Thursday, August 13, 2015

A response to “Why White Women Marry Indian Men” ... from the perspective of a White Woman married to an Indian Man

Dear Denise Baptiste,

I read your recent article, captivatingly entitled “Why White Women Marry Indian Men” with some interest. I am, after all, a white woman living in India, married to an Indian man, and I expected to find something in the article which resonated with me. Even if it had been written by an Indian woman, and therefore more likely to be supposition than fact.

I started reading it, and immediately assumed that it was a lighthearted piece written with tongue firmly in cheek. A brilliantly ironic, and witty piece about the current “craze” of “our men” to marry those “lovely ladies from abroad”. Unfortunately, it turns out that there’s no hint of satire in this piece, which actually reeks of racism and stereotyping.

Let me offer a counter view to all of your reasons why we white chicks love your “tall dark and handsome” Indian guys. And please do bear in mind that my opinions are more likely to be correct given that I am actually one of those white women you write so freely about.

1. “White women love the concept of running around trees, romancing in the park and playing on beaches”.
Running around trees is not a concept which generally makes us white women horny. We find it a little odd, but hey, who are we to judge. Our half white kids do love playing on beaches but I don’t think their colour has anything to do with it.

2. “Indian men are highly educated and they earn a lot more than a foreigner. The thought of being financially secure is always present in her mind!”
Many Indian men (and women) are highly educated, because India is a country where people literally collect degrees. Your assumption that all of India’s 620 million men earn more than their foreign counterparts is bizarre. Did you know that the average annual income in India is 1 lakh rupees ($1600)? Compared to 29 lakh rupees in the UK ($44,000) and 35 lakh rupees ($54,000) in the US? Don’t be misled by the Mittals and the Ambanis of the world. There are only a very few of us greedy white women lucky enough to meet those types.

3. “There is no fear of commitment when it comes to Indian men. They are easy to fall in love with and if you treat them well, they will stick to you like a leech”
No fear of commitment? Do you realise what kinds of hurdles we white girls have to overcome when it comes to getting our man (and more pertinently his family) to commit to us. We’re most likely the wrong religion, we’re way too independent, and we’re probably not virgins.

4. “Women, who want to be loved by only one man for the rest of their lives, believe they can have that with an Indian man”.
I’m not sure whether or not you are married, Denise, and I am sure that you’d like to think that your man would never stray, but the fact is that the divorce rate in India has shot through the roof in recent years. Sadly, I know an awful lot of “happily married” Indian men who have had or are having affairs. And even more tragically, I’ve been propositioned by a few.

5. “Indians are obsessed with white skin. Therefore, the need to marry a white woman is at times a 'must' for Indian men”
Now this is where you start getting really offensive, Denise. I agree that India has an unhealthy obsession with fair skin, not helped by the propagation of skin lightening products and a colonial hangover. Not only have you managed to legitimise this, but you’ve managed to insult every Indian woman with your sweeping generalisation.

6. “White women marry Indian men because India is an affordable place to make a living compared to abroad”
Now this theme is beginning to get repetitive. Have you ever actually tried to buy a property, run a household, educate and feed your kids on an Indian salary? If I were to go back to the UK, I’d be able to actually afford a mortgage given the lower interest rates, my kids would be educated for free, I’d never see a hospital bill and I’d even get child benefit (ie free money) for each of my kids.

7. “India is the land of kamasutra. It is believed that white women marry Indian men for the pleasure of lovemaking”
Ha ha ha ha ha ha. Which Indian man told you that?

8. “The rich Indian values and traditions are some of the things that make a white woman fall head over heels with an Indian man”
I talked to some of my other friends married to Indian men. Those rich Indian values and traditions are actually often what makes life particularly difficult for us. We struggle with the demands of trying to do the “right thing” and invariably end up offending someone by getting it wrong.

9. “Sometimes, it is just the urge to have an Indian wedding! A lot of white women are crazy about the many rituals and traditions that go with an Indian wedding”
Again with the rituals and traditions. Trust me, no woman will commit to a partner for life just for a week of wedding events, however much of a bridezilla she is. Especially when the actual wedding is mindlessly boring for the bride and groom – who really wants to spend hours standing on a stage greeting 5000 strangers? What we white women really want to do is get rip roaringly drunk and dance the night away.

10. “Do you think Indian men are easy to please? White women like being around Indian men as they love to spend time with their lady and give their full attention to them”
Is this kind of a weird reversal of the racist belief that white women are “easy”? This lady’s (Indian) husband has high standards. That’s why he married her.

11. “White women are fond of Indian men as they are great cooks”
Another ROFL. My husband can’t boil an egg without burning it. In the 7 years we’ve been married, he has cooked once. Not every Indian man is a Sanjeev Kapoor, Denise.

Denise, I hope I have corrected some of your erroneous and racist views, and given you an alternative view of our reality. We white women marry “your” men because we fall in love with them, regardless of the challenges that intercultural marriages can bring with them. We don’t notice the colour of their skin (nope, we’re not as obsessed as you clearly are), we don’t fantasise about having brown babies and we certainly don’t think that Indian men are better than any other men in the world.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

My Social Media detox

Every New Year, I balance the excesses of the festive season by giving up drinking for the month of January. Actually, I usually get 3 weeks into the month and then fall spectacularly off the wagon, but at least I take solace in the fact that I’ve given my liver a break for a while.

This year, I decided to add a one month Social Media detox into the mix.

Over time, I had come to realise that that cheeky Facebook app on my phone was devouring way too much of my time. From the moment I opened my eyes in the morning, to the time I closed them at night, I’d be scrolling through my newsfeed. In the car, waiting for my coffee at Starbucks, in the middle of meetings, while on the landline, in the ad breaks while watching TV - I was mesmerised by that damn app. Addicted to the minutae of my friends’ lives, and hooked on the minute by minute activity of people who I barely knew (how did all those people end up being my “friends”??!).

And so, a couple of hours past midnight on 1 January, I deleted the Facebook app from my phone and went social media cold turkey. I had actually intended to delete my account but figured that would create way too much potential drama with people wondering why I had gone overnight from posting hourly comments and status updates to a Facebook non entity, so I chose to go dark rather than disappear.

A month later, I’ve reinstalled the app, but I’m still rather reluctant to jump back in again. I’ve been Facebook free for a month, apart from posting links to a couple of pieces I wrote for websites and wanted to share, and it has been gloriously refreshing. So what I have I learned from my self imposed Facebook Intermission?

1. I will always fill my time with useless crap
The plan was to spend the cumulative seconds and minutes of “free time” gained from the Social Media hiatus to invest in my other New Year’s resolution – to learn Hindi (properly). I downloaded various Hindi tutorials and plugged myself diligently into the podcasts. The first couple of FB free days were great – I learned a few Hindi phrases and I finally learned to count to 50. However, a few days in and I started finding excuses to do other stuff. I started reading the Daily Mail online edition rather more often than I should have done (the column of trash on the right of the page, mainly). Now instead of checking my Facebook updates I read about who is doing who in Hollywood or who attended some random party showing nipples or booty or whatever. Its official, I am addicted to gossip, and I’ve decided that I’d rather know the gossip of my nearest and dearest, than some random Z list celebrity.

2. I have way too many Facebook “friends
If you’re reading this as a piece I uploaded on Facebook, then you made the cut. Before re-embracing the demon, I deleted around 300 random souls who I am sure are very nice people indeed, but who I have either never met or have no intention of meeting. There are a lot of people on my Facebook friend list who I haven’t actually seen for more than 20 years. Despite that, I still enjoy reading about their lives, because there was something about them that once upon a time I resonated with, even if it was decades ago. And I still relate to them, many years later. And then there are a whole bunch of newcomers whose names I barely recognise. I fell prey to the modern habit of friending everyone, and accepting requests from relatively random people (complete strangers and potential sleazeballs excepted). So I’ve cleared my newsfeed – and now you know I really have a thing for you, dear Facebook friend.

3. I am actually really really interested in the boring detritus of people’s lives.
Yep, I’m one of those people who really does want to know what everyone is thinking, feeling and doing, and I enjoy my smug/sympathetic/ affronted reactions. I love the fact that other people’s misfortune occasionally makes me feel better about the fact that I’m having a bad day, and I do shed the odd tear when I read that someone has had a baby / posted about how much they love their kids / shared some story about a child who is battling some terrible disease (although those tears are more often than not tears of laughter, depending on the time of the month).

4. Twitter is shit
I keep talking about Facebook, but actually I gave up Social Media in all its forms. I really hardly noticed the rest – I find Twitter unbearable and incredibly irritating (if you’re going to post something at least make it coherent) and Pinterest and Instagram are completely insignificant to me.

5. Facebook is really useful for a lot of stuff
Forget the fact that FB satisfies my endlessly twitching thumb, it is also super helpful in organising one’s life. I forgot a load of birthdays in January (including those of some close relatives) because I haven’t had my handy Facebook reminder. I’ve missed a couple of cool things happening, and I’ve stressed over organising my own event (something planned for mid Feb), as it is so easy to create something on Facebook and invite people. Somehow, I also believe that scrolling the timeline also fires weird synapses in my brain – I remember random stuff at odd hours of the day and I wake up every morning thinking of things I need to do, and people I need to reach out to thanks to comments I’ve read. I also find the curated news items and shares really insightful, and though I tried hard to replace these with some diligent reading of various “intelligent” news sites, I landed up more not less ignorant as a result.

In summary, I know its kind of uncool these days to be a Facebook Fan, but I plan to enjoy my return to it. I’m glad that I had this little break, and decluttered my friend list. Here’s to an awesome 2015!

Friday, June 28, 2013

Do you tweet or FB? (and what does that say about you???)

A few years ago, actually probably no more than 5, the title of this blog would have been thoroughly confusing to everyone on the planet except perhaps the very early adopters. Now it seems as though nothing in life is meaningful or important unless it is tweeted, liked or shared on Facebook.

Now that Facebook and Twitter have entered our lives so very insidiously, the connected world has divided into two types of people – those for whom Facebook is a lifeline, who vicariously live out their lives through status updates and posted pictures and those who tweet about each and everything that happens to them. Though there are those who are active on the two, most people, in my experience, have a preference for one or the other. There are, of course, the few who shun both ... and while there is a certain coolness perhaps in claiming that "I don't do social media" its damn irritating when you want to connect with them. E mail just seems so old school.

Facebook of course is great for connecting, sharing and generally keeping in touch. It is easy to use, most people’s parents and even grandparents jostle for space on their timeline along with their BFFs, love interests, potential love interests and childhood friends. It makes for an occasionally uneasy mishmash and the need to self-regulate, but it is an extremely useful way of staying in touch, connecting with old friends, and peeping into people’s lives. After all, who hasn’t scrolled through the pictures of people they haven’t seen for years to see whether they have aged well, been lucky or unlucky in love, and/or have photogenic children. There is a vicarious pleasure to be gained in viewing the most intimate of private moments from a relatively anonymous distance. The downside of Facebook of course is that it is all too easy to comment, share stuff and post pictures, and thus a fair amount of patience is required when trawling through other people’s invariably dull status updates (although one’s own are always obviously witty, incisive and interesting).

Twitter is a strange animal. Whereas the appeal of Facebook is obvious to anyone who has an iota of a social life, the Twittersphere is occupied by a bunch of people (well, millions actually) who think that recording their every action, thought and observation is a useful and relevant thing to do. They are obsessed by “trending” and being “retweeted” as if a random retweet from a celebrity really means that said celeb actually gives a damn what anyone else thinks. Brace yourselves Tweeple – no one on Twitter gives a shit about anyone else. They’re too busy trying to improve their own position in the invisible and highly complex Twitter caste system. You’re only as good as the number of people who “follow” you after all.

However, Facebook, it seems is “old school”. On a recent trip to the UK, I was told on a number of occasions by my obviously socially advanced British friends that Facebook is “so yesterday”. Apparently, Brits (and possibly Americans, though they are much more mob mentality than the snobbier Brits) are deserting Facebook in their droves. Twitter is apparently much “cooler” though personally, I can’t see the appeal. I naturally gravitated to, and still love, Facebook, and though I opened a Twitter account to see what all the fuss was about, I hate it. In my humble opinion, Twitter is for people with low attention spans, those who are obsessive social climbers and worse still, those who will happily ditch all semblance of grammar and accurate spelling to fit into that 140 character strait jacket. “You can watch the pulse of the world, as it happens,” cry the Twits. What rubbish. I can barely even understand what people are talking about thanks to their tendency to drop vowels everywhere (it is NEVER OK to write d instead of the, incidentally).

There, I’ve revealed my bias. I don’t care if Barack Obama has 33 million followers. Or if Amitabh Bacchan tweets to 5 million people. Although I can see how easy that would make life (anyone have a spare car/nanny/fiver I can borrow?) I don’t particularly want random people “following” my every comment and even “retweeting” it to their followers. Call me old fashioned, but I’ll stick to comfortably poking around my friends' Facebook updates and seeing how well they’re all aging. However, I will still tweet this blogpost. Ha!

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Big Fat Indian extravagance

Last night I attended a four year old’s birthday party. I rocked up with kids, husband, nannies and the requisite gifts expecting to find a cute, fun event on one of the small terraces of the private members club where the party was being held. As we neared the entrance, the thumping Bollywood music suggested that we’d come to the wrong place. But no. As I squinted at the elaborate arch across the entrance of the venue, it became apparent that this was actually the four year old’s birthday party and not, as I had suspected, a wedding.

We entered through a blue neon lit tunnel, complete with twinkling stars and cartoon figurines and emerged into an extravaganza of balloons, a huge stage, bowling alley, bouncy castle, and areas with tattoos, nail painting, a photo booth and more. All offset by thumping Bollywood beats. As we sat down at one of the many tables and chairs festooned by gold bows and munched on the snacks being served by smart waiters, I wondered whether I was in a parallel universe.

I’ve been in Mumbai long enough now to know that “simple and understated” doesn’t fly, and that over the top ostentation characterizes most social events here but the sheer grandeur of this, especially given that it was for a four year old, blew me away.

As I walked around with my toddler, trying to get him interested in anything except the Angry Birds catapault game which had captured his tiny mind, I spotted the bar. I quickly downed the mohito mixed by an enthusiastic barman, and suddenly the noise and outlandish flamboyance became a little more palatable. I did wonder though whether the screeching tones of the MC as he conducted a series of games for the kids was actually at a decibel level safe enough for tiny ears. The tables were piled high with gifts, and there was no doubt that the birthday boy would have fun opening them but I couldn’t help but wonder whether he would really ever be able to appreciate the value of possessions. Kids are naturally avaricious, they want more and more and more .. and sometimes they just need to be made to see how fortunate they are, in comparison to many others. Most Indian parents are particularly ambitious for their children, both in terms of their futures and the “things” they have, and there is a relentless focus on acquisition – of knowledge and possessions.

The evening was fun for the kids, especially for my energetic almost three year old, but I left in a slightly reflective mood. The contrast between the haves and the have nots is always particularly acute when you witness what seems like unnecessary overindulgence, particularly when its motivation is more to impress “society” than to make a child, or a bride and groom, or a couple celebrating their anniversary happy. The British shun ostentation and sneer at “showing off”. In India, flaunting your wealth is both expected and necessary, a prerequisite for displaying your position in a country where everyone is busy trampling on everyone else to escape searing poverty.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Buy the book!

becomingdesi: Published!


I wrote a book! I finally did it … and it’s been a very surreal experience.I thought I’d pause and reflect back on the journey, now that the book is in print, in bookshops, and the chance to fiddle around with it and endlessly re-edit is long gone.

It all started one afternoon about three years ago as I was sitting staring at the wall in a post-lunch near doze. I couldn’t quite bring myself to fire up my laptop and start trawling through the dozens of mails which I knew would be there waiting for me … and so I carried on daydreaming. My mind was wandering and for some reason I started to feel nostalgic. I’d been in Asia for ten years, 8 of those years in Mumbai, and I felt fairly seasoned. I grabbed a pencil and a piece of paper and started scribbling down the progress of my journey from fresh off the boat newbie to seasoned Mumbaikar.

As I did so, and with the benefit of hindsight, I realised that I’d actually come on quite a journey, emotionally. I’d been in India for so long, that it felt like I’d almost been here forever. What had seemed ridiculous, sublime and incredible now seemed routine and everyday. I no longer exclaimed at the cows ambling along the road and the tears which had spilled whenever I had caught sight of a limbless beggar had dried up. That wasn’t to say that I was completely compassionless, but somehow the impact of the poverty and the apparent suffered had just lessened over time, as the shock factor reduced.

As my own attitudes had shifted and changed over time, the only way I could measure the progress of my adjustment was by observing the reactions of people who saw my surroundings for the first time. The friends who came to visit me provided a useful benchmark. Their wide eyed reactions to the chaos of Mumbai, the surprise at the sheer number of people on the streets, the colours, sights, sounds and smells made me smile, and also took me back to my arrival, years earlier. Their responses to an environment which by now seemed very ordinary to me, made me realise that seeing goats wandering around the city, or men pushing handcarts the wrong way down a busy road was actually not normal. That the sight of grown men wandering hand in hand along the streets was not a reflection of a permissive society but rather an expression of their friendship. In the same way, my own responses to my home country changed over time. I find it more and more remarkable that people in England can actually drink tap water. I find it revolutionary that they separate their waste and put it into different containers. And of course, shopping brings out the greedy consumer in me. In India, I claim not to need new things. Because the array of shoes, clothes and handbags here isn’t particularly appealing. When I hit the UK high streets, the story is quite different, and I end up hauling an entirely new wardrobe back with me.

And so I came to realise how much I had changed, and I found the whole concept of adjustment a fascinating one. I came across the book “Watching the English” by Kate Fox, and read it 3 times, mesmerised by her astute observation of a nation, a nation which I was by now looking at in a much more analytical manner, from a distance.

The book started out as a fairly serious, dry observation of this change, and the expat reaction to what is after all a pretty crazy life here. It morphed and changed, and ended up as a fictional tale, inspired by my own experiences, but rooted in the “chick lit” genre. It is hopefully therefore much more entertaining and far less didactic. Once I started writing, all of those distant memories of my arrival came back, and the book evolved and took shape very quickly. Getting published was actually remarkably easy, and happened in that brilliant, "only in India" way ... a friend knew the MD at Random House, introduced me on mail, I sent some samples and my idea for the book, and a couple of weeks later I had a contract.

The task of actually writing an entire book seemed very daunting at the beginning. The first line took me an hour to write. As I wrote, I had no idea what would happen next, and though I knew that Julia would, of course, find her Mr Right, I actually had no idea how she would find him. I didn’t know about plot or storytelling, I didn’t know how I was supposed to shape the story, and I guess I just did it pretty instinctively, with the added benefit of my editor’s perspective. I wrote everywhere - at home, at the parlour, and the Club, sitting by the pool. On planes, trains (in England), and in the car going to work. Every day I inched a little closer to the magic number of 100,000 words and every day it seemed just a little bit more certain that I could actually do it.

Buy it, and let me know what you think.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Nagaland - India's undiscovered land

I had no idea what to expect when I decided to head off to Nagaland for two weeks with my sister and her boyfriend visiting from England, my two year old son and five week old baby in tow. I’d heard amazing things about this remote area of North East India, a place further from my home in Mumbai than any place I’d been to before within India. I was further intrigued by the lack of online information available on Nagaland - with the exception of a couple of government owned tourism websites, and a handful of Trip Advisor reviews on accommodation in the region, it was as though Nagaland existed only in the imagination of the very few. Certainly no-one outside India had heard of it, and even Indians were hard pressed to identify the region.

Landing in Dimapur was a pleasant shock to the system. The airport is sweetly archaic, tiny but sufficient to handle the two flights a day which arrive from and depart to Kolkata. The city is dusty, crowded, but somehow exudes an immediate “gentler” vibe than the other Indian cities I’ve visited. We headed for the hills shortly after arriving, in a bid to cool ourselves down in more temperate altitudes. Nagaland has no rail system, and so the state relies on ancient creaking buses and taxis for transport – the latter usually Tata Sumos into which at least ten people can cram themselves and their baggage, making this a profitable business for the owners of the rickety vehicles. We were driven to Kohima by a schoolfriend of my husband, in a gesture typical of the generous and hospitable Nagas, he not only drove us from door to door, but arranged a wonderful lunch for us en route at a beautiful resort in the hills, and then left his car for us to use during our stay in Kohima.

As we left the smoggy confines of Dimapur, the air quickly became clean and fresh, the lack of pollution a welcome relief from Mumbai’s acrid atmosphere. Kohima is a sprawling city built around a large peak, its higgledy piggledy houses clinging for dear life to the steep sides, lining roads which wind round and round the hill. Walking is easier than driving around the city, though it’s exhausting on foot thanks to the steep inclines. We spent five days in and around Kohima, exploring the tiny markets with their exotic wares including several varieties of caterpillar which apparently make delicious snacks, and driving around the area thankfully in a four wheel drive vehicle, which gave us some respite from the poor roads which were ridden with potholes and often deep in mud. We drove deeper into the state, spending another few days in Mokokchung, another sweet town, similar to Kohima but smaller. Our friends in Mokokchung were perfect hosts, taking us to visit the small villages dotted around the area, many of which were chocolate box perfect, immaculately clean slices of rural bliss.

People all over Nagaland were warm, generous and friendly, their desire to help us driven entirely it seemed by genuine altruism rather than greed – this was evidenced by the fact that on several occasions, people tried to return tips to us, confused by the fact that we had paid them too much. When we explained again and again that the extra money was for the excellent service received, they invariably blushed and giggled, repeatedly trying to return the money. The Naga spirit of generosity is utterly genuine, and I wondered how far it would be corrupted once tourism hits the state. Nagaland is too far away from mainland India, too difficult to reach, and too challenging to traverse for most foreigners, and so it feels untouched, unspoilt by infrastructure which inevitably pops up to cater for the tourist scene.

We were treated like royalty everywhere we went, which was a tad disconcerting but heartwarming nonetheless. We were guests of honour at a society wedding, despite being inappropriately dressed, as we hadn’t exactly packed our finery. Nonetheless, we were picked up from our hotel by the Commissioner of Nagaland and his armed guards, and welcomed personally by him during his address to the congregation. We all blushed bright red as the wedding guests swivelled their heads to gawp at the “special guests from the Church of England”. We were also invited to address students from a local university who presumably didn’t get the chance to interact with real live Brits. Again, despite feeling like total fraudsters, we were made to feel like we were special, our young audience hanging on to our every word. It was a surreal but humbling experience.

Nothing in Nagaland feels like India. The people look different, their facial features closer to their Burmese neighbours, their language, food, culture and customs are as different from those of their Indian counterparts than from us Europeans. Our Naga friends talked of “mainland India” and “Indians”, and clearly do not feel part of the mother country. Their gentleness, genuine delight to give, with no intention of receiving, was a marked contrast with the more superficial hospitality in the more developed parts of India. Their tribal society has created not conflict, as one would expect, but rather harmony, with the 16 tribes co-existing in a mutually supportive manner.

Nagaland’s gentle exterior belies its troubled history – the region is notorious for insurgents and battles for independence since its creation in 1963 – before that, the area had been part of the state of Assam. It is not difficult to sympathise with a people who feel totally disconnected to their country, when they seem to have so little in common with the rest of its population. Right now peace prevails - hopefully this will remain and the Nagas will be granted their independence one day.