October 18, 2015

Fantastic Inner City Funky Trendy Living At Its Best OMGICan'tEven

There are many occupations that walk the tightrope between ethical and unethical. Lobbyists. Advertisers. Media people. Politicians. But what most people have missed, over the last many decades, are the small guys. The tightrope isn’t the privilege of the bigshots alone. Why doesn’t anyone recognize the regular blokes trying to make a dishonest living, just trying to do what’s right for themselves? Insurance people. Mutual fund brokers. That glorious Indian category, “fixers”. And the universal hustler – the real estate agent.

It takes some serious ballsiness to pick a career option that may, for months at a stretch, give you no income at all. The sort of ballsiness, in fact, that your chances of “playing with the truth” are between 50-100% (vs. the 0-10% tolerance you learnt at your mother’s knee).

There has never been a real estate agent who told you the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth about a house. This is for two reasons:
1. Renting or buying is all about compromise. Lies make compromises much more palatable.
2. Whether you’re renting something (for half your income) or buying something (for half your lifetime income) the last thing you want to hear is the truth. (“This is an average size apartment with an exorbitant price and oh by the way there’s a rat infestation.”)

So the realtor weaves his web of lies. The lies usually go inwards in a concentric circle like this:

Area / location
Every city has nice areas and dodgy areas, right? Wrong! It’s not the epicenter of the drug problem, it’s “got character”. Regular muggings make it a “colourful” area, crumbling buildings mean it “has a lot of history” and the junkies and brothels “present an exciting alternative lifestyle”.

On an aside, what’s with the re-naming? (Bombay I’m looking at you.) If Wadala can be rechristened “New Cuffe Parade”, anything is possible.

All a street needs to be called “tree-lined” is three trees. No more, no less. It’s as if realtors believe that at two trees, it’s a bit of a stretch but three is just the right number, even if the trees have been hacked at and are more shrubs than trees.

Similarly if it’s a large road which will most likely have traffic at all times of day, it’s “accessible” – by which they mean it’s accessible to ambulances at 2 a.m. blasting their sirens.

The house
If you're getting a house (i.e. not an apartment) there's literally no end to the amount of obfuscation. Here's a few examples:
Quaint = This house was built in the twenties
Family home = Fifteen sets of young children have ravaged this place
Comfortable = The owner hasn't felt the need to paint this place for the last seventeen years
Spacious, inner city living = These are words that don't go together. It's either spacious or it's inner city. If it's both, the rent means you can't live there... ergo, no 'living' for you.
Sought after area = Please pay extra rent for the two liquor stores in close proximity.
Open plan living = Code Red. This is a studio masquerading as a one-bedder.
Practical = The bed is going to have to be a fold-out.
This property won't last! = Has been on the market for five months.
Water views = Please notice the sliver of open drainage system you can see if you stick your neck out of the window.
Very ventilated = Install your own AC.
Fully furnished = Please sell your kidney.
Funky = This isn't an apartment. This is a space made from bits carved out of other apartments, leading to the most misshapen studio you've ever seen.

Come home to this comfortable, relaxing studio set in green surrounds.
And the pictures. Oh man, the pictures. If you see an advert which only shows you the building on the outside, you know you have to reject this immediately. There are agents who believe a photograph of the kitchen countertop is sufficient pictorial evidence of "Stylish, spacious apartment". There are agents who will send you photos of the apartment from 10 years ago, when the building was new, the apartment unblemished and the photographer brilliant. I've seen pictures of lovely, light-filled, tasteful apartments which turn out to be dingy, stuffy hellholes with price tags that can only be called hyper-optimistic. And yet, such is the brilliance of the owners / agents, they do get rented out at those prices.

No wonder everyone wants to buy a home of their own (a really nice one) and an "investment" home (a tiny place your stuff won't fit in, in a building with amenities you won't use, in a trendy / "upcoming" area where parties go on until the first knife fight happens). 

September 03, 2015

The 8 Stages of Getting Married, Explained via Facebook

What do you get when you cross two people in their mid-twenties, two intrusive families and about a thousand people who really just care about free food?

The answer's self-evident to most Indians so let's just move on ahead. If, like me, you find your social media timeline inundated by people getting married, your emotions are probably one of the following: bemused interest, utter boredom or twinges of jealousy (not for the wedding, just for all the likes).

Also, if like me you have no real friends getting married, you can only guess what's happening in the lives of the ones who are. So married people - here's how the outsiders see the process.

Step 1: The Clean Up (Step 1 applies to arranged marriages only) [lasts 6 months to 1 year]
Quick note to the rest of the world - arranged marriage is when your parents set you up on a blind date (after looking at the date's CV of course), except that on the third date you get engaged instead of getting laid. 

Sometimes your friends' profiles will just seem to become a lot more sane. Drunk pictures will vanish. Traces of exes will disappear. New posts will be about politics and cars and movies but will always have a nice, sensitive side (especially when you compare to the earlier stuff that went "f*** da govt, y shud i pay taxes? ok it's tequila night!")

The clincher is when you see a picture of them with a friend of the opposite sex, with a caption that clearly specifies the friend's position in their life (#bestfriend #likeabrother #lovehisgirlfriend, or #justmet #notmytype). This means Step 1 is in progress and your Facebook friend is officially on the lookout.

Step 2: The Engagement [2 weeks build up, 0.5 actual day]
There are two ways in which people in India decide to get married. One is where their families tell them "You know this girl, you like her, she likes you, you're 25. Wedding next December." The other is when the couple decides to get married, either via aggressive hinting from one side (followed by a *surprise* proposal) or via mutual consent when they're tired of bickering with each other but even more exhausted by the idea of finding a new person to bicker with.

When two people have decided to get married, the order of people to be informed usually goes: immediate family, close friends, rest of the family. Social media adds another level to this: everyone you've ever met.

Girls will start hinting at an impending engagement at least a week in advance, usually with pictures of them and the guy, posing in what they believe is a *cute* picture. Guys will put up the same photo with a lame caption (for some reason in 73% cases this is "Hooked and booked"). After a week, they will actually get engaged at either a small unofficial ceremony at home (roka) or an bigass official ceremony at a banquet hall (where they will have to dance). Large numbers of photographs will find their way into your home page, of the same couple in the same clothes but from different angles. There will always be a photograph of them holding up their hands to show off their rings, because hey 50 pictures weren't enough to convince us that you're engaged.

Step 3: The Fiance(e) [6 months]
If the photo album full of engagement pictures wasn't enough, more pictures will come up every week or so, either of the engagement (#throwback) or of the couple on date night (#fiancee).

Some context here: the average Indian youth has hidden and lied about relationships all his life and has covered his tracks even on Facebook (because his parents got on Facebook and kept asking "Why aren't you accepting my friend request?", so he did, and now they tag him in embarrassing pictures).

In the heads of Indian parents (and assorted relatives) an engagement is the only thing that legitimises a relationship, so he is thrilled to finally have social approval to talk about his love life. Which of course means that he wants to talk about it everyday, to all his 600 "friends".

Step 4: The Build Up [1-2 months]
When you see a picture of a girl in a pink sash with 4 girls behind her in pink sashes too, you don't need to read the sashes to know what's happening.

In the month prior to the wedding, bachelor parties and bachelorette parties (hen parties?) will occur, usually in an exotic place, and on a boat in the absence of an exotic place. The purpose is for everyone to get drunk with their own friends but most girls view this as an opportunity to take pictures of them with #besties to prove that they have single girl cred too, and that they're going to be *cool* married girls. Naturally, if a picture has to meet all these requirements (and have all 5 girls look good at once), no one can have more than one drink.

Other essentials events in the Build Up are loving posts by the couple on each other's walls about how they cannot wait to spend their lives with each other, because this is the most normal way to have a private conversation.

Step 5: The Media Goes Social [2-3 weeks]
An integral part of the modern wedding is the wedding video. In the good old days this was a man who walked around the venue, on the day of the wedding, taking a video.

What this now means is a photos + videos package that includes photos and videos both before and during the wedding. The "before" portion is about the couple and their unique story. Since most stories follow the same pattern (couple meets, likes each other, dates for a while, is getting married now), the 'X factor' is supposed to come from special commentary such as what color of shirt she wore on their first date. Alternatively, people will come up with "something different" (singing to the fiance on camera, doing an adventure sport together, a *surprise* proposal on camera for which the girl is suspiciously well-dressed) that is quickly adopted by the next 10 couples getting married.

The wedding portion is just videos and photos of people dancing at the wedding, interspersed with the couple looking at each other, with romantic music added to drive the point home. Popular choices include any sappy Bollywood song but the cool kids will get a sappy English song just to prove they're not "dumb like everyone else who has one those wedding videos, Goddd yaa."

Step 6: The Shenanigans [a week tops]
Most Indian weddings will include at least 3-4 days of functions (mehendi, sangeet, cocktails, wedding and reception) and about a thousand people. One of the reasons weddings get bigger and bigger is because ten years ago you wouldn't show their pictures to anyone who wasn't there (it's impolite of course). Now you want them to see how amazing it was, because it's no longer a bulky photo album in your home.

Everything is par for the course, including (but not limited to) monogrammed cutlery, 14 cuisines, revolving stages, elevated stages, revolving elevated stages, a pool party where no one can wear what they really want to, etc. The purpose is for people to have a good time - of course - but also to take some nice focus/out-of-focus type shots of cutlery, stages and parties. Because when you look back at your wedding 20 years from now, you don't want to regret not getting the serviettes with your faces printed on them.

At some point during or after the ceremony, Facebook relationship statuses are updated, an extra surname is added and a job is quit.

Step 7: The Unnecessary Details [2 weeks or more]
When a couple goes on their honeymoon (and you can be sure it will be in Europe), you would imagine they're spending time with each other and trying to get over the exhaustion of having to smile at a thousand people for five days straight, without enough food or water.

What they really do, though, is brief you about their honeymoon in detail. Shots will be solo or selfies, because there's only so many times you can ask random strangers to take a picture of you. If the couple goes to Paris (very high likelihood) there will be at least 6 photos in front of the Eiffel Tower with a caption that reads "Most romantic city in the world!" The cool kids will differentiate themselves by going to Mykonos and Santorini instead of Paris and every second picture will be blue and white.

If you're spending 20 days with one person (even if they're your "soulmate" - refer video), things can get a bit slow. This means that every croissant is an Instagram subject and everyday you're having the #bestmealever.

Step 8: The Bliss and Perfection [1-3 years, until utter annoyance or first child, whichever comes first]
Once you're back from your honeymoon and have exhausted every possible throwback post possible, you must display how your life is wonderful in your married state. If you live in India, this means:
 - I love my spouse so much, here's a random "I love you" on their wall for no reason
 - I love my spouse's family so much, look, here's a photo and we're all smiling at each other
 - I cooked this. You don't care, my mum didn't believe I could do it but here I am, Indian girl who loves to cook and feed the whole world. But primarily my husband. And his family.
 - Wife and I aren't a lame couple - look at us having a regular date night! Hey look, now we're at the club together. Oh, now the spa. Now a movie. Now - eating popcorn *smiley face*.

If you live outside India, this means:
 - I love my spouse so much, here's a random "I love you" on their wall for no reason
 - We bought a new car. We're so proud of ourselves, we will take at least 3 pictures leaning on it.
 - We share household duties - look at this food I cooked and the table he set. Now that's what I call a 50-50 sharing of housework!
 - Here are some pictures from a pointless festival of some kind that we went to but we'll pretend it's cool because it's happening in a foreign land.

After Step 6, you're usually looking at a cycle of steps that usually include The Silence, The Birthdays, The Annivs, The V-Days, The Territory Marking, The Child, The Insults Posed as Jokes About Partner, The Second Child and The Team. After the 20 years over which these occur, the couple is middle aged and usually only shares "inspirational quotes" on their walls and tags whoever they still know (usually other married people). In another 25 years, the world will be ready for the next generation.

Interesting aside - I searched for an image on Google by typing "married couple in love" and Google predicted "with someone else". 

July 04, 2015

Reporting from the new culture

When you move countries, you fully expect some things - language, food, places, are all part of the normal change. You get there and people say "How you going" instead of "How're you doing" five times a day and before you know it, this begins to sound normal to you. What you don't expect is a show called "Dating Naked" on primetime television, where people -you guessed it- date naked (with appropriate blurring, of course, but the purpose of this show is as yet unknown). What you don't expect is a homeless person with a board that says "I'm sorry but it's either this or crime" - which, when you think about it, is less a request and more a threat. What you also don't expect is just how scary the homeless people can be, especially if you're from India where beggars are usually over-friendly, over-enthusiastic people on the streets who believe that the best way of getting money from you to is poke you continuously while you sit in a rickshaw at a traffic light.

Which, really, is representative of all cultural crossovers. I watched something on an Australian TV channel called "Rick Stein's India" where Rick Stein (a chef) travels across India tasting food and trying to find "my top 10 curries" - an endeavour that's as endearing as it's futile because "curry" (as they call it) covers literally every possible vegetable, meat, fish and chicken dish in every home and every restaurant in India.

Of course, travel documentaries about India have now evolved from the Taj-Mahal-Goa-look-at-the-colours! approach to a more balanced Taj-Mahal-Goa-Pondicherry-weed-in-the-mountains-look-at-the-colours-and-the-people-and-the-poverty! approach - which is great except that the poor people in India are smiling into the frame in every part of the documentary: partly amused, partly confused, partly just happy to be on camera with a white guy. (This is before the same video footage gets combined with a poignant sitar soundtrack which makes you feel sad for these beautiful simple people who are neither sad nor simple nor beautiful in real life).
Photoshop - Setting you up for one disappointment after another

When Rick Stein decides to visit Dharavi (made famous by Slumdog Millionaire - of course), enters a random dude's home and has an impromptu meal that Random Dude probably intended to eat himself, you can see a bunch of people from the slums gather behind him, smiling externally but ROFLing in their heads at why someone thought a chapati and tomato sabzi (I mean curry) in someone's home needed to be videotaped. Then of course, Rick Stein goes on about how it's amazing and the best chapati he's had (clearly hyperbole is a global phenomenon, binding us all) and Indian viewers at this point are wondering how long it'll be before he gets dysentery.

At some level, Rick Stein is representative of all of us - every First World person who wants to come to the Third World "as a traveller, not a tourist" and every Third World person who wants to come to the First World "as an expat, not an immigrant" - goals you pursue valiantly until you realize their utter futility and just decide to make yourself at home being the outsider and enjoying all the benefits that has to offer - being considered exotic by the locals and being able to mask your stupidity as "I'm not from here!" for the first six months are just two of them. Maybe then you settle in (as foreigners settle into India - wary, then tentative, then interested and then just happy that they never have to wash a dish again in their life). Maybe you don't. Maybe the new place becomes as comfortable as going through a box (can?) of Pringles in bed. Maybe you hate it and can't wait to get on the next plane home.

Now please excuse me while I slather Vegemite on toast before also making a *curry* with rice that I will eat while watching Masterchef Australia before watching a Bollywood movie before watching Dating Naked.