Monday, April 28, 2008

Greetings from: Noida

Suburbia has become mythologized in American culture, so much though that it’s become metaphor: isolation, stifling uniformity, repression. Manicured lawns and white picket fences, 2.5 children, 2.5 cars sitting in the driveway. Such is the image of American suburbia, and that was firmly fixed in my mind as I traveled towards Noida, a suburb of Delhi, with its own sleek, 70s-lettering style logo. Rishi had invited me back to meet his sometimes boyfriend, Sunit, and to watch movies. It could have been any of the Bollywood in his collection, but we ended up with House of Wax, Paris Hilton’s pole-in-the-head death scene abruptly trimmed away by the Indian censors. Rishi’s neighborhood is a block of concrete flats, the buildings shaped like half-played towers of Jenga. At my most gracious, I could call it a planned community; at my most ungracious, I could call it the projects. The entrance to Rishi’s complex was guarded by a small security force which opened the gate as necessary. The first channel on the cable TV system was a live feed on the single security camera pointed at the gate.

Across the (very busy) street was a small strip of stores, including a supermarket. People lived above these stores, and from Rishi’s balcony, I saw their laundry hanging on lines strung in every direction. Inside the supermarket, I was enthralled by brands familiar and unfamiliar. Since when did ordinary life take on the trappings of the exotic?

“Help me find some Tiffins,” Rishi asked me. We stood in the candy aisle, and I scanned the shelves, not knowing anything beyond the fact that Tiffins came in a tin. Moments before, I had stared at a milk-based boxed drink, kesar-flavored (saffron, I found out later). In American stores, the stock is carefully displayed, canisters and boxes in straight, orderly rows. In this store, boxed stock was kept behind the open stock on the shelf, a storage issue, I suspect. “Here it is,” Rishi said, pleased. The tin was neon colored, the cover image of a rollerblading Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck. Tiffins are like malted milk balls, puffed rice covered in chocolate.

The three of us sat on a futon, eating a pizza from Domino’s. I was disappointed in the toppings; instead of tandoori chicken, mango and curry, we had instead a “Mexican Green Wave,” which had jalapenos, green peppers, onions and tomatoes. Even Indians get tired of Indian food. Or America cultural imperialism has become so pervasive that it now imports its own bastardizations of other cultures -- Italy and Mexico in this case.

Periodically, the power would go off; the whole block went dark. I could still see outside -- the full moon -- and on the side of the streets, fires flared up: pavement dwellers. Then the power came back on, the A/C kicked back up, and life continued as normal.

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