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Indian way of life

Of Scottish Punjabis and paneer bagels

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A new documentary turns the spotlight on expats who are not only making India their home but making a conscious effort to integrate.

They're the new converts to the Indian way of life. Fascinated not just by the exotica, they now want to be part of the booming economy that spells India in this century. And it's this 'Eastward Ho!' mood of foreigners and expatriates that Yasmin Kidwai tries to capture in her new film, India By Choice. The documentary that is being shown at the Melbourne and New York Indian film festivals explores the changing perspective about India from a 'punishment posting' to a 'destination of choice'.
It was the capital's Khan Market that gave Kidwai the idea. "There was a time when one would come across just a handful of foreigners - mostly embassy officials - who'd just stick to their own kind. It has changed, " says Kidwai, talking about not just the increasing numbers of foreigners in every part of Delhi but also about the way they're making a conscious effort to integrate themselves with the Indian way of life.

That's when she started with her research on the subject. "You hear of different forums hailing India as a growing superpower, but to actually meet people who're looking at work and business opportunities and are willing to make India their home fills you with pride, " says Kidwai, who wonders if she would be able to relocate to a new city. "I couldn't adjust even to Bombay. For them it must be even more difficult - after all, they've come to a new country. But they seem happy to be here, " she adds, giving the example of author William Dalrymple who calls himself a "Scottish Punjabi" and certainly looks happy, as he says in the film, "with my charpoy, my rotis, paranthas, papad and achar".

Gilles Chuyen, contemporary dancer, is often called "more Indian than the Indians" by his friends. Here since '94, Chuyen feels the same. "This white skin means nothing to me. On the contrary, when I leave, I miss India, its heat, its spicy food. These are things that give me a high, so I guess I have become truly Indian. "

He remembers the first time he came here to study at Delhi University. "I was a bit disillusioned because the pollution, noise, dirt and aggression didn't reflect Gandhi and his ideas of non-violence that people in the West associate India with. " After finishing his PhD on "Who Is A Brahmin" that was later turned into a book, the 41-year-old laughs saying how his perspective has changed: "All those things I thought were 'violent' then, now seem so positive, wild and spicy. "

For the past four years, Chuyen has been working on turning the spotlight on the folk dances of Nagaland. "The north-east is a smorgasbord of dance styles, and Nagaland alone has an amazing variety that I am going to show in a film and put together in a book, " he says.

Like Chuyen, Francesa Barolo came to India to study. "I did my post-graduation in sociology from D School and have since been working on genderbased violence and issues, " she says. This was about eight years ago. Francesca stayed on, got married to an Indian polo player, Simran Singh Shergill, and often travels to Rajasthan on work. "There are times I forget about my white skin and wonder why people are staring at me, " she smiles. Right from dealing with the autowala to the sabziwala, "I manage perfectly well. I never feel like an outsider, " she says.

It's trendy to be in India right now, concedes 48-year-old writer, Sam Miller. "From a time when it was considered unusual to come to India, it's one destination that's really built up steam, " he says. "The reasons vary from work to being married to an Indian to studies in Sanskrit, music, dance or other cultural traditions that command interest in the West. " Miller, who has been living here for the past eight years, says it is India's booming economy that has made it attractive. Agrees Peter Kronschnable, president of BMW in India, who's been here for the past four years: "In the next 10 to 15 years, this country will become one of the most important economies of the world. "

Many factors have swung the mood in India's favour, right from rising standards in infrastructure and civic amenities to medical facilities and, of course, kids' education. That's what made Netherlands-based Alexander de Goederer and his wife Lalita (Sanskrit name given by an Indophile father) decide to set up home in India. While the former got into real estate, the latter decided to offer authentic bagels to Delhiites. In the past three years, Lalita has set up three outlets and will be opening her fourth by June. "I've been experimenting in order to cater to the Indian palette too. I've created paneer tikka, masala omelette and spicy cottage cheese bagels, " she smiles. Right from the time she set up her first outlet in Gurgaon (" after a Ganesh puja" ), Lalita's had no reason to complain. "Indian laws and the business environment here are very conducive for foreigners too. I'd recommend India to all my friends, " says the 32-year-old.

The de Goederers' two children were born in Delhi. "There was no reason to go back home for their birth because the hospitals here are as good as at home, " says Lalita, whose children are "pretty proficient in Dutch, English and Hindi". About her future plans, Lalita says she'd like to keep them open. "I can't say right now but we're here for a long time. "

"Being in the right place at the right time" is what prompted Jack Leenars, a journalist, to start a new business venture in India. "Six years as the South Asia correspondent for a Dutch newspaper was enough for me. I was looking for a new challenge, " he says and that's when he hit upon the idea of organising bicycle tours in Delhi. "My friends thought I was being very brave to give up an established job. But it's strange how in all those years as a journalist, I never really felt part of things here - I was always an observer. It's so different now - I have a sense of belonging and that's a good feeling. "

Having started out with just two bicycles, Leenars now has a fleet of 75 and five different city tours. Ask him if being a foreigner, he's faced any security issues and Leenars shakes his head. "Never. On the contrary, we get a lot of respect and support. " The only disappointment he's faced is not being able to speak Hindi fast enough. "The problem is that too many people here speak English, " he laughs. "But my three children, who were all born here, understand and speak Hindi. The two older ones go to Indian schools. "

While business opportunities and the environment are all "very welcoming and good" for foreigners, the only time Leenars is on tenterhooks is when it's time for the visa renewal. "Every year we have to apply for a visa, and I wish life would be minus the tension that comes with the wait. "

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