It’s always nice to check out new places in a new town. But it’s especially great when the place in question is the sort that insists on allowing entry only to its rather fortunate members. Delhi, where I live, has tons of them. But their familiarity can be disconcerting.
One evening, soon after we settled back into India from New York, we were eager to discover the happening joints in Delhi. Our enthusiasm led to an invitation, from well-heeled friends, to Shalom, a lounge in an up-market part of the city, which claims that if you visited them you’d be “feeding your soul, without really disappointing your taste buds”. Just like as if we were fighting for admission to a New York club, we were lucky to know someone who had some connections, so we were allowed to enter.
That wasn’t the only thing that seemed familiar to this former New Yorker. As I stepped into this elite bar with dim lights, impressive décor and expensive wine, it seemed as if I had been magically transported back to the Big Apple. What struck me first – apart from the fact that it was even priced as if it were located on Fifth Avenue and that light beer cost more than it would in most NY bars – were the designer-clad women and what they were wearing, or rather not wearing. As we made our way to the bar grazing past many a bare belly (bare, flat, worked-out bellies might I add) I started to feel a tad bit overdressed (and fat) in my short, black v-neck top, something that had seen me through many a night out in New York. Most women I met were super-thin, were wearing black in some form or the other, had on aggressively pointed shoes- some even greeted each other with American-isms like “honey” and “darling”- cigarette in one hand and a drink in the other.
I blinked. Was I really back in India? Or was this the new face of the Indian woman and I just couldn’t recognize it? After spending a little more time there it became clear that it definitely was one face, a face I hadn’t seen earlier; this woman was chic, rich, confident and well traveled – conversations about vacations to Tuscany and New-Zealand abounded. In retrospect, I wonder why I had been so surprised since I had friends who fitted this description. I guess it just needed to sink in.
A caution: We’re talking here about the modern Indian woman, the urban, so-called “liberated” woman. They are well educated, often in the U.S. or the U.K., come from solidly upper class families and are reaping – directly or through their families – the bounty that is India’s economic boom. They do not, however, represent the plight of Indian women in general – most of who live in rural India, still shackled to the rigors of a strong patriarchal society, many in conditions that Americans – and their sophisticated Indian sisters – would dismiss as “poverty.”
About a decade ago, the women in this section of society were, mostly, fair-skinned (somewhat of a big deal in India, rooted, as it is in almost all cultures with ideas about pampering and purity) and pretty diamond-studded wives of rich businessmen. By the time these women were twenty-four they’d borne a few children and settled into complacent conjugality, their diamonds having grown as much in size as they had – pretty much as their mothers had done.
Today, there is a remarkable change. These women, though still married to rich businessmen or bankers and still dripping diamonds are often professionals, earning their own big bucks and want more from life than mere domestic bliss and believe in having a good time – be it going to a bar or taking a vacation. And though they still probably bear children young, they barely show any signs of it in their skimpy-sequined tops, sipping margaritas at lounges and poolside parties.
And there’s no escaping them. These svelte-affluent-entrepreneur-have-it-all-women seem to be all over the place. One drive on the Delhi roads and you see them zipping past you in their swanky cars, or increasingly, like in the US, in their SUVs – children, maids, et all.
I heard many conversations at Shalom that gave a small peek into the lives of the women in this class. Conversations ranged from green cards and how it was not a big deal anymore, to how they’d just bought a penthouse in a luxury condo overlooking the golf-course, or how someone’s ten year old son was caught browsing not-so-acceptable web sites, and something about an iPod-obsessed-eight-year-old daughter rolling her eyes and uttering “whatever” at being checked for incessantly talking on her latest mobile phone.
It’s hard for some of my friends, who’ve lived through the change in India, to understand why I’d been so surprised that night at Shalom. After all, I’d visited often during my years abroad and did know that the country had changed. But yet for me it was an eye-opener, because having recently returned from New York I was in a position to directly compare the two scenarios, and it was something of a shock to find that level of similarity between the two. These were Indian women but they could just as easily have been New Yorkers, which is why the whole scene seemed surreal to me.
It brought home the fact that India had moved too fast for me. While living in New York, no matter how much I’d read about India having changed, it only sunk in when I saw it so closely. Also, and this is something I didn’t realize then, the change had crept close to home, since some of the friends I’d left behind were now the Shalom women.
That, I think, was the real shock.