At home in India

Erasing borders

At home in India

I’m not much of a traveller. Even though I liked England while a student there, I headed straight back home as soon as exams got over. When you are in a foreign country, your front stage identity is reduced to the country of your origin. I was an Indian in England, first and foremost. Everywhere I went people asked me about India. I found myself becoming a Foreign Office spokesperson. I found it boring. In India, I am allowed to be myself. I am simply Palash, not Palash, the Indian guy.

When I was studying at Oxford, my closest friend was an Irishman called Rory. I loved his acerbic wit, the typically Irish self-deprecating humour. Soon after we finished at university, he came down to visit me in India. He returned to Dublin with a mixed bag of experiences. In Dehra Dun he was chased by a beggar and fell into a ditch trying to flee from him. He tried to chat up girls in a bar in Delhi, but soon realised that in Delhi people move in packs, and don’t talk to strangers. The other day on Facebook I asked him if he’d like to visit the country again. He said, “Man, a trip to India is such a cultural odyssey. Don’t have the mental space now. Besides, as a single white male I prefer to visit places in South America where, among other familiar things, I can get some vacation sex too.” Michael Houellebecq’s novel, Platform, about the white man looking for sex in Thailand, covers this ground rather well.

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Travelling between cultures is never easy. I never had the gumption to do it. I live in Delhi now, not too far from Allahabad where I grew up. I have seen Delhi change dramatically, especially in the last decade. Part of this change has been the influx of expats.

India has for long held an attraction for Westerners. From the anthropologist Verrier Elwin, to the Theosophist Annie Besant, to the Beatles in Rishikesh, India has frequently played host to the curious or besotted foreigner. In Delhi, we’ve always had the embassy type, someone who has traditionally restricted herself to diplomatic enclaves and elite parties. The embassy type is seldom part of the normal work-leisure rhythms of the larger city. Post-liberalisation, we’ve seen more Koreans and Japanese coming in, CEOs and their wives pushing prams in the leafy bylanes of Defence Colony. But, in addition to these, there is another category of expat. This expat does not work in an embassy or a multinational, and is certainly not a hippie. She works instead in publishing, plays in local bands, edits magazines, organises shows, takes photographs.  
 
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People change cities for various reasons. Rachel Tanzer, 50, worked for Random House in Delhi. She first came here as a tourist. She was tired of Brooklyn, having lived there for 17 years. When her apartment got robbed, she took it as a sign and bought herself a plane ticket to India. She fell in love with the cows on the streets, she found the people to be warm, not as status conscious as in New York. You could wear what you wanted without being judged all the time. She liked the carefree spirituality. “Growing up, I never went to the church. I just wasn’t interested. In Delhi, though, I began going to the Lotus Temple. It remains one of my favourite spots. No one preaches to you like they would in a church. It’s an open space where anyone can go.”

Jonathan Shanin is a New Yorker with an old-fashioned beard. An editor with the magazine Caravan, he moved to Delhi from Abu Dhabi where he was working for the broadsheet, The National. He says he was in no hurry to go back to the US, and when his wife who works in textiles enrolled in a textile design programme in India, he decided to follow. Jonathan says, “I came because India is a very interesting place right now. There is so much happening.”

Gavin Morris, originally from London, visited India almost 10 times over a period of five years. His first exposure to India came via BBC documentaries. Having lived in London and New York, he wanted to move to a big city but not to one in the West. New Delhi, India, was a natural choice. It helped that he could find work here. Delhi is host to several international publishing majors; Gavin designs book covers for some of them. He likes Delhi because it is constantly changing. “The Metro is amazing, and there are tons of restaurants now. I remember the choice being pretty limited earlier on. The city has really transformed itself.” As an Englishman, he finds India different, yet familiar. “There are things here that remind me of England. There is an element of Englishness to the Indian middle class, however subtle. India also reminds me of Continental Europe — so many cultures squeezed into one continent.”

Stefan Kaye is an actor, musician and event organiser. He’s the man behind The Medicine Show, a successful variety show that blends Broadway musical, farce and cabaret. Arundhati Roy is a very vocal fan of his band, The Ska Vengers, regulars on the Delhi music scene. Before turning up in Delhi, he spent time in Barcelona and Brighton. India had always held a certain fascination; he’d been studying sitar for some time. He jokes that it was probably his “penchant for dusky maidens” that got him here, and confesses he has barely touched his sitar since he arrived five years ago. That doesn’t matter though, for Stefan has singlehandedly rejuvenated the live music scene in Delhi, proving the point that the new expats are contributing in a big way to the cultural life of our cities. Just as Indians went to the UK and the US to realise their dreams, now people from other parts of the world are coming here to realise theirs. Stefan has given up his job in the international division of a market research firm (where, among other things, he once designed a project for Starbucks’ India foray), and is now a full-time performer and musician.

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In the past, foreigners often visited India because it offered an alternative to the material West. That’s why the Beatles were here. These days, they are here for other reasons. India’s economy has boomed and there are opportunities to be exploited. The economic ‘migrant’ from the West has displaced the spiritual tourist.

Jocelyn Baun moved here from New York with her journalist husband two years ago. Things looked bad in America, journalists were being laid-off. The Indian economy, on the other hand, was prospering. Her husband got a job with an Indian magazine. There was work for her too. She specialises in doing fashion portraiture, and found a perfect fit in the India editions of international fashion magazines like Vogue and Elle. Jocelyn says, “All the labels are here, Zara, Christian Dior, you name it. In the West, there’s recession, but the middle class here has disposable income. The magazine market is growing all the time and this means more work for me.” She found Indian editors more receptive than Western ones. New people from faraway lands bring with them new ideas, a different way of doing things. She laments that Indians often don’t move beyond doing basic fashion photography. What she does is fashion portraiture, which involves creating something new, making beautiful images. Indian fashion editors, she says, have been delighted by her fresh approach.

Gavin too had no idea that publishing in India would be so sizeable and well established, that English-language publishing here is the third largest in the world. His covers adorn the books of India’s best-known writers. “Cover designing in India,” Gavin says, “is still in its infancy but it’s changing rapidly. Budgets have gone up; publishers in Delhi are willing to spend money so that their books stand out.”

The political, economic and cultural churning taking place in contemporary India fascinates Jonathan, who has moved seamlessly in the globalised world, from the New Yorker to The National to Caravan. The accelerated pace of development means that weighty questions about society, state and economy are still under debate here. “In the US, there is a constellation of big issues and ideas on which there is broad consensus: How does democracy work? How do we balance market capitalism with social welfare? In India, these issues have not been resolved yet.” Jonathan points to the liveliness to public debate here (however poor the quality of some of these debates might be at times), and finds the media atmosphere “spirited and combative”. There is a wide spectrum of public opinion, something that is absent in the West.

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Expats, once they become part of the local fabric, also become important agents of change, trying to jolt the natives out of their somnolence.

When Stefan, the man behind The Medicine Show, took his troupe to Indian cities, they immediately ran into trouble. As it turned out, the audience was mature enough to enjoy the more risqué stuff on offer; it was the marketing guys who were petrified. In a tribute to the burlesque dancer Josephine Baker, who once famously danced naked in celebration of dark-skinned women, The Medicine Show had a skimpily dressed girl dancing on a Poona stage, peeling bananas from her skirt and throwing them into the audience.

In Bangalore, they had two men in rabbit costumes gyrating to Louis Armstrong’s We’ve Got All the Time in the World, followed by an act by Adam Pasha, Bangalore’s very own drag queen. Manola Gayatri, a performance artist, danced naked, while Stefan’s band performed. She was spray-painted from head to toe; the nudity was cleverly camouflaged. She flashed torchlight on a gasping audience. When the show was over, a middle-aged woman came up to her and said, “I would never have dared to go to the beach in my swimsuit. Seeing you I feel better about my nakedness.” Stefan says, “My show has adult themes, but no sexism or racism. I want to show that women can be sexy, but not for the gratification of men. In my own way, I’m trying to redress the prudery that came to India via us, Brits.”

It’s not all smooth sailing though, being an expat among natives. Stefan has encountered his fair share of unpleasant aggression. He’s been asked to go back to the UK or “whichever shit hole country he comes from.” A music magazine printed an anonymous letter that asked fellow Indians to “kick his teeth in.” Some local musicians, jealous of his success, have insinuated that he finds it easier to get gigs because he is white, that he is an outsider spreading decadent Western values. He’s had people barging into a recording studio and telling him he can’t write songs about Binayak Sen and Kashmir and Narendra Modi simply because he is “not from around here.”

Rachel Tanzer, who recently resigned her job at Random House, has also been at the receiving end of native animosity. She has some idea of the music industry in the US; when she tried to help Indian bands get exposure, she encountered resistance from the promoters. These are our bands; don’t touch them. Indians can have brittle egos. Some thought she was in competition with them. Rachel says, “I am 50 years old. I’m not in competition with anyone. I was just trying to help.” Undeterred, she plans on coming back. She feels Indian bands have talent but need exposure, especially in the kind of music they listen to. She wants to use her contacts in the record industry in the States to open a record store in Delhi. If all goes well, Hauz Khas Village will soon have a well-stocked outlet selling cutting edge indie label LPs and CDs.

Stefan too is planning to stick it out. He says he is not going to behave like a guest all the time, someone who keeps his mouth shut and makes himself scarce when unpleasant things happen in the host’s family. “I will not keep silent just because I am a foreigner. If I see injustice around me, I will react. As a primate, I think it’s my duty to do so.”

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