A Suitable Tailor

Last weekend, sitting on the floor of my living room, drinking tea and attempting to gain a little respite from the sun, my friend received an email:

‘A friend back in the UK is planning a low-budget wedding, and needs to get a wedding dress made. She’s asking my advice on whether to get it made up here. What do you think?’

A good question. Getting clothes tailored has been a re-occurring theme during my two year stay in India. The concept of affordable, personalized tailoring as an everyday service – completely unheard of back in the UK – has always appealed to me. So why was my gut reaction to the email to think ‘don’t do it!?’

My quest to find ‘the perfect tailor’ has been something of a holy grail. Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed in those early days in Noida, I reveled in the whole experience: trekking off to the fabric shops, browsing through colours, patterns and designs with friends while sipping on chai, choosing a neck design from a well-thumbed brochure and finally being measured. What’s not to enjoy?

When a week later the day came to pick up my clothes (a full kurta churidar set) I could barely contain my excitement. Nor was I disappointed when I reached the shop – it was ready! Only when I arrived back home with my friend did the realisation set in. While her suit fit like a glove, mine was near ridiculous: the top half sagging off my shoulders and wide around my chest, but tight around my hips, and the churidar barely able to be squeezed over my feet.

‘Maybe the tailor got confused’ my friend helpfully pointed out, ‘you do have quite thick calves … and your hips are wide in comparison to the rest of your body …’

Hmmm, not exactly music to my ears, but perhaps true. Three repeat visits back for alterations and I had a kurta that was perhaps passable. Strike one.

Eager to try again, a friend suggested that I had a much better chance if I found a shop-bought item that I liked, and then had it copied. Fab India kurta in hand, I optimistically returned. This time the results were admittedly better – this time it was uniformly large, as if made two dress sizes too big. ‘It will shrink in the wash, madam’. Yes, but sadly not that much …

Then came a bit of a lull – I got busy with my Hindi course, and moved across town to south Delhi. But for Diwali and my trip to Lucknow I decided to try my luck with my new local tailor, with similarly disastrous results (extra sad considering the lovely polka dotted silk I had purchased for the purpose). With a heavy heart, I decided that perhaps tailoring and me were not meant to be. What are we on now- strike three?

Only when I received three (lovely) sets of fabric as a Christmas gift did I get myself back into the game. This time I wasn’t taking any chances. A trip was made to INA market, and I purchased a few metres of cheap fabric for experimental purposes. With this in hand I made my way to the swankiest tailor that I could see in Green Park Market.

With high expectations (I’m an eternal optimist) I returned after the prescribed four days, only to find it wasn’t ready. I went back again after a week and then again a few days after that, and on both occasions was greeted with closed shutters. These posh places don’t have a lot of holidays. Between shop closures, my trip to Chenani and the three alterations needed to make the kurta fit the entire process took around six weeks. Thwarted again.

By this point I really had given up (I’m an optimist, but I’m not stupid – maybe I really am just a bizarre shape that no tailor can contend with). Perhaps unwisely though, when buying some leggings in a cloth shop in Green Park Market a few weeks later, I couldn’t stop myself asking the million dollar question: ‘I don’t suppose you know a good tailor?’
At this, the shopkeepers eyes lit up, and he clicked his fingers, beckoning his young son towards him:

‘Madam – I have one. You won’t find it going alone. Follow my son.’

Completely wrapped up in the intrigue of the situation, I duly followed the small boy, negotiated my way through the residential streets behind the market, and came to an unmarked door, where I was unceremoniously deposited.

Feeling slightly giddy by this time, I rang the doorbell, and was greeted by a friendly looking auntie type, who ushered me inside. Slightly skeptical of the fact that it just looked like someone’s living room, but reassured by the experienced-looking tailor she introduced me to, I nevertheless decided to try my luck, and left one of my suits to be made up.

What beautifully tailored suits, madam ...

Result! Can you believe it? Three days later I picked up a beautifully stitched kurta set which (wait for it …) actually bore a perfect resemblance to the shape of my body. Since then I’ve had Auntie-ji’s tailor make three suits, all of which have been great, and she’s even taken on the task of altering my previous disasters. When on occasions something isn’t made quite right the first time, the changing area (read: family bathroom near the living room) means that it’s easy to show the problem, and adjust things there and then, without multiple trips home. I haven’t tried any western clothes yet, but that might just be the next experiment.

So, in answer to my friend of a friends question … maybe you can get your wedding dress made in India. But you might have to wait for a few years before you find the right fit …

A lot can happen in Cafe Coffee Day

Mr Ramakrishnan, the President of CCD!

So, as we all know, 2012 is the year in which the world will end, and a clear sign of this impending apocalypse is Starbucks, which will be subjecting India to its undercaffeinated beverages and irritating jazz music before the year is out.

I’m particularly devastated about this because we already have a couple of our own perfectly good coffeeshop chains: Barista, and the cheaper (and perhaps more cheerful?) Cafe Coffee Day. The latter, with its iconic red sofas and Bollywood background music, has become something of an Indian institution – no mall or market is complete without the CCD red inverted comma.

But it’s all change at our favourite cafe chain. No longer must we rely on the sloth-like waiters, as we now place orders at the counter. The menu has also changed to incorporate some slightly fancier sandwiches (although, tragically, Maegan’s favorite lemon tea has been axed). Oh, and they’ve just opened a brand-new ‘Lounge’ branch by the Saket PVR.

So while everyone is busy raving about St*****ks, we have decided instead to celebrate CCD, by compiling this list. Enjoy.

Relaxed: The MIT CCD at Manipal (by Udita)

The CCD that has only ever housed students, almost always those that pretend to be studying heavy engineering books, is located in the heart of the University town that I lived in, Manipal. This CCD is witness to ‘filmy’ drama everyday, in the form of hook-ups, passionate making-out sessions, impromptu break-ups, and groups so large that all 9-10 of the tables must be joined. The conversations range from new crushes to the last exam to the latest bike in town. Often, there are local gigs (pioneered in my times by Anamol’s band) and one can listen to Floyd and Dylan while sipping not-so-well-made coffees. But when the music and the ambience is so laid back and ‘Hard Rock Cafe’ types, what more can one ask for?

Chilled out in Chennai: Adyar CCD, Indira Nagar (by Maegan)

Prominently located in one of south Chennai’s most amiable suburbs is another CCD that scores highly in the rankings. With an abundance of wicker chairs and sofas tucked under the shade of a leafy green canopy, its outside area may well be CCD’s most picturesque. Notable for its sizzling chocolate brownies (which are always proudly served with a suitable amount of drama and gusto) and unpredictable opening hours (I’ve known it to be open past midnight when busy but closed at nine on quiet nights), what really sets it apart are the staff. Willing to let you use their toilet when you’re passing by & just can’t make it home, they also came to the rescue by providing a small cup of (free!) milk when I ran out while baking a birthday cake for a friend late at night. Now that’s what I call service …

India’s best CCD?: Amber Fort, near Jaipur, Rajasthan (by Susanna)

When my parents were visiting, my dad developed a sudden and intense fondness for Cafe Coffee Day (the same way he did for ‘Ducky Duck’ in Japan). After a heavy thali, what could be better than a coffee in CCD? After being harassed by hawkers in Connaught Place, only CCD would provide some much-needed tranquility. And after traipsing around the Amber Fort for hours in the midday sun, when we spotted that little red inverted comma, and drank cappuccinos while looking out over the fort’s golden stone walls, we probably were the happiest tourists in all of India.

Engrossed: CCD Counter at STMicroelectronics, India (by Udita)

I consider myself fortunate to have a CCD counter at my workplace, where… wait, hold your breath… prices are half of what they are outside! Yes! It’s almost half the reason why I get myself to work everyday and since I am a very regular customer, I get goody-bags, free coffees etc. every once in a while. One can usually overhear people having intense discussions about the leakage graphs of a device or the capacitance of a BJT. The coffee is good and even lemon tea is still served here. The best part, they still makes ‘Coffee Toffee’ for people who request it; it used to be on the menu a long time ago.What can I say, I feel blessed…

India’s worst CCD?: Rajiv Chowk metro station, Delhi (by Susanna)

It would only be fair, while describing the best, to also include the polar opposite, which can be found in the sweaty, stale-smelling interchange metro station underneath Connaught Place. This CCD is always packed, but even if you can find a table you’ll immediately want to die because there’s no airconditioning. Once, I went in here to be told there was no milk. ‘Um, so what can I have?’ I asked the waitress. She heaved a sigh and eventually found the strength to reply, ‘only black coffee, madam.’

Tested  & Infested: Noida Sector 18 CCD, UP (by Maegan)

Susanna may have already taken the title of ‘India’s worst’ for Rajiv Chowk’s undeniably unimpressive branch, but in Noida’s sector 18 I think we have a contender. Tucked away not far from the metro station up an insalubrious looking staircase, its ambiance leaves much to be desired. Best-known for its acute cockroach problem and long-term out of use toilet (‘currently being fixed, madam’) the massive amount of time that I spent there is perhaps the most damning indictment of my Noida PG. Either that, or I kept going back because of the lovely waiter who enjoyed helping me with my Hindi homework.  As they say, you win some, you lose some …

(Photo of Mr R borrowed from here)

Curd, Lemon Juice, and Mustard Oil

However much I’d like to think that I completely fit in, there are several things that single me out as a foreigner. Granted, I’ve been blessed with a strong constitution when it comes to street food and tap water (God, please don’t strike me down with food poisoning for that comment!) but India – I have found – will catch up with you in other ways.

Have you ever witnessed a conversation between two ex-pats who’ve been here for more than about six months? The cliché would be that we’d reminisce about things we miss from home (turkey dinners, snowy winters, pub lunches etc) but the reality is somewhat different. Within five minutes the conversation will have turned to ailments – yes ailments:

“Oh my God, you have a weird skin rash under your armpits too? Apparently it’s the humidity”

“Don’t feel too bad – it could be worse -I have a friend here who literally cannot eat food outside anywhere without being sick for three days afterwards.”

“Ah! My hair is falling out in lumps too! What’s the deal with that?!”

You get the picture? My latest ailment has been my scalp, of all things. Having been through the wars with psoriasis supposedly triggered by Chennai’s humidity, I thought that I might be more suited to a dry, temperate Delhi winter. Conversely, it turns out that this is not the case – apparently my scalp responds to dryness by giving up the ghost, falling off & becoming incredibly itchy. Not good. Clearly I can’t cope with either extreme.

Fear not though – help is at hand! Almost everyone I’ve spoken to has had a simple (yet bizarre) solution to offer. My boyfriend remembered his mother massaging mustard oil into his sister’s scalp at this time of year – had I tried that? Friends from college poo poo-ed the mustard oil idea (too difficult to get out, apparently) but swore by the application of fresh curd.  Feeling very confused by these pieces of conflicting advice, I turned to (who else) Udita, who rubbished all of the above suggestions, but thought that lemon juice could help, and be a lot less messy.

I’m personally up for trying all three (perhaps not at the same time) and will report back on their relative merits. I’d rather that than carry on popping anti-histamines like smarties, which is clearly not a sustainable solution.  It’s funny – adapting mentally to a new culture and way of living can seem in the abstract like the most difficult thing to achieve, but it seems in many cases that it’s the body lagging behind the mind. Ah well, hopefully with the help of curd, mustard oil and a dash of lemon juice I can persuade my fragile gori physique to step up to the mark. I can hope, anyway.

(Photo courtesy of Michael Foley Photography, via flickr)

A Room of One’s Own

I’ve always been a bit of a nester. I was one of those people who arrived in my college room, and had to sting up fairy lights, make home-made cushion covers and arrange my books by size and genre before I could feel truly at home.

The last few months in Delhi, therefore, have been a bit of a trial. Who knew that finding a room would be so difficult? The plan was to live in a girls’ hostel (abundant as they are in Delhi) while looking for something more permanent – preferably a room in a shared house. Having been moved on from my first hostel when the landlady’s (absent) husband decided that he didn’t much like the idea of a foreigner living in his house, I found another, and the real hunt began in earnest.

A series of rooms found in north Delhi near to the University were vetoed by friends more streetwise than me – “not safe for foreign women to live alone in that part of Delhi.” Plans to live with Udita were sadly brought to a halt when we were not able to find a mutually convenient location, so that she could get to work in Greater Noida, and I could commute to North Campus. Susanna? Super keen, but tied into a six month contract she couldn’t escape from without losing her deposit.

Both however took turns to accompany me on a search around the city which ranged from the sublime to the ridiculous. The room in Vasant Kunj? Great, except the living room didn’t have a roof. Hauz Khaz? Lovely, but the landlady lived on the floor below, and wanted to impose curfews and ban guests. The one near GK? Wonderful on paper, but would have involved living with two Indian boys who gawped at me as if they had never seen a girl before, and (judging by the house) seemed not to have been introduced to the concept of cleaning. And the hundreds of rooms that came up in Defence Colony? Too, too lovely, but viable only if you have a spare Rs30,000/month floating around.

Meanwhile, the hostel situation started to take its toll. People at home assumed that it was the privacy – “how can you share a room with two other girls?” that would be the issue. Funnily enough, that was never really a problem. My room partners were laid-back, friendly, and we developed that easy type of female companionship that you can only really get when living in such close quarters. Priyanka would ask me to paint her nails, Mridu would help me with my Hindi homework, we’d moan about the food together.

No, what got me – I guess – was the lack of autonomy. The inability to deal with situations – to think for yourself and solve problems. When it became clear that one washing line for thirty girls just didn’t work, stringing up a new line caused political discussions the like of which I’d never experienced. When we found ants in our mattresses, putting them out in the sun engendered the sort of telling off I’d not encountered since childhood, as Aunty explained how I was defacing her house. When mice and cockroaches became a problem, we couldn’t authorize pest control to come ourselves, but had to hand the issue over to another’s judgment. My habit of working at the upstairs dining table rather than on my bed (our ground floor room had terrible internet signal) was vetoed, and I developed the expensive habit of spending my mornings in Coffee Day with my laptop. Something had to give.

Luckily, it did. A room in a shared flat, on the edge of (but not in) a pretty salubrious area came up. The perfect mixture of privacy and company, home-comforts and affordability. I share a bathroom, kitchen and living room but can retreat  to my own room at any time. If I fancy splashing out on Costa I can walk to a swanky market within twenty minutes, but within a five minute radius of my house I have a reasonable vegetable wallah, a small tailor, and a selection of street food.

So here I am, sat on a chair (no less!) at a desk. To my left sits a set of fully categorized books, and to my right the best closet I have ever had the good fortune to call my own. Yesterday, and after only limited chasing, the Holy Grail arrived. A hot water geyser! Yes, after three months in Delhi, I had my first hot shower. And not even from a bucket – an actual showerhead. What can I say? Utter bliss. All that remains now for the house to be truly christened is for cheesecake to be consumed here. Susanna? Udita? Come on over!

The Firangi Factor

 

  1. They get stared, jeered, hooted at…
  2. Men point at them, make lewd gestures, mumble trash…
  3. Street urchins have been known to smack them (happened to Emma, a friend of Maegan’s who’d come to visit)…
  4. Soaring temperatures and constant humidity makes them uncomfortable and tired…
  5. Mosquitoes sniff them out no matter what and leave their skin cratered and pained…
  6. Dust and mosquito repellant smog leaves their hair frizzy and eyes red…
  7. They get ripped off by drivers…
  8. They have to live with horrible/ weird/ dirty females, if on a budget…
  9. Foreigner registrations are usually a nightmare…
  10. The general opinions and stares of random people follow them wherever they go…

I’m sure I’ve missed points.

They come from well respected, protective, beautiful families just like ours. Their mums and dads are just as concerned as ours are. They have never had to endure this kind of treatment in their lives.

And yet. Yet, in all the while that I have known Maegan or Susanna, have I known them to be complaining and/or bitter. Never will they make a face about sitting underneath a fan, without the comfort of an AC. Never will they be grumpy about going out in the searing heat. Never will they be bitter about walking instead of taking a rickshaw. Give them a ride and they will thank you profusely to the point of embarrassment (keeps happening with M and V)…

They smile, wrestle with their Hindi, take everything in their stride, write humorous blog posts out of painful incidents, and be happy. I have met way more spoilt females… hell, even I am used to more comforts than Maegan!

What is it that makes them this nice? This tolerant? It seems so difficult for me to keep my cool when I am stared at, and I am in my own country… these two make it seem effortless. Surely it is not easy, surely… it is a mystery to me.

There is a lot to learn from you two (cutely crazy) ‘gori’s

The first bite

Once upon a time, three ladies were salivating over a glass desserts refrigerator, trying to make the hardest decision of their lives.

‘No, not that one,’ I explained to the waiter. ‘The one on the bottom shelf, second from the left.’

‘On the right?’

‘No. Second from the left. With the fruit. Which one is that?’

‘Ahh, the blueberry cheesecake!’

‘Yeah, I’ll have a slice of that.’

It was a typical, ridiculously hot afternoon in Delhi, and we (Maegan, Udita and I) decided that the only way to soothe ourselves from the scorching sunbeams would be to devour a humongous slab of cake in the airconditioned paradise of the Big Chill in Khan Market.

The cake arrived. Maegan took a tiny spoonful of her appropriately named Double Chocolate Decadence and almost died from the pleasure. My slice of cheesecake was bigger than my own head. Udita let the side down slightly, claiming she was full from the gigantic chicken salad she’d just had, and only had a little taste of our cakes. But we let her off; she’s small, slim and delicate, and it was quite believable that she was full. Unlike Maegan and I, who are great, hulking five-foot-eight foreigners, easily capable of shoveling down a few thousand extra calories.

‘We should start a magazine about eating in Delhi,’ I said, my mouth full of biscuit base. ‘And once we’re famous all the restaurants will pay us to review them and we’ll have free food for the rest of our lives.’

‘Or we could do a blog,’ suggested Udita. ‘It could be about our different lives in Delhi.’

We pondered this, spoons mid-air.

‘Joint blogs are always interesting,’ Maegan chipped in. ‘And having the three of us write it would be really unique.’

Udita grinned, ‘We can call it “Cheesecake in Delhi”’.

And so, on the walk back to the metro station, we decided to do it. Not just say we were going to do it, but actually do it. Three girls – an English one, a Scottish one and an Indian one – and one blog. Maybe, or maybe not, on the subject of chilled desserts.