Chai, no latte
Updated: Feb 3, 2020
In the five-plus years I've lived here, there's been no greater symbol of Pune's transformation than the realization of the JW Marriott hotel and convention center, which opened its 426 rooms and 60 executive suites around the corner from the film institute in the autumn of 2010....
..that is, of course, except for the Westin hotel & resort across town, which arranged its restaurants, bars, clubs, and 277 rooms in the shape of a ship's bow jutting out into the Mula-Mutha river. The Westin opened in December of 2009, a stone's throw from the Hard Rock Cafe, where I once saw Wyclef Jean perform on the Hard Rock's own opening night in April of 2008.
Between the Westin and the Hard Rock, where used to stretch a deserted patch of unimproved road, now stands the 400,000 air-conditioned square feet of Koregaon Park Plaza shopping mall, which opened its L’occitane, Mac, Clinique, & Tommy Hilfiger stores in March of 2012. In its selection of shops, this particular mall is pretty similar to the three-floored commercial metropolis in northeast Pune called Phoenix Market City mall, which literally sits almost bang-opposite across the highway from the nearly-as-posh Inorbit Mall. These dueling malls opened in 2011, promising, "an integrated mixed-use development incorporating Shopping, Dining, Movies, Entertainment and much more that delivers a holistic lifestyle and leisure experience." At least, that's how Phoenix's website puts it.
Air-conditioned shopping malls, multiplexes, food courts and all-in-one "leisure experiences" are things I thought I had left back home, but every year it seems that more of America follows me to India. Whether it's more SUVs cruising Pune's narrow streets, or more night clubs playing American Top 40, or ever more US exchange students studying in cafes while typing on Macbooks, globalization seems to mean never having to not speak English or drink espresso. At least, in the city.
What this means for the ex-pat writer here in Pune is that it is increasingly easy to avail yourself of "clever outs" from the local culture, i.e. the ways a person can self-regulate against assimilation. Just like the body, the brain is adept at finding those places where it doesn't have to work nearly as hard, which is why I end up speaking English and not broken Hindi to my Indian friends on campus. (Why wouldn't I, when they all speak English as well as I do? Besides, it beats getting corrected all the time on my poor pronunciation of Hindi syllables.)
I didn't know this when I migrated to Pune in January of 2008, but I knew it as I saw it build up around me. "Write from what you know," is the name of the game, but I knew early on that the fabulous life of an American expat in Pune was not the story I wanted to tell. I needed to move from being a tourist visiting India, collecting the t-shirt, to someone who is more of the place, collecting new perspectives on life. I needed to force myself out of the oasis of film school, and resist taking all of the "clever outs" popping up across the city, tempting as they were. I needed to find places where I couldn't deal in English, where a Rs 150 latte at Costa coffee was nowhere to be found and a Rs 4 chai from the wooden tea stall on the corner does people just fine—and has for generations.
The next few posts will cover the mediators that pulled me more into the world around me here in India--and the experiences that eventually combined into the world of Breakdown. There were books to read about Maharashtra and places to photograph, ragas to listen to and "Teach Yourself Hindi" lessons to struggle with. But most importantly there were strangers who became collaborators who became friends, who made me feel at home while we explored their country together—and who taught me how to drink chai like it was coffee.