Meet the 21st century heirs to the pucca sahibs, angrezi mems, and boxwallahs, haters and half-haters alike.
“Indians usually divide foreigners into three different categories. Most numerous are the haters who dislike both India and the Indians. Next come the ‘half-haters’ who dislike Indians but like the Indian landscape and the conditions of living,” wrote Khushwant Singh in a story about the colonial sahibs of yore. “The third category consists of lovers who like everything about India and the Indians. … This third category is very small. Indians treat them as the lunatic fringe.”
In 1970s Delhi, we simply divided them into diplomats and hippies, irrespective of their vocation. A ‘hippy’ was anyone sporting a kurta or other such shameful signs of having gone native. Like all good status-conscious Indians, we didn’t pay him much attention, or for that matter, the other non-white firangs. The embassy types were, in contrast, an object of secret awe, much like exotic animals on a safari, to be observed at a distance as they went about their daily lives: shopping at Modern Bazaar, passing by in their phoren cars, entering their secluded South Delhi bungalows, or dawdling in the lobby of a five-star hotel. The privilege of interacting with these creatures was reserved for natives with membership in the right cocktail circuit.
Liberalisation brought with it new kinds of visitors, and of a far greater number. High-ranking corporate executives and their wives led the charge, tailed by middle managers and later, hordes of twenty-something hoping to kick-start their careers in an emerging economy. Whither goes capital, soon follows high consumption, and therefore all those in the ‘lifestyle’ business: chefs, fitness instructors, handbag designers, stylists etc. Part and parcel of this alien invasion were the NRIs, who included all of the above and more. This new diversity inevitably encapsulated in a singular catch-all category: the expatriate.
Perhaps it’s time for a new set of categories to divide the genus expatriate into its various species, and in doing so get a better handle on India’s new/old equation with the world. Who then will attempt such a weighty enterprise? Certainly not a lazy sod like me. It’s far easier to lump the worst of them together in a non-definitive guide to the more noxious subspecies of expatriate fauna (noxious to both fellow expatriates and natives alike). Meet the 21st century heirs to the pucca sahibs, angrezi mems, and boxwallahs, haters and half-haters alike.
The International Frat Boy of Revelry: A subspecies of The Corporate Expat, this is a young man on a mission: to travel far, climb high, and pahrtay!
Most likely to be found: getting drunk and trying to get it on in the company of his expat bros and pretty young Indian things who seem to have mistaken him for Tom Cruise with an expense account.
Most likely to think: An Indian girl will want to marry him the moment they have sex. And if she doesn’t, it’s only because her parents won’t let her do so.
The Neo-colonial Memsahib: Once the privilege of white women in corsets, complaining about the heat, dust and the help (also: pollution, natives, food, filth) has gone multi-culti thanks to the global workplace, offering corporate wives of all ages, race and nationality the equal opportunity to play the ‘gori memsahib’.
Most likely to be found: bemoaning the vicissitudes of Indian life at coffee klatches and happy hours in five-star locales, while their driver waits in the parking lot.
Most likely to think: Basic human decency is an exclusively Western trait. As in, look what good care I take of my dog/maid/child unlike those uncaring, brutish Indians.
SWF ISO* Male Attention: Why be just another pretty white girl in London or Sydney when you can be crowned beauty queen in Bengaluru? Thanks to globalisation, upping your sexual cachet is as easy as changing your zip code.
Most likely to be found: being wined, dined and wooed in high style by Indian and expat men alike.
Most likely to think: of her career as a means to a more exciting romantic life, and relocation as an alternative to Match.com.
[*Single White Female In Search Of, acronyms employed in personal ads in the US]
Social Climbers Worldwide: Unlike some of their peers, these aspirational expats are eager to mingle with the locals, but with only those of a certain class. Upward mobility goes global!
Most likely to be found: in the company of minor royalty, corporate scions, media bigwigs, socialites, or those who can connect them to the same.
Most likely to think: An Indian is only as good as the numbers on his/her iPhone.
Not Really Indian: Having suffered the ignominy of being lumped together with other riff-raff of colour—Jamaicans, Chinese, Mexicans, Sri Lankans—in the West, this variety of NRI can’t wait to come back home and play whiter than thou.
Most likely to be found: in exclusive gated communities or expat clubs commiserating with fellow expats over the perfidious ways of the Indian.
Most likely to think: knowing the difference between gouda and emmental makes him/her a better human being.
Then there are the Expatriates et al, the larger number of expats who are much too smart, interesting, and complicated to fit into easy stereotypes. Indians may be just as enamoured with all things western as ever, but new India now attracts a different breed of foreigner, one who is neither a hater, half-hater nor deluded India lover. Besides, however good, bad or ridiculous its individual members may be, a diverse and growing international community is an unalloyed blessing for any nation. By bringing the world to our doorstep, expatriates help broaden our horizons and enrich our perspective, much as they have done in the United States or Britain. That some of them are self-important, foolish, or vain—like mere mortals everywhere—just makes life a bit more entertaining.