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The Endless Refrain For The Foreign-Returned: 'We Have It In India Too'

10/07/2016 8:26 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:27 AM IST
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On one of my recent visits in India, I was desperate to eat "phuchka" (also known as golgappas and pani-puri in many cities). While my father shook his head in dismay at the prospect of contracting digestive disorders, my mother laughed and encouraged me to seek out my friends for the adventure. Every phone call ended in disappointment. No one wanted phuchka or egg rolls or momos; instead, they came up with the best pizza and burger places in town. A visiting neighbour scoffed at the idea of me craving mochar torkari (banana-flower curry) and shukto (a medley of bitter veggies).

For most gatherings with friends and family members, we were led into swanky and mind-bogglingly expensive restaurants. While the food was pretty good, I missed the small mithai stores whose singaras (samosas) were to die for. In Pizza Huts people relished chicken-tandoori pizzas and assured me I would not find such flavours in "your (my) America." All the while I missed the husband-wife-run stalls that sold bhajjis (green chilli pakoras), begunis (thinly sliced fried eggplant), teley-bhajas (onion and potato fritters), to name a few. No one called them "mom-n-pop" stores in my childhood. Today they do.

When I wanted to run to the nearest parlour to get my eyebrows done, a relative, then a charming college student, volunteered to take me to a Habib' s outlet. I politely refused after a moment of stunned silence. A brand for my eyebrows too? When I did not bring out my cell phone, an elderly lady asked me impatiently, "Do you not have cell phones in America?"

Is India really only about the glitz and glamour symbolized by shopping malls, Inox theatres, multi-cuisine restaurants and expensive automobiles?

I wanted to go around the city I grew up in. While it was fun encountering Ola and Uber drivers and their stories of a flourishing business model, I realized that fewer people walk. Of course I am talking about the "middle class" which, someone promptly corrected me is today the "upper middle class." Very few of our friends wanted to walk in their perfectly landscaped neighbourhoods; they drove everywhere. Is it the pollution? An acquaintance, always dressed in Fab India and Biba kurtas and slacks, raised her very shapely eyebrows and said, "We drive around all the time in India too."

The New Middle Classes: Globalizing Lifestyles, Consumerism, and Environmental Concern, edited by Hellmuth Lange and Lars Meier, features chapters on Bangalore and Hyderabad as two cities hosting a majority of highly paid software professionals and their consumerist trends, changing food habits, environmental consciousness and the new middle class. It's intriguing to read how the influx of well-paid software jobs has animated the middle class of the 1980s-1990s beyond recognition.

But is India really only about the glitz and glamour symbolized by shopping malls, Inox theatres, multi-cuisine restaurants and expensive automobiles?

There are men and women in their 30s who have given up lucrative software and academic careers only to do better things in and for India. An environmentally conscious husband-wife duo have started their CSA (community-supported agriculture) farm, Smell of the Earth, in Kolkata and now lead a successful life as organic farmers near Santiniketan. We have that in India too.

While many value the flashiness, others work conscientiously toward a more sustainable environment and society. This happens in India too.

The India Public Library Conference, in its second iteration in 2016, has brought thousands of young librarians from around the country in a shared commitment to enhance and modernize India's public library scene. Public libraries, in spite of their existence in India from before Independence, need to become vibrant spaces for community engagement and lifelong learning and personal growth. This is in India too.

Teach For India comprises men and women who believe that inequity in education is a fundamental problem that needs to be addressed. They run a successful program with 1100 Fellows today who work with underprivileged students in resource-stricken schools. They provide access to education to children who, for multiple reasons, may have been left out in the cold. This is in India too.

India's fast-track "progress" means a complicated tug of war between millions owning smartphones and flashy cars and 25% of Indians still struggling for survival. While many value the flashiness, others work conscientiously toward a more sustainable environment and society. This happens in India too.

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