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Saturday, March 27, 2010

Character Study 2

You don't have to live in Palm Meadows to be Palm Meadows. It's a bubble that exists within anyone who's part of that culture. Anyone who plays golf on a Saturday morning but hates how snooty the staff at the club are. Anyone who has 2 cars but only one driver; who's parents feel comfortable being soccer moms or dads on a Sunday evening. IITs, IIMs and aye aye Captains all pace the grassy courtyards, probably still thinking about how they got this life.

We live in the niche. A freshly cut niche that I'm not sure exists in many countries or many cities. To be called middle class in England is fine; its closer to a compliment because you're neither poor nor snobbish. But we are not proud to be called middle class. 'Middle class' brings with it connotations of mediocrity and our parents have worked too hard and too smart to be called average. And yet we are not Upper class - most of my kind do not even know what the title 'Upper class' truly entails. I know people who are Upper class. You'll hear about them from me soon enough. We are not bourgeoise either. My family was not poor one day and rich the next, thanks to some stroke of luck or cataclysmic upheaval.

You see in my country, the Principal saw fit to create a new class. A new rung in the ladder. A new peg by which one can measure oneself against society. Maybe this class always existed and I'm now simply giving a name to it? Giving my name to it? There are two kinds of people in India - those who live in Villas and those who work in them. Those who own cars and those who drive them. There are those who eat off ceramic plates and those who clean them. We are the Urban Royalty, the glorious child of capitalism and the third world.

How can I explain to you the look in my driver's eyes when I told him how much my university fees were? What should I have felt when I saw the awe in his innocent, tired eyes? I didn't feel arrogant or pretentious or angry at myself. I didn't know what to feel. What do these people think about their day at work, when they go back to their families? When does a driver become a Sir? When does a maid become a Madam? I'm not a communist, I'm a writer.

I love my maid and my driver (whoever they are, this month) because they are part of our white-picket fenced lives. They are a cog in this freshly fashioned aristocracy. We are the good kids, of good parents and good families. Somewhere in the past, our parents caught the right train or missed the right bus and here we are.

As we played football in the cull-de-sacs around Palm Meadows or drove through the quiet arteries that crisscross 100 Feet Road, we didn't realise what we are. But it struck me tonight. Our parents were middle-class but we are not. There is no animosity between the various burgeoning levels of the Indian pyramid. Consciously or not, everyone knows their roles and everyone knows stories of someone who's morphed and how they did it.

As a proud member of the Whitefield crowd, I know what makes my kind different from others. It's not so much that we know the value of money (unlike the true Upper Class, for whom it is simply not an issue - because it never will be), it's more down to us knowing what it takes to attain wealth for oneself. We know because our parents taught us. We know because we were sent to tuitions 3 days a week. We know because we stressed for exams and our parents stressed with us. We know because sometimes, we weren't allowed to play football in the evenings. Sometimes we weren't allowed out for a night out. I think that's what makes the Palm Meadows people different. Though they live well, they didn't come from wealth but they are certainly headed towards it.

When I talk about Palm Meadows, I'm not talking about the million dollar houses or the 2 lakh club membership fee. I'm not talking about those horridly deformed palm trees. I'm not talking about the fragrance of the newly trimmed grass as it bakes away under a clear sky. I'm talking about all of us good kids. The kids who went to tuitions. The kids who talked to their drivers. The kids who listened to their parents who, for the most part, were ambitious college grads much like ourselves, 25 years ago. You don't have to live in Palm Meadows to be Palm Meadows. It is a concept. A little slice of California that provides a utopian bubble for those college grads 25 years ago, who rode the horse named Capitalism.

Palm Meadows is a petri dish for the Urban Royalty, so sit back and enjoy this little social experiment.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Character Study 1

Weed in India is cheap. He always had stash in his drawer, in the drawer all parents 'trust' their teenage kids with. Weed was like whiskey in Western movies; it was served when a friend comes over or when times were tough or when a character in a scene needs to do some thinking. Sprawled out on his bed in his dark room, he needed to do some thinking.

His was the classic Bangalore guy's room. The only light at this unearthly hour are the neon blue hues emanating from an open laptop screen. It's the kind of light that bounces gently off walls and cannot creep beneath the gap under a door and stray into the path of parent's open eye. Torrents bring him album upon album of death metal, black metal and all the others kinds of metals that Bangalore boys churn through their refinery. Mesh windows keep the torrents of mosquitoes riding the city smog, out. The air tonight is heavy, because it hasn't rained today. The weed is a quiet mirror for reflection on a night and a life.

The creaky rhythm of fan overhead give him a beat to roll to. He was your usual stoner bad boy. He wasn't a bad guy, he was a bad boy. He sat in the back row of class. He'd been in fights and like all bad boys, didn't need to show off about having done so. He'd faced cops and won and lost. He'd fucked girls before his peers. He bunked college but he didn't go clubbing. He listened to rock and was afraid to dance. And yet he was a good friend to the good boys and he took the greatest care to ensure his image was one of someone who didn't care for his image. He could ride and drive. He could roll a perfect joint. He could play guitar. At some point in his life, he'd been expelled from school and thus expelled from the Indian Dream.

You haven't heard of the Indian Dream? It's very simple. You don't get expelled, you do well in your tenth and twelfth and you go abroad for university and become a surgeon or an engineer or a banker and most importantly, you never think seriously about India again. It's very simple. Once India has become a holiday destination, you are living the Indian Dream. He was shaken awake a long time ago.

Somewhere down the line, he chose his path. He chose to be a bad boy and like that, his life was charted out before him. In spite of his international high school, he'd walk a different road to the good boys. He'd smoke a cigarette in 8th grade. He'd become cool 9th. He'd be driving and bribing by 10th. He'd realise school mattered in 11th. He'd be humbled by 12th. He'd be forgotten by September. There was no 13th - that was the last stop. All change please.

International School was a 5-lakh-a-year lighthouse that the boys jumped off. The good boys groomed their practise papers and flapped their grades and were flying away soon enough. They didn't land in the water below. The bad boys jumped into the warm, crystal clear pool of their father's business and local, highly bunk-able college. Treading water was easy. All the swimmers can hear above them is the sound of joyous laughter as the good boys find their wings. When they return to land, they'll be tourists.

When they return to land, to breed or nest or hunt or smoke, they'll still be friends with the bad boys. They'd still look the amphibians in the eye, but the connection that once was has been lost. The brotherhood built in school, where all were equal in fees, has been eroded by 12 hours flights taken every Christmas and summer.

I think he'd trade his wooden college desk and his dusty city apartment for a foreign room and a different life. Whether he ever had the means to reach this, I don't know. Maybe the cheap weed has kept him here. I hope he has wings in that drawer because he is a not a bad guy.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Hail to the Bus Driver

(Disclaimer: mild Star Wars references imminent. If you haven't seen all 6 movies, you may want to rethink your life)

Most things worth writing about in my life, involve a bus ride. I'd taken plenty of over-night busses in India and this journey - though much more lively and colourful than previous ones - was largely similar. I boarded the bus at Tatooine, after finding out that those were not in fact the droids I was looking for. Did I say Tatooine? I meant Madiwalla bus stand, in Bangalore.

It was as dusty and hot and grumpy and yet excitable as always. Hundreds of people braved the dust-storms that ravaged Jabba's home planet, all of them standing in circles around their luggage and sizing up those around them. The city lights kept the night at arm's length: for an 8pm sky, it was a strange sort of purple. I am a different kind of tourist to most at this bus stand. Ganesh Tours and Paolo Travels and Seabird Tours are not used to backpack'd 19 years wearing, God-forbid, shorts. Most of my species have flown south for winter - but where is the fun in flying to Goa? Nothing like an overnight ride to really think about stuff.

I boarded and found my seat next to Bindu. I said hi and like that, I was friends with a Mallu. Your picture-book Malayali specimen. She used the phrase 'trust me' (or "trawst me" as she said it) in every sentence. The only thing missing was Parachute Advance. I loved her because she was New India. A sincere, hard working person from the interiors who’d slogged her way to the big city life. She represented everything I admire about the changes taking place in my country. She wasn’t posh, she wasn’t the silly foreign educated Tinkerbell I’d come to know so well. She didn’t drink or smoke and she was going to Goa for a reunion just like me. She worked for an IT company – surprise, surprise. She was 25 but treated me as an equal. She talked of her town, of her country life and - let's be honest - was absolutely blown away by my charm, as all women are. That being said, we were but fellow passengers on this piece of insulation.

A bus is vessel of insulation. You lay there, air conditioned, squinting at a far away plasma TV (yet listening to your own music), totally cut off from the moon-lit mysteries hurtling by outside. A stray tube-light here or there offers a slight insight into the happenings at this time of peace. I love the country side anyway, but at night, at 60 kilometres an hour, the vast fields and dirt tracks and quiet dogs and dead trucks move me. I love the silence outside, the silence I don't need to hear to know of.

Grumpy middle-aged Indian men shot contemptuous looks those chattering away inside the bus, through half opened eyes as they tried to sleep. Only about half the bus was Indian, the rest were international tourists. The atmosphere was wonderful. Everyone was sharing their experiences about India. There was a guy from Canada, Pierre, who was the cheeriest of the bunch. He made his way over to each and every person who was awake (this bus left Bangalore's last stop at midnight). He was a delightful character; as non-threatening as a guy with tattoo-drenched arms can be. There was a family from England: a father and his two daughters. There was a couple from Brazil. I felt proud that they'd come to see my country. It was a nice feeling. I recommend it, whenever you meet any tourists in your country.

There were was also a group of teenagers like myself, sat in the seats directly across the aisle. They didn't look very friendly though, which to be fair, goes without saying. We, of course, went through standard protocol for when "you're stuck somewhere with other people your age who you don't know". It's standard operating procedure and can be found in chapter twelve of the Hitchhiker's Guide to Teenagers. I'll summarise: look cool. Make sure you don't look bored - listen to music or light a cigarette and look mysteriously off into the distance, pretend to be texting someone and please, whatever you do, don't smile! When your gaze does meet one of the Others', hide any interest you may have and make sure you don't chicken out and look away instantly - maintain eye contact for a second before looking away as if you don't care. Do this until they or you leave. I'm not quite sure what it means to look cool for this time period, but if you do, you win... something.

The next morning I awoke to foggy hills and Avatar (Avathaar, actually) dubbed in Hindi, blaring in the speaker system. It was different to watching it in the cinema, where the crowds cheered and whistled. Still quite fun though. The foreigners' faces were fun to observe. Poor things - some of them hadn't even seen Avatar in English.

We stopped at in the wee hours of the morning at a road-side 'dhaba' for breakfast. Relieved smokers and pee-ers alike jumped off the bus like X-wings out the bowels of a doomed Death Star. Ha! What if there was a dude who needed to smoke as badly as he needed to pee? Which would take priority? As a guy I can safely say that taking a slash after a long time is categorically the best feeling in the world - even better than that feeling. I love dhabas because of the fantastic cross-section of society they provide. You have every kind of person here, because the tea costs Rs 2 and because everyone needs tea. In India, things take a long time, so you need a break. Movies have intervals and bus rides have dhabas.

Bindu is talking about something but I'm not listening, I'm placing people. Apart from us Volvo bus folk, there was the standard group of 6 local-college-attending guys with dreams of alcohol and maybe even sex. They were from an engineering college in a satellite town and were clearly heading to Indibiza for New Years Eve like me. There was the noisy village family, complete with one of those tiny grandmothers who looks like she's about to collapse under the weight of her skin and of course the screaming baby. They'd come on the local, inter-state bus that had holes in the side and the suspension of a late-model shopping trolley. I don't know where they were from or where they were going to, but I knew that made up most of the population. It was not a fact I wanted to think about too much. I saw a trio of IT workers. They were wearing jeans with cross-trainers - that's how I knew who they were. Jeans and cross trainers, I'm telling ya. There were two French guys in khaki shorts, still half asleep and who could blame them? It was 6:30am! Grudgingly they took in the sunrise with the SLR's hanging from their necks. I knew where they were going: the same place as me. There were quite a few couples, affluent types. They wore nice flip-flops and had their sunglasses out. I fucking hate couples.

12 hours after leaving the sand people of Tatooine, after starry skies and paddy fields, after misty mountain mornings and a shot of chai, I felt the force of the seaside heat flow through me. That was a Jedi night.