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Home / Mint-lounge / Features /  Delhi’s Belly | Expat ‘bahus’ only

In a regular three-storeyed bungalow in the Capital’s upmarket Gulmohar Park, on the last Saturday of February, about a dozen women congregate. All of them arrive in chauffeured cars, some bring their children along. Their surnames are what you would usually come across in Delhi—Sharma, Chadha, Misra, etc. Yet none of them is Indian. They are women—from all parts of the world—there to attend a meeting of Rangeeli, a Delhi club exclusively for foreign women who are married to Indian men.

Inside, the conversation ebbs and flows, sometimes it is raucous like a kitty party, at times there is a hush as someone relates a story—about a recalcitrant driver or a weird family puja (ceremony). Commiserations are shared, advice is generously given.

Although Rangeeli has around 50 members on its list now, attendance for individual meetings varies. February is Sam Doyle Sharma’s first meeting. In many ways, she is an uncommon sight in urban India—with a prominent black mangalsutra around her neck and a patch of sindoor on her forehead. Her blonde hair is pulled back into a ponytail and she is dressed in loose-fitting jeans and a top. Originally from Buffalo, New York, US, Sharma has been living in Noida since November 2011, sharing a home with her parents-in-law, her brother-in-law and his wife, and a four-year-old niece. Even for someone born and raised in India, moving into another household with its own set of rules and traditions can be a bit of a culture shock. There are many things Sharma does not understand and some things she is not comfortable about. At Rangeeli, she gets access to other people who share her cultural confusions.

“When I complain to my friends back home about a problem with a staff, they are aghast because they think I am incredibly lucky to have people to do the housework, etc. They don’t understand the situation," Sharma says.

The meeting is in the home of Nguyen Linh, a Vietnamese woman married to a Punjabi who has been living in Delhi for seven years. In a tastefully decorated living room strewn with Vietnamese art and sculpture, Linh serves a large bowl of summer berries, fresh vegetables with a dip and cookies. Sharma tells her story, a gushing stream of things she misses, things she hates, things she can’t comprehend. When there is a lull, Linh brings her mother-in-law over to say hello to the group. There is much scraping of chairs and more namastes than one is used to hearing. In many ways, these women are more Indian than most urban Indians.

Expat life in India takes getting used to. It’s not just the crowd on the streets or the dangerous, all-horn-no-rules driving style. It’s about getting used to the poverty, being followed by beggars and being overcharged for most things. It is important to quickly establish yourself as a resident—by visiting the same salon, coffee shop or grocery store—so they know that you are not a tourist.

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Sister act: (from left) Barbara Vaugniaux, Michele Cloud and Nguyen Linh. Photo: Divya Babu/Mint.

Karine Dolven Misra is of Norwegian origin, but had lived in the US since she was 4. She came to India nearly nine years ago and also lives in a full-fledged joint family which originally even included her grandparents-in-law. She faced several challenges the first year, she says, and it took time to adjust. Eventually, she told herself that if she had decided to live in India, she must really “live here".

She immersed herself in the Delhi life, learning Hindi, making friends and being independent. She feels she has more or less found the perfect balance here, happily participating in most of the rituals and festivals. “You have to give it time. And you have to see it as an adventure and be open-minded about it," is her advice to the newcomer.

Rangeeli was started two years ago by Barbara Vuagniaux and Peggy Bhohi. The usual practice among expatriates who have just moved to India is to hang around at Delhi Network, a weekly meeting that includes embassy staff, NGO workers, journalists and others. But friendships struck at Delhi Network tend to be fleeting as most people are in the country on short stints. Also, since they don’t usually have the additional adventure of coping with their Indian in-laws, the conversations there tend to be rather different.

Vuagniaux suggested to Bhohi, who has been in India for much longer, that they form an exclusive group of foreign women married to Indian men so they could have family-centric conversations as well as rely on the possibility that group members will be around for much longer, usually a decade or so.

The first meeting of Rangeeli had four attendees; since then it has grown rather rapidly. Several name options were tossed around and the members eventually voted for Rangeeli since it resonated with how they saw themselves, a colourful bunch of eclectic people. New members usually come through referrals. The women take turns to host the meeting and the cardinal rule is that no men are allowed.

“I came to India with my family nearly four years ago and immediately put my toddler in an Indian playschool. It turned out to be a really great way to meet other mothers and create a social network for both myself and my son. But if you don’t have a child, it is important to find ways to get out, to connect," says Tina Haskins Chadha, a golden blonde from Manhattan, US.

Inevitably, the conversation in the group comes back to families. While most of these women are well-travelled and are able to take much of India in their stride, it is the challenge of raising mixed culture children and living in joint families that they struggle with the most. Vuagniaux brings her five-month-old son for the meeting, and once the initial oohs and aahs die down, they get down to the essentials.

“When is the mundan (the head-tonsuring ceremony)?" asks one.

Vuagniaux is not certain. She has a bigger worry to confront, the Bengali rice-feeding ceremony. She has been told that it is essential the baby be fed kheer (a rice and milk pudding), but she does not want to give him non-formula milk. “Just get in there early and make it yourself," she is advised, “and don’t use milk, it cooks just as well in formula."

Bhohi, Misra and others who have been here a while have figured out their own ways to balance the intercontinental chasm in their lives. Bhohi’s is a “take ’em on and show ’em up" strategy while Misra favours a “look at the bright side" approach.

At the end of 2 hours, Sharma seems happy that she is not alone in her tribulations. “See you next month," Misra tells her before leaving, “and remember there is a lot you can get away with because you are not expected to know. You are a foreigner!"

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