Californians and Indians

Los Angeles, Meet Mumbai

Oh Boy

It’s been a long time since I wrote a blog post. This is in part because I have been busy producing a human.

My son is now two and a half months old, all chubby thighs and chirrups and occasional sunbeamy smiles. He laughs in his sleep sometimes, too, a little “heh-heh-heh” I can hear when we’re driving in the car. He’s a dreamboat, and I couldn’t be happier.

But one thing this baby has helped me to see about India with new, somewhat terrifying clarity: this country is obsessed with boys.

A sign festooned with manacles appears in Indian doctors’ offices: “Determination of sex is not done at this clinic.” Sex-selective abortion is such a huge problem, with somewhere around 900-950 girls born for every 1000 boys, that in 1994 a law passed outlawing gender screening.

But sex selective abortion—and worse, infanticide—is only the nastiest manifestation of a widespread cultural preference for boys, which revealed itself time and time again during my pregnancy.

Raising a girl, the saying goes, is “like watering your neighbor’s garden.”

The sweet, officious lab tech I saw for regular blood tests would wish me well on his way out the door. His valediction? “God will bless you with a boy!” When (after the third time he said this) I said I found it offensive, he just blinked at me, confused. Who wouldn’t want that blessing?

The diminutive nurse checking my vitals at our tony South Bombay doctor’s office asked me in broken English if we wanted a boy (baba) or a girl (baby). When I said we would be happy with either, she paused, standing in front of the aforementioned sign with its chains and dire warnings. She patted my swollen belly as if patting the head of a particularly stupid child: “Well, I want you to have baba.”

A friend and I laughed about it, because our dismay didn’t accomplish much. “Haven’t you noticed,” she said, pointing to her breasts, “I’m a girl? Maybe, uh, I’d be just as happy with a girl?!”

But no one expected me to be just as happy with a girl. Somehow having a son was a measure of my mettle, a sign of my cleverness and resolve.

And when I did produce a son, what a good girl I was! After he was born, there were congratulations all around for the miracle between my baby’s tiny legs. Strangers would stop us and ask: “Baba hai ki baby hai?
“He’s a little boy.”
Baba! Very good.” They’d turn to me. “Nice. Well done.”

And these views are not confined to the uneducated or ignorant. My mother describes a former colleague of hers, an Indian art historian of some renown, who grizzled about his daughter insisting on only producing girls.

When someone told him that, in fact, it was the father’s sperm that determined a child’s gender, he said, “That’s just an old wive’s tale.”

I win at India

I had a massage today. For the equivalent of about £15. In my own bed. Oh yes. 

Rules Britannia

The first thing that hits you is the sound. As we walked into Oxford the streets were quiet except for the hiss of bicycle wheels on the wet black street.  As a friend once said, when you go back to the west, you feel like someone’s turned down the volume on life.

We’re back in the UK for the funeral of James’s granny, who passed away about 10 days ago at 105. (The secrets to her remarkable longevity, as well as some brilliant photos of her life, are here)

It’s not just the noise. It’s the sensibleness of the place, the adherence to rules. A woman tried to jump the queue in front of me at immigration yesterday and the officer chided her: “We follow a queuing system here.”

They are a comfort, these rules. I knew the cars would part for an ambulance, that no one would hold my gaze for too long, and that, after a certain hour, there would be no firecrackers in the street.

But the rules are also a bit silly sometimes. On a walk from Jericho into downtown Oxford, as three of us tried unsuccessfully to walk abreast, I kept stepping down into the street to walk there. At first I didn’t clock the disapproving looks from passers-by; I realized only when we neared the center of town that I’d been transgressing the social order.

To be sure, the social order is a Good Thing. India, where I spend most of my time, needs more of it. Life there would be a lot easier for everyone if we all agreed on some explicit and implicit rules and then followed them religiously.

But what India has also bred in me is a suspicion of the rules, and a much greater tolerance for flouting them. Realize too late you don’t have the right vaccination stamp to go to that country? Don’t worry, the travel agent can sort out a fake one for you in thirty minutes flat. Don’t want to wait in the immigration line for firangis? Don’t worry, even if you go in the line for OCIs (Overseas Citizens of India) no one will bat an eye. In our stairwell, men sleep on every landing, having likely paid off the guards outside.  

In Britain people are polite, and unless inebriated, tend to shy away from confrontation; they apologize when you bump into them. Not so in India. We shout, we push, we haggle: living life with the elbows out.

A friend in India wrote to me this morning, of her trips to the UK: “It is lovely isn’t it? The way you can do proper banter. In a pub! A proper normal pub!”  I’m relishing the chilly, close air, the front-room fires, the gastropubs, the gluten-free biscuits.  It’s nice to have a short vacation in such a sensible, reassuring place.

But when I land in India on Monday morning, you can bet I’m using the OCI line.

Yet Sachin and his fans have tried their best to defy those natural laws. After all, idolatry is an Indian art form. Some Indian gods have three heads, or 10 arms. Others have serpents coiled around their torsos, or rivers streaming from their heads. And one, Sachin, wields a sacred cricket bat, heavy, sweet, made of the finest willow.

In a land of chronic inefficiency, he was remorselessly efficient; in a land with a global inferiority complex, he was the best in the world; in a land where public figures are strutting peacocks, he was often a picture of painful humility; in a land that thirsts for self-respect, Sachin spelled pride.

You close [the] book thinking that Bombay is not just a snapshot of the world, it is the world. Or at least the entry level to the world.

Gary Shteyngart, in a travel piece called “Maximum Mumbai”, writing on Suketu Mehta’s book Maximum City”

In London, people keep themselves to themselves, as the expression goes, and this can feel either liberating or lonely. I spent a lot of time lost in thought. It was freeing to feel so anonymous, so unfettered — but sometimes it made the heart feel a little empty.

—Sarah Lyall, former NYT London correspondent, on my former home:

Bobos in Paradise

It is one of Mumbai’s most popular new cafes. Curlicued designs cover the walls, evoking henna or textiles. The furniture is perfectly weathered, and the staff perfectly cheerful (not to mention professional). It smells of pastries and coffee inside, and the place is full of tourists and Indians alike. Aside from being slightly over-air-conditioned, this little slice of paradise is the perfect place to let the stress of the city go, and it’s where I’m sitting now.

I am talking, of course, about Starbucks.

Let me get things clear. I am a total snob. A wannabe-hipster, organic-grocery-delivery-having, ashram-visiting, granola-munching snob. I don’t eat meat. I have annoying allergies. I don’t own a television, but I do own a neti pot. I’m basically intolerable, and I wouldn’t have been caught dead inside a Starbucks in the west, except under duress.

I mean, because as every Bobo knows, Starbucks is, like, bad, right? A soulless horseman heralding the Apocalypse of character on the high street. What’s with the crappy coffee? And those tacky seasonal drinks and enormous cups. And they don’t pay taxes, people.


But what they don’t tell you in Bobo school is that when you live in an emerging market, Starbucks is basically a transcendent consumer experience. The drinks taste the same every time! They take credit cards! They have soy milk! When one enters, all of the cheery staff in their spotless green aprons chorus, “Hello, welcome to Starbuuuucckkkss!” It’s enough to bring a tear to one’s eye.

And it’s not only Starbucks. When a Pizza Express opened in our neighborhood, James and I went as soon as we could, stuffing our faces with garlic knots and mediocre salads.

The very sameness that makes restaurant chains off-putting in markets already characterized by banality is exactly the quality that consumers treasure in emerging markets. You know exactly what you’re going to get; there are no surprises. The staff wear uniforms and get training and wash their hands at regular intervals. And the food tastes familiar, bland, reassuring: free of even the hint of cumin or fenugreek or curry leaves.

Mumbai is really tough sometimes, full of unrelenting human and animal misery, intestinal distress, outrageous traffic, and bureaucratic hassles.

Going to Starbucks gives me, for an hour or two, the feeling that I’m at home… that outside there are sensible sedans, shops with familiar names, and simple, first-world problems.

And if they spell my name “Merry”, so be it.

But I do often wonder why I’m here, especially when I’m tired, teary and homesick, my phone has been disconnected for the 19th time despite promises it would never happen again, when it’s raining and no taxis will take me home. But then a willing ride always comes along, and we’ll turn a corner and be suddenly in the midst of some banging, crashing mad festival full of colour, where everyone is dancing behind a slow-moving truck, and I won’t have a clue what’s going on but a mum holding a child will dance up to my window and point and smile and laugh, and I breathe out and think, really, my God, this is fantastic. This is India! I live in India! She hugs me, she punches me, and she hugs me again.

Too Darn Hot

The monsoon is about to start. Blessed relief! For surely as the night follows the day the monsoon follows a period of profound and intense nastiness. And I’m not just talking about the weather.

There is something that happens in this city in May. Day by day as the temperature creeps higher, so does the rage. You leave your flat, and by the time you reach the street you’re melting, quite literally, the makeup slipping off your face. Even your lightest cotton shirts become peppered with sweat. The mildest inconvenience becomes unbearable, because all you want to do is lie down in a bed of ice and not move. Ever again.

And the garbage! Never stinkier. And the sun! Never hotter. Not to mention the street: horns blaring to wake the dead.

And the inevitable outcome of all the heat is that the people, too, get heated. The street vendors shout at each other. Drivers cut each other off on the road. And people complain: for example, on Tuesday the Naga aesthetician at my salon ranted for 20 minutes (while smearing hot wax onto me) about how disgusting the city is. “The beach, so dirty everywhere! The train, so so crowded. And such terrible traffic. I hate it!” she said, enthusiastically ripping out my hair.

Even the normally-benign-and-useful expats yahoo group fell prey to the seasonal nasties. Someone posted something, someone else kindly told them they were an idiot (in all caps), the peanut gallery yayed and nayed, and pretty soon it was an all-out rage-fest, complete with those old internet favorites: accusations of bigotry and smug snippiness about grammar. The low points: when someone wrote “all Indian men are perverts” and then someone else vented about “all the racist, frustrated white people” on the list. The latter accusation was particularly ironic since the same writer in 2010 authored an easily Googleable and rather lovely Hindustan Times article about the perils of generalizing based on race.

But frankly, given it’s 90 degrees out with about 80 percent humidity, it’s a miracle no one’s brought up the Nazis yet. Only a matter of time, though.

(Side note: if you’re racist, just a tip: India might not be for you.)

Maybe tensions are high for another reason too. Monsoon is known as the season of love, when everyone stays inside necking their honey and listening to the rain fall. Perhaps that’s because in the pre-monsoon furnace, there’s no relief to be had, even between the sheets. After all, the last thing you want when you can’t cool down is someone snuggling up to you.

As the old song goes: But when the thermometer goes way up and the weather is sizzling hot, Mr. Adam, for his Madam, is not.

'Cause it's too, too, too darn hot.

In the meantime, somebody get me a fan.