When I went to India as part of the "Group of 27" in January, I had wondered whether the India we were experiencing was the "real" India as we tried to grapple with its many contrasts – the fancy hotels adjacent to slums; the 'mega' malls next to makeshift tea-stalls; the Mercedes-Benz riding alongside a bull-cart. In our attempt to understand the essence of India, we rode the metro, cycle-rickshaws, and auto-rickshaws, we shopped in crowded bazaars, bargained with road-side vendors, drank tea at rudimentary tea-stalls, and ate at road-side dhabas. Even then, many of us came back to the US feeling that we did not mingle enough; that our presence was a bit 'imperial'.
This time, unaccompanied by my American colleagues, I wondered what would happen. And now that I am here, I am somewhat overwhelmed by all the glitz. I realize that as absurd as it may sound, my experience in January was one where I saw more of the "99%", if you will. Here are some examples:
· Last time, the fanciest store we saw was Fabindia – a socially responsible local clothes store. This time, all the malls I've been to are much like the malls in the US, with even the same retail stores. From Puma and Diesel to KFC and Chilis, neo-liberalized India has it all!
· This time, several people made comments to the effect "money is not an object", "money is not an issue" during conversations/negotiations, something I admit I only heard in movies till now. Some lessons in humility, perhaps?
· Last time, we didn't get a good sense of the difference that caste makes. Perhaps I didn't look at the right place. The 5-page "matrimonial" section of the weekend edition of the Times of India not only highlights the importance of caste, but also class. The different ads are classified according to the key desirable criterion: Brahmin, Khatra, Aggarwal, Bisa Aggarwal, Sikh, and so on (I have to admit that I don't know what some of these even mean: what does it mean to be an Aggarwal?). Most are accompanied by phrases such as "high status and respectable business family desirable". Invariably, the ads are placed by "extraordinarily beautiful, slim, and fair" women and "well-qualified, clean-shaven, handsome" men who are engineers/NRIs.
· Last time, I didn't realize that Delhi wasn't a "safe place for women". Also, in some ways, being surrounded by white Americans had its advantages: no one would dare harm a foreigner (read white foreigner). This time, I have to be more careful about what I wear and how I look. To add to the worries, the Chief Minister stated that "women should not dress provocatively" (ah, if a mullah had said this, all hell would've broken loose).