There is a list that circulates among the Indian diaspora in New York, London, Singapore and Hong Kong. Usually bandied about between first-generation Indian NRIs with a sentimental streak of mind,compounded by a disconnect with the day-to-day realities of their erstwhile motherland, this list reveals itself on festive occasions—Diwali or Christmas parties, India Day celebrations and such—in the company of close friends, usually after a few drinks have been downed. It is improbable in its origin and clichéd in its output to the point where this list, much like India itself, becomes a metaphor for love, loss and longing for the homeland. It encapsulates the NRI image of an India frozen in time. I know this because I used to make such a list.
Chaos theory: Travelling third-class is a notion of home that emigrants cling to. Shahibaz Khan / PTI
“Yaar, let’s do India next winter,” the Punjabi investment banker will say as he surveys his $6 million (around Rs27 crore) Tribeca loft, after the champagne toast and Diwali mithai. “Let’s go by train. In third-class compartments. Just like we used to do in college.” His voice rises with enthusiasm.
“Let’s go unreserved,” his wife will add, adjusting her sequinned Tahiliani sari. “Let’s take the kids by unreserved. If Gandhi can do it, so can they.”
“Yeah, these kids are so spoilt. They have no clue about the real India,” someone will mutter.
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These people are sincere, not caricatures. They are completely unaware of the irony of their statements or the metaphorical distance between a Tribeca loft and Mahatma Gandhi’s unreserved train travel. In their heads, they are still the lean and hungry college students who came overseas to try their luck. They might make a life and living in Kensington, London; Nob Hill, San Francisco; Tribeca, New York; Orchard Road, Singapore; or The Peak, Hong Kong; but their minds haven’t caught up with their material success. Hence the list: travelling by unreserved compartments, eating mangoes, enjoying the monsoon, and going on summer vacation with parents and grandparents.
There are other things that make up the list and some are spectacularly regional: eating mungphali in the Delhi winter; listening to Bombay Jayashri at the Madras music academy during the season; heading to Zaffran restaurant at 4am after a night of carousing in the south Mumbai nightclubs; or biking through Cubbon Park at dawn when the flowering trees are in bloom.
Nostalgia is a funny thing. It usually involves simplicity—simple acts, inexpensive things. Even those with complicated childhoods distil their experience into the simplicity of skimming stones over water. NRI nostalgia in particular has little to do with the current status of the NRI in question. Indeed, the richer they get, the simpler their list seems to become: eating jowar rotis in the native village over a charcoal fire. Things like that. Eating chaat at Sea Lounge in Mumbai seems to be about as expensive as it gets. Unlike aspirational dreams which are about flying in private jets and buying couture, nostalgia is simplicity personified: buying trinkets at Colaba Causeway, chewing on masala peanuts from a cone-shaped newspaper on Marina or Juhu beach, drinking by-two coffee at the local Bangalorean darshini (roadside eatery), this is the stuff of nostalgia.
Paradoxically, many of the things that make up this nostalgic list do not exist any more. With the advent of online ticketing, few Indians need to travel unreserved. The monsoon is erratic and the Madras music academy is more political than it is musical. Mangoes remain heavenly as does the archetypal summer vacation.
I have just returned from a family vacation to Corbett and Binsar. We spanned the requisite three generations. My parents, my brother’s family and mine. Rather than camp out at the ancestral home, we went to Club Mahindra, and encountered other multigenerational families. Once we got past that jaded city slicker scepticism, it was hard not to connect to a youthful staff who epitomized that clichéd phrase: the new India.
There was 21-year-old Abhijeet Bhattacharya, the activities manager from Dhanbad, Jharkhand, who had left his family behind to take up his first job in Binsar. He held my 78-year-old Dad’s arm all the way down and up a steep gorge on a 2-hour birdwatching trip. I could be wrong but I don’t think he did it because it was his job. My Mom thinks his solicitousness towards my Dad was because he missed his own folks. There was Manmohan, the Sardar, who taught us bhangra during the talent show that the staff put up one evening. There was the Dua family from Mumbai whose son had just written his board exams and was beginning his IIT coaching the following week. There were two girls from Pune who rappelled and climbed with artless enthusiasm.
My friend in Singapore who oversees Louis Vuitton for the Asia-Pacific region waxes eloquent about the “real India”, and its values of respect for elders and culture of hospitality. Shades of this real India can be found in the metros. But a quieter, more authentic experience can be found in those little towns referred to by that unkind phrase: tier III cities. Places such as Ranchi, Vaikom, Dungarpur, Ahmednagar, Dhanbad and Binsar; places where the pace is unhurried and the smiles genuine.
So here is my version of that fantasy list now that it is rooted in an Indian reality. Travel by train by all means, but forget the unreserved. It is overrated. Take a multigenerational family holiday, if possible in the small towns of India such as Munnar, Kanha or Konark. Enjoy street food, which is still as good as memory makes it out to be. Above all, eat mangoes. ’Tis the season.
Shoba Narayan cannot wait for Imam Pasand mangoes to arrive this summer. Write to her at email@example.com