Indira S. Somani, journalist, PhD

Old India, New India

Perhaps the secret to living in India is to let go of your fears.  I tried to be more independent this weekend and it really helped, thanks to my new friend, Anjali.  I have two friends in Bangalore with the name Anjali Gupta, one lives with her husband and two daughters in the Bangalore suburb, Whitefield, which I already wrote about.  The other is single, lives in Bangalore and works for an IT company.  I was with IT Anjali this weekend, and it was refreshing to see how it’s possible for single woman to live in India.  In fact, life can be quite comfortable and safe.  On my mother’s side of the family all the women work, but they are married.  On my father’s side the women are married and most of the women don’t work.  Other than me, neither side has a single, independent, professional woman in the family, to my knowledge.  Twenty years ago, it may not have been possible to live in India as a single woman.  But today, not only is it possible, I don’t think it is unusual in the larger metropolitan areas.

Anjali lives in a beautiful home, newly constructed with all the facilities of the west.  A beautiful balcony is connected to her home office.  When you step out on the terrace there is a huge Dobhi Ghat.  Dobhi Ghat’s are open-air laundry mats.  The washers are known as Dhobis, and they wash clothes with their own flogging stone and concrete washing station.  I know many people use the word “dichotomy” to describe India, but there is no other word to describe the country.  As in this case, Anjali’s modern home and a Dobhi Ghat, two extremes of class and culture, both really do exist within India.

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I went to UB City mall Saturday night.  It’s a mall with high security when you enter and nice eateries and bars on the terrace.  I felt like I wasn’t even in India except for the fact that everyone around me was Indian aside from the few ex-pats, who could have been from anywhere, Europe, the U.S., etc.  The mall has stores that include Louis Vuitton, Burberry, Diesel, Mont Blanc and more.  I can’t afford to shop in these stores in the U.S.  I was only coming to the mall to meet Anjali for dinner at Toscano’s.  As I was trying to get change to pay the cab, one sales representative told me, “we can’t afford to shop here even with our staff discount.”

The next outing was a party hosted by Anjali’s friends.  They were having a total jam session playing the base guitar in their home.  You could hear the music down the street, where we parked.  Once again, I didn’t even feel like I was in India.  I could have been in New York, but definitely not Lexington.  But once I entered the building there’s a beautiful Ganesha to greet you upon entering the home.  The puja room had a beautiful rangoli. Rangoli is floor art created from flowers, spices, and/or sand and is supposed to bring  good luck and prosperity.  It is practiced during many Indian festivals, such as Ganesh Chaturthi and Diwali.  That’s what reminded me that I was in India.

The next morning Anjali took me to the grocery store, called Thom’s, in her neighborhood.  It has a slightly larger selection that caters to the ex-pat community than the Food World in my neighborhood.  But grocery shopping also is a whole new experience for me in India.  As I said, when I come to India, I’m always staying with relatives, so my meals are taken care of.  I rarely eat in restaurants.  My most vivid memory of grocery shopping was from my stay in the summer of 1987.  I distinctly remember going to the open market under this huge tent (like a farmer’s market in the U.S.) carrying burlap bags for our vegetables.  When I walked into Thom’s grocery store, I saw several kinds of pasta noodles and cereal on the walls.  However, I found it strange to sell ready-made, packaged Indian food.  Yes, it makes sense to see this in a Giant or Safeway.  But I never thought I would see ready-made pre-packaged food in India.

I’ve been hearing about seeing movies at the multiplex for years.  I finally experienced it with  Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara.  The beauty is that you don’t have to arrive early to get a good seat.  You have assigned seats at the multiplex, and no one can take your seat, even if you are in line getting popcorn.  I love it.  On one of my past trips to India, 1977 to be specific, I saw a movie at a theater in Nanded, India with my older cousin, Neetadidi.  The theater had wooden chairs, and there was a lot of “oohing” and “ahhing” in the hall.  It was a different atmosphere, but then again the movies were different then too.