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Re-run of the Native

Indian Lolly Cow

by FARZANA VERSEY

“The place became full of a watchful intentness now; for when other things sank brooding to sleep the heath appeared slowly to awake and listen. Every night its Titanic form seemed to await something; but it had waited thus, unmoved, during so many centuries, through the crises of so many things, that it could only be imagined to await one last crisis—the final overthrow.”

Thomas Hardy, ‘Return of the Native

  • They strip the whole mansion that belonged to the royal courts in a re-telling of history. The Hindujas, a prominent business family, buys a £100 million huge mansion near Buckingham Palace and renovates it in the East meets West fashion, Victorian balustrades with ancient patterns sourced from the monarchies of their homeland.
  • A once-reigning Bollywood diva returns ‘home’, bags, hubby, children and new accent in tow. She touts the tired excuse of wanting to inculcate Indian values in her children. She, who used to sing praises about a suburban life in Denver, grocery shopping without being mobbed, is seeking the crowd. In a sad Fedora-like account, she wanted to perform at one of those many New Year’s Eve shows where people pay to watch others dance. There were no takers; her style was passé. But there is hope. Her spouse, a cardiac surgeon, is being wooed by the best hospitals. This is what the return is for – to make the best of India’s wealth.  It is not xenophobia that they run away from or values they run to, but the lure of a lifestyle without mortgages where celebrity is still worshipped. The famous in India live in a time-warp where no one must know about their botox, their rehab, their crimes.

Both these examples are two aspects of the same story. Even as the value of the dollar makes the rupee go soggy with remorse, India continues to smile beatifically.  This is not part of the old fatalistic paradigm.  We still have elephants, but they are now in the room, and on the doors of sprawling London houses.

The India Shining story was a sorry little slogan that simulated glitter, but that has made way for the heavy metal.  India probably remains the most ‘untouched’ nation in terms of financial meltdown. How can any country be measured by its economic situation alone? The answer lies in the query.  India’s monetary power cannot be measured.  Those who make it to the Forbes list are only the showpieces.

Indian industrialisation is steeped in guilt.  Guilt does not mean empathy, which was so sharply delineated by Chaplin in ‘Modern Times’.  Group guilt is guile camouflaged.  Jawaharlal Nehru wanted to dress free enterprise with the garb of socialism.  In this case, the clothes became the first impression, the label the nation was tagged with. Added to that, it had to live with the looming shadow of Mahatma Gandhi and his spinning wheel yarn.  In many ways, when Indian business people bribe, the psychological dimension to it is of generosity, charity. The peon is given money for ‘chai-paani’ (tea and water, literally); those slightly higher up are advised to “buy something for wife and kids”; the big powers are given the ultimate – familiarity and an opportunity to be equal.  The dress of socialism covers all ills. Gandhi’s shadow is like graffiti on walls, designed for a nervous chuckle, a release of tension.

* * *

He threw his hands up in the air as though waiting to catch a ball.  “India!” he muttered under his breath, like a whispered secret, as he nodded his head. The imported shrug and nonchalance could not quite take away the yes-no combination gesture.

“India!” the one word muted by arrogance was also the destination of the whitewashed brown man. We were seated next to each other on a flight from Dubai; he had travelled a longer distance from New York so he seemed to believe his stake in India was greater.

He thought it was mandatory to abuse the system because he was accustomed to a more streamlined work ethos.  “I am a financial consultant, but I have explored opportunities to set up my own business. I will bring my expertise to the venture.” it was his Indian education that had given him the expertise; he worked for some of the best firms here before he got his green card. So, what did he learn in the United States that he could superimpose on the system here? Why did it take him so many years to make that leap of faith? It was not easy for him to admit that he feared for his job and that he could do in India what he was otherwise chary about.

It reminds me of Raj Rajaratnam, the hedge fund billionaire involved in what was billed as “history’s biggest insider trading”. When writer Suketu Mehta interviewed him, a stray sentence caused quite a stir. He wrote:  “The Rajaratnam case can be seen as a metaphor of the difference between immigrants from South Asia, who have a more elastic view of rules and a more keenly developed art of networking, and their children, the first generation, schooled to play by American rules. Preet Bharara came to the U.S. when he was an infant. Yet for all his complaints about unfairness, Rajaratnam, surprisingly, still believes in American justice. ‘In Sri Lanka I would have given the judge 50,000 rupees and he’d be sitting having dinner at my house. Here, I got my shot. The American justice system is by and large fair’.”

My co-traveller quite happily meets lobbyists for his company, and the company donates funds to political parties.  He would not do that in India. “Politicians in our country are odious.” I was struck by the reference to “our” country, but I knew that despite a foreign passport he would get through immigration quicker than I would. I was furious with him and his linen jacket, coolly opening a packet of ‘gutka’ and pouring it into his mouth like a hick-town buffoon. They would let him go through, as he’d click his red tongue to sound just slightly agitated over the time wasted. “Time is money, no, Sir?” He will hear this often and will hasten his stride to make that money walk faster.

He is returning because he has watched the country of birth and the one that sustained him in his growing years transform to his specifications. There are parts of it that are now called “gora (white) town”.  He will not miss his other ‘home’.  In fact, like some westerners, he too will think of this move as a calculated risk, although he knows exactly where to park his funds and his car.  The initial days of living abroad had filled him with some nostalgia that found solace in the stores that sold the smells he once loved. Today, he wants non-smelly foods.

If you live in a place that has a past in its quaintly-named lanes and the shops that were lined with glass bottles brimming over with strong-scented foods that made you hungry, you now have to often place an order for those. Or, they come packaged differently. Instead, you have international herbs. Every fruit has a label. I was sick of New Zealand apples and felt ridiculous asking for Indian apples in India. The store guy was unruffled and quite amused as he replied in perfectly-enunciated English, “You mean you want desi apples?” Yes. And I do not want my oil to be a virgin.

* * *

International retail chains like Wal-Mart and Tesco were to enter the market under the FDI, but there was opposition to it.  The neo Quit India movement is not about freedom or fear, but its own superpower dreams.

Beneath all the arguments about overdoing free enterprise, there is the canny knowledge that a large segment of people are already being catered to by the local malls. The middle-class has travelled overseas, and pushing a trolley along alleys and falling prey to impulse buying is not an Indian trait where most households above the poverty line has some form of domestic help. In a decade or so, the malls too have lost their sheen. When the first one had opened in Mumbai, families would make it a holiday outing, the children taking joy rides on the escalators. The Swarovski and Patchi chocolate showrooms were mainly window-shopping destinations. Would Indians who could afford expensive baubles buy it here? The exclusivity principle is at play. You cannot have an insignia of ‘By appointment with Carrefour’.

The executive on the flight is the equivalent of Wal-Mart. He too comes with the offering of more jobs, healthy competition, better infrastructure. Curiously, on the same flight, the man across the aisle had another story. He was a recruiter and was hoping that this time he would get lucky. “Young qualified people do not want to leave India. I am surprised. A few years ago, I had to reject so many applications. These days, I am the one rejected. It is impossible to compete because they have salaries I cannot match.” He sells them a better lifestyle and they smirk. They are carrying the latest gadgets, wearing high street fashion, if not designer labels, have gone overseas, and are not ignorant about the concept of weekends. They are willing to work late, as long as they can party late too.

Pico Iyer had said about immigrants, “…it does involve, for some of us, the chance to be transnational in a happier sense, able to adapt anywhere, used to being outsiders everywhere and forced to fashion our own rigorous sense of home. (And if nowhere is quite home, we can be optimists everywhere.)” For the native, returned or revived, it is about creating an outside world inside. Nationalism is a pleasant hangover. They are doing their own country, touring it, a form of counter-escapism where kitsch makes culture into hyperbole.

A song Kolaveri Di that has gone viral with several spinoffs is a wonderful analogy. It uses heavily accented English words, was written and sung spontaneously; there is apparently no purpose to it, but it has broken records. It tells a simple story of a man dumped by his girlfriend. He expresses it as the rage of angels, as it were. One of the lines goes, “Girl white, heart black, eyes meet, future dark”. Some have called it racist. It really is about how this pitching of the tent optimism and pessimism cleaves the world into black and white. Without the intrusion of colours, the space is magnified.

This is an India that has broken the barriers while remaining caged with too much of too little. Indeed, the best little hoard house in town.

Farzana Versey is a Mumbai-based writer. She can be reached at http://farzana-versey.blogspot.com/