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Everything Changed

Transformation II

Transformation II

We were coming home, but the street where we’d lived for so many years felt strange. Eerie shapes loomed in the dark on either side. I thought I might be seeing things, tired as I was at that late hour. But in the morning, the buildings were still there: apartment blocks, pigeon-hole town houses pressed side by side, a vast hole in the ground with cement and rebar pillars jutting out.

When my husband was given a posting in another state in 2000, very little had changed around this home since the 1930s when his parents had moved into it. It was on a street of broad bungalows set in one-acre plots, surrounded by low walls or hedges. Every house had staff quarters to one side, and some of these had expanded into little low-rent neighborhoods of their own. Shady trees lined the road. A few clusters of temporary shops—motor mechanics, cycle repairers, vegetable sellers, small merchants—had come up, causing the older residents to complain about the lack of civic discipline, but the outlines of the neighborhood hadn’t altered.

When we returned five years later, everything had changed.

No one could have expected such a transformation. Our city, Allahabad, was a place about which people always said, “Nothing ever changes.” People from here migrated to Mumbai and Delhi, New Jersey, and Silicone Valley. When they came back, they always said, “Nothing ever changes,” because the city had retained its slow pace and sleepy face. Pilgrims from all over India still came to bathe at the Sangam, the place where the Ganges and the Jamuna River join, as pilgrims had done for hundreds, perhaps thousands of years, even before a massive fort was built there by Emperor Akbar in the 1570s. There were moldering tombs of rebellious Mogul sons in town, and homes of Hindu feudal lords who liked to have a foothold in holy places.

The British era added a university built on a grand scale, and a huge High Court. Allahabad was to be the capital of the state. However, during the Freedom Movement, the people of the city refused to turn out to wave at the Prince of Wales when he visited, so the angry governor moved to Lucknow. Still the Court, Accountant General’s, and various other important offices had already been built, so they stayed, and the city’s importance to the British government didn’t completely wither, even as it was the home of the Nehru family and a hotbed of the non-violent struggle for India’s independence.

The city grew, expanding into suburbs, but the orderly heart of it, Civil Lines, continued to look essentially the same. Gardens around the bigger bungalows became shabby as domestic help became a thing of the past, but everything else remained pretty much as it had been—calm, green, quiet.

Then came the economic reforms of the new millennium. Before, buying a car or building a home required years of saving or inherited wealth. Now, credit flowed. Salaries jumped. People spent. Restrictions were lifted so that large plots could be sub-divided into colonies, and multi-story buildings constructed. Markets became glass-fronted supermarkets, aglitter with multi-national merchandise as restrictions on imports lifted. People began eating at McDonald’s and Domino’s Pizza for a quick treat, instead of going to the Indian Coffee House for dosa and discussion or Lucky Sweet House for Bengali treats and debate. Girls, who in the past would have draped their curves in loose pajama-kurtas, now poured themselves into jeans. Boys stopped wearing their sober white shirts and uniform haircuts.

Not surprising, you might say, the world has changed. True. The evolution of our lives through computers, cell phones, iPods and whatever else we can learn or afford to use has happened at break-neck speed. But all that has happened here, too—half the new shops across the way sell electronics or repair laptops and cell phones. Around the world, parents have to ask for their children’s help when the computer freezes. In a generation, life has changed that much, but in addition to this, all these other wrenching disconnects between the past and the present have taken place in India, and not just in a generation. This evolutionary change of the faces of towns, the sound of music, and the clothing people chose to wear occurred in India somewhere between five and fifteen years ago depending on the specific location.

Whether the transformations are good or bad could be debated forever, and by then the good and bad would have changed yet again. Everything’s mixed, good, bad, and confusing.

Imagine the decisions that everyone must make: How Indian am I? How global? What traditions speak to me? Do I want to sing like Girija Devi or Mariah Carey? Do I want to live like the people on Friends, or stay with family? Do I want to wear ethnic chic, comfortable hand-spun, jeans, designer pantsuits, or thin dresses with spaghetti straps? For women, the decisions overflow with life-altering consequences. What they wear becomes what they are thought to be. How freely they speak to men may be understood, or not. How they raise their children may be praised or reviled.

I am surprised most that more people haven’t gone insane from the pressures brought on by such cataclysmic changes. Of course there are the tragedies—the girl who commits suicide because her parents don’t want her to go to university; the couple who fights and clashes over how to raise their children; or the conventional elderly left to their fate. The newspapers recently reported about a woman who complained to the police about the mental torture she suffered when her in-laws wouldn’t allow her to wear western clothes, even though their own daughters did.

On the whole, however, change doesn’t have to such a drastic impact on life. Change happens around us every day, hour-to-hour, minute-to-minute. Surrounded by change, people sometimes swim with the tide, sometimes against it, but either way they just move on. Amazing.

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AUTHOR BIO: LUCINDA NELSON DHAVAN first went to India on a Fulbright Foundation grant immediately after graduating from Sarah Lawrence College. She is still there. After several years devoted to domestic bliss, child rearing, and learning Hindi, she joined the staff of a regional newspaper. She now feels she may have learned enough to write fiction and is currently working on a collection of short stories and a novel.

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