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.
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.