This post might seem to be a full week late, but that is wholly intentional. The week running up to India's Independence Day on the 15th of August has thousands of articles, quotes, photo essays, video clips, news stories, etc, related to Indianness. By choosing to put this post up now, I'm actually trying out the old, "Two birds, one stone" routine. Waiting that full week allows me to beat the hordes of articles out there and actually stand a chance of getting a readership, but it also gave me time to sit back and digest the events of my past week, which ended up being totally India specific.
Let me elaborate on that point a bit. London is no stranger to Indians - you will probably find that Indians make up one of the most significant communities here (we're the majority minority?) both in terms of strength and visibility. Despite that, its quite easy once you're going through the motions of daily life to forget just how visible and significant that community is, until its brought to your notice.
So last week, not inappropriately, ended up being about getting a taste of my Indianness again. It all started out with an impromptu dinner at the Bombay Brasserie, which is probably my favourite Indian restaurant in town - unlike the thousands of (predominantly) Bangladeshi curry houses, the Bombay Brasserie comes closest to replicating the Indian experience for me. The decor, somewhat reminiscent of The Imperial Hotel in New Delhi, doesn't hurt either when I'm nostalgic for life in Delhi. Normally, I don't go to Indian restaurants that frequently, and given the price tags on a meal at the Brasserie, its not quite the sort of place I'd go to regularly, so the impromptu meal was a great, if unexpected treat.
That Friday night meal was followed swiftly by another impromptu expedition out on the Sunday to the London Mela in Gunnersbury. Gunnersbury is a London suburb that has a massive Indian (especially Punjabi) community,, and the annual mela is now a big fixture on most Brit Asian calendars. I found out later that a fellow Bollywood blogger, Maja, was also there but we didn't manage to catch up.
The Mela itself was great fun - I had gol gappas after a long time, and the chhole bhature, kebab rolls, nariyal pani and pista kulfi were pretty good as well. Like all true melas, there were several tents with musical performances, a lot of rides, and also random shops selling typical mela fair, as well as a (slightly bizarre) open air beauty parlour where if you weren't careful you could catch a glimpse of Mrs. Taneja getting her eyebrows threaded - not a good sight at all!
Perhaps the best part of the Mela were the Bollywood dancers - many of whom weren't Indian - and who put together a pretty impressive show, with well choreographed numbers, including Kajra Re & Dhadak Dhadak. Keeping with the Indian tradition, we went to the mela in a group of seven people - only four of our group were Europeans, two of whom barely speak English, and who had never stepped outside Florence, Italy, before that Friday. So for them, the entire experience was a complete culture shock, and the poor kids were really overwhelmed. By the end of the day, though, they seemed to have found their footing, enough for one to ask us how to dance Bhangra!
Our hectic day at the Mela wasn't over - we then dashed off to go for a marathon emotional rollercoaster by going to see Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna, only to find the hall packed full of Arab families, all waiting to have their heartstrings tugged viciously at by Mr Johar. I love it whenever I get to see a Bollywood movie in Central London; it's perhaps the best example of the Empire striking back. The international fan following isn't that out of the ordinary anymore either. The Monday edition of the Metro (the free morning newspaper that every London Tube commuter worth his salt will pick up at the station to read on the journey) had a short blurb about how in 2005, British releases in the UK were overtaken by Bollywood releases, while more Bollywood films made it to the UK top ten lists last year than British ones. Watch out Hollywood!
The final major Indian experience of the week was arguably a constructed one, but it was great fun nevertheless. By a strange coincidence of career planning, my two sisters & I have managed to end up living in the same city after a long time - usually we're in different continents. We'd been talking about organising joint drinks with our respective groups of friends, so we finally took the plunge last week and had that party. However, the irony of the situation was too good to let go of - three young, ambitious and reasonably aggressive Indians in London. The party theme was therefore, "Lose a Raj, Gain a Nation". We wanted to be inclusive you see - if you were imperialist, you could come to drink your sorrows away and we would commiserate with you on the loss of the Raj, whereas post - colonialists would be more than welcome to celebrate with us. Oddly enough, turnout being what it was, the three of us were the only Indians in a group of over 35 in a Mexican bar raising toasts to India's Independence in Covent Garden.
For one week in London, that's a lot of different Indian experiences rolled into one. Some very disparate events, very different areas and groups of people, but somehow with a lot of common themes that emerged only when I had a chance to reflect on the broader issue this weekend while lolling on a large white couch with the Financial Times Weekend. (My regular readers will detect a striking commonality to many of my epiphanies - the FT is always lurking near me at the time.)
India is fortunate to have two fantastic cultural ambassadors working for us - our cuisine & our films. My own experience of the world has led me to think that these two have earlier on worked in mutually exclusive geographies. Our cuisine is what got us a foothold in the developed West, while Bollywood has helped us build cultural links with a lot of the developing world. However, over the past decade, our food has started spreading to more countries, while the West has finally realised that they cannot sit back and not take Bollywood into notice. Indian restaurants are now almost necessities in most urban plans in the Western world, while the UK fascination for a good "curry" is legend. Compare this to Bollywood, which has built up a fan following in Latin America, Africa, the Middle East and South East Asia. Between those two, we've got the world covered!
Perhaps more importantly, and this is something I realised from the crowds I saw at the London Mela, is how the attitudes have changed. When many Indians immigrated to the UK, especially after Independence, they came in to fill blue collar roles. They were industrious and prudent, and by sheer effort built productive and economically sound lives (not unlike what the latest wave of Polish migrants is doing in the UK). Unlike the US, which saw highly educated professionals moving to take up roles in medicine, academics, engineering or finance, the UK migrant community has been incredibly segregated, isolationist and also financially weak. Given the time many of them left India, they did not speak from a position of strength.
Compare this mindset with that of the average Indian who travels each year. Many young Indians travelling globally these days do so for work or education. We are hard working - a result of our highly competitive education system. We are fiercely ambitious, often disconcertingly so for others, and are not ashamed of it. More importantly, I think Indians today are much more willing to take a stand for their country, and as our economy grows stronger and we begin to embed the value of merit in our system, this international "cockiness", as someone I know referred to it, will only grow.
Today, to be Indian means something in the world. No longer are we the country where the Beatles came to search for spirituality (though if you were from Liverpool, you'd probably need the time away as well), nor are we the country where thousands of people come to "see the elephants and tigers". Today, when people say India, they say "you guys are bloody good in maths", they'll say, "IT", and if they're French, they usually say "Mittal!"
There's still a lot that needs to go right, but given our penchant for always talking about the bad stuff that needs fixing, we run the risk of overlooking the great achievements we've made. So let's take that little five minute tea break to celebrate where we've come, look back on the path we've been climbing, and then after the five minutes, look up to the summit where we're heading.
As they're saying in a little Mexican bar in Covent Garden, "Lose a Raj, Gain a Nation!"
All images are from the London Mela, held on 13th August, 2005)