Like his neighbours in South Delhi’s Sarvodaya Enclave, Dmitri Rusalov gets up at 5 am every morning to buy milk from his local Mother Dairy booth. The smell, he says, reminds him of his home in Slovenia.
His Portuguese roommate Jasper Barkker is also awake at this hour. Getting ready to meet his bicycling buddies, Jasper rides up to the Qutub Minar every single day except when it rains. There, he grabs a glass of hot tea from his favourite chaiwala and rides back home just in time to get ready and head for work in Gurgaon.
Nobody gives them a second glance in their neighbourhood. Nor are they charged extra for the milk or the tea. And that, they say, is because they’re as much a part of the Indian community as the next person.
More than 40,000 expats are currently registered for work permits in Delhi and 35,000 in Mumbai. Unlike five years ago when postings to India were classified as a ‘hardship’, today it’s a posting of choice. The hardship allowance is gone, but the number of foreigners working here is increasing. “It’s not just employment opportunities that are bringing people from abroad to India. It’s a combination of culture, multi-ethnicity exposure and career options that are making this place a important destination,” says Pieter Fossington, a British national who heads an employment agency in Bangalore.
“People are always looking for a way to enrich their lives, and many feel that heading to India might just be a short-cut to it.”
The average population of expats in India is more than 2 lakh, including tourists. Many come back looking for work or internships. According to the FRRO (Foreign Registrar’s Office) nearly 6,000 to 7,000 expats apply for work/residential permits every year. “But these are just the working people.
Spouses account for nearly 5,000 more and some even have children going to school here, which is another list altogether,” says a senior FRRO official who refused to be quoted. And it’s not just Delhi and Mumbai that attract expats. Over 12,000 expats are registered in Bangalore and 10,000 in Chennai. Goa has over 2,500 registered expats.
The 1861 census of India showed a British population of 1.25 lakh. There are more foreigners in India now than when India was a colony of the British.
Swing cat, hit firang
The numbers become evident at some of the popular pubs and restaurants in these cities on weekends. In Delhi, The Living Room in Hauz Khas village, Route 4 in Khan Market and Urban Pind in Greater Kailash II are among the favourite haunts. On days when there are special programmes for expats, the crowd at any of these places can easily have more foreigners than desis. “Some nights we have over 500 expats at the club and it’s amazing to see people from various nationalities like the French, Spanish, Koreans, Uzbek, Nigerian, Irish etc mingling with each other and the Indians,” says Kashif Farrukh, owner of Urban Pind. The crowd is not just from the embassies, he points out. These are students and young professionals whose interaction with the city is more intimate.
Mumbai is no different. On any given day, Café Leopold and Café Mondegar in downtown Mumbai teem with foreigners, both resident and tourist. Zenzi in Bandra is another popular hangout in the commercial capital.
Do expats hang out mainly with each other? Dave Prager, whose blog ourdelhistruggle will be out as a book by August this year believes that there’s a clear divide between the long term and the short term crowd. “The paths of the long-termers hardly ever cross that of the short-termers since they run in different circles. So the short-termers have to make quite an effort to make friends,” says Prager, who was working with an advertising agency while he was in Delhi. “But those friends have been for keeps and of course you make plenty of Indian friends as well.”
Online groups such as Yuni-net and Eating Out in Delhi have played a major role in introducing Indians and expats to each other. According to the moderators on Yuni-net, there are people from about 80 nationalities who are a part of this yahoo group. “We have 200 members joining us every year. The current membership is about 3,350 of which 65 per cent are foreign nationals while PIOs (Person of Indian Origin) or NRIs (Non-resident Indians) are the rest,” says the moderator in an email interview.
This online group helps connect the expats on several levels. The most common posts are about places to live in, buying and selling household goods, and hooking up with potential flatmates. A lot of Indians and foreigners end up sharing apartments in the city. It’s the kind of scene that didn’t exist until recently.
LSD: Love, sex and dating
So is it really an urban myth that expat men seem to have the most fun? Well, not according to the expats who were spoken to for this story. A typical response came from Greek national Micah Stephanoses. “Indian women are plain wary — of expats and otherwise. You can make friends with them but it’s hard to pursue a relationship with them unless it is long-term,” he said.
Expat women, however, seem to have a much easier time finding Indian men. Of course there’s the task of sifting through the riff-raff to find the nicer ones. “What better way to settle and find peace in India than to find a nice brown-skinned man?” asks Japanese Omoyo Matsuhisha.
Eat like a world citizen
The expat impact on our cities extends to our stomachs. Many an expat has set up a restaurant here. In Delhi, places such as Baci, Amici, Bline and Karavan are not just popular eating-out destinations for expats but for Indians too. Alexander Melnikov, owner of Russian restaurant Bline, says that most of his business runs because of the Indians. “People in India are always looking to eat good food. If you can give them a clean place, with good service and authentic food, the restaurant will obviously be a hit however small it is,” says Alexander, who is looking to find a new place to run Bline from.
In fact, while expats are more than willing to experiment, certain notions such as the shapes of the vegetables and their size have often held them back from trying new things at home. According to brand manager Phil Robertson, most Americans find the need of symmetry extending to their vegetables and refuse to buy a tomato if it’s not uniformly red and round. “But one bite and we are total converts. The flavours of the vegetables are far, far superior to what you’d get anywhere in the Americas or Europe.”
The expats have had an impact on the local grocery stores too. Shops have woken up to the fact that expats are often looking to cook food “like they get back home” and have begun stocking up on imported cheese, cold cuts and luxury food like caviar and pate. In Delhi, there are exclusive Japanese, Korean and German grocery stores which cater to the expat crowd.
The melting pot that is India now has new flavours in its mix.