Tales of two cities: Bangalore vs. Gurgaon

On a recent visit back to Bangalore that happened after one and half years of living in Gurgaon, most of my friends wanted to find out, “How is it living in Gurgaon?, How is it different from Bangalore?”. Now this may seem like an odd question to some, esp. non-Indians living with a perception of a stereotypical India as a single entity. But within India, its a perfectly reasonable question. Because every city here has its own story that is created by its history, cultured by its people and shaped by its governments. So here’s my analysis of the two cities, if nothing else, for the benefit of my expat brethren, who want to flock to them like bees to honey, as well as for the fact that there’s much to talk about, by the way of compare and contrast.

Full meal: Because life is more than a box of chocolates in Bengalooru

A disclaimer before describing Bangalore (aka Bengalooru) is that it was almost a retirement colony until the world discovered its prowess as an IT mecca. Therefore, today Bangalore is the confluence of the extremes…young and old, modern and traditional, pubs and temples, yet surprisingly its intermingling has not resulted in a confused state of affairs, except for certain cases where city-politics and localism is involved. The city even has its own slogan: “Namma Bengalooru” (i.e. Our Bangalore) to inject harmony amongst its contrasting populace. Yet the hypocrisy somewhere creeps in when it is cited as Bangalore to the outside world, while being referred to as Bengalooru, in front of localities. The city is used by money-minting, pub-going, eternally young IT professionals while ruled by vermilion-dotted, kannad-speaking, old conservatives; each group sticking to its designated roles to avoid conflict. The old-school men and women here focus on real-estate and gold jewellery respectively and swear by their “full meal”: a conglomeration of South Indian delicacies which when coalesced and devoured sequentially with rice provides for a complete gastronomic experience, while the neo-Bangaloreans talk about start-ups and organic-living as a means of asserting their identity. And on a special mention for the local autowallahs (rickshaw drivers) and cabbies, it would be surprising if they don’t take you for a ride if you are fair-skinned and only speak in Hindi. Old prejudices die hard. But whatever little Bangalore loses on these grounds, it gains in terms of its weather. Have you ever experienced “weather paradise” in this world? Well, its either here or Hawaii. Only of course, the good weather when combined with pollutants create an allergen abode..but then what good is “Allegra” for?


Gurgaon, on the other hand, is a haven for the new and the hip. From the metro to the malls, its as if its residents want to escape anything that is old and past. Unlike Bangalore, which is intertwined with its old roots, Gurgaon has barricaded its old city into oblivion. People here have no qualms about shedding inhibitions and traditions. Mother-in-laws shed their sarees to don designer salwar-kameez, and daughter-in-laws shed their designer salwar-kameez for branded jeans and shorts. (Needless to say, the word “designer” has a new meaning and place in your life here. For if you don’t oblige to “designer devta”, you’ll be an outcast.). Just like their lifestyle is designer, their food is “tandoori”, everything from rotis to chicken. You can even get “tandoori tadka” on Chinese, if required and much to the chef’s delight.  People do work hard here, but they “play” harder. Golf clubs and imported cars cater to men’s fancies while salons and solitaires offer respite to women’s existentialism. And while Bangaloreans can think like Americans, Gurgaonites can talk like them; no wonder Bangalore got IT, whereas Gurgaon picked up the call center business during the outsourcing boom. Compared to Bangalore though, you get the perception that the systems (and their workarounds such as 100% power backup) are more efficient here, infrastructure more sufficient, and education more accessible. But weather wise, if Bangalore weather is to die for, Gurgaon weather would make you die (well, at least cry). And you might run into trouble with the autowallahs/cabbies over here as well, if you are fair-skinned (of a  fairer sex variety) but cannot speak in Hindi. Not for any racial bias this time, but for your own safety.

Topographically as well, both the cities have interesting facets of their own. Gurgaon is on a mission to mark its territory vertically, while Bangalore wants to expand its reach horizontally. If one were to spatially relate the cities, Gurgaon could be extrapolated as “Dubai in a village”, while Bangalore would be “a Mumbai done sunny-side up”.  Which brings me to the only common denominator across the two cities: Traffic (here again, while the effect is the same, the cause quite different)..one jams due to narrow roads and the other because of high-rises. 

So whats my take? Well, if you want the best of both worlds(err..cities in this case), then move to Ahmedabad.

ps. If its not apparent to some, the unwarranted bias could be a result of the writer being originally from Ahmedabad.

LIA to R2I : Decoded

So when a friend checked up on how I find returning to India after so many years of living in America, she became the 29th person in the last 3 years who posed this question to me. I believe its a classic topic for Indians LIA (Living in America), only second to the stagnant house prices in the US.

Three categories of NRIs reside in the US these days: one that want to R2I (Return to India), one that think that the ones that want to R2I are out of their minds, and the rest who stay in Fremont or Sunnyvale (or such equivalent “mini-India” suburbs). Regardless of the category, they are always interested to find out how it is to return back to India, or how is it different or how does it feel.

Blame the IT crowd and their access to tools, many a probabilistic models are available on the net to help you determine the success rate of your R2I decision. But these models however mathematically sound they may sound, offer more mental turmoil than respite. Plus, today’s India has changed. Brain-drain to culture shock..its all reversed. So here are some fresh insights for those still in the dilemma. I assure you these are missed in the weighted ratio of “sense of belongingness” vs. “kids upbringing”.

The chaos rules

While US thrives on rules, in India chaos rules. In India, anything that can possibly break down, will break down and when you least expect it to.(Murphy would have surely visited India before he created the law.) From your washing machine to your water pipe, from land lines to power lines, from anyone breaking the traffic light to the monsoon gods breaking the roads..No doubt, your appetite to deal with such chaos is going to be inversely proportional to your frustration quotient, esp. if you are used to machine-dried clothes, working from home and driving on the freeways. But if you rise beyond your frustration, you’ll realize the true value of it. Chaos exists to make you more tolerant, more adaptable and never taking things for granted. Take India as the breeding ground for the new age “social Darwinists”.

Cricket, media and more

Cricket lovers don’t need much convincing. The fever, the final pages of the dailies and the BCCI (that ensures that you never face cricket-free nights again) are reasons enough to lure you to India. Not to mention, the ability to watch cricket in prime-time and in box seats and not at the wee hours on internet or via expensive TV packages. If you are not into cricket per say, apply this analogy to Bollywood.

The rest of the thrill for the day is provided by the news media. Back in the US, you could be shuffling the newspaper only to read headlines such as “Percentage-point drop in student-teacher ratio and its impact on the divorce rate” or “Ban on the legalization of gay marriages”. The Indian newspapers have no space for such mundanity. Indians rob and rape, kill and kidnap, bribe and strike all in a days worth of time. Each ending up competing for headlines the next morning, albeit for your reading pleasure. The broadcast media does not falter either. They’ll use every tactic at their disposal (such as highlighting, flashing and breaking the same news 8 times an hour in different fonts) in order to arouse you. There is never a dull day. Entertainment is in the air!

Irrational exuberance

As fresh-off-the-boat R2Iers, you’ll be expected to lead the way in leading an “American lifestyle”. This is similar to how the US investors exhibited “irrational exuberance” back in the 2000s. You’ll be expected to (or inclined to) splurge more money, ignore the inflation, and buy expensive cars (instead of expensive stocks). (SUVs for men, and automatics for women pls.) So what, if you drove a second-hand 1999 model Toyota Corolla and saved every penny for rainy day when you were in the US. And forget about budgets. Its passe to even roughly estimate how much your lifestyle costs. Credit card statements are no longer a yardstick here because 75% of your expenditure is done in cash. Something is wrong if you’re not visiting the ATM every day. I suggest that future ATMs be housed in temples so as to add to the daily ritual of worship…and withdraw. Falling prey to the predictably irrational human psyche, women like myself get prone to develop a currency conversion bias over time. as in “That 100$ dress never looked so accessible in the US, as does the 5000Rs. one here in India.’
Btw, the best kept secret to-date (for women) is that you can get more beautiful in India. The sight of slim, trim, make-overed women around you is inspiration enough. Add to it, the beauty services available at your doorsteps at the fraction of the cost. Experiencing exuberance yet?!

The Human Touch

As much as the US is infatuated with automation and human-less systems, India relies on its ‘human touch”. In fact, that’s the USP it can boast of. After all, there are a billion hands at hand. You will have a maid that will not only wash your utensils, but will wipe them dry and put them in their proper place..as opposed to the dishwasher that only does the former. And she’ll not differentiate between the oil-smeared kadhais and the fine chinaware..she’ll wash them all in one cycle. The Indian waiters will serve you food in your plates as opposed to on your table. In India, the elevator has an operator, the vending machine a server, and the “xerox” machine a copy guy to provide that extra human touch to these lifeless pieces of automated machinery. But even the human touch can get to you…if its frisking you at every mall, theater and airport.
Or worse yet, harass the crap out of you if it is of the horny hands amidst the metro mobs or the hands of street peddlers forcing their goods on you.

R2I=Return to Infinite Opportunities

India is the only place investment bankers come to, when they get bitten by the “writing” bug. But then again, IIM-A graduates can become anything they can dream of, in India. Baba can become Mahatma by the power of his followers.
If you are an aging actor, you could try your luck in the Parliament or join any of the 19 budding NGOs that suit your style. And if you are not, then the idiot box is your oyster. You could be doing talk shows, talent shows, cookery shows, or even dating 12 eligible candidates at the same time.
And If you are in IT and have lived in the US for more than 5 years, you could consider yourself demi-gods in the paradise of job opportunities. You’ll have 3 MNC job offers each willing to outdo the other in terms of your “price” err..compensation. If compensation does not tickle your bones, they will throw in a “management” job profile. The LIA tag should suffice for any lack of real management experience. But its not just about the corporate opportunities that you can avail. The freedom to explore unchartered territory is most enticing. Almost behind every really successful R2I story is someone’s attempt to grab an opportunity to do something that has provided a new meaning to their being. Friends who’ve become enterpreneurs from employees, bloggers from full-time moms, celebrity cooks from corporate junkies. India has an insatiable appetite for one and all. It does have a fat belly.

But I digress from the satirical nature of this piece. Here are some “mastercard ad-priceless” abilities that you can acquire, only if you R2I.

  • The ability to get ready-made (better yet, custom-made) furniture without ever having to exercise your carpenter-skills for assembling the IKEA pieces.
  • The ability to talk to a doctor when your child is suffering a minor cold (even if its more for your mental peace than his runny nose) or to get instant access to Dadi’s nuskas.
  • The ability to drive on the right and the wrong side of the road instead of just the right-hand side.
  • The ability to do facebook without worrying about your house-chores as opposed to the ability to do it while doing your house chores.
  • The ability to wear colors without being bound to the color of the season.

Btw, if you are still confused as to which way to oscillate on your R2I decision pendulum, here’s a friend’s quote that sums it all up “40% of things are better in US than in India, another 40% are better in India, and the remaining 20% are the same. You have to decide which 60% work for you.”

Maid in India: The "bai" wisdom (Part 2)

They all have a story..and unfortunately one that underlines issues that plague India from a socio-economic perspective..illiteracy, domestic violence, urbanization, poverty, etc.

No one ever wants to become a “bai” ..Its not a career of their choice. The only career progression they aspire is to retire one day. But they still keep at it, either in pursuit of some life goal or as a way to escape their reality. Some toil because they certainly dont want their children to follow the same path. Some want to go back to their village and live in peace. Some just want to be “happily” married or “respectfully” single.

They get feisty because that’s the only way they’ve known to deal with life. If it were not for their fighting spirit they’d have succumbed to depression, abuse, illegal paths. Their belief system, right or wrong, becomes their guiding force…and their source of finding solace in little things life throws at them. Tucked in their tales below, are some “pearls of wisdom” for us as well.

When we moved from Bangalore to Gurgaon, our maid, an elderly 50+ traditional South Indian lady living alone with her abusive husband, was the only one who cried inconsolably..I was immensely touched, and frankly a little surprised. Its not that I was paying her anything out of the ordinary or that she didn’t have dearth of work. ‘I’ll find other homes’, she said. ‘But who will call me “Ammaji” now?’ (Ammaji is a respectful salutation for a mother.)

[Little respect does go a long way.]

Btw, hard to resist while we are on the topic of respect, an earnest request for menfolk who feel the right to show their manhood on maids: Isn’t it good enough that they are there for your dirty laundry?

Mistreated by her mother-in-law, eventually divorced, and physically abused by her own drunkard brother, when she came to us, she was a wreck. I felt pity and kept her even though I had another nanny at the time. I couldn’t do much..but I would listen to her as she poured her heart out about her past. She stayed with me for a year and a half, caring for my kid in a way he didn’t miss me while I was busy with work. While her “fighting spirit” (of the literal sense) eventually got the better of me, it was the only thing that led to her own life transformation.
She went back. (But still calls up to inquire about her “mannu” and my son still misses her. In fact, she’s the only reason he wants to visit Bangalore.) Just the other day, she called me to say..’I’ve found myself a husband…He doesn’t drink and doesn’t live with his parents’.
A life-long bond has been formed just because I had given my ears to her tears.

[Show Empathy. It never goes out of style.]

And now I think about it, I used to teach her how to conduct life on a day-to-day basis, but she’s shown me how to live it. With hope and on your own terms.

But I found my “mother of pearl wisdom” from lo and behold..a 30-year old, illiterate, slum-raised carpenter! While haggling for the last 5K which my baniya mind had calculated to be over the top and thus not ready to let go, I got a response that I had never expected.
‘This may look like a premium for my services..ma’am. But let me tell you, this exact money will go towards teaching 10 slum kids the skills of the trade. I run a free workshop for such kids on Sundays. When they become carpenters and a source of income for their families..they will thank me directly, but will also thank you indirectly.’

This 30-year old illiterate carpenter has figured out how to leave his legacy…Have we?

Maid in India : The "bai" wisdom (Part 1)

If you are a nuclear family living in the expat suburbs of India, just succumb to the fact that the bais are taking over. They are surely ruling your minds..practically ruling your homes..and I’m thinking if they put their mind to it, they could be ruling the nation (esp. in lieu of the gaping holes created by our current political parties).

And by bais here, I mean the domestic help available in the form of maids, nannies, drivers, cooks, dog-walkers, car-washers and helpers for any other chores that the upper-middle/rich in India can afford to offload. There’s a secret why we are the Outsource Capital of the world. We, in turn, are outsourcing our mundane jobs to the “bais”.

Todays bais have understood their role in the life of an Indian household and in this cycle of wealth-creation. Sometimes they manipulate, sometimes they use this knowledge as a shield for their own basic rights. Just a side-note for those double-incomed, quality-time starved couples, forget talking about finances or buying that fancy car while car-pooling to work..cos there’s a driver in the front seat, thats adding up all these figures and calculating how much share of that can be safely assumed as a salary raise in the next cycle.
Actually bais have an uncognitive dissonance for money, which makes them all the more unique. While they are always eager for the next higher-paying opportunity, they can also leave a job bcos the boss doesnt salute back, or asks too many questions or talks too little. My 3+ year tenure in India as a homemaker is filled with such “bai” experiences that I feel well-equiped to write a book on “Maid Management”. I believe the sueder MBA programs would surely embrace it. But thought of starting with a blog first.

‘You have it easy, dont you?’..says my coming-of-age 17-year old full-time nanny/maid one day. Rationalizing around how hard it has been through one undergrad degree, two post-grad degrees, three job changes, and just surviving in the rat-race wont help. To her, materialistic comforts are the only yardstick of easiness of life. So you can either abandon the worldy goods or make her a shareholder in the materialistic pleasures. After a minute of introspection and juggling with options, I say ‘Maybe..but dont worry you have it easy too’.

The part-timer on the other hand (Pls. dont get envious folks…you dont get a full-timer in the elite condos of Gurgaon without selling her on the fact that there’s a part-timer doing the “ground” work), refuses to eat anything that has been in the fridge for more than few hours…You could lay fancy desserts or other culinary delites, but the answer remains, ‘Hamare yahan to taaza hi khate hai!’ ‘I only eat fresh food!’ You’re better off puttng some extra pounds on you, rather than convincing her out of her perceived notion of edibility (which is likely governed by the fridgeless world she comes from.).

And between the two of them, there’s always a relative that is sick or will become sick in a week’s time. Perfect excuse for a day off. I now understand why the smarter homemakers always have their speed-dials filled with back-up bais numbers.

And of course, where there are maids, there are maid issues.
If your bais are too friendly, you are worried. If they are not, you are doomed. Everyday you get to partake in the “give-and-take” of verbal innuendos and political tactics that would put politicians to shame. Lo and behold if you decide to take sides, dont just use fairness as a criteria for conflict resolution, cos there’s hierarchy that needs to be respected. A full-timer obviously commands more respect and listening power than a part-timer. And if you cant handle it all, seriously consider hiring a “head-maid” to manage the maids. Delegate the dirty work, as they say!

All said and done..”bai” is an essential commodity..And since you’ve put your MBA trained mind in doing the cost-benefit analysis of retaining vs. hiring new ones, you are constantly trying to figure out ways to survive and sustain a “bai” beyond a few months..

My husband’s advice of doing “A one-minute manager” on them rarely works. They get inflated with praises..but get defensive with the criticism, however short and sweet it is.

Giving them ownership and sense of responsibility only partially helps. Believe me, I have tried that too..with mixed results.
While the living room gets dustfree everyday without my nudging, it has been rearranged according to my maids taste. While the fridge is never empty, its invariably filled with goodies that her taste buds appeal to. And while the wardrobe is neatly arranged, my fashion sense is scorned off at many such cleaning sessions.

The single effective way I seem to have sustained mine is through a barter of services. Her obsession with the English language (Thank You Western World) has fortunately come to rescue. Speaking English signifies freedom to her..and I’ve become the key to her path of success. But when she learns English..what then? Computer skills as a selling tactic maybe?!. :-/

ps. Let me leave you with a classic bai QOTD ‘tension lene ka nai, tension dene ka!’ ‘I dont take tension/stress, I give tension!’

Viva la Goa

I’ve been to Goa before..but it has been for work conferences that invariably happen in the posh resorts of South Goa. So our impromptu plans to go to North Goa for the Good Friday weekend created much excitement. And true to my belief, both North and South Goa offer a very different experience. While South Goa is swanky and secluded, North Goa has character.

Of course, for a Gurgaonite, the weather is the first thing that puts you at ease (or shall we say, the holiday mood). There is surely something in the air. And couple that with the lush green foliage and the Arabian sea playing hide-and-seek with your sight, you already starting to have pleasant thoughts of the days to follow.

I couldnt fail but to notice the portugese influence during our long ride to the hotel. (Btw, they really need to figure out a better location for the airport, it really is in the middle of nowhere, at least from a tourist’s point of view)…Portuguese style churches and houses sprawled across ghettos of palm trees and pasturelands. But what portuguese..it appears that the russians are trying to conquer Goa these days. Every other road sign we saw had a Russian translated footnote.

One hour later we reach the destination. After oogling over our resort and a customary dip in the pool, we headed to the world-famous “Tito’s lane” in Calungate. Just for the dance-challenged and similar nerdy clan, Titos is not just a nightclub..its a cult in its own right, with followers across the globe. But with a child in arm and no dancing shoes on our feet, we decided to settle for an equally uber-cool joint across the street called “Fiesta”..(based on a reliable recommendation). With an ambience so romantic, and food that transpose you to the hole-in-the-wall eateries in Rome, needless to say, we had a great evening.

The second day was spent in kid-friendly beachy stuff: sunbathing at Candolim beach, Dolphin-watching cruising at Sinquerim beach, sight-seeing at Fort Aguada, alongwith tasting local cuisine at The Plaintain Leaf, drinks at the Fort Aguada Taj followed by another lovely italian dinner at Mamma Mias. (What to do? My kid has an insatiable appetite for pasta!). Btw, one thing I have to give it to the Goans, they know how to do their food and drinks right. All the meals were a pleasure-trip for our taste buds so far.

The next day was reserved for water-sports. So Baga Beach it was! Where else can you get a combo deal (includes para-sailing, banana-boat ride, sea-tubing) under Rs. 1000? Btw, dont think you were ripped off if you’ve paid twice the amount for similar stuff before. This is the Gujju group negotiation skills put into use..i.e. we could only pull it off bcos we were in the company of another Gujju family..Pls. dont attempt such bargaining unless you’re a group of Gujjus or can fake looking like one!

But I digress. Anywho, for the thrill-seekers, I recommend the banana-boat ride. This is where you are seated on a banana-shaped inflated log that is being tied to a motorboat. Once you are in the middle of the sea getting zoomed at ~80km/hr, they decide to invert the log, toppling you into the sea. Sheer Adrenalin-rush!

By now, if you’ve started wondering, ‘But isnt that what most beach destinations offer?’, you’re probably justified in your thinking. But let me tell you whats so strikingly different about Goa. Its the commingling of cultures at every level. Luxurious five star hotels co-exist harmoniously with roadside shacks. There are equal number of temples to visit as there are churches. Konkani lyrics jam melodiously with Western beats to create mesmerizing Goan music. And Goan people that have portuguese surnames, speak Konkani, follow Hindu traditions but are stark Catholics.

And finally, want to leave you with some “Only in Goa” sights/experiences:
Bitches on the beach (this is quite literally..pls refer to my FB potos for evidence.),
Bouncers on Blackberrys,
Waiters in the water,
The most stylish beach wear hanging on cheap roadside manacins,
Prisoners living in a fort (that too with a sea-facing view),
Petrol getting sold in Bisleri bottles (Recycling, the Goan way),
And last but not the least, the Goan airport security check…its really is a “lifetime” experience…Let me just leave it at that!

So Viva la Goa! Its guaranteed to show you something you’ve never seen before.