Regional Variations in Rent Seeking

March 25, 2010

In my post about lollipops and backup dancers, I made an offhand comment about the MNS trying to ensure that the Marathi manoos wasn’t done out of a fuckall low-paying job. But then I remembered Ravikiran’s point about the opportunities for graft in otherwise fuckall jobs; and how these are actually awesome gifts to give out. This then made me think about the different approaches our political parties take to economic development and corruption.

The MNS/ Shiv Sena: Demand low-skilled, low-wage jobs with scope for lots of black money for its votebank. Beat up North Indians who try to get in on the racket. They never even talk about opportunities to make really big money.

The BSP: Never talks about how its votebank will get money. Does not necessarily care. Never talks about how businesses will make money. Again, does not necessarily care. Makes sure that the party fund and Mayawati get money.

The Congress and BJP: The national parties have multiple approaches. First, they talk about and/ or implement fee cut in IITs and IIMs, reservation in central universities, or employment guarantee schemes that supposedly give the great unwashed masses access to the joys of yuppiedom. However given the incredibly small number of education seats, and the challenges in actually making it to Class 12 if you’re not above a certain wealth-level already, this basically works out to a lottery for the well-off-but-not-filthy-rich. Given the level of corruption in the NREGA, that’s a lottery for the poor as well. Meanwhile the finance minister will keep talking about reform without actually implementing any of the reports he commissioned. I’m talking Mistry, Rajan, and Kelkar here. In this atmosphere of talking reform but doing nothing, businesses bribe at the ministerial level and carry on. As a result, prosperity slowly trickles down.

The Akali Dal: It’s been a while since I was in Punjab, but ten years ago they were doing with water what America has only now started doing with finance: privatising gains and socialising losses. They announce free electricity for farmers, which basically means that the biggest and most politically well-connected farmers pump massive amounts of water, and get massive crops in the short-term. The water table drops and everyone gets fucked in the long-term. Industry dies because of power shortage. Instead of doing anything about this, sardars migrate to Canada and Australia.

The Janata Dal (Gowda version): Talk about farmers. Meanwhile, get your party members to buy up all their land. Get industrialists or real estate developers interested in said land. When they’ve committed to buying it, unleash a farmer’s agitation. Continue until said industrialists/ developers cough up the amount that will avoid breaking them. Simultaneously, give away iron ore mines in return for truckloads of money.

The DMK: Announce free bicycles, TV sets, stoves, and suchlike for everyone. Make sure everyone actually gets it. Collect a kickback on every such bicycle, TV set, stove, etc. Make your bureaucracy an efficient machine for acquiring land, developing industrial parks, and getting big ticket manufacturers and all their suppliers down south. Live off the the VAT generated by these people, while simultaneously ensuring that they buy their construction material, boiler fuel, and so on only from your party members at high prices. Bask in the manufacturing boom and the wealth and employment this generates.

Amazingly the DMK has managed to come up with rent-seeking behaviour that actually benefits both the people who vote for it and the people who finance it. It has become a perfect stationary bandit. Things are so good now that Tamland has high employment, and guest workers from North India have to be hired to to build Tamizh monuments, as long as they keep Hindi only for film songs and not to dominate other languages.

The implication is that Chennai is not, as writers of puff pieces would have it, the Detroit of India – after all Detroit is depopulating and its neighbourhoods are being taken over by wilderness – but the Dubai. Soon remittances shall flow out from Chennai. Soon, it will have a really big tower. The difference is, Chennai’s tower will have a cut-out on top of it.

Can’t a single working woman live in a city different from the one she belongs to?

February 4, 2010

I called a colleague in India for some work and this being the first time we spoke; he first expressed shock over the fact that I work in “China” and then asked me if I got married to shift here!! This is not the first time such a conversation took place and almost every time people assume that I moved outside my own city (Bombay) as I must have got married. Indian men are most likely assume that if a woman is not living in the city where her parents live or the city she is originally from; it must be because she is married and her husband is working in the new city.

The other day I called a junior of mine from b-school who like me is from Bombay and now lives and works in Bangalore and she was talking about these “narrow minded” men as well who assume that she must have got married and hence shifted to Bangalore. The sad part is when men from your business school; who may/may not have done as well as you academically and are doing a job similar to yours ASSUME that they can move cities for “better career prospects” but women would move only for husband’s better career prospects.

Talking about being “narrow minded”, one cant forget to mention some of the NRIs. Most Indian social gatherings (here in Shanghai) end up having the women together in one corner and all the men huddled up in another. During the couple of such gatherings I attended by mistake (once bitten, twice shy – now I just keep myself away); this is the kind of individual conversation I had with a handful of women:

Fellow desi nari: Haan ji, toh kahaa kaam karte hai aapke husband?

Me: Sorry; I am not married – yet.

Fellow desi nari: (in a surprised tone) Toh tum yehaa pe kya karti ho?

Me: (!!! thinking WTF) I work here; excuse me! (and move on with a smile to have a repeat of the same conversation with another desi nari.

So rampant is this assumption that now I actually feel like punching the next person who assumes that I shifted to Shanghai because I must have got married! GIVE ME A BREAK! I know how to live my life and don’t need a guy for that!

Thankfully there are some exceptions to the above rule (whom I count among friends and rightly so) wherein these people don’t assume stuff about others. I also know Indian men who have moved geographies to be where their wife is working. Unfortunately these constitute only a very small minority of Indian men! I have a theory that for a lot of Indian women; their own dreams, aspirations take a backseat when they get married (more so if the marriage is on insistence of parents, or for image in samaj etc) and these dreams are reborn as dreams for their children when the children are born – but more on this theory later.

In their new book; Superfreakonomics; Levitt and Dubner look at rates of women dropping out of work compared to men from a prestigious university and not surprisingly women drop out more and for more family related reasons then men do. This is true; no doubt. But does this make it the rule? Don’t ambitious women exist? And is it nice to assume that every woman who moves to a new city is doing so because of her husband/ family? I aspire to live and work in different cities around the world and I know many other women who do too. Problem is that men STILL expect women who are as smart; as qualified as them to not follow their dreams but go after their husband’s dreams instead – too bad it doesn’t cut ice with a lot of us!

p.s. I am not saying that only men should follow women; but they should not expect women to be the only ones to follow at all times! It’s a two way street, darling.

Which association do you belong to?

January 19, 2010

As an Indian working in Shanghai for over 1.5 years now; running into fellow Indians in the city is quite common. What irks me is the way in which these encounters take place most of the time. The moment another Indian spots you, he/ she starts classifying you in his/ her mind. So a conversation between two Indians transpires in the following manner:

Indian1: Are you from India? (This is important as all South Asians look the same)
Indian 2: Yes, you too?
Indian 1: (smiles) which part of India are you from?
Indian 2: Bombay
Indian 1: Oh, you must be a Maharashtrian; are you part of the Marathi association? I am a Bengali and we are having Durga Puja this week in the Bengali association.
Indian 2: (a bit surprised at the assumption) that’s good; I am not Maharashtrian
Indian 1: (losing patience in the hurry to stereotype) Well then, what are you?
Indian 2: (very tempted to say “I am Indian” knowing that’s not the answer expected) My mother is from Madhya Pradesh and father is a Gujarati from Bombay
Indian 1: Well, that makes you Gujarati! (in an authoritative tone)
Indian 2: If you insist
Indian 1: Then you must join the Gujarati association; heard they have dandiya nights, etc.
Indian 2: (wondering how to explain to Indian 1 that I see myself as Indian and don’t believe in these community associations) Well actually I don’t know how to play dandiya; my friends laugh when I speak Gujarati; I have visited Gujarat only once to see IIMA and my last boyfriend was South Indian!
Indian 1: (not giving up yet) well in that case you may like the South Indian association, Tamil Sangammam, etc
Indian 2: (quite irritated by now at the persistence of the other person to stereotype) Ok, I got to run now; nice meeting you!

I realize how different my family is when I come across these desis who are hell bent on categorizing people as Sindhi, Punjabi, Kashmiri, Bengali, Maharashtrian, Tamilians, Malayalis, Gujaratis, and so on. Why can’t we all be just Indian? And the rate at which the other person (9 out of 10 times) tries to classify you is not funny. Kudos to all those who are marrying people from different parts of India and who speak different languages – this is the surest way to national integration! And it’s high time to have an association for NRIs that says “We are all Indians”.

Also an embarrassing situation occurred when, during a dinner conversation with people from different nationalities; a fellow Indian took it upon herself to explain to the non-desis present there as to how according to her, people from North India are white and people from South India are black!!! I couldn’t believe what I was hearing and asked this lady (who is from Kashmir and in her own words, the fairest of all in India) whether she knew that Hema Malini, Aishwarya Rai and many other beautiful and “fair” women in India are South Indians. And she confessed that she didn’t know that Aishwarya Rai is South Indian and then fumbled to give some excuse like she meant people living in South India, etc. Also, she asked me whether I am South Indian and hence offended by this comment. To which I told her I don’t like discrimination on the basis of skin color. Reflecting on this I realized that coming from a family where each member has different levels of melanin, it’s a non-issue for us. While I don’t want to get into skin color and what influences the same; my point is why should we be so stereotypical – aren’t we all Indians? Or is genetics and melanin content going to divide us? In a nation obsessed with fair/ white skin and where matrimonial columns are full of “wanted tall, fair, homely girl”; Aishwarya Rai did the right thing by refusing to endorse a whitening range for L’oreal.

On the whole, the North/ South India divide is the strongest I have seen with people from rest of India calling everyone who lives South of Vindhyas as Madrasis. (I have yet to come across a reverse case wherein everyone who lives in North India could be referred to as a Punjabi for example). Wouldn’t it help if we all were able to accept the others as they are with the differences and actually celebrate the differences instead of using them to draw lines, distinguish and put the other person down? In that sense; to me Bombay has been very cosmopolitan and when I now interact with people from other parts of India; I realize that the regionalism is much stronger in their case. (I know a lot of people would say the “Bombaite” is one stereotype on its own).

There is yet another Indian stereotype around working as a single Indian woman in a city one doesn’t belong to; but I shall leave that for next time.

And the next time another Indian asks me if I am from India, I guess I will think twice before answering as I know what lies ahead!!

P.S. I could write about a lot more instances but just want to highlight the way we think, the regionalism many times being stronger than nationalism!

China’s biggest import and India’s biggest export!

November 8, 2009

China’s biggest import is not commodities from Africa or India but human resource, especially in the big cities. From executives in MNCs to teachers, waiters, chefs, bartenders, musicians, artists, yoga teachers to businessmen, restaurateurs – foreigners can be seen working everywhere in China. Most MNCs have highest number of expats working in China among all geographies they are present in. This is because of two main reasons – China’s booming market (while there is a slowdown in most other parts of the world) and lack of local managerial talent in the middle kingdom. A few articles here illustrate the point:
It’s almost like China opening its doors to foreigners and saying “come and partake in the growth story”.

In most cases, foreigners who come to China either love it or hate it – it’s very rare that one would be indifferent towards this country! Generally, once one overcomes the basic culture shock, it actually translates to a better life with lower cost of living (the best part is that alcohol can be procured very cheaply), services of ayis (maids) and chauffeurs available for a reasonable amount, cheap takeaways (specially if one likes Chinese food) and good basic infrastructure; specially for a westerner.

The number of foreigners learning Chinese around the world is estimated to be around 40 million.
Why, even IIMA has students learning Chinese now, eager to explore job opportunities in the fastest growing country in the world. ( Jim Rogers has a Chinese nanny for his kids as he wants them to learn Chinese. In fact according to Jim Rogers, the 19th century was the era of the British Empire and the 20th century was the U.S.’ heyday. But the 21st century is China’s. So while we Indians pride ourselves on our knowledge of the queen’s language; mandarin seems to be the language of the future. (I will write separately on the language bit in detail).

Now contrast this with India, which has always been very good with exporting people but not so good at importing them. Indians travel well, adapt well, and the Indian Diaspora is well spread across the world. But is India open to foreigners – Bangalore has come known to be as the most expat friendly city in India. The local Bangaloreans have a problem with the IT culture; wonder what they have to say about their city being most preferred city of foreigners in India. Take the commercial capital of India, Mumbai or Bombay as I like to call it – as per 2008 data there were 4000 expats (including returning NRIs/ PIOs) living and working in Bombay (number of foreigners living and working in Shanghai was estimated to be more than 68,000 in end of 2008). Of course, the normal response to this as a proud Indian would be that India has a vast talent pool; we have Indians heading global businesses; so why would we need foreigners working in India. But the other way to look at this is having foreigners working in the country helps add to diversity and internationalize the work place. But alas, for the living and working conditions in India are not conducive to most foreigners – as there is no life in the work-life balance in India; especially in cities like Mumbai. The lack of basic infrastructure – housing, comfortable public transport, good roads (especially in Bombay) makes life quite difficult for someone used to good infrastructure as a given. Not surprisingly, the foreigners don’t exactly feel at home working in India as much as they do working in China.

Dispelling the biggest myth about China – FOOD

September 3, 2009

Every other day I happen to speak to a colleague, acquaintance, long lost friend and when I tell them that I work in China the reaction invariably is “China; are you vegetarian? – it must be terrible for you there” or worse still “Are you eating cockroaches and lizards every day?” And this comment is invariably from people who have never visited China. For one to think that everyone in China eats lizards and cockroaches is akin to someone who would watch Slumdog Millionaire and think every Indian lives in a slum and has to beg for a living! I am writing this merely to highlight the reality in China today in terms of food. For most of the world and more so for India (in spite of being a neighbour), China remains an unravelled mystery.

When I visited China for the first time on a short trip, I came here with an open mind, not expecting anything but not carrying the notions that some of my friends/ acquaintances in India have about China. Born to a Brahmin mother and Jain father, I am vegetarian by birth and now by choice – and not because of religious reasons. I don’t mind sharing my table with people eating meat or having my food made in same utensils used for cooking meat and I don’t eat meat simply because I don’t like the taste. And it’s not that I have to eat only Indian vegetarian – I like all cuisines, as long as its non meat dishes.

When I came to live in Shanghai, It took me all of 2 weeks, speaking to some Indian acquaintances and some googling to figure out the following about Shanghai:

• There are more than 30 Indian restaurants in Shanghai and growing by the day (the Indian consulate website also provides details of Indian restaurants in China)
• There are hazaar American, Italian, Mexican restaurants with some good vegetarian options on their menu
• Most Chinese restaurants make vegetable fried rice, stir fried broccoli, Chinese cabbage, stir fried vegetable with mushroom, braised eggplant, spinach etc (In fact the Chinese also make spring onion chapatti and call it “congyoubing”)
• In Shanghai, there are more than 3 (that I know of) independent Indian chefs – who provide a dabbawala kind of service depending on which area one lives/ works in (Jain food also available)
• There are Indian grocery stores wherein one gets everything from basmati rice to all kinds of pulses, spices to desi daru
• There are Buddhist vegetarian restaurants where people who don’t eat meat but like the taste get mushroom/ soybean dishes cooked to taste like meat

Other cities like Beijing, Hangzhou, Suzhou have Indian restaurants; in fact Yiwu (frequented by lot of Indian businessmen) has a pure vegetarian Indian restaurant.

So one may think what about all those emails floating around showing pictures of lizards, cockroaches, and various insects sold as street food in China. Well, yes, those do exist but very rarely have I seen any of my Chinese friends or colleagues eating that and it surely is not available everywhere – I can’t find a single such place anywhere near my office or house in Shanghai. I know of the food stalls near Wanfujing walking street in Beijing and that is the only place in China where I have seen the insects being sold. Also, I am told that in interiors of China, rural China, especially in the south, people eat more “exotic” stuff including monkey, cat and dog. But in Shanghai; KFC, McDonald’s are surely more frequented than the roadside food stalls.

Let us understand why some people in China eat this “exotic” or “weird” or “unusual” stuff in the first place. It is said that because of food shortage in the past, the people ate anything and everything to fill their stomach – it was a question of survival! Also when it comes to normal food like chicken, it’s the Chinese style of preparation which is very different. For example, Chicken feet are eaten and the chicken is normally not skinned – which may not be acceptable to most Indian meat eaters. However, this still does not warrant the 5 kg basmati rice and other food stuff most Indians carry along with them when they arrive in China – almost as if there is no food available here!

So if you are an Indian vegetarian or meat eater looking to visit China, please do so just as you would visit any other country in the world – without having notions about the food – as global cuisine is available in most of the big cities here.

Virtual Banks

August 27, 2009

Professor Jayanth Varma has posted his Financial Express oped on his blog, in which he tells us that a CDO is just a small bank, while a bank is a really big CDO:

In 2007, when the first problems emerged in CDOs, people thought that these relatively recent innovations were the cause of the problem. Pretty soon, we realised that a CDO is simply a bank that is small enough to fail and conversely that a bank is only a CDO that is too big to fail.

Both banks and CDOs are pools of assets financed by liabilities with various levels of seniority and subordination. As the assets suffer losses, the equity and junior debt get wiped out first, and ultimately (absent a bailout) even the senior tranches would be affected. In retrospect, both banks and CDOs had too thin layers of equity.

This is actually an incredibly strong insight. We are so used to thinking of a bank as an organisation and a CDO as an exotic security that it seems like a revelation when you realise that actually both have the same sort of balance sheets.

So if CDO’s weren’t the problem, what was? Bad credit practices in general. That said practices were probably caused by too much cheap money sloshing around is left unsaid.

It is becoming clear that what the US is witnessing is an old-fashioned banking crisis in which loans go bad and therefore banks become insolvent and need to be bailed out. The whole focus on securitisation was a red herring. The main reason why securitisation hogged the limelight in the early stages was because the stringent accounting requirements for securities made losses there visible early.

Potential losses on loans could be hidden and ignored for several quarters until they actually began to default. Losses on securities had to be recognised the moment the market started thinking that they may default sometime in the future. Securitised assets were thus the canary in the mine that warned us of problems lying ahead.

So basically, the exotic instruments were symptoms and not the disease. I’d add here that securitising mortgages into CDOs rather than pure pass-through certificates probably created an extra level of complexity, though.

Ajay Shah often talks about how financing through exchange driven markets (whether for bonds or equity) is preferable to financing through banks which are forced to deal with much more illiquid levels of risk. If you accept that as a basic assumption, then if a CDO is a virtual bank, it represents a throwback in the evolution of finance. Oh dear.

The problem is that investment banks were still able to create and sell CDOs rather than selling a simple package of pass-through certificates on mortgage-backed-securities. Hopefully, this is a generational thing that will die out soon – now that every chhappar in the world is getting an MBA, a CFA, and at least a basic knowledge of financial instruments, the power that investment banks have over purchasers of securities may dissipate once this glut of finance professionals starts trickling into treasury and fund management offices where they can do their own structuring, dammit.

Of course, the stranglehold that I-banks have over issuing securities is unlikely to go away. So we should have strong regulations to ensure that they only sell vanilla products and the customers do their own structuring.

Before I forget, do read the whole thing, especially for the last few paras, where Prof Varma talks about why we should embrace securitisation and the advantages it has given to American consumers.

Of Chinese love for cute things, of shanghainese men and of Chinese babies & nappies

August 20, 2009

Wanted to post this for a long time now; but travel, viral infection and lack of photographic evidence delayed the same. Since the travel is not going to slowdown, I decided to go ahead and post this and add photographs later.

Let me start with the Chinese love for all cute things – before which I may add that the Chinese people themselves are very cute and endearing for their Barbie doll personalities; specially the women. There is something about the Chinese and their love for soft toys, baby doll dresses, cute clips, hair bands, bling bags, cartoon character car seat covers – the list is endless. While this by itself is not surprising, what stands out is the fact that it’s not just the teenagers who are hooked onto the cute stuff but even their moms. So it’s normal to see a 40 something Chinese lady with a cute pink teddy bear hanging from her mobile phone (which may also be pink) and driving a car which has tweety car seat cushions and her office cubicle will be full of cute little soft toys. Also she would be wearing a baby doll dress with purple mascara or in some cases purple highlights to the hair. Her laptop bag may again be a very girly bag with some cartoon character and she may wear pink or violet sandals. Now, before you get me wrong, I must highlight the point I am trying to make here – The 40 something Chinese woman can carry all this off! Can you ever imagine the average 40 something Indian woman in a baby doll dress with stuff she would buy for her kids? (While our 40 something heroes are in some cases able to carry off a college boy look complete with pink tees, actresses at that age are only offered “maa/ bhabhi” roles). And then you hear people saying how it’s not easy to determine the age of the Chinese – that because they really don’t age; mentally at least.

Now having spoken about the women let me dwell on the average Shanghainese man. He is the perfect husband/ boyfriend every woman dreams of having – It is said that the average Shanghainese man treats his woman like royalty bringing her breakfast in bed, to carrying all her bags (yes including her most feminine handbags) to taking care of the kid. In fact, it is said that the men in rest of China make fun of the Shanghainese men for being so effeminate. But, nothing seems to faze the Shanghainese guy and all over the city, one can see the guy following the girl obediently or walking next to her carrying her LV/ D & G/ Prada handbag (fake one in most cases). I have been told that in some cases this royal treatment is also meted out to the girlfriend/ wife’s parents and the Shanghainese man excels at not just cooking but other household chores too. Now if only Indian men were to take some inspiration from the Shanghainese men (ok, except the handbag carrying part as that can be really effeminate).

And this brings me to the most intriguing thing about China – the aversion to use nappies for babies! The first time I saw a Chinese kid moving around I thought that this kid must belong to such a poor family that he has to wear torn clothes. But it’s only when I saw almost every kid roams around with no nappy and a slit in his trousers/ pants to facilitate parents to help them pee/ poo that I realized that this is the norm here. Unfortunately I don’t have a photograph right now, but will soon be posting one as in this case the adage “A picture is a thousand words” does hold true. I would say one of the most difficult jobs in China would be that of the marketing head of these diaper manufacturing companies. I have also heard expat friends with babies receiving “torn” clothes as gifts as the baby clothes in most local places here come with a slit! Can you imagine how lazy must be the person who invented this slit in the first place!

(Disclaimer – the writer is NOT looking to have a Shanghainese boyfriend/ husband)


August 8, 2009

Language… has created the word “loneliness” to express the pain of being alone. And it has created the word “solitude” to express the glory of being alone. ~Paul Johannes Tillich, The Eternal Now
My house in Bombay is in the centre of action with a children’s garden, wedding hall and some popular south Indian restaurants in the neighbourhood. Unsurprisingly, for a city that never sleeps, there is never any time when there is no traffic and no noise. Even at 1 am I could walk down 20 steps to find the road side pau bhaji wala and juice centres; all doing roaring business and buzzing with people, energy and activity. Dadar station is the closest “fast” station on the western line to my house. There would be very few places in the world as crowded and chaotic as Dadar station. People visiting Bombay for the first time tend to get overwhelmed at the sight of the crowds running like their life depends on the last local; particularly at the big stations like Churchgate, VT, Dadar, etc. For Bombaites it’s a way of life – we know it no other way. Most of us have taken the last train home and also spent times painting the town red till 6 am such that we reach home when the doodhwala arrives.
So when I got to Shanghai and realized I could live on either side of the river – Puxi, which in energy and spirit reminds me of Bombay or Pudong, which is the quieter commercial and residential area; i surprised myself by choosing to live in Pudong. Not because I wanted to be close to work (as I travel 45 mins to work one way) but because I wanted to experience what one rarely gets in Bombay – SOLITUDE! I live in an area called Jinqiao which seems completely surreal to me – my building apartment stands in the middle of long alleys with trees on both sides; shops are so in descript one would barely notice them and though there are lot of people who live here, one never gets to see them. There is a Carrefour and community centre at a 10 minute walking distance – this place is frequented by people of so many different nationalities – it seems like a complete melting pot where the world has come together. It’s a congregation of a different kind and seems quite unreal.
A friend from Puxi recently visited me and she was so shocked at the tranquillity and stillness of the surroundings. She asked me how come I don’t feel scared living alone in such a quiet area. That’s when I realized that though initially the solitude had seemed very new to me; I had come to embrace it and like it in more ways than one. There are no screeching, honking, music blasting cars here. I have neighbours but never feel their presence. Of course there is no shaadi ka band bajaa which I am so used to (since I have a marriage hall right next to my house back home). The only time I remember hearing sound in my surroundings was when the Chinese New Year was being celebrated with fireworks. Otherwise the serenity and calmness is lovely – it’s quite something to be able to hear the sound of rain with no other sounds to dilute the effect. I wish I could walk into my balcony and have a sea or beach view – what I have instead is an artificial lake and villas for a view. This quietude has had amazing effect on me; making me reflect, introspect and even change a lot. I am getting so used to this that today when I speak to family and friends back home and can hear the loud traffic in the back ground, I find that disturbing enough for me to tell them to speak to me when they are in a quieter place. Truly such peace and quiet is difficult (and expensive) to get in Bombay – and that makes me value this even more!

The Indian mentality towards marriage

July 30, 2009

My mom was doing her grocery shopping and ran into an old acquaintance who normally wouldn’t talk more than a “kem chho” (how are you) but this time was very excited to share the good news of her daughter’s marriage to a “NRI chokro” (Non resident Indian bridegroom). After my mom congratulated her, she started questioning my mom about me. When my mom told her about my single status, she expressed shock and anguish almost as if she heard that I was diagnosed with swine flu or something much worse. My mom, by now a pro at this, told her that she doesn’t view it as a problem and that marriage will happen if and when it has to. But you see; to most Indian mothers, getting their daughters married off is like a B-school placement – so if you don’t get placed in slot 0 or slot 1, there has to be something terribly wrong with you. My only problem with this thinking is while you can get companies to come on campus according to slots, you don’t necessarily meet the right men early on; i.e. slot 0 or slot 1.

If one believes in the “six degrees of separation” theory, then the right person for each one should not be more than 6 degrees away – i.e. your friend’s friend’s friend’s friend’s friend could be the right one for you. But in reality meeting that right person may take ages. And what if you marry the person you think is right and then meet the right person – ouch, absolute disaster! In most parts of the world, you marry IF and WHEN you want to marry and if things don’t work out, you go your separate ways. But in India, you are almost pressurized to marry because your parents or extended family wants you to marry. If you are among the lucky ones like me, wherein your parents have left it to you when you want to marry, it still doesn’t signal the end of problems – because there is an entire army of people there right from that old family friend to the relative of your neighbor to the sister in law of your aunt who have all taken it up on themselves to find you the right person!

Things can get so irritating that after a point one may stop attending marriages of cousins, social functions to avoid the inevitable question – “beta, lagan kyare karavane che?”(When will you get married?) A simpler solution would probably be to smile and say “time che” (there is still time for that) but then you run the risk of being viewed as too western, too modern, too rebellious, etc, etc. While I get away with all this not even being present at most such occasions, it’s my mom who charmingly fields all this questions – so sweet of her.

While it is still understandable to expect the older generation to think in a certain way, what surprises me is that some of my girl friends after getting married started assuming some kind of superiority over me because of their marital status. While one is tempted to laugh at such idiocy, a single friend recently captured this very well when she said “all my friends who are in relationships or marriage have problems while I get to enjoy my life on my own terms, in fact I feel they are jealous of my single status” – well, the grass is always greener on the other side. My only contention here is it’s unfair to judge people based on their marital status and to believe that it’s customary to be married by a certain age or else it’s an aberration. Its time we let people be!

So while we send the Chandrayaan to the moon, make the maximum number of movies in the world, excel in software; I still wait for the day when we are able to break free of the stereotypes of marriage and age to get married at!!

Busna Ae Haseeno!

July 29, 2009

A bus ride in Shanghai.
It was late in the evening and the bus was amazingly crowded, but I got in nevertheless. There was hardly any space and it was difficult not to step onto each other’s toes. While standing there, trying to balance myself in the midst of a lot of local Chinese; it struck me how I would never be able to travel in as crowded a bus in India with such ease. Earlier in the evening, I had read about the stripping incident in Patna in broad daylight. A 2006 report by the National Crime Records Bureau said in India a woman is raped every half hour and is killed every 75 minutes. And considering that only one in 10 rape cases get reported, the actual statistics would be mind numbing. Also, almost every woman in India would have experienced some form of leching, eve teasing, etc. When I pointed out to a friend that Chinese men don’t even look, forget staring, leching, eve teasing, bottom pinching, etc; he said it may be because they are careful when dealing with foreigners. This led me to discuss this with a few of my local Chinese female friends who also confirmed that they have never felt a man stare at them or try to misbehave while walking on the road or using public transport. This is in fact one of the cities wherein a woman feels safe unescorted even at 3 am. Another friend jokingly speculated on the testosterone levels of the Chinese males. I dismissed this logic immediately as to me the reason for the Chinese men being so well behaved and decent is largely attributed to the fact that there is more respect for women; percentage of working women much higher compared to India and the society here is more open in terms of acceptance of women as equals.There is an equal amount of pride in culture , civilization & ways of the past. However there are no taboos on sex, sleaze & porn. There is also a certain degree of openness about sex and u wont find too many people gawping when couples snuggle in the open. Nor will you find too many self proclaimed guardians of moral values of society who abhor ‘promiscuity’ of any kind and are a law unto themselves.
And this brings me back to the experience of my firang friends in India; most non-Indian women friends of mine have shared with me how they feel unsafe to walk on the road in one of the supposedly safest cities of India, Bombay. In fact, in India tourists are often soft targets. So while I enjoy the bus rides here, I wait for a day when I can board a bus anywhere in India without hesitation!