Many months ago my husband came up to me with a twinkle in his eye and a spring in his step. He seems happy, I thought, till I looked closer and realized that he was more than happy, he was positively gloating. “Guess what’s on Friday?” he said. “What?” said I, my mind racing frantically. “It’s our 10th engagement anniversary,” he said triumphantly. “Oh,” said I, smiling faintly and kicking myself for not remembering before him. “Such an important anniversary must be celebrated,” said my romantic husband. “Meet me for lunch on Thursday and we will celebrate signing our lives away!”
The celebratory lunch took place at an upscale deli in a very posh mall in Mumbai. We had sat down and were discussing the possible calorie content of the Pizza Napoleon (as if that has ever affected what we order) when we heard raised voices from the table directly in front of us. Two Indian men were seated on the table, both in their mid-40s. One of the men was telling the waiter that he had told him that he was in a hurry, and could not wait long, and now it was too late! The waiter needed to bring the bill immediately! The waiter nodded politely and walked away.
We looked away and were soon in a deep conversation when we heard raised voices again. “Why would I want to take away something that I wanted to eat in the restaurant? That’s an incredibly stupid suggestion. You guys just don’t get it do you – you just have no clue about customer service! Just bring me the bill right now!”
The waiter looked at him with the weak plastered smile that is characteristic of all waiters in India when they are being abused by customers. “Right away, Sir,” he said and scurried away. The man let out an exasperated sigh and suddenly looked over at us. This is the conversation that followed.
Man 1: I am sorry. I didn’t mean to disturb you guys.
Husband: Oh no - not at all!
Me: No, don’t worry - we were just celebrating our 10th engagement anniversary (the man looked puzzled). I take it things did not go per plan?
Man 1: No! They just don’t get it in India!
Me: Oh – are you not from here? (Detecting an Indian accent I assumed he must have spent some part of his childhood here)
Man 1: Well I grew up in India but now I live in Los Angeles (LA).
Me: Oh, what part of LA? I grew up in LA as well!
Man 1: In Pasadena, it’s a beautiful part of town. You know Pasadena?
Me: Yes, it is beautiful. So what happened here?
Man 1: Oh they just can’t understand customer service here. You know what the problem is here in India? Just too much money and no idea what to do with it. So they open up these types of expensive places because people have to blow their new found money somewhere. But they have no idea of customer service!
Me: Do you come to India often?
Man 1: I used to as a lot of my family is here but now I think I will stop. I just can’t handle the fakeness – and stupid expensive places like this one! He brought me here (pointing to Man 2) or I would have never come here.
Man 2: (Grins sheepishly and looks into his plate).
Me: Oh, we are going to another ‘expensive’ place for dinner – maybe you have heard of it - abababa?
Man 1: Another stupidly expensive place full of young rich kids! You know the best food in India is in the ‘hole-in-the-wall’ places.
Me: Yes they are very good – I always wonder if I might get Typhoid though.
Man 1: Anyway, we better get going as we are going to be late. Hope we didn’t disturb you guys. Goodbye.
I came home and this conversation stayed with me all day. After much pondering, the same question kept arising in my mind. Was the man truly appalled at the service or was his angry reaction the manifestation of a bigger underlying problem?
“Beware, my lord of jealousy! It is the green eyed monster, which doth mock the meat it feeds on.” These eternal words written by Shakespeare sum up precisely what I thought the underlying problem might be – was this man just plain jealous? Jealous of these new rich people in India?
Indians who left decades ago for Western shores left behind a puritan India. They left behind a subcontinent where wealth may have existed but was rarely flaunted. Going out, and especially eating out, was an activity often practiced only by ‘bad’ families whose daughters-in-law wore jeans and went to clubs.
Recent changes in the global economy have reset wealth generation and consumption in a host of countries including India. It seems that the Gods of wealth who had showered their benevolence upon NRIs for decades have abruptly changed their muse.
NRIs are now returning to a hedonistic India where outward appearances may not have changed much but mindsets have altered beyond recognition. They come back to visit relatives who are not only wealthy, but often wealthier than the ‘foreign-returned’ NRI. These wealthy relatives are now happy to spend their money on food and entertainment without guilt, shame or reluctance.
Isn’t it plausible that for some NRIs, it is a real shock to see how the tables have turned? The once ‘poor’ Indian relative is now exercising his financial muscle, and how. Suddenly the NRI is the ‘poor’ relative thinking about the mortgage and car loan as he sips wine in the Indian relative’s ten crore apartment, after being brought there in his E-class Mercedes (which costs almost double in India with the taxes)!
This article is about asking a simple question: is it a bitter pill for some NRIs to swallow when they visit India and find a newer and richer nation? I don’t know the answer to this question. It is very possible that I have overanalyzed the aforementioned conversation and it was nothing more than an irate customer responding to inept service. Or was it more than that – was Man 1 a jealous NRI who was having a hard time dealing with the wealth in modern India? I look forward to hearing your point of view on this one.