Mangoes and mythical homes
Arrived in Delhi on Wednesday evening. The first thing I noticed when I pulled up the window in the airplane just before landing was how dark it was. Just when I was getting used to it being really light outside in Michigan until after nine. It's funny though how all cities look alike from the air after dark. The first glimpse of India is that spider web of lights interspersed with patches of complete darkness. If I didn't know where I was I could be anywhere.
But that doesn't last long, at least not in the summer. The moment I stepped out of the plane I was hit with a blast of hot air. It was like walking into an oven. The hot air seeps into your lungs and other organs and warms up your insides as if you're roasting on a grill. It overpowers all other sensations.
Every other time I've visited India in the summer from the US, it's been from Florida, Texas, and Georgia, all far more humid places than Delhi and about as hot as it gets in America in the summer. But this time of course, I flew in from Grand Rapids, Michigan, where I experienced my first real spring, with gorgeous weather -- even though Michigan folk complain when it gets to 75 degrees Fahrenheit. Here in Delhi, it's a hundred. (Note: this is not a complaint, just an observation, much like all my observations on the Michigan winter.)
I got a look at the international departure area of the Indira Gandhi International Airport two years ago when it was readied for the Commonwealth Games. Used to be a bit of an embarrassment on prior arrivals with its austere, chilly appearance. This time, it was quite different. The carpets are cheerful, and the massive hands sculpted in various dance mudras to welcome guests gaudy but interesting. And the open plan duty free shop way better-stocked than most in the States.
The ostentatious yet traditional display on the walls of the airport took me right back to the issue of Vanity Fair that I was reading on the flight. I bought it for its article on Marilyn Monroe, but, to my delight, found one on Nita and Mukesh Ambani's 27-storey home in Mumbai. How fortuitous. Their home sums up important aspects of life that I have observed in metropolitan India in recent times.
For those of you who may not be familiar with the Ambanis (shame on you,) the elder of the two brothers, Mukesh, is the richest man in India. His new billion-dollar home is called Antilla, named after a mythical Mediterranean island. Legend has it that seven bishops chanced upon the island while fleeing the Moorish invasion and settled there. Why the religious Hindu Ambanis would name their home after a Christian island is unclear.
In its June issue, Vanity Fair interviewed Mukesh Ambani's wife, Nita, on her fabled 570-foot tall, 400,000 square foot home. In one photograph, she strikes a Bharatnatyam pose (I told you the creepy hand mudras at the airport would come back) against a Taj Mahal-like backdrop complete with marble edifices and a rectangular pond in the "garden". The whole scene reminds one of a Mughal palace. This is, apparently, one of the 27 unique floors in Antilla. A photograph from another floor resembles an ornate hotel lobby. Of course the building has its own multi-level car park, spa, ballroom, theatre, and everything else that would be necessary to make a house a comfortable and cozy home.
Now I watch House and Garden TV plenty, and have dreamed up many homes for myself. The ivy-covered English cottage, the glass-walled house by the ocean, even a penthouse overlooking...something cool. But I wouldn't want to live in a hotel in Las Vegas.
There is something so obviously vulgar and yet fascinating about Antilla. It's a microcosm of a growing section of Indian society. There was always that section that liked to flaunt its wealth but of late, it's become more pervasive. Even the middle class has more disposable income than before, and far more access to global brands, luxury goods, fine living. Even those who don't really have more money to spend seem tempted to act like they do. The lavish weddings in Mehrauli farmhouses, the swank shops at upscale malls like the DLF Emporio (where my hard-earned dollars can't afford to buy anything), the lives of the rich and infamous splashed on Page 3 of daily newspapers, the glib ease with which young Indians talk about their travels overseas - if the most visible side of India to Westerners in the past has been the poor and downtrodden, then perhaps features like the one in Vanity Fair will awaken them to the reality of the two Indias that co-exist so much more glaringly now than ever before. It is easy, living in Mall City over here, to let the more flashy layer conceal the grittier ones, but I'm not sure which one is more depressing.
In the past ten years since I left and the economy flourished, the most obvious change has been the rise of the nouveau riche. India is, in terms of economy at least, a new country, and like most things that are new, it is insecure about its place in the world. One way of asserting its arrival is by flaunting whatever it can. The breezy, smug confidence of its youth and the aggressive materialism of its consumers may be a passing thing.
But for now, it is the plastic that covers many sordid things like potholes and powercuts. And like most plastic, it's flimsy.
If this has read like a rant, I'd better end on a much more pleasurable note.
Last night, I ate my first mango in two years. A Safeda. Slightly tangy at first, and a bit stringy, but then fairly sweet. Its pale yellow skin looks more like a lemon than anything else, and it lacks the rich scent or flavor of later mangoes of the season. But for an early teaser, it will do fine. Now if I had a billion-dollar home, I might call it not Antilla but Alphonso.