Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Firmly On the Beaten Path in New Delhi

A stop at the ultra-Western restaurant and bar Q'BA (kuba) brings this author face to face with the reality of a rapidly emerging middle class in India, and an unexpected understanding of a country on a cultural cusp.

When I shot the Indian episodes of The Peregrine Dame in 2008, I hadn't really planned to cover New Delhi. The plan was to head into the Himalayan hills and spend most of the tape on a Hindu ashram near Dwarahat making a pilgrimage to a Yogi's cave in the middle of nowhere. I ended up filming just enough of the city to cobble an episode or two together, and then most of it was just a bitch-fest.

I had been in relatively poor countries before. But I was utterly unprepared for the poverty in the large cities in India. The filth, the stench, the endless peddlers, shopkeepers, and beggars made my head swim.

I had no idea of the corruption running through most levels of government there and wondered why dozens of seemingly able-bodied men sat idly on curbs all day long without jobs. I had never seen that kind of over-population before; nor did I understand the consequences of it.

Before India I thought I was an accepting, understanding human being. Being there brought me squarely around to my own ethnocentric, arrogant reflection in the mirror.

But just as startling and perhaps equally big an eye-opener, was the juxtaposition of this mash of abject poverty and misery against the hyper-Westernized culture that has permeated the subcontinent for decades and that young Indians have embraced with such enthusiasm that a few places made me feel as if I was right back at home in Los Angeles. After all, the nightclub in the Marriott charged $25 a head to get in, with an endless line of well-heeled Indians handing over the rupees as if they were pieces of tissue paper. I don't even pay that in L.A. to get into a club.

The evidence of British systems of government and education are apparent everywhere. English is the official language of the Indian government to this day. Many city-dwellers, especially the younger ones, speak at least two languages, English with an Indo-British accent being one.

So I don't know why I was taken so off guard when I walked into Q'BA.

I had been invited there by a guy about my age that I'd run into a couple of times around the area my hotel was in (I'm not sure I wasn't being stalked).

I wandered around Caughnaught Place, the main tourist hub that's also popular with New Delhi Yuppies, for 20 minutes searching in vain for a place called Cuba. Finally seeing the sign at the entrance - which I'd walked past twice - was a real head smacking moment.

The boy, a drop-dead gorgeous 20-something sophisticate who spoke perfect English, wore only designer labels, and drove a Mercedes had been educated in Europe and now worked for his father in some family business or other. I don't know, it was hard to pay attention to what he said when I just wanted to stare at his face.

Although even that was hard when I was completely distracted by the fact that Q'BA was an entire hemisphere away from life outside.


I finally realized that this was what modern India was. An unapologetic sprint into the 21st Century; poverty be damned.

The patrons in this chic fusion restaurant and bar had money. A few blocks away were streets made of mud with cattle lying all over the place, open sewers, and people living in things that didn't even qualify as shacks. Here the sleek business set sipped happy hour drinks in three piece suits next to the Anglo tourists who came in because they found out the place was air-conditioned. It was lounge-y in the evening. At night, there was live music of all genres and the tragically hip got even hipper.

I was ambivalent. On the one hand I felt at home because, well, it felt like home. Paying $10 for a glass of wine in L.A. is just a matter of course (but here?).

On the other hand, I felt slightly guilty for being one of those Anglos who clearly wasn't hearty enough to take the extreme heat, humidity, and harassment out in the markets in stride. We slunk in with sheepish grins and melted onto the bar. I also felt guilty for stopping to enjoy myself for a second given the state of humanity right outside the door. But it didn't seem to bother the Yuppies, so, when in Rome . . . .



It was here I had one of the most profound conversations with anyone in India. Not the beautiful boy, but one of the waiters. He was in his mid-20s and had a good job. He was single and told me he wanted to be able to travel like I was sometime in his life. When I asked what was stopping him, he said his sister was.

I assumed something was wrong with her, and he had to physically care for her or support her. He explained that he had to take care of her, but not in the way I was thinking.

"She's not married," he said. "I have to take care of her for my parents because she's not married and they won't let me leave until she is."

He went on to tell me she was around his age, also had a good job, and was independent, by Indian standards. But it made no difference to his parents whether she could take care of herself or not. A male had to be around to look after her. If not a husband, then a brother.

This single moment finally made me understand why scores of young, well-educated Indians were lining up to shell out thousands of rupees to get into clubs in miniskirts and stilettos. At the risk of over-simplifying, it's their only outlet. A whole generation finally has the means and the knowledge that their parents never had to get out and travel and have their own experiences, but are still beholden to the traditions of a very strict social system. As Westernized as some aspects of Indian society have become, there is still what I would consider a stifling set of social rules that most still feel obliged to follow.

The ones like my date were the very fortunate. If we think the chasm between the truly rich and the very poor is a wide one in America, we ain't seen nothing yet. Now, in India the middle class is emerging so rapidly between the rich and the poor that it makes post WWII America look like the Bronze Age in terms of growth. And although India isn't the only country with deep cultural roots that puts immense emphasis on taking care of family - even being obligated to take care of family - it is one of the places that the traditions of the East and the culture of the West clash and at the same time fuse in such an amazing way that it just has to be experienced first hand.

There is beauty there, although you have to see it in and through the extremes of the two worlds, but the people are generally kind and warm and it's definitely worth watching to see where they'll go from here.

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