When you are about to make your first trip to the US, everything seems expensive, especially if you are about to embark on a journey of poverty as a graduate student. No wonder you and your mom spend days making a list of things to be taken to the US, and making trips to the local stores to buy it. Soon the 23 kg of your suitcase is filled with bottles of hair oil, tooth pastes and brushes, beauty products, gamchas (if you are a Bengali), cheap plastic mugs (though you’ve just heard from the senior there that everyone uses toilet paper, and there is no concept of “washing yourself” after doing the big job), sanitary napkins, packets of spices, dry sweets, chaanachur, corn flakes, and everything conceivable under the Indian sun.
The first time you leave for the US, everything gets multiplied roughly by 50 (dollar à rupee).
The senior who told you about the toilet also told you that you will be spending approximately $400-$500 for rent in a shared apartment. You do a quick calculation and realize you will be spending a software engineer’s starting salary on rent alone. And that too while you are sharing the apartment with 2-3 other people. Every can of gulab jamun you buy is going to cost you the price of 80 gulab jamuns in India. You keep stuffing your suitcases- Indian spices, rice, aata, puffed rice, poha, and clothes till you realize you can take no more. This is while you are still in India.
The calculations continue even when you have landed in the US. You and your family does some more math to figure which way of calling is cheaper- from India to US or vice versa. Your granny starts weeping over the phone when you tell her that you have just spent some $200 shopping at Walmart. With time, your brain numbs to the constant calculations and conversions of currency (though your family’s doesn’t, they still ask you to hang up after 5 minutes of conversation, assuming it must be costing you a fortune). In a year, you no longer calculate how much you’d pay if you enjoyed the same commodity in India. In 2 years, you don’t even hesitate booking for a vacation to Florida, renting a car, or even buying a car (if you have had a couple of internships under your belt by then).
And then you make that long awaited trip to India, and things change.
Now that you are in India, everything gets divided roughly by 50 (rupee à dollar).
You eye that expensive sequined saree in that upscale Park Street shop you always drooled over from outside a couple of years ago, but never dared to enter. Now you confidently walk into the shop and ask for the price.
5,000 rupees only madam (this constant subservience and referring to people you don’t know and have no business of knowing as “syar” and “madam” and nodding your head still drives me nuts. Using “only” with everything you say is another one).
You do a quick calculation. A hundred something dollars only.
Cool, I will take it (you mom eyes you as if she has seen a ghost).
You go out with friends to that upscale local restaurant, eat to your heart’s content and ask for the check. The waiter looks at you with confusion when you realize, “Oh, I mean bill please”.
One thousand rupees. $22. Even less than what you’d pay for an upscale restaurant in Seattle for a single meal.
You look at others. “I’ll take care of the bill”.
Everyone eyes you with admiration. The neighbor aunty just made it a point to talk to a distant relative with a nubile prospective looking for a groom.
You start taking a cab to everywhere because you realize the cab fare will be equivalent to your bus fare for a single ride in the US. This is while your mom fervently protests and begs you to take that bus and save some money.
You go to a bookstore asking for the latest bestseller. You do some math. $4 only? Okay, I’ll take it.
You go to Barista and end up paying Rs. 100 for some horribly sweet coffee. Your friend baulks. You are unperturbed because you know you are paying a lot less than what you’d be paying for a Starbucks latte (last I got one it was $3.90).
You go to your favorite sweet shop, buy a kilogram of ras malai, and happily pay $6. That’s what you’d pay for a plate of two sorry looking rasmalais squeezed out off their juices in the US anyway. Hail India.
And even before you know, your bank balance has dipped by a couple of thousand dollars and your waistline has expanded by a few extra inches. But that’s a different story.
Personally, I feel prices of things in India have gone up by at least 4-8 times. My baseline of course is prices of things back in 2006. Fish costs more, sweets cost more. A glass of lassi at Haldiram’s costs you Rs. 24, something unthinkable in 2006. The brief 4 hours I spent at the New Delhi airport, I was horrified to skim through the prices of eating places at the airport. I could actually afford to buy nothing as I returned to India with 100 rupees and my credit card. If Kolkata is this expensive, I can imagine how expensive New Delhi, Mumbai, and Bangalore are going to be. Yet I have spending power now, thanks to the dollar-rupee economics. So if you are a graduate student about to embark on a US trip, do not fret. Things might look very expensive now, but the next time you are here, everything is going to look dirt cheap.
Time to make another list now. This time, not the hair oil or the poha or Ganesh atta. This time, it’s sequined sarees and embroidered clothes and some jewelry.