Cross Connections

In the markets of touristy Jaisalmer, you find, not economic trickle-down, but the global culture trickling down

Driving From Jodhpur to Jaisalmer through the stark empty road with open spaces on either side, and no visible economic activity for miles and miles, my husband asked in a worried tone, every 10 minutes, "How will trickle-down ever get here?" Until we got to Jaisalmer and saw the main street, which looked a lot better than Warden Road, Mumbai, where we live. All the hotels were lit up like the big buildings of Mumbai. Where we live. All the hotels were lit up like the big buildings of Mumbai on Maharashtra Day and Independence Day. So what's the occasion, we asked our escort. No occasion, he replied. It's must the tourist season. "But do you have enough electricity? Are there power cuts and inverters in my mother's house in Hyderabad. None at all, he replied. Earlier there were, but now there's plenty.

We stayed in a charming boutique hotel with a great view-but marketing hyperbole had obviously not trickled down here yet, so they called it a "mid-range" hotel. Had they replaced the Lux soap with a green transparent bar, they would have been all set for the label! But what really blew our minds was the encounter we had with local musicians, who were the dinner entertainment at the hotel.(S)he was the drag queen, a superb dancer with a troupe of gifted musicians with traditional instruments. When she balanced a flaming sword on her head, I involuntarily shuddered and said "be careful" in English. She looked me in the eye and said, in polished accents of Indian English, "Don't worry, I will." In fluent English, she later explained that the sword was from Egypt, used by belly dancers, and she had modified it to be able to add the flame "in order to go with the folk music effect"!

The table next to us had Australians and as she chatted with them, we figured she had been all over the world. At the end, she asked the assemblage of foreign tourists,

"Are you guys on Facebook, MySpace? You can keep in touch with me there."

The tour guide spoke English with a strange European accent though, Much like some of our well-travelled corporate big shots. He then said that he spoke French fluently, learnt it from tourists by writing the words and the pronunciation in Hindi. He couldn't read and write the language, he said, but he could speak it well. We then discovered lot of little kids in the markets who spoke Spanish, Italian, European-accented English, but couldn't read and write in any language, including their own. We figured that in a "we are like that only" manner, trickle-down had happened, only it wasn't the pure economic trickle-down that we were searching for, but global culture that was trickling down. And equally, the global Indian was being born, only not in the way we assumed it would be, and with many global Indian stereotypes.

NRIs are definitely one. Another it what my anthropologist NRI friend Arjun labeled as the RNI (Resident, Non Indian).RNIs are increasingly being seen amoung young Indians, identifiable by their westernized clothes, coloured hair and foreign-accented English, and the absence of any visible connect with Indian aam aadmi culture or mindset. They are also being seen in the corporate world, especially the worlds of finance and IT, where the belief is that the world is actually flat, and all mankind lives and thinks the same way since profit calculation is done the same way. I worried that maybe this was an early indicator of the emerging de-culturised global Indian. And that I needed to rethink my belief that the average Indian will always be a "this as well as that" amalgam, like cyber aaratis and computerized heroscope casting.

I agonized over it and the more I looked around me including the Jet Airways hostesses and their accented Hindi (another NRI friend said that this was the only country he knew where we mispronounce/ foreign-ise the names of our own cities). The television hosts, the young women executives at presentations, and so on, the more right he seemed to be. Then I went to the Mahalakshmi Mandir and saw the really handsome Labrador police sniffer dog with a big tilak on its forehead. His beaming young handler informed me that it also loves to eat prasad and does a very nice namaskar when led into the sanctum sanctorum, before doing its job of sniffing for explosives. The young lady cops were wearing trousers but had sneaked flowers into their hair for the festival season.

I often get asked by companies planning to enter India whether Indian consumers attach greater value to products of non-Indian origin. I tell them that once upon a time. "imported" was a powerful label that signified quality and uniqueness and hence status. But, now, consumers are agnostic of the origin of things, as long as the quality is good. Besides, we think everything we like is Indian, anyway. Like Chinese food and the English language.