I left India in the late 1990s. That warm, humid day in summer, the instant my flight took off from Mumbai, the clocks stopped and time froze. More than a decade and a half has elapsed since that moment but the India in my mind will always be the one I left behind on that day.
Through these years, television informed me of the growing India, newspapers kept me up to date of the latest happenings in India, social media kept me abreast of the changing India, family and friends ensured that everything else was covered. In spite of all this information, every India visit reveals a change that surprises, a difference that startles or a transformation that shocks. There is always something that raises an eyebrow, produces a gasp, brings on a smile or wrinkles the forehead. The comparison is with the India that I left behind that fateful day and the contrast is constantly with the mental image that is permanently etched, of India in the 1990s.
In the India I left behind, specifically in Pune, where I come from, the concept of ‘fast food’ was still new and a big name tag attached to food was completely alien. Our idea of fast food was a hot ‘vada pav’ with orange chutney eaten off a newspaper, attempting to read old news through the oily sheen. If you were after labels, ‘Joshi wada pav wale’ in Pune was the place to go to for a ‘branded’ vada pav! So it comes as a shock to note the mushrooming of so many fast food outlets with international names, dishing out burgers and pizzas in the present day Pune. On the topic of food, the humble samosa used to cost about 2 Rupees and fifty paise when I left India. Or maybe slightly more in a posh restaurant. But now, it is hard to digest the sight of people forking out a whopping 25 Rupees for a single samosa without batting an eyelid whilst sitting in a Multiplex cinema hall on high priced tickets. Of course, as a NRI with a supposedly thick wallet one is not allowed to express such surprise, but one cannot help choking on a samosa that costs that much. One can only recover from the coughing and spluttering by converting the cost from rupees into pounds or dollars and be comforted that at that price one wouldn’t get half a samosa in one’s adopted country.
In the India I left behind, pagers had just entered the market. Yes, pagers, those little devices which only really important people like doctors carried around. I had never even seen a mobile phone, let alone use one. A computer had just entered my workplace and we had to learn how to shut it down the right way instead of just switching it off at the socket like a television. But now, in the India that I see, everyone has a mobile phone, even the lady who sweeps the road balances a mobile with her broom and the sight of the vegetable vendor’s child playing with a tablet device is not a big deal! It is indeed a proud feeling to note that technology has become so inclusive and has touched so many people. The status symbol, pager, of course is a relic of the past.
I feel ancient when I say this, but in the India I knew, weddings in Pune used to be a fairly simple affair. Book a marriage hall, feed the guests one main meal or maybe a breakfast too, followed by a short reception or a separate reception later for more friends, with another meal. But most ordinary folk wrapped up with a half-day event. There was an old world charm to the ‘pangat’ or the sit down lunch where Maharashtrian delicacies were served one after another, culminating in the round where the wedded couple served everyone ‘jilbee’ or ‘shrikhand’ and took each others’ names in couplets [‘nav ghene’]; a sweet old tradition. As a NRI on a visit to India, ones craves a typical ‘pangat’ lunch, but instead, these days, the programme is a 4 days wedding extravaganza comprising of sangeet, cocktails, mehendi and then the actual wedding rituals. The ‘pangat’ is slowly giving way to a lavish buffet spread of Chinese, Continental, Mexican, salads and so on competing with the fancy ice sculpture. Why anyone would want to eat sprouts instead of a nice, traditional Maharashtrian lunch is beyond my comprehension. Yet again, I end up comparing the present with the past. The comparison is always with how it used to be when I left India and it is hard to accept these changes in the name of modernization.
In the India that I left behind, shopping for clothes was all about finding good bargains. There was pride in boasting of a good deal purchased in a modest shop in Laxmi Road, Pune. But now, I find people flaunt the price tag as much as the clothes; purchased in a mall, obviously. As a NRI, I am not meant to be shocked at the absolutely exorbitant prices on clothes. But I cannot help being gob smacked finding a 4 figure price on a readymade saree blouse; when, in our days, in the 90s, a Paithani saree which is the one of the more expensive Maharshtrian sarees used to cost about 3000 rupees or so and even that was considered out of range of most people. Now, to find a readymade saree blouse surpassing that cost is unbelievable. This time converting the cost to pounds or dollars does not help.
In the India that I left behind, we would go to special shops just to look at ‘imported’ goods on display. Buying the expensive perfumes, exotic western foods was out of question and in fact, we did not even touch the displayed items. Whereas now, even the small corner shops keep every conceivable food, toiletries from around the world and you can test all the perfumes in malls.
One also notices with alarm, the rapid westernization of fashion. Having lived in the western world, I am supposed to be more westernized than my friends in India. But it comes as an eye-opener to see some of the outfits on display in the once conservative shopping areas in India. Another shocker is the changing urban lifestyles. Gyms have cropped up at street corners. Shops are dedicated to celebrating birthday parties which are now getting grander with a ‘return gift’ [goody bag/ party bag] that is bigger than the birthday present you bring in. Kitty parties are even more ostentatious with everyone trying to outdo each other in food, clothes, display of wealth and are no longer just for the rich, but appear commonplace in the middle class. In fact, the middle class does not appear middle class at all. Nothing seems the same anymore!
Often, people assume that a NRI visiting India has pockets that are bottomless and a mindset that has had a western makeover. But it not always the case. Plenty of NRIs, although well adapted to the country of their adoption, are still Indian at heart. As a NRI, I am aware of the changes in the bigger picture in India with terms like inflation, modernization making the headlines. However it is the smaller manifestations of these terms, in everyday life in India, that take me by surprise and deliver a culture shock.
Although one knows that comparing to the India of the past is wrong, one cannot help hanging on to the comforting old sketch of India and harping back to the ‘good old days’. Changes are inevitable but whether for the better or for worse is debatable. Either way, although India has moved into the 21st century, as a NRI, I find that my mindset is still stuck in the 20th century, caught in a time warp.