A reader recently wrote to me saying that while she enjoyed my blog and found it factual, she felt that my perspective of India is predominantly shaped on my experiences with a few similar kinds of people and their practices. Practices that are only part of Indian culture. She suggested that I explore the other part as well. For example, people living in Pali Hill in Mumbai (meaning India’s elite).
Of course, she’s right. A friend stayed with a family in Pali Hill on a recent visit to Mumbai, and he wrote of a whole different world compared to the one most people in India get to see and experience.
I have experienced it too, albeit in a different city. My first experience living in India was amongst the elite of Kolkata. They partied hard. My husband was a DJ at a luxury hotel. It was only natural that our paths would cross. They dressed western and acted western. They discouraged me from learning Hindi because they spoke perfect English. Women mingled with men, dated them, and drank alcohol. They were immaculately groomed. They also wore dresses shorter than I ever have in my life. Most of India’s taboos were absent. Yet, even I was shocked by the opulence of their lifestyle. All the trappings of western materialism and indulgence were there. High quality cocaine was in abundant supply. Every different body part was emblazoned with a different designer label. With plenty of resources at their disposal, they went out of their way to ensure that I was safe, content, and didn’t need anything. They also gave me a false sense of security about the normality of my relationship.
My husband and I weren’t married at the time, but the fact that we were seeing each other was openly known and accepted. There were no judgements and no questions. We were both treated equally. It felt like what it would be if I was dating someone back home.
Understandably, after living in such a bubble, I got a nasty shock when we left Kolkata on an Indian Railways train bound for Kerala. There was curiosity. And questions. Plenty of them. And lies from my husband. “She’s a family friend. I’m escorting her around India.” I was stunned because his family didn’t even know of my existence. Being ignorant about Indian culture, I wondered why he didn’t tell them the truth that I was his girlfriend. I even felt insulted by his answers. Yet, now I understand the situation all too well. And I would’ve answered the questions the same way had I been in his place.
I’ve also been entertained by the Maharana of Udaipur in his palace at a table scattered with rose petals, stayed in some magnificent homes across India during my work with Mahindra Homestays, and met a Bollywood actress who didn’t know how to use a washing machine and refused to learn.
But what did I find that all these people had in common, apart from their stately homes? They possessed a grace, poise, and sophistication that I’ll never have. Their life experience was so much broader than mine. They were well traveled, knowledgeable, and diverse in their interests. And oh gosh, they appreciated fine wine! I listened intently to what they had to say, in order to learn from them. I looked up to them, and admired many of them. And I also felt cushioned against “the rest of India” in their company.
India is definitely not all about staring men, and demanding, nosy neighbours. But for me, the most fascinating part of India is that which is so unfamiliar to me. Not the wealth and western mannerisms. The part that makes me feel uncomfortable and challenges me. I don’t always like it or agree with it, but it gives me something to think and write about.
Photo: Me, taken at Meenachil Enclave homestay in Kerala.
© 2011, Diary of a White Indian Housewife. All rights reserved. Do not copy and reproduce text or images without permission.
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