Monday, July 28, 2008

Class Anxiety

My family's what you would call solidly middle-class (lower middle-class, if you ask my father, but then, he has a self-deprecation thing going on. He's a mechanical engineer who gets a kick out of referring to himself as a mechanic).

My father spent an entire lifetime working in research labs, a respectable but not exactly well-remunerated profession. Till my early 20s we lived in a succession of rental apartments that were neat and cozy, but cramped and not exactly sophisticated.

My mother's idea of livening up the walls was hanging up the paper calendars we received every year from our local grocery shop, that featured the very definition of Indian calendar art - Raja Ravi Varma inspired paintings of gods and goddesses.

Scene I:

Delhi, India
Time: A few years ago

I am at the the house of a colleague for lunch. I know her as someone who had spent years working for non-profit organizations, extremely down-to-earth and charming, with an air of subtle sophistication about her.

The house is a large impressive bungalow, laid out with impeccable taste decorated with chic furniture, luscious carpets and huge expanses of impressive paintings.

This was a mini-museum of artwork by contemporary and early 20th century Indian artists. Canvases by Raza, paintings and high backed chairs by Ara, a massive canvas by Hussain with his signature horses, and on one wall a gorgeous and unmistakable Jamini Roy. My boss sees my awed expression and whispers to me - "It's all original artwork - that's a real Jamini Roy".

I walked around the house in a haze, never had I been in a house where wealth and taste had been so exquisitely combined.
....................................................................................................

When I came back home that evening and entered our apartment, a pall of gloom came over me. And when I saw the glossy fading Jamini Roy print in our living room, hot tears rolled down my cheeks.

My parents had to scrimp and save to buy our sofa, our dining table, the show case and everything else that had been lovingly assembled bit by bit in that apartment. And yet despite imbuing it with all the affection and regard of a beloved home, that day it fell woefully short and looked impossibly tacky in comparison to what I had just experience. I think I may have just ruined my contentment in middle-class comfort and conformity at that very moment.

Despite this, the very solid middle-class values of thrift and valuing a solid intellectual education imparted by my parents have stayed on. To this day I cannot bring myself to buy something full price at a store. And I have a nagging, compulsive need to read something, anything on a daily basis.

Yet often, I reflect on my life as a process of becoming, of constant self-evolution. And over the years I've narrowed down to a fairly stable image of what I'd like to evolve into.

I can see that woman clearly - she has an advantage of stellar academic education, but has also improved herself through reading and a strong intellectual curiosity.

She is elegant, well-groomed and always impeccably dressed. Her taste in clothes is understated, refined and yet cool and chic. She has a sophisticated palate, she understands wine and fine tea, tries different cuisines and is incredibly well-travelled.

She has a quirkiness to her, she memorizes botanical names of flowers for fun (that crosses over from quirky to batty I guess), and she humours her bohemian side from time to time by running off to work in the kitchen of a little island tavern in Greece.

This almost sounds like a caricature. Actually, it's more like a pastiche, a collection of every interesting quality that I've collected from books that I've read, films I've watched, women I've observed.

And sometimes I think that there are others who receive an impressive head start to becoming this idealized person, given their peculiar combination of wealth, not excessive but sufficient and savoir vivre or a cosmopolitan upbringing.

In one of his columns for The Hindustan Times Sunday supplement, the journalist Vir Sanghvi spoke of going for vacations as a child to Geneva with his parents. There, they would always go to this one restaurant and he would order steak frites every time.

It still sounds such an incredibly remote and cosmopolitan experience to me, though by now I've travelled to Geneva, a charming city (Switzerland as a whole I could take or leave).

I also find it terribly exotic when my boyfriend tells me how he used to go skiing with his family in Austria as a child. For him it was just another family vacation and frankly he infinitely preferred going to some small seaside town in Greece, but to me it is the glimpse of a life I never had, and I sometimes wonder how it would have been to live such a life.

Perhaps I would have been less unsure of myself, less trying. more confident in my judgment, and be able to affect the blasé disdain of someone who has seen it all, and knows it all. Despite all the veneer of worldly sophistication that I've tried to assiduously create over the years, inside it all is a middle class girl who's very unsure of where she fits in.

For instance, when we go out to eat, I can never be the one who is presented with the uncorked wine bottle for approval. Even if I feel the wine smells like vinegar (a very remote possibility, but what if), I'd never be able to say it aloud. I'm very diffident about my choice in clothes. I can always identify chicness and elegance in others, but never seem sure of it applying to my own style.

I become acutely conscious and hypercritical of what I wear when I have to attend an exclusive or formal event. I feel gauche and silly, often unable to make decent conversation because I am constantly holding myself back from making a faux pas and exposing myself as coarse and unrefined.

And yet, there are times when I realize that sometimes, in the midst of this grand self-improvement project, I forget those things that make me what I am and to be comfortable in my own skin (as the French say - "bien dans sa peau").

Scene II:

Location: Los Angeles, CA
Time: Two years back

The residence of the Consul General of Finland is the venue of a reception on the opening day of conference on mobile technologies. Why the Finnish Consul? Well, because Nokia is Finnish and the Finnish government seems to be a very enthusiastic and strong promoter of Finnish business interests.

The event is perhaps one of the most high powered events I've ever attended, with several very senior executives from all the major players in the mobile industry including Deutsche Telekom, SKII, Sony, Nokia, Motorola, etc.

So apprehensive was I of not embarrassing myself that I went out and bought a brand new shirt the night before and got my hair cut and blow dried (usually I'm too cheap to pay extra for blow drying at the salon. No, strike that - usually I'm too cheap for a professional haircut and just let my hair grow like a flower child).

The Consul General's house was in what is perhaps the most exclusive neighbourhood in all of Los Angeles - a gorgeous cul de sac in Bel Air discretely gated off from the access road, set within a profusion of flower hedges and vines. Keeping the handsome house company on either side were the homes of consul generals from Sweden and Denmark, thus creating their own little Nordic corner in this part of LA.

Let me put in a caveat before I proceed further. Mere wealth never really impresses me. Last year I went for a party to the house of a multi-millionaire several times over who has an outlandish mansion in Pacific Palisades (neck and neck with Bel Air for being the most exclusive address in LA). The house is a monument to kitsch, with large classical Corinthian columns supporting ceilings achingly weighed down with enormous chandeliers.

Large Renaissance era paintings look down on a jumble of Qing dynasty artifacts from China, a huge Gothic style library is filled with books that look like they've never been read, and the floors are covered with carpets that are an insult to the fine art of Persian carpet weaving. Bear in mind that the house was not bought in this current state, but built to the taste and specification of its current owner.

If ever there was evidence that money cannot buy taste, this was it. Later, the boyfriend and I had a good laugh over the tackiness of it all. If you want to see the Indian equivalent of such kitschy and tasteless home decor, check out the pictures of Shahrukh Khan's home here (apart from the overdose of very trashy versions of Louis XV chairs in Shahrukh's home, the homes are surprisingly similar).

Anyway, enough digression. The Finnish Consul General's home was at the opposite end of the taste and refinement spectrum. There was plenty of dark wood, for the cupboards, the dining table and sofas. Lots of very interesting art work by contemporary Scandinavian artists and a cool collection of antique Swedish porcelain dolls. This was a distinguished house that made you tread with light steps and speak in hushed tones as you delicately nibble your canapé and sip your wine.

And in front of me, I saw people who looked so incredibly worldly and sophisticated, the global emissaries of a global industry, mingling and talking with ease. Suddenly I felt very, very unsure. I wanted to sidle up to a group that seemed to be engrossed in a very interesting and lively conversation on one side. But I just couldn't muster up the courage to do so.

Throughout most of the evening, I wandered aimlessly, once in a while striking a conversation with a friend of mine who was also present at the reception, sending him off after a few minutes to network with the impressive roster of guests there. But I myself just couldn't be that elegant, relaxed, charming and witty girl that I always long to be.

Towards the end of the evening, I had to call up my boyfriend to have him come and pick me up. It was then that I found out that I had no signal on my cellphone. I asked a guest standing next to me if I could borrow his cellphone. Surprise, surprise, no reception on his phone either. In fact the entire house had no mobile signal whatsoever. Imagine the irony of this happening at a reception for a mobile technologies conference.

One of the servers saw what my problem was and led me to a room with a land line phone I could use. I called my boyfriend and he promised to be there in an hour. When I hung up and looked around, I saw the room had about 4-5 really quirky, unique chairs lying about. These were chairs that were minimally elegant, but with a twist or an interesting shape. I ran my hands over the chairs feeling their strange undulations.

"Do you like them?"

I started and looked up and saw a lovely older woman standing there, someone I recognized as the Finnish Consul's wife who had greeted us earlier.

TM: "Yes, they are very cool and interesting. Who are they by?"

Consul's wife : "Oh, these here are by Alvar Aalto."

TM: "Alvar Aalto? That's incredible! I love his architectural work, though I've never seen any furniture by him"

Consul's wife: "Yes, he designed a lot of chairs, and glass objects as well."

TM: "By the way, is that porcelain doll collection downstairs your personal collection too? That is so cool!"

Consul's wife: "Yes, that's mine. Do you want to see some of the other artwork in the house?"

And so off we went, chatting animatedly, on a guided tour of all the art that the couple had collected over the years and used to decorate the house. Some were big name Scandinavian artists, but mostly they were works by obscure artists in Finland and the US whose works the couple had appreciated and acquired.

These were people whose house was a reflection of their personal good taste, who had used their comfortable means well to achieve this. And this is where I found her a kindred spirit. She was what I wanted to be. Elegant, well-read, well-travelled, with impeccable taste and with the warmth and generosity of putting her unsure little guest completely at ease. At that moment, I become quite oblivious of my dress, my hair, my very middle class commonness and was engrossed in this mutual appreciation of interesting art.

I often reflect on this very American desire of mine to re-invent myself. I am still chasing this elusive ideal of being the woman who in my imagination has it all. But there is also a gentle voice in my head that reminds me that perhaps it is not half so bad to be what I am, with all my imperfections, so very stubbornly middle class.

A few years back, I was visiting my family in Delhi and I was showing them pictures of my trips through Switzerland, Belgium and Germany. Also included in the set of photographs were a few photos I had taken of an emerald green pond in my father's village when I had visited the village earlier. After looking at the photographs of Brussels and Geneva, my father turned to me and with a disarming smile said

"TM, all this Geneva and Brussels is fine, but isn't that pond the most beautiful thing you've ever seen?"

And I smiled back and said:

"Yes Baba, it is the beautiful thing I've ever seen."