Wives' tales

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By At the Overseas Women's Club in Bangalore, expatriate wives try to make sense of their chaotic new homeland. Varuna Verma listens in
  • Published 22.07.07
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The ‘coffee morning’ meeting is on in full swing. Klaartie Van Balen weaves through the low-lying tables at Citrus — the coffee shop at Bangalore’s Leela Palace hotel — looking for a place for two. It’s a balmy Thursday morning and a meeting of the Overseas Women’s Club (OWC) members is underway. The atmosphere is cacophonous, as 50-odd women of diverse nationalities chat over coffee and cookies.

Van Balen finally finds a free corner at the far end of the lounge. She settles to tell her tale. Last month, the Dutch national called an electrician to fix a short-circuit problem at her Bangalore residence. He promised to come in an hour but landed two days later. “No explanations were given. He just examined the problem and said he’d return the next day to fix it,” says Van Balen, who’s been living in Bangalore for three years.

In the electrician’s case, the next day meant the next week. “This time, he said he’d forgotten to get his tools,” says Van Balen, who was used to clockwork efficiency in her home country. By then, Van Balen had had it. “It was only after I lost my cool that the work got done,” she says.

Having got the story off her chest, Van Balen doesn’t seem so annoyed at the electrician. Instead, she almost finds the episode funny. “This is what I like best about being an OWC member. I can vent my frustrations about settling in a new country to people who are in the same boat,” says Van Balen.

Although Leela’s coffee shop looks packed, attendance is thin at this OWC coffee morning meeting. “Our coffee mornings are usually attended by over 80 to 100 members. Attendance is low in June and July because of summer vacations in schools,” says Jamaican national Hayley Lalsingh, vice-president, communications, OWC.

Eavesdrop at any table, and you’ll hear the same stories — about Bangalore’s traffic, noise, slums, easy-going people and paucity of dustbins. Urban India is being discovered, warts and all, by a growing number of foreigners who have made the country their home.

To the lay eye, the OWC coffee morning will look like any other ladies club meet. But Bangalore’s media planners don’t think so. Every Monday, the club members receive an exclusive e-mail packed with advertisements of restaurants, high-end shops, realtors, doctors, dental clinics, spas — the works. The club claims to earn huge revenues through the mailer – it sells each ad space for Rs 1,500 upwards. “A lot of businesses target OWC members because they have the spending power and the time to shop,” says Lalsingh.

In the last few years, Ban- galore has seen an invasion of foreigners seeking cyber nirvana. A total of 20,000 to 30,000 expatriates live across India. Bangalore hogs a majority of them. Currently, an estimated 10,000 to 12,000 expatriates live or work in the city.

There is strength in numbers. Books, newsletters and documentaries have been made on the Silicon city’s expat community. Last year, techie-turned-author Eshwar Sundaresan published Bangalored — The Expat Story — a book on the diverse hues of expatriates in the city. A documentary titled Expatriates in Bangalore has been produced. Most recently, an e-book, titled, Expat Survival Guide for Bangalore was published by a website, Bangalore Breeze, which also brings out a monthly newsletter for the city’s expatriate community.

Bangalore’s real estate industry has also smelled the dollars pouring into the city. Gated residential colonies which look like clones of US suburban homes have mushroomed on the city’s outskirts.

It’s not surprising, then, that Bangalore’s OWC is the fastest growing expat club in the country. Set up in 2005, it now has 582 members who pay Rs 1,500 per annum as membership fee. In contrast, the American Women’s Club, Mumbai, has 200 members. The Delhi Network — which started in the 1980s — has 300 members. And the big sister of Indian expat clubs, the OWC, Chennai — which was flagged off in 1972 — has a mere 133 members.The OWC caters exclusively to sit-at-home spouses who move to India on dependent, non-working visas. “Shifting to a new country is always harder on the spouse,” says Lalsingh. The more so because many of these women used to work back home and are now forced to sit out their stay in India as hausfraus. Van Balen was a tour operator and had been working for the last 10 years. Work took her across Europe. Hayley Lalsingh worked at a company in Atlanta, Georgia, before she moved to India. Australian national Venessa Mc Namara was a dietician.

Most of their husbands are top executives at multinationals. Van Balen’s husband is the CEO of a Dutch chemical and paint company. Edith Barker’s husband works at Worldspace. Hayley Lalsingh’s husband works at Bank of America. And Teresa Schroeder’s husband is at Microsoft. “The husbands go into a work environment that is similar to the one back home. It’s the wives who have to make friends, put the children into schools, set up house and find maids and drivers,” says Lalsingh.

She recalls being overwhelmed when she moved to Bangalore. “There are no systems in the city. I didn’t know how to go about finding a house, car or even the groceries I needed,” she says. The next thing that trips from her lips is a called-an-electrician-he-never-showed-up story.

Lalsingh joined the OWC a month after she moved to India. “It was comforting to know that I was not the only one facing adjustment blues,” she says.

Like Lalsingh, most OWC members join the club to network and to do something with their time. The club offers a host of activities — ranging from poolside barbeques, Christmas bazaars, monthly speaker meetings to day-long road trips. For the philanthropically-inclined, there are 26 non-government organisations (NGOs) that the club supports as part of its charity activity. “We raise money to donate to charities. Our members also volunteer to teach English and maths at orphanages,” says Teresa Schroeder, vice-president, charities, OWC.

Wining and dining is a favourite OWC activity. A month is packed with at least four meet-eat sessions, besides the weekly coffee morning meetings. There are two ‘Sundowner’ meets a month, one at Palm Meadows — an upscale row house colony in Whitefield, on the city’s outskirts — and another elsewhere in the city. There is a monthly lunch meet at Bangalore’s Windsor Manor hotel. And there is a ‘Lunch Bunch’, usually at a city restaurant.

But, among all OWC events, the coffee mornings attract maximum attendance. Over cookies and coffee, Bangalore’s new residents try and make sense of the city. India leaves them bewildered, they say. Van Balen recently received an invitation for her neighbour’s granddaughter’s wedding. “It took me completely by surprise. I had never met the girl and wondered why I should be invited to her wedding,” she recalls.

While it’s true that expats no longer expect elephants to cross their paths, they are now wary of whizzing cars and lane-jumping motorbikes. “Driving in India is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Push and shove seem to be the only road rules that are followed,” says Venessa Mc Namara, an Australian national, who moved to Bangalore a month ago.

But the women acknowledge that there are some saving graces of living in India as well — like the $20 Sunday pool-side brunches at five-star hotels and $7 massages. “I feel as if everything is on sale for me,” says Edith Barker. Two fat files with names and contact details of house maids and drivers lie on a table in the coffee lounge. They admit that house maids make life a lot easier. “A round-the-clock maid for less than $100 a month is the ultimate luxury,” says Singaporean Kala Ramiah.

The coffee meeting winds up at noon. The women trickle out, chatting, into the hotel portico — where they wait for their uniformed chauffeurs to drive them into the city’s chaotic traffic.