On request: Traditional, but new

Sounds contradictory? Get used to it... this is the new India. I’ve nicknamed it Fabindia.

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There must be at least 30 friends gathered around Harri for his birthday party at the Park Hyatt in Chennai tonight. “Dirty Harry” is what he’s known for because his generous heart is too big for only one girl. 

He’s my best friend in Chennai, a man with a soul as large as his roaring laughter, as solid as the cement he deals in, and as wild as the parties he’s rocked. An original mind not afraid to speak up. Tonight the plan is to celebrate this dude.

He’s flirting with a lanky lady from Quebec who says she’s French and is hired to sing ’80s covers. The usual buffet of tired skewers and rubbery paneer cubes absorb the alcoholic intake. Guests wander into the courtyard’s pool, gathering around a giant Ganesh statue indifferent to all the smoking, drinking and chatting. 

I’m surrounded by that upper middle class India that is discovering a new relationship with its body and its sexuality. A very interesting, privileged India I’m happy to belong to, first as a curious outsider, and slowly as an almost integrated foreign appendix. Unexpectedly, the man sitting next to me, Sunil, blurts out in one breath the whole plot of the 50 Shades of Grey trilogy. 

“It is not an erotic book,” he insists, staring at me, to check if I dare to disagree, “it is literature!” Fine.

Is that a feminist gleam in his eyes as, SPOILER ALERT, he explains that the sadomasochistic game stops in the first book? ‘In the following one, she makes him fall in love with her and they get married,’ Sunil says. ‘This is not about a man beating up a woman during sex!’ he declares. ‘Ok, in the following volume they do pick up the S&M bit, but only when she wants,’ he says. ‘It’s the woman allowing the man to play. Then someone from his past shows up and tries to alter the course of events,’ Sunil goes on to explain. 

The fact of being able to speak so freely about this sexual topic at a party in conservative Chennai feels like proof that something has changed from, say, 2008, when I first landed in Bangalore as an Ashtanga practitioner, heading to be blessed by Sri Patthabi Jois in Mysore, just a few months before he passed away and then to march the pradakshina around Arunachala, back when I was a full on yoga-people.

To be outspoken about sexuality seems to be a new upper middle class privilege. For example: a couple has invited my wife and I to their Saint Valentine’s party called Fifty shades of red. Didn’t make it to the party, but later I caught plenty of photos on Facebook of the customary whiskey-fuelled ruby cheeks, with everyone laughing in front of red posters adorned with 

stylised handcuffs. 

This is an India that wants to be cool, and is actually making it. Freely discussing retail masochism for housewives is an efficient way to feel modern and contemporary in your own home, even in a Tamil Nadu where large part of the female population, out there in the streets and villages, still wears the most stunning saris, while men proudly show their legs peeking out from their lungis, which I also wear at the beach house where I live on the Bay of Bengal.

This, at Dirty Harri’s party, is not the India tourists like so much. It’s what I’ve nicknamed India-Fabindia. 

Everyone knows what Fabindia is, a franchise of kurtas, shirts, and furniture, a high-level clothing Ikea you can find even in Rome, Italy. Fabindia culture has even survived the 2008 crisis and keeps communicating a message of modernity born at its foundation—adapting the traditional look and sartorial style to contemporary needs. 

Traditional, but new. Sounds contradictory? Get used to it, it’s India. 

At that very same table at the Park Hyatt, I get drawn into a conversation with Chetan, another shining example of the India-Fabindia category. He’s a young entrepreneur in the hi-fi and photography sector. In our house at the beach, I tell him, the raucous fishing boats wake us up at 4 in the morning with their open mufflers ripping like rude jackhammers into the crack of dawn. Hard not to bolt upright in bed. So he suggests I immediately install a triple layer of glass windows and air conditioning. 

‘The noise will disappear in a flash,’ he assures me, full of enthusiasm. I ask him, aside from the high cost of this, what would happen then, to the poetry of living on a beach on the Bay of Bengal, if we were to seal our internal reality from the external one in such a way. 

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