Monday, May 25, 2009

Life- a soap opera for servants

One evening, as Raj and Rohan swished Jedi Knights and Stormtroopers in a mock-battle, I watched them, struck once again by the rarity of this sight. So commonplace it had been before, the slow lingering of simple fun in the US. Despite rush hour of weekday traffic on Georgetown Pike and countless errands crowded over weekends, the delicate orb of family life had shimmered like a pearl in the shell of busyness. I recalled walks along wooded trails banking the Potomac, picnics among rhododendrons, the woodsy smell of summer barbeques, the sharp scent of mulled apples and crunchy red-gold leaves in autumn, and the gorgeous fireside chats in winters. I recalled the cosyness of desi parties as families and children gathered in each other’s homes for late nights over homemade gulab jamuns.

Now that seashell was fractured, and the once-beautiful pearl had lost its sheen to salty tides and slimy flotsam. The petty troubles of life dominated, the gauze of glitz suffocated and the joys of stillness were dulled.  

Even more so, because, intimacy, once a part of ordinary moments- hands held tight while driving some place, an impromptu hug as we dried dishes after a good meal prepared together, unaffected kisses in the park or at my own doorstep- seemed impossible in India. Bedrooms were no sanctum, shadowy presences hovered outside the door, dusting, mopping, listening, and to create that separation, beyond two levels of doors under lock and key, demanded precise plans that became impossible to organise. There were people everywhere, eyes and hands, curious and watchful, tongues flicking like monitor lizards, carrying gossip, currying favours for rumour. My life had become a television soap opera for the benefit of my maids and my cleaners and my drivers. The closest we came to togetherness was in a crowded five-star restaurants, marriage on meal slots. How could, then, intimacy survive?

Seeing the stars- such a treat in India!

'What do you think? Will Muthu sign a deal with us?' Gul asked about the artist we had met today, over the din of families and children at the buffet dinner of the hotel we were staying at.

I had no idea. 

We finished our dinner, strolled outside the dining verandah, ducking underneath temple bells hung from a frangipani tree, towards the rocky promontory jutting into the sleepy Arabian. Waves lashed against the rocks. We found a stone seat near the boundary wall, and I looked up to see a million constellations shimmering above, sky-confetti, zari fish in the firmament, and I thought amazed, was it really months since I had last breathed in the scent of night flowers or seen the stars! 

Madam-to-maid manners

Lunch at Gul's house was a spread of rasam, avial, fish mouli and brown rice. 

'You have an awesome cook', I sighed, looking at the well laden table. That was yet another thing I would need to watch out. With no incidental exercise in pushing shopping trolleys, wheeling the stroller, taking out the garbage can or even standing in my own kitchen chopping onions, the pounds were piling easy. Low carb, the mantra from Miami to Mumbai, held true.

'You can take your time to train yours', Gul smiled. 'Beware though. The minute you train your maid, she will run away.'

'So how do you keep yours?' I asked Gul, curious. I still had to perfect my maid-handling techniques. I seemed to be too polite and expected too little and my maids seemed to be taking me for a ride.

'Well, I inherited my cook from one of Pheroze’s Mumbai aunts- she has been with the family for over twenty years.'

You could inherit cooks too? I was amused. 

Gul gave me her spiel on madam-to-maid manners. Not too easy. Not too harsh. None of your American easy affability. Just a dash of the good old 'benevolent dictatorship'.

Baby on the road

Gul and I were on our way to the bank.

I was lost for an instant as the car braked suddenly near Mantralaya as a little baby came out of nowhere and ran onto to the road. Cars honked from behind. A raggedy young girl ran to pick up the baby and ran back to plonk the baby on the edge of the footpath. 

A narrow shave. For the baby. For Gul's driver. For us. Who is responsible in such a case? There is legal responsibility! Then there is moral responsibility.

'What is the solution, Tara?' Gul burst out, exaperated.

Finding household staff

In the afternoon, I finalised details for Om Deep, from curtain design to supervising painters, and conducted maddening interviews with potential household staff. For all the people power in India, the abundance of cheap labour, the utter lack of good service levels, from the plumber and carpenter to house staff was really bothering me now. Could I ever take anyone at face value? But then, could I ever double check what anyone said? The system was opaque, a colloid of half truths and misrepresentations, murky at best.

The best way to collect art

I found myself next to a busty young woman with the most amazing waterfall of diamonds in her ears and whorls of it around her fingers.

'I cannot imagine being forty.' She sighed dramatically, and I spied at her. She looked well above thirty. Forty could not be so far away. But then, it just might be the weight.

'Lola has a great taste in art, doesn’t she?' I said conversationally, changing the topic.

'Oh, it’s OK', replied the busty woman.

OK? I was amazed by the lacklustre response. 'You must be quite a collector then!'

'Yes.' She was casually offhand. 'Hussain, Souza, Anjolie Ela Menon, Gujral, Raza. We have them all at our place.'

Wow, she was some collector. I needed to know her.

'My grandmother started me off with a few pieces', she said. 'Then I started collecting myself.'

Inheritance, the best way to collect, for sure! 

Not that it didn’t matter in America if your name had a numeral at the end of it or you had a three generation history with Wesleyan, but here it appeared to matter just that bit more. She was exactly the type of client who I needed to tap into for my art business. I told her about my art gallery. 


Friendships don't sway readerships

Next afternoon, I got copies of the local dailies to check if Rimli's art exhibition got a mention. Some of her paparazzi friends had attended the opening event last night.

No such luck. These paparazzi pressmen! Friendships don’t sway readerships, faces of society darlings do. So Poor Rimli was given the invisibility treatment. Instead, there were many lovelies gracing the back page, buying Tarun Tahiliani ghaghras and attending Fendi bag sales. 

In the middle of these photos, I saw a familiar face. The caption read, ‘Auctioneer Roy Jordan with VJ Rinky Dink in a private party at a newly opened South Mumbai night club’. Plastered on him was a gorgeously endowed la-di-da gal in a plunging necked red dress. There was also a one-line item which stated that Roy Jordan was planning a private sale of a newly discovered Amrita Sher-Gil.

Back to 'settle down'...

I called my mother to tell her I had found an apartment. She promptly enthused about my “getting settled”. Yeah, right! I got maha-irked. Mom lived in hope of our forever-and-ever return to India. By the time I called up my in-laws to tell them the news and heard their glossy whoops and more of you-are-back quips, my irritation was sky high. Barely was the ink dry on our rental contract, and I was already hating the apartment. What signified settling for the moment seemed to have acquired epic connotations.

'I am so glad you are back and settled down in India now…', the roly-poly aunty grinned broadly in approval.

That did it! I am not BACK in India, I fumed inwards. Not to SETTLE down, for sure. This outspoken expectation that our move would be forever left me uneasy, like a boat adrift upon the nautical highs, its compass broken, unaware of which ocean it sailed upon and should storm clouds gather ominously, unsure of the nearest coast. After years of adopting American consciousness, here back in the land of my ancestors, who exactly was I? What was pretense, what reality, I knew no more.

In the afternoon, my mother called and I told her about setting up furniture in our new place and rushing around to get curtains, linens and stuff. 

'I am so glad you are settled now, darling', she said.

Settled? Why is it such a loaded word in India, what did she really mean ‘settled’? The forever stuff? The lived happily ever after variety? What indeed?

Electronic documents, anyone?

Next day we met again with the lawyer to get some papers notarized at the Lower Court, a dusty Victorian behemoth, whose elegant outer façade was totally at odds with its paan-streaked inner corridors and large rooms lined with grimy desks that supported tottering piles of fraying paperwork and small oil portraits past judicial luminaries looked upon us from the peeling walls.  No electronic records here! The notary, a fat Sikh dressed in white shirt, white pants and a stringy black bow-tie, went through the sequence of multiple signatures in triplicate on stamped papers in utterly listless manner, flicking a finger to ask for some supporting documents and flicking another finger to point to his lackey who was collecting petty cash for this service.


Family time

We played for half hour, before Rohan got restless and got into a wrestling match with Raj. It tugged me to look at them together, engrossed in their fisticuffs, Rohan’s big eyes scrunched with joy, laughter floating like confetti upon the gladdened air. For once, Raj was home when Ro was still awake and my little boy was lit up like a Christmas tree.

How often a scene like this would play out in DC! The ordinariness of it tugged my heart. If not on week nights, then at least the weekend made up for it the rushed week and long hours that America is famous for. But here, even the ordinary seemed implausible, a thing of myths and fables, and Time was like this slippery devil, taunting, morphing flubber-like to expand for those who didn’t value its precision, its finiteness. It was a different system.  

Sashaying in spotless white

Gul rose up to give me a hug, ruing about the heat outside.

I laughed, amused at the sight of her in pristine white embroidered tunic and white pants, and my own white top and white long skirt. Summer was here, officially. The heat was on. So was the humidity. Clothes got limp and perspiration stained in no time. But, class showed and those who could, sashayed around in spotless and startched white.  

Just another road intersection

Heat sidled up the charcoal sidewalks and congested roads at Kemps Corner in a dense moist waver. I was already running late, but traffic stood still. I was stuck. Eunuchs knocked on the car window promising good fortune in exchange for some paise. A raggedy flower seller wove amid traffic and knocked on the window offering wilting lilies. I ignored them all, and focused on a book in my hand. Another knock rattled against the window- this time a filthy child slinging a filthier naked baby on its back is asking for pity money. I moved my eyes away, but the snot-nosed, large-eyed skinny baby got to me. I slid down the window and hot waves doused the coolness inside in the few seconds I took to hand out a few rupees.

Hockey stick art prices

I absently turned the pages of the art folios, to look at intense Bikash Bhattacharjee paintings and modern Shibu Natesan works. The prints looked good enough to frame. God, there was so much amazing art out there. On the back page, I found a section on pricing. Indian art prices charted for the past ten years.

Holy cow! I flipped up, ramrod straight against the soft pillows. I knew art prices were increasing tremendously. I knew art had gone from aesthetic to investment category. I knew art had gone from collectors market to traders market. But not this! This was a hockey stick shown here, I gasped. It was simply going up and up and up. Why did I not start investing in art ten years ago? I must acquire a few new pieces before it’s too late.


The 'Art' of writing about ART

I had to do a write up for Rimli's show catalogue.

Late at night, when all was quiet and forgotten again, I stared at my blank laptop screen, the ransom of art books lying around me on the bed, wondering what to write. Writing about art seemed such an art form. I stared at the dense text. May be other readers would be like me, I thought suddenly. They might have aversion to four syllable words like multiculturalism and post-deconstructive and polymorphous, all strung together in a single sentence.

The thought recharged me. I took a small sip from the vodka lemonade tumbler on the bed side table and started writing: Rimli Sengupta brings a refreshing style to an unusual medium. Petite and pretty, she forges and bends and casts iron into sculptural forms. 

Art Listings

I picked up Time Out Mumbai provided by the hotel staff weekly and looked through the art section. There was a long list of galleries and brief descriptions of current exhibits. There were columns and columns of fine print, talking of ‘paintings full of pain’ or ‘an allegory in paint’ or a highly abstruse ‘cameo that underlines the rigour and selfless love of a devotee’ or even canvases that were described as ‘highly sexualised and titillating’. That was a whole morning there. Several mornings, in fact! There were emotions to suit very mood and colours to suit every liking.  There were graphic images, textured abstracts with surreal meaning, spattering of blood and corpses, slapdash assortment of ordinary objects, figurative delineations multiply fractured into segments. Oh good, good. 

Blending in America- The 'crossover' is now

Each little step was a choice, of blending in or blending out, of going mainstream or reverting to subculture. The target was clearly visible, an integrated approach, an intermingling of ideas and ideals, the pleasures of the melting pot, the dynamic excitement of constant change. It involved those extra steps, going out of comfort zones, again and again, adopting and recalibrating accents and cultural icons, work behavior and social networking, eating patterns and talking patterns, holiday destinations and hangout joints. 

It happened so easily, without emotional angst, that I hardly noticed when I acquired the Mid-Atlantic drawl or learnt to pepper conversations with references from Seinfeld and Friends or swear by sushi for lunch. Diwali was forgotten at times, and I would be woken up the morning after by a phonecall from India, ruing that I did not remember to light that one diya, but the entire calendar of events from spooky costume hunts in October to bunny-shaped chocolate swapping in April could hardly be missed.

Of course, differences remained, a shadowy curtain of separation, the thinnest supermaterial, barely there and yet unbreachable, and we snuck caramel fists, a fandango of bumpy bobs and jabs, to break out and break free. Almost there, and not quite.

At the easy level, it sublimated into absurb wishes. I wished I could ice-skate. I wished I could water-ski. Glide across ice or water with precise grace. I wished I could volple into the river, off a motorboat moored upstream, dive with the beavers under the canopy of ancient oaks, while egrets flew between the bent boughs. I wished I had grown up doing these things. Raj made no idle wishes. He joined the local Y to row on the Potomac on misty mornings, and I would huddle up in fleeces on one of the footbridges for hours for that one minute wave when his rowboat appeared, all scullers in perfect unison, arcing oars in and out of the still water, the cox shouting profanities with instructions, and watched, heart abrim, as the boat silhoutted into the shimmering stretch downstream. At the more complex level, it was that strange tug to paraphrase political happenings in India to white colleagues, to put right the bumbling sayings of khadi dhoti morons, or educate them on names of Indian corporates in economy discussions.

The subcontinent, as always, turned into a myth, a subculture increasingly less connected to daily realities, at once the gilded cage and the golden parrot inside it, and we constantly rejected its bigotries and limitations and happily adopted the best of Bollywood and fashion and spirituality. We were happy to be mistaken as Sicilian by Italians (was it compliment or blight?) or Mediterranean by the mainstream. But there was progress, wasn’t there? More than previous immigrants!

With none of those usual dilemmas and confusing tugs faced by those whose parents were in town and country, expecting them to be a certain way or not. We made our own choices, rejecting or accepting what we deemed best, without the need for rebellion or creating the counterpoint to parents. Our parents, well, were far away, happy with the notion of NRI kids, and happy with the annual touching of desi soil and occasional fits of ritualistic fervour. 

Probably it was the yoking together of two Indians. It made choices easier. Probably it was aspiration, like Bohr’s atoms, only possible in proscribed quants of jumps, and the willingness to risk that jump, letting go of one orbital plane, a dive into nothingness, a frantic squiggle between realities, that extra push to arrive, triumphant at the next orbit. But oh the radiation, that magical conversion of place to energy, of shadow to colour, when the jump happened! America, the ultimate catalytic converter of dreams, more egalitarian than most despite all the grumbles from the sidelines, made it possible.  

There were enough to make a tribe. The crossover was there, in the now, or so we believed. 

Us- the 'psuedo-whites'

“How are you coping?” June asked, breaking my mini reverie. “It is a hard location, but my Indian friends seem to have more trouble settling in here than us.”

Us? As in “us” whites as opposed to the “us” browns?  What about “us” the pseudo-whites with our non-desi pretensions, I’m-from-aboard airs, our posh foreign degrees and work experience, despite that overdose of melanin which pigments our skin? Where did we fit in?

It seemed easier in the US to manage this. To fit in! To be American on weekdays and Indian on weekends; to be American in attitude and Indian in sensibility; to be American with friends and yet be very desi when parents visited; to go for a Muddy Waters concert on Friday and then for a Sundar Kand Puja on Saturday; to wear a short, short skirt one day and a long golden lehanga the next day; to swear by sushi for lunch and yet know how to make chapattis at home; to drool over Hugh Jackman and Brad Pitt, and go equally gaga over Shahrukh’s and Abhishek’s melting baby-browns; to take pride in American degrees and American accents, and yet feel connected enough to India by that weekly half hour global phone call.

But here, it melded into a seamless divide, neither here nor there, just a confused blur of identities - those that we grew up with and those that we have evolved into.  Evolved very differently too, from those who stayed back in India, and from those who had no Indian connections. It was maddening- this lack of separation, being all things at once and at every moment, till I didn’t know who to be!

If I was an NRI in the US, holding onto a tiny fraction of India, tinier than the generations of immigrants before me, then in Mumbai I became someone else. I evolved into an NRA, a Non-Resident American, or possibly a DCBA, Desi Clueless Back from America, desperately clutching the ark of newly-adopted Americanism, lest it became lost. If my second-generation Indian American friends mulled over identity issues in America, then here I was too, facing identity issues in the country of my birth, wondering where I truly belonged?

But then again, there were so many of “us” on this divide, it was actually quite rocking. So why worry?

D for Diamonds, R for Recompense

On the way back from the Customs Warehouse, on sudden whim I told the driver to take a detour via Hughes Road and stopped at a big jewellery store. Raj should have been there today. Why must I face hardships while he gallivanted the world in business class? Anger coursed through me. Retribution? No. Recompense- that was the word. 

Telling my heart to stop beating so hard in the alien terrain of a sparkly, heavily guarded jeweller’s salon, I walked up to one lit glass counter and ask for the price of a filigree bracelet studded with diamonds. The salesman mentioned a large five-digit number. I exhaled sharply, and with clammy fingers wielded my credit card, and walked out feeling immensely calm. Tomorrow I may panic about this unplanned rash purchase. But today, right then, I was deeply, supremely unperturbed.

A check for chai-paani

I didn’t know if Raj had actually meant to do it. Or it just so happened

But this is the way matters stood in the corporate world. Utter allegiance to Economic Value Added. As for Emotional Value Added, was that really an index? Who coined it anyway, some hippie on an Oregon commune? So when it came to choosing between an emergency meeting with potential institutional investors in Brussels on the same day as the date of the planned release of our shipment from Mumbai docks, it was a no-brainer. Raj was on the Lufthansa flight to Brussels, and I was in town clearing up the mess. As usual.

To be fair, he did try calling up the shipping agent to see if the shipment delivery could be delayed by two days. But the next possible date was two weeks later. Too long to wait. Except I had no clue what I had agreed to!

Midmorning, I stood in the dusty compound of the Mumbai Customs Warehouse, in my demurest long kurta worn over long linen slacks, waiting for the agent to show up. Beady eyed workers carted box piles on hand pushcarts, or generally ambled like somnolent chameleons, their grimy clothes blending into the background, age lines warting and creasing their sun burnt faces. I was glad for my dark glasses- I could pretend to be unaware of my surroundings, in it yet beyond it, goggled away into a different reality.

I waited and I waited. In that turgid heat, seconds expanded into eternities. I wiped the slow trickle of sweat with a white handkerchief, its diaphanous lacy edge crumpled like leaves in mid day sun. I picked out a pocket edition from my handbag, a miniature tome called The Big Secrets of Success, its blue ribbed cover the colour of what the sea beyond the dockyard warehouse might have been, had it not been for the refuse of the city, the exhaust slue of oil tankers and the general debris that accumulated within its watery confines. I opened to a random page. It said: ‘Learning is the raising of character by broadening of vision and deepening of character’.

By the end of the day, my vision would surely be wider than the backside of a Kaziranga rhino and my character deeper than one of those guerrilla-rebel plagued Assamese oil wells in neighboring Digboi.

A scuffle of footsteps announced the customs agent, Ram Prakash. He dragged his feet on the dusty ground, like thick bows scraping a battered violin and led me towards a tin gate, instructing me on how to speak to the customs official. His mouth was full of paan, “Mhatro Madam very tough, but I know her. You not to worry.”

We walked past abandoned boxes and a rusted car. The cavernous dimness of the warehouse was a respite from the blinding gaiety of the midsummer sunlight. Piles of boxes mushroomed across the giant godown. My crates, in thick American packaging and clear taped labels, looked at odds with the crumbly peat-like grime on them.

A stocky lady walked in, accompanied by two gangly men in khaki. Her shiny polyester sari rippled like a magical floral garden of pink and fuchsia and green in the desolate desert of dust-moils. Her bright pink lipstick, brightly staining her dark face, was like a neon glow, a hot pink lava lamp in a darkened room. Heavy gold chains jangled around her and thick gold bangles clinked as she moves ahead with a tattered file in hand. There was something about the sea air in Mumbai, the documents newly printed and sent by the overseas shipping company had acquired the antiquated patina of years in just a few weeks, their edges torn, the paper yellowed.

Mhatro Madam went through the list, randomly asked her two underlings to open this box or that, and check if the contents on the top matched with what was stated on the papers. There could have been something totally different buried three layers deep. The great impassive machinery of Indian Customs would have never known it.

Checked boxes were put aside on another side. It was slow work. An industrial grade fan billowed waves of hot air. I was wilting. Mhatro Madam took out a small old calculator and assessed the duty on imported goods, and handed me the amount on the calculator.

It seemed like steep penalty to me, but the woman said. “You seem nice lady, I give you concession.” She waggled fat gold ringed fingers. “See you have two televisions, two music systems. Why? Indian government allow one set per family. But I let you go easy, you only pay half duty. But full duty is must for alcohol. Two whole cases too.” She said accusingly.

“Just pay and leave, Madam.” Ram Prakash urged.

Did he have a cut on the duty? I unearthed my check-book and scrawled my signature against the steep amount.

Then Madam Mhatro, looking beady-eyed, pursed her plump pink lips and said, ‘No chai-paani money for my staff, lady?’

I simply wrote another check. I was only too glad to escape. 

Peeing in a bottle!

Ro and I were stuck in heavy evening traffic. I absorbed the scene outside as the car started and stalled, unable to imagine this same journey in a taxi. Beyond my air-conditioned seclusion, matronly women decked in sari and gajra were going out with baskets for daily shopping on broken sidewalks full of vegetable peelings and human shit. Crowds were hanging about in clumps, around pav-bhaji stalls or generally loitering around, chatting or street-side shopping or throwing paan spittle. Above this chaos, Bollywood divas presided from their billboard thrones in peekaboo tops and hipster skirts, selling cars or jewellery or even insurance.

My phone rang. It was Lola. I smiled, zoning out on the view of a raggedy child knocking at my window, selling cheap reprints of Thomas Friedman and Robin Sharma. ‘So how are you?’

Lola just started telling me about some exhibition she had been to- large oils of slum dwellers, in contorted coital positions, on commuter trains and in rotting hutments, covered with gashes of colour and Sanskrit graffiti. ‘It was so disturbing’, she wailed.

I’d say! Wasn’t seeing it daily enough? Social realism was all right, but who would want to hang grotesque art above their sofas?

Rohan started jumping in his seat, bursting to go to the toilet. I rang off. It was still a long ride back home. Much against my American civic propriety, I asked the driver to stop the car and asked him to take Rohan to a slimy alley next to a poster-covered grimy paan stall.

But Ro refused to step out of the car. Home was still forty minutes away, and another twenty to the nearest hotel where a clean bathroom could be found.

Grimacing, I emptied my bottle of Himalaya!

Ughhh! Yuck! 

So much for the spiritual Indian experience…

I headed through the mid-day surliness of the city, past filthy rag-pickers and nosy eunuchs, Rohan in tow, to go to a new play group. Rohan was whiny in the heat, and wanted to go swimming. But once at the playgroup, in a sea-facing apartment in Worli, amid a cornucopia of toys, he forgot his tantrum.

I sat with the moms, sipping Earl Grey tea from an elephant patterned china cup, got invited to some birthday parties and had the usual conversations about day trips to Grand Hyatt to buy chorizo and saucisson, perils of Botox and pleasures of microdermabrasion, the new Brazilian salsa teacher in town and plans for meeting at some of the fab new lounge bars in middle Mumbai.

I had my own set of Mumbai tips to contribute now, having been on shopping expeditions to the Grand Hyatt and suburban malls myself. Expedition! That’s what every errand in Mumbai amounted to.

I observed with much amusement a scuffle between two four-year olds over an iPod, till my four plus year old walked up to me, asking for his own iPod.

So much for the spiritual Indian existence! Who ever said the West is materialistic is SO off the mark. Someone should send them to Mumbai.

Work Meeting- Desi Style

‘But, but..’ I said, unsure where to begin. There is so much work to be done before opening our gallery- sourcing, framing, marketing, physical space, financial backing. God, I need an optimisation routine.

‘Let source artwork first.’ Gul suggested.

We had gathered in Gul’s house, our makeshift office, sitting on her cushy sofa, discussing and planning our art gallery business.

‘We need a space first’, I said tetchily.   

My eyebrows did a vertiginous Kanchenjunga climb. Such blasphemy to be blasé about real estate matters in Mumbai.

‘What about securing funding?’ I was thinking of how to supplement our seed fund. At what stage could we approach a venture capitalist? We needed to plan, plan, plan. Optimise. Revise plan again.

‘Since when has lack of funds stopped a good idea?’ Gul was on another trajectory.

I choked on my nimbu-pani. An Optimist. That’s what I needed!

In my best cautioning voice, and with my best I-have-been-in-Finance-and-I-Mean-Business look, I said, ‘Gul, be serious. We need to create a spreadsheet, figure out the starting budget needed and create a Financial Plan. Find a space. Only then we can go looking at artists’ portfolios.’

‘Lunch is served, Madam’, Gul’s maid announced.

Over a lunch of spicy Chicken Chettinad and fluffy appams served on silver plates, we continued talking about art, and the major expense categories we needed to consider.

After lunch, we retired to the sofa again, and I started creating a spreadsheet, adding expense categories, looking at possible revenue scenarios and cash flow projections and the time needed to break even. Two hours of staring bleary-eyed at the laptop, one thing was clear. Space was going to be the crucial factor.

‘Tea?’ Gul said, and tinkled a silvery bell to call her maid.

I stretched back against the sofa cushions wearily.

‘We’ll figure it out, Tara’, Gul patted my hand. ‘While we worry about the financial plan, let us not forget- good art is what its about. We need to find it, and then sell it. Details will take care of themselves.’

I felt none of Gul’s airiness but it was something to think over.

Gul’s maid brought in the tea tray, a posh presentation of elegant china cups and saucers, tiny silver stirring spoons, selection of imported tea bags, teapot with hot water, jug of cold milk, sugar cubes in a matching bowl and a plate of digestive ginger-anise biscuits.

Pleasures of India, I sighed, keeping down the brainstorming paper. 

Without a Decorator?

‘Congratulations, darling’, Lola gave me a hug. She was there to help us celebrate our new home in Mumbai. ‘Now you must get an interior decorator.’

‘What?’ I splutter over my Moet. ‘But it’s just a rental.’

‘You cannot be thinking of doing it yourself?’ Lola looked aghast, and each hot-tonged curl on her head shook and shivered in just-from-the-salon whirl of vehemence. “Why, there will be curtains to source, knick knacks to order, wall colours to choose from, furniture to order, trades people to deal with!”

Lola, I see, has been totally brain washed by the Indian way of life: Madam to Staff ratio of one to twenty. At least!

Not that curtain makers quite counted as staff, but having a decorator in the middle seemed the only way to deal with them!

Sunday, May 24, 2009

You moved- yea heavens- 2 kilometres?

The desi blonde gave her sleek mane a shake, and said, 'I'm still finding my way here. I moved to Napean Sea Road after getting married. I had lived all my life on Peddar Road, you know.' She spoke confidingly.

No, I don't know.

I almost burst into laughter, then controlled myself, nodding sagely, 'Yes, its tough to move.'

'Yes, all the little things you get used to- the corner shop, the nearby laundryman, your favorite snack shop. It's like a world away...' She elaborated. Her diamond hoops shone like circlets of white fire.

It reminded me of a trip I had taken across the Eastern states in the US, when in the middle of nowhere, a roadside signboard proclaimed in an advertisement, 'From Bedford to Buffalo, the entire world uses our products.' The entire world? I had laughed then.

Now I looked amazed at this posh woman in this teeming city- considered to be the melting pot of India, and indeed, one of the melting pots of the globe- who thought a 2 kilometre move was a world away?


So where are you from?

Tough question! It's been asked a million times and the answer gets more confusing each time.

Once it was easier. When I had first moved to America, it usually meant ethnicity. Indian. South Asian. 

Later, it could be reduced to simpler attributions. Like the city you lived in: it was hipper to be from certain places than not. Like the US university you got your degrees from- some were obviously more elite than others.

Now, passport-turncoat that I am, its even tougher. Where am I -really, truly- from?

Is there a category called Non Resident American living in India? But does the mere change of insignia on a passport change me from an Indian to an American? Does a few years of swearing by Rachel and Jerry take away decades of awareness of myths and legends?

Of course, sometimes the answer sought is a lot more prosaic- like the region, state, city, or even street within India I was born in. Like that truly defines me, like journeys across the world fade away, and a certain essence remains. 

So where am I from?

I am the global nomad, the modern gypsy. Like a water plant with floating roots, the little tendrils guiding my graceful glide on shifting waters. 

I belong to the Best of this world. The Worst of the world does not belong to me.

Unlimited Expense Accounts

It was a ladies luncheon at one of our regular eateries.

I bit into a cocktail naan, when a leggy brunette sashayed in, her long cotton dress lovingly draping her tall curvaceous figure. Who was she? Brazilian model in town for a Vogue photo shoot? Then I saw the crow lines fanning around her hazel eyes.

'I've had such an exhausting morning dealing with these builders. I need vino.' She proclaimed in loud, molten-chocolate voice as she sat down at our table. 

Miraculously, a waiter appeared with a large goblet of red wine. 'You remembered my usual', she exclaimed dramatically, making the waiter flush in his dark skin.

June introduced her as Krista Marchessi y Vidalia from near Verona, and within minutes I learned that Krista was redoing her two thousand square foot kitchen. What? I almost choked on my gin and tonic. Why, that was bigger than some apartments I had been to.

'You love to cook?' I asked Krista inanely.

'No, no, I don't cook', Krista gurgled throatily. 'I'm Italian. We love to gather in kitchen.'

I learned then about Krista's gorgeous ten thousand square foot duplex overlooking the Gateway. That was not counting the extra three thousand square foot of wraparound terrace. It was just a rental space, but she had shipped an entire kitchen from Italy and builders were retrofitting it in. Her husband was in India to represent an Italian interiors house, to fuel the desi fetish for Italian home decor, from leather love-seats to Carrara tabletops to custom designed knife drawers and modular laminated kitchenettes. So not much surprise that an old fashioned Indian kitchen, where generations of khansamas had toiled to feed biriyani-loving chi-chi madams, did not cut swathe.

Mumbai on unlimited expense accounts could be quite something!

Last Season Designer Wear? Never!

'Have you been to the new Ferragamo store?' Krista asked.

Talk then turned to the designer stores in town. New ones kept popping up, every so often, decadent in the dilapidated streets that housed them like little white daisies in a sun-burned lawn. The women talked about the latest store openings, and the items in stock, and how such stores compared to similar ones in Dubai or London.

'But would you really shop for designer wear in India?' one plump woman asked. 

Krista looked perplexed. 'As long as its new season stuff...' She said, giving a disdainful shudder, as if last season's designer wear were contagions that could wreak havoc on her internal systems.

Right! Comments had been popping in my mind. Trunk shows of last season's designs. Designer sales. Popping overseas to go to designer outlet malls. So very undiscerning. 

'Let's go shopping together one day', I told Krista instead.

Bling Orgasm

'You must join out salsa lessons on Thursdays', June invited.

'Not to forget the tuesday night book club, with wine and cheese, of course', Lola suggested.

Within minutes, I had been invited a pashmina-and-pecorino charity sale, a moms-and-tots pool party, an art soiree to raise fund for the deaf and the blind, a dinner at Souk, a designer launch at Aza, and a champagne brunch at the Grand Hyatt- all in one week!

My word, life was lively in Mumbai, I thought, exhausted even by the thought of all this socialising. 

Conversation then turned to shopping and travels, and I absorbed it all- the best places in town for bling dresses and cocktail rings, outfits suitable for mehendi ceremonies versus sangeet evenings, the best designers of jadau sets or makers of Minotti design sofas, and ruing the limited weekend options near Mumbai, not counting the one-flight away destinations for spa or shopping experiences.

Puzzlingly, though, there was no more than a passing mention of the guys in their lives, other than passing mentions of overseas trips and their captains-of-industry type dilemmas. Like forgotten anchors in the deep on which the showboat of life bobs. Like one missing piece in a 400 piece jigsaw puzzle- not there, yet barely denting the overall picture. In this ritzy roulade of Shiraz-sipping and la-di-da shopping, who needed a husband when bling orgasm was to be had? When the real climax was that pave necklace at the Popley's checkout counter?

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Indian Clothes in India! Hello, what's the occasion?

I breezed into the school corridor, one hand holding Ro's little one, and the other one adjusting the pale lemon chiffon dupatta as it slipped off my shoulder.

Outside my bedroom window this morning, the Laburnum had blossomed bountifully, its tender boughs heavy with the weight of bright yellow flowers. Summer, I had sighed, and reached out for a delightfully light churidar-kameez with the barest Lucknowi embroidery. 

'Wow, churidaar, Tara?', Maddy smiled at me as she came out of a room in a stringy top and cropped denims. 'Any occasion?'

'None', I smiled, waving past her filmy aura of Lou Lou by Cacherel.

Dropping off Ro in his classroom, I moved back towards the exit, when the principal, old Mrs Pol Pot, accosted me. 'We have an excursion to the Alliance Francaise, Mrs. Malhotra. We need some volunteers. Could you ask some of the mothers?'

Now, if you have a kid, you know the rule: when a stiff-lipped, hairy-faced school principal in shapeless linen togs asks you to ask other mothers, you prostrate on the ground and rush to offer your own services.

'Why, I would love to do it, Mrs. Reynolds', I offered. 'Would you be needing other volunteers as well?'

'Well, one other volunteer would be great', the principal acceded with a smile that hooked up like the slightest tick above her thin lips. 'By the way, you are dressed in Indian clothes. Some occasion?'

'None', I smiled, puzzled a bit by this question second time in the morning. Ok, so usually I turned up to school in daggy exercise gear or summery skirts. But a churidar wasn't so odd, after all.

I hurried out of the school gate and rushed to my car, glad for the air conditioning. It was not yet 9, and already the sun was a fiery daub across the hazy sky and the air was heavier than jute cloth. I grabbed a quick coffee at a Barista, enjoying the peace and anonymity of the morning, before heading out to Lower Parel to meet the graphic designer. 

Lata, the graphic designer, dressed in her usual attire of jeans and floral embroidered kurti, exclaimed as she saw me, 'Wow Tara! You look lovely in a churidar kameez! Any special occasion?' She grinned.

I was getting used to the question now, and observing bemusedly that had I worn a churidar-kameez on the Mall in DC or for a weekend shopping trip to Crystal City Mall, I would have got fewer raised eyebrows or curious questions.  

Lata and I went over the design of the cards for Saloniere Star, and after watching her fiddle with fonts and placements to finalise the design, I spent a wretched half hour fretting over the thickness of papers and whether to go for sparkling sheets in Midnight, Prussian or Sapphire. Gul had left the decision to me, and was spending the day contacting upcoming artists. But the card gave the first impression for our art gallery, it had to be perfect.

Finally settling upon Midnight sparkle to be printed in silvery white fonts, I left Lata and rushed back to Colaba for a farewell lunch Maddy had organised at a new restaurant she had been dying to try.

After being stuck behind a fume-spewing Suzuki and a motorcycle carrying a family of five, my car finally swerved ahead and I reached Colaba an hour late. The restaurant was quite posh inside, all uber-modern dark wood and glass and an indoor lotus pool set amid flagstones. 

'You're trendily late' Maddy trilled upon seeing me. 'But wow...'

I knew what comment was coming next! Indian clothes in India! I mean, come on, how uncool! So sub-continental, really. Totally hinterland, you know.

'Indian dress, I know, I know, but no occasion really', I grinned, preempting her, spreading my hands in disarming gesture, taking in Maddy's friends gathered at the table- all nearly alike in their glossily blonde and caramel highlights, stringy beaded dresses, glimmering pebble sized diamonds, and oversized logo-riddled totes casually strung upon the backs of their chairs, or worshipfully placed upon little bag-stools on the side.

'I only wear Indian clothes in weddings, you know', one glossy blonde pronounced.

'Its so hot in Mumbai, too hot for fussing with dupatta and stuff', another smoky eyed girl shuddered. 'And saris, never!' 

I thought of the row upon row of saris in my 'Indian Closet' in DC- from shimmering chiffon to beaded georgette to heavy pallav Benarasi designs. Desi folks abroad did wear a lot more Indian clothes than people in Mumbai.

Smoky-eyes conceded brusquely, 'Looks good on you, though.'

'Yeah well, thanks', I said, settling into my chair and accepting an oversized goblet of welcome house wine from a liveried waiter. 

At least, I knew what to wear to set myself apart, or what not to wear when I wanted to blend in.