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Subway In India: Just Like Home (Kind Of)

Subway In India: Just Like Home (Kind Of)

October 07, 2010

Thirty minutes in a Subway restaurant in Kerala offer up all sorts of cross-cultural collisions.

It starts as soon as I open the door: that bizarre, enigmatic sensation of being somewhere utterly contradictory. The Subway restaurant on the edge of Trivandrum's Technopark campus is the only American chain restaurant for literally hundreds of miles around, and this makes it both the starkest example of Western influence on life in Kerala and the most jarring collision between that influence and the steadfast conservatism of this corner of India. The restaurant is right next to the building in which I work, so today I've decided to spend my lunch break there.

The music always hits me first. No Bollywood vocoders or Malayali whistles here: the dial is always tuned to an American radio station, generally near full volume. As I walk in, a track by one of my favourite groups, Arcade Fire, blasts out of the PA – a group I don't think I've even heard in restaurants back in NZ, let alone in India. “I woke up with the power out! Not really something to shout about!” shrieks singer Win Butler as I walk to the vegetarian counter. Living as I do in rural Kerala, this line is peculiarly apt.

The sandwich geniuses behind the counter smile broadly and welcome me, perhaps their most frequent customer. The first time I went, I was surprised to receive a sub pretty much exactly as it would have been back in NZ, or anywhere. The staff are all young local guys, most sporting thick accents and thicker moustaches, and the all-black Subway uniform – as blunt a symbol of corporate domination as any – can't dwarf their effervescent personalities. Their food preparation skills are as strong as their competitiveness when playing impromptu cricket in front of the store when it's quiet. Confident that my sandwich will be exactly as I imagine it, I order a foot-long Paneer Tikka on Hearty Italian with Southwest, Honey Mustard and Caesar sauces and all salad fixings except olives. The server points out that they have no lettuce today, and are offering chopped raw cabbage as a substitute. “OK,” I say, after a brief sigh. “But just a little.”

A couple of other patrons enter and the PA falls silent for a moment as the song ends, before it bursts back into life with James Blunt: "Gotta ask yourself the question, where are you now?". One joins a pair of fresh-faced businessmen in sharp suits sitting in the corner, and they all resume a conversation about an upcoming deal with a German investor. Another is a saip, or white man, and I only realise I'm staring when he finally looks at me and gives a brief, awkward nod and smile. (As a white guy who stares open-mouthed at other white guys, I'm just as much of a contradiction as anything else in here.) I smile back with as little pretence as possible. I sometimes like to see myself as a kind of welcoming presence for foreigners who are passing through. He probably just thought I was weird.

A North Indian couple enters at the same time as a group of local men and women. The couple's trendy t-shirts, tight jeans and clipped English are sharply contrasted with the men's loudly coloured dress shirts, mundus and flowing Malayalam. The latter group head directly and swiftly to the non-veg counter and all order the same thing, the men chattering constantly, the ladies standing silently and demurely behind. The couple, however, dawdle their way up to the veg counter, indecisive to the last. “What do you want?” asks the man. “Mmm... something veg...” replies the woman, her nose twitching upwards with a faint exasperation that suggests her mind ought to be made up by someone else. (Song change: 'She Will Be Loved' by Maroon 5.) Having made it to the display, she asks, “What do they have?” despite all the options being laid out in front of her. The man looks bored and waits for her to decide before choosing something for himself.

I munch on my bread, paneer and cabbage. It's a surprisingly agreeable combination if accompanied by lashings of Southwest sauce. The feeling of eating fresh ingredients is a joy to me, but not so much to my colleagues, who are used to parippu dal and fish curry with rice. “It's... okay,” they invariably say ('okay' meaning 'not great', a euphemism they seem to have jokingly picked up from me). “Far too expensive.” Quite true – Subway is a rare treat for me, with one footlong sub costing as much as a whole week of lunches at the places where we usually eat. If we were those guys in the corner, cutting multinational deals every other week, perhaps we could all get used to this Western style together... but not in our present positions as outsourcing mules.

Out the glass fronting and across the highway, a sea of coconut palms waves elegantly in the breeze. They surround Technopark, and cover much of the region: a constant reminder that if the West wants to dig its fingers into this physical and cultural landscape, it's going to take a long time. But this Subway is here. It may not be very popular, but it draws enough characters – foreigners, out-of-towners, foreign-returneds and the more affluent locals – to stay alive, and in those characters, the many contradictions of Kerala are shown in crisp relief. After depositing my tray at the counter, the Kaiser Chiefs provide a fitting soundtrack to my transition back to Malayali salaryman life: “Oh my god I can't believe it / I've never been this far away from home”.


16 Comments

  • Ashwin
    By
    Ashwin
    02.05.12 07:35 PM
    Its true! In a place where subways and kfc's are considered as "cool" places to hangout. People actually forget about those places where they can have all the fun for quarter of the price you pay at these "cool" places. Coz of the involvement of the western culture here i should say! Everyone wants to be an American here! They forget the fact eating out at Subway only make them poor! .. Great article loved it :D
  • Nevin
    By
    Nevin
    10.12.10 10:52 PM
    now you been there since very long..... so have become a keralite... so wats new happenings there... Christmas and new year...
  • Barnaby Haszard Morris
    By
    Barnaby Haszard Morris
    10.12.10 06:31 PM
    Thank you, Nevin! Yeah, it's not easy to adapt to life in Kerala as an outsider - Indian from another state, or foreigner - but if you can allow for a degree of conservative thinking, it's possible.
  • Nevin Peter
    By
    Nevin Peter
    08.12.10 06:55 PM
    Hey Barn..You got a good Observation and writing skills... I read couple of your articles and it really facinated me... good job..:)

    I hope you are enjoying every moment of your day to day life in kerala.... am a Non-Residient Keralite and i never thought any one from outside kerala can work and stay there... but i must say that you have made me think different now... Looks like life in kerala is changing and people there are accepting change for good.... As a matter of fact, i consider kerala as a very coservative and traditional state among all other states in India, Which i one way is good to keep and continues of values but not so inviting for outsiders.......

    But cheers to your great writing .. it make me feel really good about kerala... hope to read more happening from you in Gods Own Country.... !!

    Nevin
  • Ranjini
    By
    Ranjini
    11.11.10 04:41 PM
    Thanks Barnaby!....shall definitely look to meditation as an option...maybe some yoga even ;D
  • Barnaby Haszard Morris
    By
    Barnaby Haszard Morris
    10.11.10 07:05 PM
    Ranjini, I think it's probably best not to eat at all when you're angry. Just have a lie down, or meditate. ;) The prices are actually decent when compared to the cost of Subway in other countries, but it just doesn't measure up when all-you-can-eat meals are only Rs 25 around the corner. I just love that fresher taste of a sub with raw veg in it... go there about once a week these days.

    Joseph, Subway is about the only fast food I'm interested in these days. Everything else is too oily and processed... and too non-veg, which I also now try to avoid! But I'm hoping to visit Kochi soon in any case as I've heard that it's a more cosmopolitan place as you say.
  • Ranjini
    By
    Ranjini
    10.11.10 04:56 PM
    Amen to that!!...coming from a true blue Cochinite :D
  • Joseph
    By
    Joseph
    10.11.10 04:50 PM
    Hey!
    Subway has been around for years.
    Barnbay, kochi has kfc, pizza hut, dominos, fancy cafe's pubs, longue bars, malls....etc and a lot of places to hangout.so there are american joints within hundreds of miles.
    when you'r too home sick, a kochi trip might be the best relief....unless ofcourse, you have the time for bangalore i.e.
    i'm not saying kochi is VERY happening.but it's the only happening mallu city.
  • Ranjini
    By
    Ranjini
    10.11.10 01:57 PM
    Sorry for the typo! I meant "Next time if I'm hungry...."
  • Ranjini
    By
    Ranjini
    10.11.10 01:56 PM
    Oh dear...if I hadn't read your article I would've never known that there's Subway outlet in my very own state! However,thanks for also enlightening me about the prices.Next time,if I'm angry when in/around Technopark,I certainly know where not to go to! Inspiring writing by the way;keep up the great work saipu!
  • Barnaby Haszard Morris
    By
    Barnaby Haszard Morris
    15.10.10 11:30 AM
    Indeed - if there is no 'choru' or 'borottas', then it's not a proper meal, correct?

    Glad you enjoyed the post.
  • Blue Lotus
    By
    Blue Lotus
    13.10.10 11:42 AM
    I'm amused by this blog...It's the first time I've read a candid "saip" blog..And ya Keralites would prefer puttu and kadala over a subway brunch..And that part about staring people..ROTFL
  • Barnaby Haszard Morris
    By
    Barnaby Haszard Morris
    10.10.10 06:31 PM
    Haha, thanks! Yeah, I have also been known to yell 'saip' out the window of a car when I see a white man in the street... what's happened to me?
  • A Singh
    By
    A Singh
    10.10.10 06:26 PM
    Totally agree, it was a wonderful observational piece. I love the bit when you openly stare at the other white man. Poor guy. As if being in India is not enough of a culture shock, he has to put up with another "gora" gawking at him! Barnaby, you are turning into a pukka Indian!
  • Barnaby Haszard Morris
    By
    Barnaby Haszard Morris
    09.10.10 10:23 PM
    Thank you very much. Happy to put a smile on your face!
  • TinaMina
    By
    TinaMina
    09.10.10 07:49 PM
    Absolutely your best post so far - HILARIOUS - WELL DONE!!!

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