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Travel
August 13, 2013

Parathas In Venice

Text by Madhu Jain. Illustration by Farzana Cooper.

Indians abroad! Madhu Jain, freshly returned from sojourns in London, Paris and Venice, ticks the box on how Indians are perceived in these countries and indeed, how they perceive themselves

It’s that time of the year when thoughts turn to India, to what it means to be Indian and to the biggest, actually unanswerable, question of them all: what is India, and its corollary, what is being Indian. After all we are, as a nation that is, turning 63 this month. Clichés have long defined this massive peninsular country of ours. Only the rare few get beyond totting up the juxtapositions that make up India: ancient and new, rich and poor, breathtakingly beautiful and achingly miserable. I could go on: palaces and slums, a nation of hospitable people and a nation of rapists, great cuisine and food that will burn your guts out, a land of mystery and a land of tricksters….

All I know is that when the tricolour fills the screen and the national anthem comes at you from all sides of a cinema hall in Mumbai, a shiver goes down my spine and my legs go all wobbly. I mentioned Mumbai for a reason: I live in Delhi, where the national anthem doesn’t even make a guest appearance in the cinema theatres. I wonder if the minders of our patriotism presume that the citizens of the nation’s capital don’t need to be prompted to feel patriotic because they live in close proximity to those who rule us.

Well, this column is not about the usual Delhi-Mumbai toss-up. Though I do want to state at the outset that I feel both metropolises are home to me: I claim them both, as I do the entire country. This month’s musings are on the Indian abroad – or should I say Indians abroad. Not just about the way we are when we go globe-trotting or transplant ourselves to other countries, but how we are increasingly perceived. In other words: which boxes get ticked when others appraise us. And, how we increasingly perceive ourselves.

That whiff of curry that was once perennially, vociferously and at times tinged with racism, complained about by the locals in London so oblivious to the smells of boiled cabbage and meat emanating from their own kitchens is now enthusiastically embraced: chicken tikka masala is the national dish of Great Britain. The corner shop mom and pop stores are no longer predominantly run by the ubiquitous Patels but those who came over in search of a better life more recently from the outer reaches of the expanding European Union. Rarely does one spot a desi taxi driver: East Europeans and Africans are steering the mini-cabs. You have to look hard to find an Indian cleaning lady at Heathrow, when not too long ago that was all you saw. They, like their counterparts across the Atlantic, moved up the economic ladder, skipping many a rung. Following in the footsteps of the Americans, Arabs and Russians, Indians are the nouveau consumers.

I have just returned home after nearly six weeks in Europe – traipsing through or lingering on in London, Paris, Brittany and Venice – taking in the sights of those lovely places and a bit of Indian-spotting on the side. So, here goes an impressionistic report.

BUSINESS AT BUCKINGHAM GATE
The day after we land we are asked by good friends to meet them at the Audley Pub, a traditional English pub in the heart of Mayfair, London, not even a stone’s throw from the American Embassy on Grosvenor Square. It is almost eight in the evening but the sky is a lovely, cloudless blue. People have spilled out into the street, with their glasses. A large majority of them are desis. The pub, we are told by our host, is the watering hole for visiting Indians each summer, the last stop before they head out for dinner. I spot many familiar Delhi and Mumbai faces – a sprinkling of hoteliers, industrialists, the odd Bollywood star, the well-to-do. The Dubai desis also regularly surface at this time, like migrating birds seeking better climes. Their children are in schools, colleges or working in banks here. The reason for the invasion is the fact that many of them own apartments in this exclusive area, increasingly populated by Russians, Arabs and, of course, Indians.

Conversation that evening is about Vijay Mallya buying an apartment in the vicinity, that good properties are for sale, Wimbledon and about Amol Ranjan, the Kolkata-born journalist recently appointed editor of The Independent, the first ‘non-white’ editor of the national daily.

The other congregating place for le tout Delhi and le tout Mumbai is 51 Buckingham Gate, Taj Suites and Residencies, which markets itself as being close, to royalty and the ‘royal life’. Minutes away from the Queen’s residence, it costs an arm and a leg. And, you come across a sea of Indian faces. An American desi friend who was staying there recently was shocked by the prices of the hotel rooms in London and the hordes of Indians with deep pockets ensconced comfortably with their families at Buckingham Gate. Lots of business also gets done in these two places between the visiting Indians and the Brit-desis.

VACATIONS IN THE VILLAS
The Indians have arrived in Paris too – to buy apartments in the tony areas of this City Of Lights from where many Parisians who can’t afford the rent have been moving to the suburbs or elsewhere. A trickle, especially the young, is even washing up on our shores. I know a swallow of three does not a summer make but it has started. Compared to the obscene price of real estate in Mumbai and Delhi, Paris seems quite reasonable. Several Indians have villas on the Cote d’Azur and in Provence and other parts of France – emulating perhaps British, American and other expats who found life more exciting and perhaps cheaper here.

It’s been quite a while since I visited Venice. People keep complaining about it being dirty, exorbitant, crowded and tacky. But for me, it’s a place of extraordinary beauty that the imagination could not have invented. Venice still seduces, despite the invading hordes of tourists, East European beggars stationed on the bridges, and the omnipresent made-in-China Murano glass trinkets. The lovely black and gilded gondolas continue to conjure romance, however, clichéd and however off the gondolier’s rendering of Besame mucho. Most of those being serenaded are Chinese – there’s been a real invasion here. But quite a few are Indians, especially groups of young women. A hundred dollars for a short spin on the water has not put them off.

A post-script: “Aloo paratha, aloo paratha!” shouted a young man trying to cajole us into a restaurant. And, it wasn’t even an Indian restaurant; nor was he an Indian.

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