknownst to passengers, however, was that about 20 minutes before we landed, a bomb threat was phoned in to the Delhi airport, specifically naming my flight. After landing, passengers were briskly herded onto buses on the tarmac. And kept there, right next to the plane, for a good 45 minutes, as we watched ground staff scurrying back and forth, towards and away from the plane. 

We were only told when we left the bus, at the terminal, where we went through stringent security checks, of the bomb scare. It was then another two-odd hours before they released our bags. 

That two hours was enough time for wild rumours to spread throughout the baggage claim area. Some said a second call had been made, claiming there was indeed a bomb on board that had failed to detonate. Others said the call had originated from the cargo area of Delhi airport, indicating an inside job. And everyone looked suspiciously at the poor man who hadn't thought to shave before getting on a plane.

The hapless Indigo employee deployed to inform us the bags would take a while and we weren't allowed to leave the claim area, really earned his money today. People were wild - about missed connections, missed trains, missed meetings, and that guy bore the brunt of it. I think the mob would've burned an effigy if there had been any hay and lighter fluid nearby.

Then the sniffer dogs came through: two of the biggest labradors I've ever seen, almost the size of Great Danes. The toddlers went crazy and went running after the doggies, trying to pat them. Teenagers took photos on their iPhones. 

Finally by big shiny red Samsonite arrived; thankfully they'd not busted the lock to get inside. On my way out I passed the Bangalore police commissioner. He looks just like a Bollywood villian, complete with handlebar moustache and aviator sunglasses and was slapping the back of a bald guy who looked a bit like Djimon Hounsou  and chortling. It was all very Deewar.

But seriously, the question remains: just why did they keep us on the buses next to the plane for so long? If, as they likely suspected, the bomber was among us, what if he or she had detonated while we waited? What if a bomb on luggage on the plane had gone off? We were locked in a bus that was going nowhere.

I'm reluctant to point fingers at Indigo or Bangalore Airport, but think the incident serves as a timely reminder that Indian security, and moreso the kind of intuitive response needed, just isn't there yet.

Saturday, 6 March 2010

Spring has sprung, or basant has begun

March means spring. It's a short little season, wedged in between the two degree lows of winter and the searing 45 degree Sahara-dry heat of the prolonged summer. And flowers are everywhere. Just look at my balcony:

I bought an armful of flowers today (all these for 180rs, and even then I surely paid over the odds): tuberoses which have already filled the entire house with their scent, roses, these little purple Himalayan mountain flowers that I couldn't comprehend the name of. These were bought partially in in honour of Mama Desiderata's looming visit; the tornado descends tomorrow. She is not usually a fan of cut flowers, being of the opinion that if flowers are not in the ground they've been murdered, but hopefully she will be able to appreciate the beauty of the still life:

And, even better, they may well just deflect attention from the less-scrubbed corners of the flat.

Friday, 5 March 2010

Peering into the lives of the other half

The Oberoi Delhi is the kind of place rich people build to keep India out. It's modern minimalist, gleaming, has glass walls and shiny marble surfaces, a beige and black colour scheme, and the whole place is subtly scented with tuberose. There are people in there carrying real Birkins, not Berkens or Brrkins, and wearing Tods and linen pants with lemon-coloured cashmere sweaters casually draped around their shoulders, as though they're just passing through Delhi on their way to a sailing regatta in the Hamptons.

I only really go to places like the Oberoi for work, it's certainly not part of my regular life, and while it's fun, I always feel a bit like everyone's looking at me sideways to check I don't steal the silverware.

(Threesixty. Image: Oberoi Hotels)

After nine months in this city, I finally went there for the first time, at the behest of an interior designer I was doing a piece on; we met at Threesixty, which is an open-all-hours cafe-restaurant, although that description does not do it justice one bit. It's a sprawling, designer space, the interiors carrying just the barest hint of a flicker of a nod to the Indian aesthetic through all the minimalist marble and dark wood. I sat by the window in the lounge area overlooking the pool, nearby people were perched at benches and tables, eating sushi and various other delights from the buffet, which was actually an entire separate room.

I didn't eat there, however. I was thoroughly annoyed by the end of the interview: my interviewee was 20 minutes late (even though I came to the hotel because she was already there, in another meeting), she texted throughout and getting usable quotes from her was like extracting teeth. I don't understand why. It's not like she was a politician admitting to adultery, she was a designer getting some free publicity for her work. (This was the second time in less than a month that this has happened; what is up with these people? Do they have any awareness whatsoever that being pleasant and respectful towards a journalist might help push more product?) 

As we walked out - she yapping on her phone and ignoring me - I ducked into the Louis Vuitton outlet in the lobby so she wouldn't see me walking down the long driveway to the main road to flag a rickshaw. 

And immediately my black mood dissipated: a waiter in white gloves handed me a glass of champagne as soon as I entered, and there was some kind of lolly bar set up on the counter, with chocolate-dipped strawberries and those expensive natural jellies you get at places like Fortnums. I didn't even pretend to have to show interest in the (admittedly, ugly brown) handbags as there were other customers in the shop, just amble around sipping my toasty bubbles, eating lollies and looking at the shoes, in a tuberose-scented wonderland. Bliss. 

I'll still never be convinced to buy one of those bags, though. Maybe a keyring, though, to show my appreciation for predicting my dire need for a drink.