Then & Now

7:30 AM

First, thanks you all for visiting my blog in the wake of the Interview on Madh Mama's blog. My blog statistics took to the roof, I hope many of you will become regular readers.

I have been keeping an eye on the comments on that interview. One person pointed out I was one of the oldest Indian expat blog around and came to India at a time it was still a challenge.

There is a lot of truth there. And it amuse me a little when I come accross people who just learned that I live in India and utter a surprised "Really? India???".

There is that idea that India is a though place to live in, where no one can possibly have a decent standard of living and basic things are hard to come by.
I'm not going to deny that it CAN be hard. And, if you live in smaller towns and rural area there are a lot of things that you won't come accross easily.
That said, big cities and metro are fairly cosmopolitan, and even without living on the short term expat company package, life can be good.
That part has always been there by the way. Contrary to what documentaries want you to believe, not everybody lives in tin sheets shanties with no running water or electricity.

But, a lot of things DID change in a decade. Things that could seem very trivial to non expats, but make a world of difference when you are trying to settle in this country without feeling too homesick or culture shocked.
Back in the days (boy do I sound old?), even cities were fairly concervative. Few were the ladies that were out of college wearing western wear. And if they did, it was formal office wear. It gradually got down to more jeans wearing and now many SAHM wear capri, or even shorts, if not skirts.

As an expat, I also used to get a lot lot more stares in 2003-2004 than I now get in 2015, be it in metros, or smaller towns. I still get them, but way less.

The biggest challenge any expat face. No matter where they come from, and where they relocate, is food. There are different degrees of food frustrations.
I know Indian expats in Europe have had a less though a time finding basics to cook Indian food than I had finding stuff to just cook one basic dish of pasta circa 2004.
Back in 2003 when I was still living in Switzerland I know for a fact that there was basic chutneys and spices available. My local supermarket even had papad making kits and finding garam masala or even dried curry leaves wasn't all that hard either (and wasn't even costlier than continental spices and herbs).

My lot in India was then sent into panic mode reading a recipe wondering where the hell parsley could even be available.
Scratch that, just finding pasta that didn't turn to mush while cooking them and didn't require you to sell your soul to the devil (or take a mortgage) was a quest worthy of the Holy Grail's.

For years, you could even forget the idea of finding any lettuce. It didn't exist in the market. I know some people who could have killed for a few leaves. Or, went to Subway or Mc D just to get the half handfuls of greens in an otherwise blah burger or sandwich...the things you stoop to just to get some of that homely comfort...
Don't get me wrong, Indian food is awesome, but when you come from another corner of the world, you end up missing certain things. The same way Indians abroad can't see themselves eating continental everyday.
So much so, that the day my local supermarket finally stocked 3-4 leaves of half soggy iceberg lettuce I was ecstatic. Who cares if these sad few leaves set me off 60 rupees? It was LETTUCE...I could finally get tossed green salad for lunch! This was in 2006, after 3 years of doing without.

These days, I can get a whole head of lettuce for that price, and not the iceberg kind (which is fairly bland and watery). Nope, I am talking arugula, romaine, oak leaves or frisée. Well some of them are even cheaper than that damned 60 rupees for a handful. Other things that didn't happen before 2006-2007 were regular access to mushrooms, cherry tomatoes, red radishes, italian basil, and dried continental herbs (fresh herbs came later).

Another thing that has been a big game changer is e-shopping. Many cities that still aren't super cosmopolitan can get access to items and even pantry food stuff via internet. Pots, pans, clothes, toys, quality home linens and home decor are all found on the major e-retail sites and delivered in most cities.
The question of where to buy what which litterally haunted me in my earlier year is no more. I know that if all fails, Amazon and Flipkart will come to my rescue.
The increased blood pressure and heart rate while reading an exotic recipe in Femina, or coming upon a craft project are well in the past.

Now, of course, there are things that still haven't changed much. Some people attempting to charge me 3 times the regular price for something simply because I look like a foreigner. Daily and frequent power cuts if you live anywhere outside Mumbai. And, of course dust, pollution, lazy and cheating maids, corruption and traffic jams...But, they are fairly manageable still.

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  1. Anonymous10:46 AM

    It is not just expats, Indians too have experienced this change. In the past twenty years, post-liberalized phase, we have actually traveled faster than we did in the past fifty years. The 1980s was as sleepy as it gets. It all started with the cable TV in 1990s during the gulf war. CNN was directly telecasting the gulf war into Indian homes. We would be amazed at the sight of american planes bombing Baghdad. It was brutal war but it seemed like video game to us. Then came Star TV and and music channels. Suddenly, we were part of the larger world. Speed of this change is such that if today's generation are told about the "sleepy 1980s" they would not believe it.

    The biggest change came with mobile phones. Compared to the time when only one person in the neighborhood had a phone that too because he was a government official to a time when everyone has phone was quiet spectacular. The only problem was that incoming was not free and ofcourse call rates were higher. Mobiles were thus exotic expensive equipment for those who could afford it. Internet too was slow and drab but fantastic. The mobile phones and internet actually brought change to different parts of India as dissemination of information became quicker.

    About clothes, very few western clothes were available for women. It was sari for women and salwar suits for girls. We could not think of women/girls wearing anything else. There are lots of women wearing different clothes, using makeup and in general the grooming of both men and women have improved. With the opening of the private sector, personal appearance has become important.

    I sometime think that if dinosaurs could write, what would they have written about the earth during their times. Alas, they did not survive to tell their story. We the children of 1980s, are the last of our kind . We are the bridge between the the old India and the new. We can see and appreciate the change without getting carried away. Past is always nostalgic and each generation is different but if the past is eroded and there efforts need to be made preserve it.

    BTW, got to see your family for the first time on Alexandra's blog. Congratulations.


    Perhaps, some day one of us would write and book "The Sleepy 80s" and tell today's generation about our times

    1. There is no doubt that things have change for everybody :-) I speak of expats because I am one, and because it is hard coming from one place and having taken certain things for granted and being suddenly in a place were pretty much nothing makes sense at first and you then realise that your ultimate comfort food dish cannot be made without spending 10 times the price you would have for it in your homeland.

      Mobiles were a massive luxury in Switzerland until the very late 90's, by then the only phone operator launched a prepaid plan, I think in 98 and people started considering giving it a try. I remember that back then, on the prepaid plans incoming calls were charged a fortune too. It was only in 2001 or 2002 that the communication prices went down enough, it was also the years you could get your handset for "free" or almost free if you comitted to take a postpaid plan of two years duration with one operator or the other. Though of course in the end you realise that that just charged you a handset at an EMI with interests and that for the total duration of that contract you can't change plans or operators or even cancel the contract. But yes for young adults and apprentices this was a good way to get the latest handsets nobody could afford otherwise.

      Internet was also something that took a lot of time to really take off in Europe and until 2002 people rarely went for DSL or ADSL, we were all on dial ups that cost a bomb and we would all connect past 10pm when the price of the unit was cut in half, or on occasion even free :-)

      Back to the expat thing, I know a lot of persons who are afraid to consider moving to India permanently because it is still perceived as backward with very little in the way of amenities. Which in cities is really not true at all.

    2. And I realise that while I posted a few pictures of me and my husband or me and Ishita on this blog, I indeed never shared a family picture until the interview on Madh Mama :-)
      We have so few of these, it is hard to find someone to trust with your camera to take a picture these days :-)

    3. Anonymous2:45 PM

      Exactly the same thing happened in India with mobile phones and internet. Initially, Tata did sell handsets on EMIs. We all remember the dial up internet connections. With Indian telephones it was very difficult.

      I am also reminded about our adventures with the black and white TV. In those days TVs came in a box with shutters which could be locked. Ours was broken by me much to the anger of my father. TV was actually such a wonderful creation at that time with so few people having it. It was connected to an antenna on the roof with a wire. During storms the antenna would go hay wire. Then one person would go the roof and adjust it to point it towards the TV tower, while constantly communicating with the person below. Colour TV was another giant leap and thing of great pride. It made neighbors envious of each other.

      Sometime in 1982 during the Asian Games in Delhi, Clour TV was introduced in India. Now, one could see the Republic Day Parade in colour and ofcourse blood was blood red instead of the greyish black thing with appeared on black and white TV. I now sometimes catch up on the old TV serials and wonder how much colour and details we missed on black and white tv. On top of it, the colour tv owner had to install a separate antenna so much so that you could make out which house had colour tv. The roof tops were full of old antennae. Back then colour tv was like car, it means you have arrived in life.

      Now, we have mobile phones with wi fi facilites which can play videos, movies and what not while on the move and we were fretting over a rickety antenna and cooper wire in those days. It also made us appreciate that you have to work for things in life. Now, we get irritated when the buffering on the youtube takes longer.

      About your family photo, there are only long shots of your husband and Ishita. Your marriage photos are also taken from a fair distance. This is probably the only clear picture that I have seen. I guess both of your are camera shy.


    4. Yep we are both a bit camera shy :-) we make up for that by having been Ishita's paparazzi as we have tons of pictures with just her.

      I remember my dad saying that the colour TV only really became affordable in the second half of the 70's in Switzerland, and I know that in the 80's some still had a black and white TV, not necessarily as their main TV anymore, but they could not bear to get rid of the old one just because it was black and white. We didn't throw working equipment away the way we casually discard stuff nowadays.
      In Switzerland houses didn't have the antena on the roof, but inside the attic if it was a house. For the reason that lighting storms could really do some damage to them. My grand Ma had two in the attic attached to the ceiling. When we used to play there on rainy days with my dad's old toys we used to pretend the antenas were space aliens spying on us :-)

      Oh and my grandparents generation had the TV cabinet with shutters too, you will find it in every homes of their generation. My parents did away with that and the TV of their generation and mine sits proudly in the middle of the living room. Reflecting on it, I think my grand parents had the right idea wanting to hide an ugly box in a cabinet when not in use. TV back then was for special moments, and when you had guests it would stay locked up. Now it seems our entire living rooms revolve around the TV.

  2. Anonymous12:42 AM

    Like apple pointed out, the change is really something for us natives as well. Mainly due to the LPG(liberalization privatization globalization) that India finally had to swallow in the early 90's without choice. Of course veteran economists worldwide say that India woke up too late, that is why it is forty years behind trying to catch up. Like China when once overpopulation was hindering its growth, today it is a huge asset to both nations playing a major role in boosting the country's economy. Is it any wonder that China beat U.S. in terms of GDP? Like they say human resource is the biggest asset any settlement can acquire. I've known not one but fourteen families just in my close friends circle who have relocated here willingly for a better life. It is quite strange to hear that from the very same people who left for the west more than a decade ago. India's I.T. industry the third largest in the world, the exports have increased drastically, followed by the banking sector which has employment growth rate go higher up the charts. Indeed the service sector is growing at an alarming rate. Of course there are still issues like corruption, communal violence, compulsory education in remote areas, etc. but that is another topic entirely. Yes, India is doing well. Very well.

    1. I think India is doing very well too. And is catching up really fast. Coming from the so called Developped West myself I can tell you that India is getting ahead of it. In Switzerland we have a really stagnating economy, the National debt is getting out of control, unemployment is something my generation has to deal with, and I am sure the Swiss Governement is corrupt too, it is just more hidden. In India at least it is in the open to see and to hopefully be able to change one day. No such chance in my homeland.
      In the 80's Switzerland wasn't that open to the world either. We had mostly local brands, and a few international ones. One of the two supermarket Giant in the country took pride in not having anything but their own brands in stores, the other giant retaliated by trying to get as many big labels as possible, but because there is no such thing as a MRP in Switzerland, people would not go buy a brand unless it was cheaper than other options. Even today, you can buy a branded pack of chips at different prices in different places. the supermarket that had I store brand exclusively did really well because they could price them cheaper and they spent a lot of time producing big brand equivalent products.
      I do remember Mc Donald's opening in the mid 80's in Geneva, it was costly, at par with family owned cafe offering lunch, and in fact still is. People then like now, treated it as a special treat rather than a daily thing. Now we of course all thing there are better places to spend your 17-18 CHF for a meal :-)
      Talking with my European friends, we all grew up in a rather concervative economy and market too. The big consumerism thing is an American concept. Even today Europeans are still very concervative in their spending habits compared to Americans.
      No idea if it is due to two world wars having ravaged the continent, but it could pretty much be responsible for our consumer mindset.

    2. Anonymous2:37 PM

      There was a time when india had little to offer to the world in economic terms. Yes spirituality, yoga and sitar were there. Then one day the world woke up to the fact that it is a huge market. Everyone wants to sell us something. India too understood that it can leverage it's economic advantage to get things done. Once the world had economic stake in india it became more favourable to it. We Are now building our diplomacy around our economy. This has helped us to keep troublesome neighbours like pakistan and China at bay.

      Pakistan is already the international centre for terrorism and China is trying to encircle us both in the Indian ocean and nibbling away at our boundaries. India must get all it neighbours on board counter pakistan and China. Thank god economic liberalisation has come at the right time for india. We can use our economy for the all around develop mentioned of south east Asia. The world today gives more importance to economy than military might.



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