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Poor And White In Mumbai

Poor And White In Mumbai

January 20, 2012

White does not always mean rich, but it is quite a job to convince everyone else.

My friend Barnaby recently wrote on how being white in India made him feel like a celebrity. He talked about the personal questions that curious locals asked; how the ‘informal paparazzi’ photographed him on their mobile phones; the way every shop owner would try to give him perfect service in a bizarre display of fanfare. As a Caucasian woman living in Mumbai, I can relate, and would like to add: people also seem to think that because I’m white, I’m rich.

Maybe it’s leftover sentiment from the Raj era of wealthy “Britishers” roaming their tea estates in absurd hats. Maybe it’s because nowadays, even the cheapest backpackers who come to India are still easy to rip off, and still end up dropping a lot of money on silk (whether real silk or “real” silk), temple tours, ali baba pants and other superfluous tourist traps. Whatever it is, my fair skin seems to serve as a beacon to proclaim that because I’m a foreigner, I must have money to spend.

Between the Caucasian tourists buying bellydance costumes and bhang, the foreigners who live in India working for multinational companies, and India’s history of colonial rule, it’s easy to see why foreigners are assumed to be rich. Some of us, however, are not as high rolling as we might look to those wearing “white=wealthy” filters. Despite being white, I missed the wealth part. I work for a local NGO, and thus am often mistaken to be someone much richer and more fabulous than I really am.

“Ma’am, I can call your car?” says the valet at the gym. Despite having seen me walk in and out every other day for months, he’s still convinced that I must have a car that I am hiding somewhere. “No, no car!” I chirp before heading home, on foot.

“Five hundred rupees,” said one hopeful rickshaw driver yesterday, when I asked to go from Bandra to Santacruz. I exploded in Hindi: “Mai toh Bombay me hi rehti hoon, mai tourist nahi hoon, aap pagal ho gaie hai kya, paanch so rupia sirf Santacruz jaane ke liye!”
Despite his surprise at me apparently being at least a little more local than I look, he was still convinced that I would give up and pay 500 for a 40 rupee ride just because 500 couldn’t be a big sum for a white mem-sahib like me.

“Ma’am, broccoli? Chinese cabbage? Portobello mushroom?” says the vegetable salesman, gesturing to the little section aimed at people willing to spend over a hundred rupees per kilo on their vegetables
. I shake my head and join the other ladies from my building who, sporting nighties and dupattas to come downstairs, are buying staple vegetables like gobi, bindhi, gadjar and kanda.

I’m treated as the celebrity that Barnaby described, and on the assumption that I’m rich, because I’m white. The truth is that while Mumbai hasn’t offered me piles of money, it offers endless wealth of other kinds: in contrasts, in colours, in inspiration, in relationships and in understanding. That, coupled with enjoying the illusion of celebrity and my imaginary car, driver and servants, makes me richer than the locals could even imagine. 


  • Atheist Indian
    Atheist Indian
    06.04.12 06:24 PM
    It is not your ethnicity, race, skin colour or any other 'western' trait that you believe is. It is a lot simpler than that. As a person who looks foreign, the service class people assume you are a tourist and hence, an easy rip off. I have encountered such behaviour in Rajasthan and other parts of India, where I get mistaken as a foreigner, either because of my accent or my South-East Asian ethnic look.

    This video illustrates the point -->

    Even Desi Indians, who give the 'outsider and clueless' vibe, get ripped off as well.
  • abbas
    25.01.12 12:05 PM
    hey there your blog is nice,but the context here is a bit off the beat,because the truth to be told is we indians are always fascinated with white skin even among indians,so its not a matter of money its the matter of skin colour ,thats about it.
  • rajpriya
    24.01.12 09:38 PM

    I am certain you have never been in Turkey, Morocco, Kenya or Jamaica. If you have you been you may think India is a much better a place to be. Irrespective of being a resident in India and speaking a local language foreigners (mostly white) are thought to be tourists. I am also certain that in the place where you live or have lived for sometime people treat you with respect.

    In many Asian countries charges are higher for foreign tourists than a local tourist. If you try to book hotels in India from any country outside India you will always pay a higher price for rooms.

    Being a “rich German firangi” almost 50 you must be looking great. If you don’t take it too seriously you can take it as compliment. There are other cities where you may not experience such intimidating behavior.

    I hope you will get used to ignoring the bad things and enjoy the good things during you stay in Mumbai.
  • Bronwyn
    24.01.12 01:29 PM
    @Robert: You're very welcome, and thanks.

    @Burhan: thank you!

    @Claudia: I know what you mean! I would be happy to meet sometime. I'm heading to Canada for a few weeks, but will be back in March. Looking forward to it.
  • Claudia
    23.01.12 07:50 PM
    Hi there,

    I am 'rich german firangi' from Versova. You are head on with your observations...I sometimes still lose my cool about 'want sexy time?' (I am almost 50 and does it never stop???) and the pain of shopping in unknown territory (where everything suddenly costs ten times more and there is no will to accept real prices, even if you speak Hindi.. )If you are somewhere reasonably close by, let's meet over a coffee!?
  • Amar Kamble
    Amar Kamble
    23.01.12 02:52 PM
    Very One and eye opener kinf of article, you can see the how the white skin is still favrorable amon the indian Attitude.
    we had a lot of discussion over the lunch on your Article.
    But onr thing the rickshaw driver even take not 500 rs , but 100 rs from the person who is new in mumbai and he does not know the actual distance.
    Still very good
    23.01.12 12:03 AM
    Dear Bronwyn

    I think because you are white, you are rich. This is true in comparison with most Indians who lives in Mumbai as Robert said.

    In my understanding, when you don't have to think, when is your next meal is, you are technically rich. When I say this, I don't mean in time concept.

    I get this alot when I meet lots of white guys who tells me, I wish I was £1 behind you, because of the car I drive. So I know what you mean. One thing I will say is, I am rich in my heart not in reality, like same as you.

    The attention and respect you get from people is great isn't it. Don't forget one thing, you will always be a maam saab and most people would kill to be that.

  • rajpriya
    22.01.12 05:01 PM
    @indu chhibber Isn't it important to know what a lot of problems NIR's are facing in India?
  • indu chhibber
    indu chhibber
    22.01.12 02:27 PM
    i think there are much more important things to b discussed than white & brown or rich verses poor.
  • matheikal
    22.01.12 12:21 PM
    It's funny how Indians have got obsessed with the skin colour.
  • Burhan
    20.01.12 08:15 PM
    @bronwyn Appreciate your post. Its true that people start assuming things which are not always true...I have seen and heard people saying India is a poor country and everyone lives under poverty, but u will be well aware and by now know whts in reality!!!!
  • Deepak
    20.01.12 01:20 PM
    First of all this site's intention is to bring posts and articles from NON RESIDENTIAL INDIANS or RESIDENTIAL NON INDIANS ??? FUNNY NAME !

    well, i can tell you one thing.. if some alien(assume that it is fair @skin) comes to earth and lets say it visits LOS ANGELES, will people there look and take that as NORMAL ? certainly NO !
    Odd things at normal place are considered either as superior one or as something which is lower than normality.

    Just wondering why this post is for ?
    i can understand your view, all whites are not rich and also all people who consider you as celebrity are NOT IGNORANT..
    Value their hospitality...
    I have seen a similar post which speaks a WHITE MAN considered as celebrity. that's a NARCISSISTIC one !

    India is not MUMBAI and Indians are not ignorant as you have seen few, certainly India is a place where racism exists in mild level than western nations !(these views are my own, i did not label my view as an absolute one)
  • Robert
    20.01.12 11:41 AM
    @bronwyn Appreciate your response. I think we're both in agreement that in Mumbai, in between being rich and technically poor lie maybe a hundred nameless categories of economic states, so it's tricky using words like rich and poor :)

    This white-is-rich stereotyping, mostly accurate in the past, is slowly turning irrelevant thanks to greater awareness of the different hues of visitors as well as to 'richer' indians. I'm sorry to hear you being victimised by an especially ignorant and vicious local. On the bright side, consider that if it was a local like me, the rickshaw driver would probably not have stopped at all!
  • Bronwyn
    20.01.12 11:21 AM
    @Ranjit: Thank you for your comment, I'm glad you're enjoying my blog!

    @Robert: I hear you. I have no illusions about how incredibly well-off I am in comparison to the millions of people who struggle for their most basic needs in this city. I work for a local NGO and live in a studio in a slum redevelopment building. Everyone else in my building has a flat the same size as mine, but they share it with their entire extended family.
    I couldn't and wouldn't profess to be truly disadvantaged, coming from where I am from and living where I am. This post is more of a focus on the subconscious belief that most foreigners are wealthy than about me being 'poor'. Like I reiterated at the end of the piece: I feel like one of the richest people that I know because I can make my own choices, think proactively and have unlimited access and opportunity.
    Thanks for reading!
  • Ranjit
    20.01.12 09:53 AM
    Nice...really I know what you mean here....had a friend with similar experience...only that you blog!
  • Robert
    20.01.12 09:45 AM
    Categorising yourself as poor in Mumbai underscores the actual poor who live in the city who unlike you, suffer from malnutrition, disease, illiteracy and the most wretched living conditions which I'm sure you're well aware of. , but the fact of the matter is that you have had the luxury of choice, and the real poor in Mumbai no choice in the matter, and little control to effect significant changes in their personal lives.

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