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Jalandhar in Jakarta

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Indonesia leaves most Indians unscathed. Nobody wants to be an Indonesian, not even the Sindhis. 

The music slams into my chest as soon as I enter the darkened room. The girls are on a small stage belting out the words "Rabba, Rabba" to a psychedelic beat, doing slow half circles in that Punjabi way - one leg bent, a palm outstretched. They are in jeans, sequin tops and pointy-toed boots. Their hair, Indian black, falls straight to their shoulders.

I forget to order a beer and instead stand transfixed, taking in three twenty-somethings from Jalandhar in a hotel, The Jakarta Marriott, best known for a suicide bombing last year. Most of those here, swaying to the music or sipping tall, frothy green drinks, are Indonesian; except for a group of thick-waisted Indian men who huddle in a corner of the dance floor.
The girls finish their song and an Indonesian man in leather pants shakes his waist-length hair and grabs a mike.

"The most beautiful girls in the world are Indian. Miss World, Miss Universe is always from India," he shouts. A black man in a red track suit nods in agreement. The girls file off stage, another band takes over, and I'm beamed back to reality, like a character out of Star Trek.

I first encountered Girlz, to use the band's name, the night before, at the Indian embassy's Republic Day reception. There they were, in their painted-on jeans and sequins, alternating between bhangra and Western pop and creating a stir in the Indian community, which had come expecting tandoori chicken and dal makhni, perhaps even a classical dance performance, but certainly not a robotic enactment of a Kylie Minogue video by a band flown in from Bombay.

My primary interest was in the food. But one thing led to another and, as the giant room emptied of all but a few stragglers, I found myself seated at a large round table with, among others, Deepa, Disha and Sonali. That's when I discovered that they're from Jalandhar...army kids...grew up all over the place... now based in Bombay...would never wear such clothes in Punjab.

I found myself holding on to every word, soaking in their accents - public school Punjabi - reacquainting myself with how a single dismissive hand gesture can say "oh him, we used to think he was such a big star, but now he's just a regular guy to us."

I haven't lived in India since I last worked there as a journalist more than three years ago. My contacts with Indians here in Indonesia are sporadic, confined to embassy functions on Republic Day and Independence Day, and to the occasional invitation to dinner by some kind older person. So my encounter with the girls hits me with the force of nostalgia, not what you might feel when you run into an old friend after years but, rather, an odd blend of newness and familiarity, like discovering a stranger in a family album.

It's this feeling that I'm here to explore at the Marriott. I head to the corner where the Girlz sit. They remember me from the previous night and soon I strike up a conversation with Deepa, at 27 the oldest of the three, and so, at least in my mind, the band leader.

We employ the special code that Indians are genetically programmed to use with each other, allowing a swift and unforgiving determination of social worth that both makes subsequent conversation possible, and establishes its tone and tenor. In less than the time it takes to finish a beer, I learn about a brother who is a doctor in Arkansas, a sister-in-law who works on Wall Street, a great-grandfather who went to Princeton, a grandfather who fought a famous case at the Supreme Court, a father in the army and a Welsh woman somewhere in the family tree.

Deepa, of course, finds out about a diplomat father, a brother at Oxford, a master's degree from Princeton and an ethnic mix that's half Maharashtrian and half Tamil. (Though my involuntary responses to dal makhni and that Rabba Rabba song prove that I'm secretly Punjabi too.)

After a while, Deepa whips out a Nokia camera phone and proceeds to show me pictures. There she is in Bombay with Mick Jagger - "he was really cool to hang out with, a really decent person" - playfully cradling a video camera.

Here she is with the lead singer of the Pakistani band Junoon, I forget his name. Here's Deepa at the Eiffel Tower. She tells me about performing in Dubai, Muscat and Sri Lanka, about how someone called them India's Spice Girls - there used to be five of them - and how she hated it because "it's so wannabe."

My eyes stray to the knot of Indian men, off the dance floor, but still in a huddle, and my mind wanders to how being an Indian in Indonesia is so much more predictable than being one in America. You don't feel this country constantly pressing down on you on all sides so you don't have to make the same effort to maintain your sense of self.

In America, you have Indians trying desperately to be American, saying ant when they mean aunt and ruthlessly excising "lift" (for elevator), "trousers" and "air hostess" from their vocabularies. Then you have Indians fighting viciously to remain Indian, hrefusing to say ant when they mean aunt, and devoting their lives to studying 19th century Bengali lesbians or the novels of Shobha De. Then there are the ABCDs, some of whom want to say aunt and wear saris to work - or, better still, complain about how they can't - and boast about how their fathers read the Times of India. In short, it's all so complicated.

Indonesia leaves most Indians unscathed. Nobody wants to be Indonesian. Even the Sindhis, some of whom have been here for generations, do not confuse business with belonging.

You can easily spend 20 years here playing bridge or golf once a week with fellow Indians, having the same friends over for stuffed bhindi and mutton curry, and generally getting on with a life transplanted from Delhi's Defence Colony or Greater Kailash; except that the servants are better trained and don't scratch their crotches in front of guests.

I turn back to Deepa with her coke-colored drink, her Marlboro Lights and her camera phone with the picture of Mick Jagger.
Despite her familiarity, I sense a gulf, a slippage between her India and mine. Deepa is old enough to belong to an India I recognize, young enough to have one leg in an India that I don't. It saddens me to think that things are changing so fast that before long I'll feel like a stranger in my own land. Or perhaps that has already happened, leaving me only with a craving for mutton curry and that Rabba Rabba song in my head. 

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Arts & Entertainment | Travel | Magazine | February 2004

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