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March 2004
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14 years is as long as Lord Rama's exile from Ayodhya. Yet, despite the fact that one has made frequent visits to India in this long period, it is returning back for good that leaves one a bit disoriented.

By RANJANI NELLORE

__________________________________________________________

As I wake up, the cadence of M.S. Subbulakshmi's voice reciting the Vishnu Sahasranamam floats in from a neighbor's home. I throw open the wire meshed windows, specially made to keep the pesky mosquitoes at bay. A light fragrance emanates from the tree just outside the window, in full bloom with delicate parijat blossoms. A compact car backs out of the driveway next door, merrily chiming away a familiar tune. It takes me almost a full minute to identify it as "Jingle bells".

The metal gate with its lotus-like designs clangs open as the maid arrives. She grabs the spindly broom made of eco-friendly spines of dried coconut leaves and brushes away the dry foliage outside the gate. Next, she sprinkles water from an orange plastic bucket to force the dust to settle. Now, it's time for her to create her daily masterpiece. A beautiful rangoli, perfect in its geometry of shapes and symmetry of pattern emerges in minutes. While I look on admiringly, she walks away without a second glance, in a hurry to complete her other chores.

I sip piping hot filter coffee from a steel tumbler and read the newspaper. Ads for laptops and fully automatic washing machines fill the pages alongside news briefs about people dying of malnutrition and heat. Gone are the days of scrimping to save enough for a refrigerator or other appliances. Going by the print and television commercials, it appears you can now buy a house, a car or diamonds, easily and without fuss; loans off all kinds are freely available. I relish the six-course lunch served in a gleaming stainless steel thali before shooting off emails to my friends in the US. The internet connection is dialup but, hey, it works! For dessert we have a choice of delicious guavas from the backyard or plump chikoos delivered to the doorstep by the friendly fruit vendor. I bite into the sweetness of this nondescript brown fleshy fruit that I missed greatly while in the US, deceived as I was by its hairy, evil twin, the kiwi.

The city of Hyderabad, famous for its pearls and the Charminar, now boasts of Hitech City and Genome Valley. We drive by roads that are wide, divided by blindingly white lane markings. Cars mill around in general disorder, unconcerned, probably unaware of the purpose of these lines. A group of beggars crowd around at intersections, hopeful of catching the eye of generous souls. They peer into the heavily tinted windows of the glitzy BMWs that share the road with the matchbox sized Marutis that zoom around like toy cars running on AA batteries. Huge billboards, once used exclusively to announce the launch of a movie, now proclaim the special deals at Pizza Hut or the opening of a state-of-the-art fitness studio. A few men line up facing a huge wall like prisoners, executing what I have taken to calling "symphony in pee major".

The security guard at the bank opens the gate to let the car in. The heavy wrought iron gate is unwieldy as he tries to move it with one hand. His other hand seems attached to his left ear. I have to look closely to notice that he is talking into a tiny cell phone. The bank has an ATM in a separate air-conditioned cubicle staffed by an attendant whose sole job is to open and shut the door. Once inside the bank however, we wait for 15 minutes before realizing that our expectations of customer service may be a tad high.

There are shopping carts and electronic scanners inside the supermarket but no parking spaces outside. A department store with narrow aisles and well-stocked shelves overflowing with numerous choices for shampoos and shaving creams is a common sight. Not just masalas, but traditional Indian foods requiring complicated recipes and slow-cooking are now available in a prepackaged, ready-to-eat form. Ancient homegrown herbal and Ayurvedic remedies are filled into fancy tubes and sold at the cosmetics counter with a pretty price tag.

The old method of casting individualized horoscopes has been replaced by computer generated ones while the previously mass produced bindis, bangles and saris are now custom-crafted, for a price, of course.

I have not lived in India for about 14 years but I have visited frequently. The changes I observe have not all been sudden. In the past I viewed them with a clinical detachment, much like a tourist. Today, as I try to immerse myself fully in my new status as a returned Indian, I find the contrasts too striking. I am unable to correlate this India with the vision that I had always maintained in my head. Am I really home? I am not sure.

The car comes to an abrupt halt. It is not a traffic light or accident that has stopped us. A herd of buffaloes, proud and regal, calmly walk across the road, oblivious to the commotion they cause. I glance at the young couple on the motorbike who wait beside our car. The young man rides without a helmet, ignoring the signs that say "Hell or helmet". He looks dashing in his Tom Cruise haircut and Nike t-shirt. An even younger girl sits demurely behind him, efficiently controlling her striped chiffon dupatta that trails behind them like a flag. As we pick up speed, a sudden downpour begins. The boy drives on unfazed while the girl pulls up her diaphanous dupatta and holds it over their heads, determined to provide a barrier, however flimsy, between them and the elements. How quaint!

India has always been a land of contrasts. With the melon seller who owns a mobile phone and the bhelpuri vendor with the Benz, the differences are probably more noticeable. Just as the hibiscus with its large showy blossoms and garish colors lives in harmony besides the petite and fragrant jasmine, these contrasts symbolize the essence of today's India. What has indeed changed is my perception. No longer will these observations form a part of my narration of "how things are back home", for now, this is home.


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