Keeping Up With The Kapoors
An overseas Indian struggles to keep up with the new India.
“Customer is king,” says a sign in my local grocery shop. When I left Bangalore to live overseas 10 years ago, this tiny hole in the wall was crammed with Parachute coconut oil and Frooti tetrapacks. Now it’s stuffed with L’Oreal shampoos and Tropicana juice. I ask for Marie biscuits. “Sorry, we don’t have Marie. But we have McVities digestives!”
But a glance at all the other customers, buying Nivea body lotion and Kellogg’s Cocopops, tells me I am hopelessly out of touch. The Bangalore I left behind was a city with no malls, lounge bars or supermarkets. The restaurants I dined in had rexine sofas, Formica tables and “No spitting” signs on the wall. Boring? Probably. Inconvenient? Certainly. But I miss it.
Life may have been less exciting before L’Oreal and Kellogg’s came to town, but it was also a lot simpler. Not to mention a lot cheaper.
Still, maybe I am just being a cantankerous old grouch. After all, the more choices we have the better, right?
Determined to reconcile myself to this new Bangalore, I go to Barista with a trendy friend. The place is full of teenyboppers, the girls tossing their streaked hair, the boys wearing their baggy jeans around their knees.
“There used to be a time when the coffee houses were full of old fogies in safari suits drinking ‘by two’ coffees and reading the Hindu,” I say wistfully. “Not any more,” says my friend. “This is where all the cool people hang out.”
“But no one’s actually drinking coffee. They are all drinking smoothies or chatting,” I point out.
Considering the cheapest beverage on offer here costs over Rs 40, it seems like an expensive place to chill, but then you can’t put a price on being cool, can you?
“What can I get you?” says the beaming waiter.
“A coffee,” I say uncertainly.
“Yes, but what kind?” he asks. “Cappuccino, espresso, mocha, latte, frappucino?”
“Just regular coffee,” I say, feeling about a 100 years old.
“Would you like our Java blend, Jamaica blend, Kenya blend or the blend of the day?” he asks brightly.
“Ummm…I just want the one that tastes like filter coffee,” I blurt out, as his smile fades.
“Small, medium or grand?”
“Ummm….I don’t know…..medium, maybe…”
He starts pouring coffee into a cup about a foot long.
He gives me an exasperated look, and starts pouring again into a cup only slightly smaller.
“Great,” I murmur distractedly, trying to juggle a plastic stirrer, napkins, two varieties of sugar and three containers of powdered milk.
The coffee arrives with a little heart of powdered chocolate on the top.
“So sweet,” says my friend.
It is cold.
“India has really changed,” says another friend. “No more boring Punjabi, Chinese and tandoori chicken. Now fusion cuisine is the thing. Let me take you to the hottest new restaurant.”
I agree, despite being skeptical of any meal that styles itself as “cuisine.”
The menu is a real melting pot, featuring parathas with Thai curry, biryani with sundried tomatoes and burritos with a paneer stuffing. Everything is a “fillet,” a “tender morsel” or a “delicate blend.” The vegetable section features baby peas, baby carrots, and something called mange tout; apparently adult vegetables are a strict “no-no.”
“The bruschetta with extra virgin olive oil and shavings of parmesan on a bed of braised spinach is marvellous,” enthuses my friend.
“Fine, I will have that,” I say.
The bruschetta arrives. It looks fantastic, it smells delicious, and it tastes suspiciously like….pav bhaji.
The gazpacho (“a delicate blend of chilled Italian tomatoes pureed with cucumbers”) is cold tomato soup by another name. The “crispy filo pastry parcel stuffed with baby peas and new potatoes” tastes like an overeducated samosa. The “tender mange touts in a buttery garlic sauce” turns out to be plain old beans, and undercooked at that.
Desperate to find something that hasn’t changed, I go to my neighborhood “Udupi” joint. There is no menu. There is a sign on the wall prohibiting everything from chewing paan to wasting water. The air resounds with the clatter of steel thalis being banged down on the tables, and the no-nonsense waiters wouldn’t know a “tender morsel” if it hit them in the face.
Udupis never change, I say to myself. “What do you have today?” I ask the waiter, waiting for him to reel off the usual list of rava idli, masala dosa, pongal and kesari bhath.
“Pizza,” he says. “With imported cheese from Holland.”
I get home to find my father clicking away on the remote control, cursing freely. “Arrey, I can’t find DD news,” he complains, as images race across the screen. “Why on earth do you have so many channels?” I ask. “What to do, the cablewalla has given us 40 free channels,” he says. “But you only ever watch DD news,” I point out. “No, no,” says my father, “I watch that other serial also. You know the one with those five American kids, where they do nothing but drink coffee in those big big cups all day.” “Friends?” I ask disbelievingly. My father, after all, is the sort of man who thinks the saas bahu serials on DD are too racy. “Yes,” he says, “I don’t understand a word they say, but after all it is free!”
The next day my driver, Murthy, arrives to take me shopping.
“Madam, have you seen the new mall?” he says, pointing out a monstrosity of glass and metal.
“Yes, yes,” I say, trying to steer him onward.
“No, you must see inside,” he insists. “Biggest mall in Asia!”
He shepherds me inside, where I gape at the crowds of grannies wearing their best Mysore silk saris, jostling for space with the yuppies. What could they be buying here? The grannies gingerly step onto the escalator, giggle and shriek their way to the top, then make straight for the escalator going down. Then they go up again.
The salesgirl looks exasperated. “All these ajjis come all the way from the villages just to go up and down the escalator,” she tuts. “They never buy anything. Hmmph!”
I look around to see a sign saying “Buy six pairs of Reeboks, get two free.” Who would buy six pairs of Reeboks, I wonder? The coach of an NBA team, perhaps, but no one else.
“Just like foreign, no madam?” says Murthy.
I decide to relax by going to my local beauty salon, but find that it too-alas! -has had a makeover. It used to be a place where I could read Femina and listen to old Hindi songs, while having my head massaged with coconut oil. Now, apparently, beauty parlour etiquette demands that I read Cosmopolitan to learn how to get a man, listen to loud rap music, and get auburn highlights put in my hair to look like Bipasha Basu.
“Yes?” says the snooty salon manager, who looks like she just stepped off the runway. “We have a special offer on bio-ionic moisturising facials and alpha-hydroxy acid exfoliating scrubs. Or how about a conditioning hair treatment with panthenol and silicone? She glances contemptuously at my bitten finger nails. “Maybe a manicure with tretinol and synthesised calcium?” When did visiting a beauty salon mean that you had to have a degree in chemistry? I flee.
Stop the relentless juggernaut of consumerism! I want to get off. When I want coffee, I want a piping hot filter “kaapi” in a steel lota and no chitchat about blends and sizes.
If I wanted to spend 20 minutes debating my choice of beverage I would move to California. I can hang out and chill in my own house, thank you very much. When I shop, I don’t want to spend half an hour negotiating escalators or getting lost in a mall. I go to the beauty salon to relax, not to keep up with the trends and certainly not to be upstaged by the beauticians. I don’t want to look like Bipasha, Lara or the other nymphets on the screen. I come to India to eat aloo parathas and rava idlis with no fusion fiddle-faddle.
Customer is king? If this is what royalty feels like, I’m abdicating. It’s time to hand the throne over to a new generation.