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Champagne lunches and arty evenings... foreigners in India have always lived the good life. But a different kind of expat no longer wants to live in a cushy bubble. They’re embracing India’s dynamism, and it’s dirt...
It was her love for Bharatanatyam that brought Nancy Bossiel from Paris to Chennai. And it was his love for Nancy that made Yannick Cormier follow her. Ana Cuchí Gracia left a house on a beach, south of Barcelona, to work as a Spanish translator for software companies in Bangalore and stayed on to become a schoolteacher. New Yorker Kat Ferrara, a pet nutritionist, followed her man to Mumbai and today runs a gourmet bakery for dogs. Briton Richard Alderson runs a company that provides infrastructure support to social entrepreneurs on low budgets. Model-actor Julien Mulot, bored of Paris, is in Mumbai, waiting for his big Bollywood break.
Nancy, Yannick, Ana, Kat, Richard, Julien belong to a new generation of expatriates working in India. They are eons away from the archetypical image that the word typically conjures - 'expat' referred to those with diplomatic passports or to senior foreign executives of multinational companies. People who lived a life of champagne lunches and arty evenings behind high walls and chauffeur-driven cars. They were a post-colonial 'koi hai' generation for whom India was a "hardship posting", mitigated by fat salaries and fabulous perks. Today, the young expats you see sipping lattes at cafes or pumping iron at the gyms might even be working in coffee bars, or in gyms as instructors.
The Sri Lankan hair dressers, British gym instructors, French journalists and actors live normal Indian lives on Indian paycheques unlike their corporate or diplomatic brethren and seem to do just fine. They come here for work or love and tend to stay when they find the experience pleasant.
FOR LOVE AND LABOUR
Ana admits to missing "the sound of the waves when I go to sleep" but otherwise loves Bangalore, her "city of lakes. " Turning down "boring" job offers when studying in a Spanish university, she jumped at a offer to work as a translator for a software company in Bangalore. "I initially came for six months. After that. I realised I was pretty much settled in Bangalore, " so she stayed behind to teach Spanish at an international school.
Yannick, unlike Ana, came to India for love. When Nancy moved to Chennai, he persuaded the agency he worked for as a documentary photographer to send him to India for a year. That was in 2003. Today, he and Nancy are happy with the life they have made for themselves in the city, pursuing the careers they are passionate about.
Says Nancy, "I saw a Bharatanatyam performance for the first time in Paris in 1997 and I wanted to learn the dance form in the country of its origin. " After two years of study and shuttling between France and India, she moved to Chennai with her husband. Nancy, who also learnt yoga and performs regularly, says, "I have not had any problem breaking into the Bharatanatyam circuit, people have always accepted me. " She's found her niche in Chennai, teaching yoga to other expats at her house by the sea in Kottivakkam, and using her knowledge of ballet and Bharatanatyam to work with contemporary dancers abroad.
For Yannick, however, things haven't been that easy. He set up his own company, Trikaya Photos, in 2007. "I work with Indian photographers to supply photos to magazines, but it has been tough to get work in India, " says Yannick, who does assignments for international magazines.
Setting up a business is tough as Richard McCallum, a 32-year-old Briton who moved to Delhi in 2005, found out. McCallum, who left his comfy airline job to start an adventure travel company that offers zip tours at Neemrana and Mehrangarh forts, says, "India has great potential but there are some real problems. But if you get under its skin, there is nothing like it in the world. " He has also co-authored a book on India's disappearing moustaches.
Kat Ferrara, too, followed her heart to Mumbai nine years ago. In 2005, she started a gourmet bakery for dogs along with her would-be husband, Akshay Jamval, and now her "bone-appetit" cakes and other products are selling, well, like hot cakes.
"We organise birthday parties and send 'yappy barkday' cards to the dogs, who, of course, don't really know what's going on. But the owners have fun, " says the New Yorker, who also writes a diet advice column in a pet magazine.
Kat, with two cats of her own, also offers a petsitting service (looking after pets while the owners are away). Many Indians mistake her bakery for a kennel. "They used to call in at the bakery and ask if they can leave their dogs here and I would say, 'No, my cats won't like it, '" she laughs.
For Marcus Ballyn, 45, it was strictly business that brought him to India. He used to work for Fitness First in UK and was interested in helping it set up its India operations. "I came here for six to eight weeks, and ended up extending it to 14 months. Now, it's over two years since I came to India. . . been in Bangalore for nine months and it's home now. "
Fellow Briton Richard Alderson joined hands with Mumbaikar Pooja Warier a couple of years ago to found 'Unltd India' to equip social entrepreneurs with a tony Bandra office address, hand them an espresso and provide unlimited access to resources like the internet and printing.
Alderson, who first came to India 12 years ago, says he's always been "drawn to the East" and is in an ongoing love affair with the country. "It had such a profound impact on me that I returned to live here, " he says. Unltd India provides socially inclined start-ups seed funding, incubation support and, most interestingly, co-working space at basement rates. Bandra's Hub is Asia's first of its kind and is modelled along the London Hub.
Since her childhood, Saori Sakata, who worked as an administration executive in Japan, thought of India as a confluence of cultures with a mixed population, contrary to her home country. "When I got an opportunity to visit India, I was immediately interested, especially because I had heard that Indians still follow their cultural traditions, " she says.
The expats coming to India today are different from those we used to see earlier simply because the market here has changed. Says Emma Trinidad, vice-president, Bangalore Expatriate Club, "I have seen call centres servicing customers in Spain, for instance, hire people who not just speak Spanish, but are from Spain. They want that kind of expertise. Even for non-managerial positions, many foreign firms prefer people from their own country and they try their best to get them here. "
Also, many expats coming to India to work are from countries where the economic condition is rather similar. India, in fact, might offer more exciting, upwardly mobile jobs than back home. Says Emma, "Many Europeans and Americans, especially the younger ones, come here backpacking. They start liking it here and end up taking jobs - some regular, others part time - just to stay back in India. "
There's little evidence of Julien Mulot's love for India in Taare Zameen Par, where his character gives a baffling theatrical account of his early days in Mumbai. In his monologue, Julien rants about the heat and dust of Malad, where he lived when he moved to the city from Paris, the beggars that crowd around autos, the "masticating buffaloes" of Jogeshwari and so on. But after getting accustomed to the trials of living in Mumbai - and moving to the more salubrious neighbourhood of Khar - the 31-year-old actor realised he actually enjoyed the city.
After graduating from a drama school in Paris in 2005, Julien "came to India to find myself. I was bored with living in France. " He started doing theatre and, two years later, landed a role in a Toyota ad. He has regularly appeared in commercials ever since. Julien feels being a brown-eyed brunette gives him an "Indianness" that works to his advantage. He's working on it to gain a toehold in Bollywood, which, he declares, is "good fun". Julien has been learning Hindi and one of the most amusing moments of the play he is currently working on shows him hallucinating about talking to elephants in Hindi layered with a thick French accent.
SALAAM TO INDIAN SALARY
In the global economy, India was long considered a "hardship" posting - a fat salary being the bait. The general impression of expats in India earning huge sums is changing rapidly. The current breed of expats in India earns regular Indian salaries and seems to be doing just fine. Marcus' salary is lesser than what he used to get as a teenager in the UK, but he claims what he makes is comfortable to live here - in fact, he even manages to save some money.
Even Ana, who is not really into the habit of saving, doesn't find it difficult to live with a salary of Indian standards. "It is much better than back home. My house is a little away from Barcelona. It's a small town and the job scene is not great. The quality of life here is better, " she says.
In Tokyo, where she worked earlier, Saori's salary was far higher and people got allowances for food and house rent. "Here, I manage. I don't mind the lesser salary because they have provided me with a driver, domestic help and a car. "
FOR BETTER AND WORSE
For most young expats, the people and the food are the big pluses. Says Marcus, "Indians are a warm and responsive lot. I think I will start a new phase of my life here. Bangalore weather is perfect and the food is delicious. " For Yannick, a "visual guy", "the life in the streets here is amazing". Says the man who has developed a thing for idli-dosa and mutton kozhambu, Chettinad style, "In France, the streets are empty. They only use it for transportation. Here in India, they stay on the streets. " While Nancy admits to missing he family, "I am more free in India than I am in Paris. The people here are fun. " Saori, too, has been in Bangalore for over a year and loves the weather and the people.
Unsurprisingly, traffic and congestion top the hate list. While Ana loves "Bangalore because it has the facilities of the Western world and the charm of India", traffic and pollution are a problem.
Kat, the president of the American Women's Club in Mumbai who feels "50 percent Indian", is, however, disgusted with Mumbai's notorious vehicular noise and dirty streets. It makes her appreciate the US, though she concedes her homeland is not without its problems either. "I mean, we had Bush for eight years, " she says.
HERE FOR GOOD
Many expats who come to work end up staying for good. Ask Alderson if he ever plans to move back and he laughs, "My mentality has become very Indian, I don't think too much of the future. " Marcus, who divorced his wife last year, is planning to start anew in Bangalore. "I have no plans of going back, " he says. "We don't know what the future holds. For now, we are happy to be here. And if everything works out for us, Chennai may even become home, " says Yannick.
Asha Rai with reports from Jayashree Nandi, Priya M Menon, Sharmila Ganesan-Ram, Mansi Choksi & Pronoti Datta
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