The good life

MADHU JAIN

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‘The old alchemical dream was changing base metals into gold. The new alchemical dream is: changing one’s personality – remaking, remodelling, elevating, and polishing one’s very self.’

Tom Wolfe,

Mauve Gloves & Madmen, Clutter & Vine

 

Tom Wolfe, that Merlin of mots, was talking about the Me-decade in the USA and the infamous ’70s when you were supposed to be the architect of your own life and kismet was something that was only for the birds – rather for fools saving it all for perpetually deferred tomorrow or a next-life paradise. Well, Indians are just getting there: the pursuit of happiness is the new mantra, fate be damned. And now you hop onto anything that gets you there. Or, become anything that gets you there faster.

Nothing says it better than the 30-something woman with blonde highlights and a springy, confident, lycra-clad gait browsing through the Mumbai airport bookshop. She walks out with Branding Yourself by Mary Spillaine and How to Be More Efficient in Seven Steps and its sequel under her mildly biceped, gym-toned arms. Cinderella’s fairy godmother helped her jump class and home, catapulting her from cottage to castle on a glass slipper. Such be-wanded people no longer exist. Today’s Cinderellas and Cinderfellas need their own wands to metamorphose into personas that can elbow out the competition on the way up career and social ladders, skipping rungs enroute. Their theme song: Let’s forget about domani, domani never comes. It has to be today, it has to be this minute.

This is the age of blonde ambition. Ambition may be as old as sin, but it was never this upfront or brazen. In a world that was a gentler place, ambition came diluted or disguised. Or euphemized into something you did for the country or society – or at the very least, the clan. And then, finally, the family. Noble stuff. In the afterglow of Independence there were dreamers with blueprints for imaginary utopias. Gandhiji had his dreams for Indian society. Nehru and others in Gandhiji’s mesmeric wake had theirs. But for most people, the doorways to dreams were locked.

Long colonized, they accepted their fixed place in the scheme of things. Aspirations were on hold. Inhibitions held sway. We were not trained to deal with our aspirations, but with our inhibitions. Hierarchies were fixed: in the world outside, the other, the rulers called the shots, defined your paths, and encircled you with Lakshman rekhas. So did your caste and class. Within the home, on this side of the threshold, hierarchy was as firmly entrenched. The family pecking orders for both men and women were firmly in place.

Those pecking orders are now topsy-turvy. Father or even big brother doesn’t necessarily know best. Take the family: the individual can even see himself as separate from both his family and community. And increasingly, as the number of diasporic Indians explodes, his country and he go their separate ways too. Many success stories today are of individuals, and not necessarily of families. The new heroes are likely to be self-made in the American mould. Dreams no longer need to be escapist fare, vicariously lived-out in darkened cinema halls.

We are, in fact, living the American dream. Rule Britannia has conceded defeat to Uncle Sam. The American influence goes beyond clothes, slang, fast food and Friday dressing (studied casualness) and first name dropping. The American spirit of entrepreneurship is the new weltanschaung. And the USA is the new Eldorado, the heaven-on-earth. The educated young would like nothing better than to go there. The lesser paradise is ‘anywhere abroad’ for the not so-well-educated. But for an increasing number of people, life is now elsewhere. This exodus is the new take on the Quit India movement.

 

 

And in this Brazen New World failure has a bad smell about it. You have to be driven, American-style. With this come 16-hour weekdays, followed by quasi-orgiastic letting-go weekends. Can-do is the new slogan at work. Just Do It, like Nike. There’s a feeling that if you don’t keep running, you’ll lose your place. An underling is likely to be an impatient understudy, snapping at the heels of the one just above on the career ladder. They are more direct about what they want, and far more aggressive. A senior executive in a broadcasting company in Delhi was stunned out of her mind when a 20-something working for her told her, without a blush and with a wide smile, that she wanted her job. All very polite, this exchange.

The young underling, like many of her generation, has drawn a route map for her life – both personal and professional. Previous generations did this too. But the goals were more distant, more vague. Moreover, the milestones had more distance between them. Today not only are the goals more sharply defined, the milestones follow one another in quick succession. Career paths are mapped with military precision. Typically, this is how it goes: hit the middle-level by 30, and grab the CEO chair by 35. The new thing is to be the top man by this age – MBAs being churned out by management institutes are being trained in leadership capabilities.

 

 

Career paths now tend to zig-zag up horizontally. Job-hopping makes the movement upwards happen faster. And job loyalty is clearly a thing of the past. A fresh MBA, for instance, is likely to join a large consulting firm and then move after about five years to become the top boss of a smaller company. Take Sanjay Chopra. He’s 26, and an MBA. He wants to be a boss by 30 and the top man at 40. His father’s generation would think of becoming a part-time partner by 40, or even later. Today at 30 you are galloping in the same place.

The in-vogue jobs are consulting, stock trading, finance, information technology and computer software. And the younger generation is very clear what it wants to do: they don’t want just handsome salaries – the kind their parents may have taken decades to get. They want to join a company with a good standing in the market. Even the glossies now tell you how to track the health of your company. The instant management gurus even spell out the signs of a sinking ship and tell you when you should jump off.

Chances are that in this new scenario it will be mostly work, and hardly any play. But for those on the laminated wannabe track, a lavish lifestyle is the driving force. A car in your 20s and a flat of your own in your 30s is part of the changing dreamscape. Interestingly, the more ambitious are beginning to marry late – in their mid-30s. Life has taken a backseat: career is top priority. Alas, 16-hour days don’t allow for much leisure. High pressure work can only be offset by high pressure fun. Hence, jazzy cars, partying late into the night, branded clothes and doing Europe.

Advertising pundits got it right. The ad for Bar-One chocolates says it all: You want to be up, you want to be down, you want to be here, you want to be there – followed by the punch line: get more out of life. Or as Coca Cola has it: ‘Joh Chaho ho jaye – Enjoy!’ Energy has, in fact, become the new currency; it is a status-enhancer. Just as your pockets need to look bottomless, so do your energy levels in the present age of multi-tasking. So, work, coffee and nicotine filled days, and then go out partying with frenzy after what’s called 20-minute disco naps. Recharge forty winks to allow you to grab life by the horns. Not only do you need to enjoy, but need to be seen doing so.

 

 

The mushrooming of event management companies and the high visibility of their bosses as party kings and queens confirms this. The new ism is undoubtedly epicurism. Gatsbyesque nights are losing their cachet – they are almost infra dig now as the great middle class gets on board in its pursuit of la dolce vita. Any occasion – birthdays, mundans, thread ceremonies, contract-clinchers, anniversaries, silver anniversaries, gold anniversaries, mother’s day, dog’s day, whatever – is a cause celebre. Anything for a celebration. Enjoy is the new buzzword. And it’s easier in the age of plastic: credit cards mean never having to defer gratification. In these neo-gilded times in which technology and briefly, an almost one-way stock market, triggered a wave of excessive consumption.

The new Meccas are the mammoth lifestyle stores coming up in obeisance to Mammon – the shop-until-you-drop experience is for the asking. Glistening lifestyle stores in metropolitan India offer anything from French furniture and Italian kitchens to European bath oils. Gourmands can pick up anything from Beluga caviar and Norwegian salmon to blue cheese, Bloody Mary mixes and the finest crackers.

 

 

Not too long ago expats used to bring back soft toilet paper from their sorties back home: today old icons of luxury are dated with the never ending stream of goodies from abroad. Shopping as therapy has landed on Indian soil. And single-minded cosmopolitism with a vengeance is the new motto. New suburban townships even advertise that there is nothing Indian about them but the address. Aspirational societies tend to offload tradition. Grafting the first world on to the third world appears to be the collective aspiration of trendsetters. No wonder all the bottle blondes with dusky complexions who look like strange hybrids.

The coming of age of a huge middle class in India is one of the key factors responsible for this eruption of aspirations. Education and knowledge have been the keys to upward mobility in an increasingly information driven society. In certain urban areas, the basic change has come about because you now have choices. Society has created choices. And with choices come individuality and group pressures. Group pressure engenders a need to break family patterns in the family.

Take food. Traditionally, it used to be one kitchen, one family. The motto: the family that eats together stays together. In a joint-family universe what you ate defined you, culturally as well. The kitchen was sacred: it controlled your emotions and desires. The whole idea of rejecting what is not yours has undergone quite a change. The advent of Maggi noodles is a significant benchmark in the history of the Indian palate. We are living in a multiple-choice world. Other foods are now included: fast foods for example are middle class staple fare. Pizzas, noodles and hamburgers have entered middle class urban homes. Chinese food can be bought hot off dhabas. We are far more eclectic, and convenience makes us so. Moreover, food has become more important. Something you spend money on. The supply of food is endless and easy – from niche restaurants, hole in the wall eating places, to takeaways, home delivery and frozen food. And yes, sushi has also made inroads among the more gastronomically adventurous.

 

 

It’s much the same with fashion. The sari is no longer daily wear for an increasing number of women – but a costume. And there’s choice: from East-West hybrids to the ubiquitous salwar kameez and little black numbers. The ethnic look is rapidly giving way to a sort of Esperanto fashion for those who take the globalisation of the Indian economy literally. The New Delhi-Dubai look has arrived: from the blonde locks to no holds knock-off brands. Men looked cloned as well. Even the mid-lifers, and those in the autumn of their lives want more: disposable incomes and leisure time offer amazing opportunities – cruises, exotic destinations, golf. And a chance to rewrite this life. Many couples are now separating and leading separate lives after their children have grown up. The good life is everybody’s manifest destiny.

These aspirations are also reflected in the use of language. Just close your eyes and the VJ’s on the tube sound as if they have landed from across the Atlantic – some of them may never have crossed kala pani but the American accent rules the waves, radio too. And starlets in Hindi movies are increasingly given to the drawl.

 

 

What is changing, what people want, is the fact that the windows to the rest of the world are open: first satellite television and later the internet have made everything more accessible, down the classes. Nobody needs to tell you how people dress round the world, what they eat or how they live: just switch on. TV and to an extent the internet have been great levellers. Kuan Banega Crorepati – and some of its clones – is a triumph for even the middle classes. You can be in Etawah or in Munar and watch the same things, from Friends to the Sopranos, or Sharon Stone uncross her legs in Basic Instinct. Small town India has become visible, bright, clear and large on the map. It is on the radar screen, and the world is on its radar screen. They, too, want the same fruits of the Good Life.

Paradoxically, the good life comes with a bill: uncertainty. Many among the younger generation are on the looking-for-themselves-trip. There is a run to temples and holy places. Photographs of favourite gurus pasted on computers in state-of-the-art and groovy offices are not rare. Any given Tuesday, young men and women form serpentine lines outside Hanuman mandir. Thursdays see the Prada or Diesel-clad – or whatever is the fashion of the day – throng the Sri Shirdhi Sai Baba temple. It’s usually the same crowd that goes clubbing most nights. Materialism may be at full tide, but alongside there is a move towards spirituality. Especially the youth who are drifting towards it. Big mansions, big cars and a jet set life may be what dreams are now made of, but Indians also want to access the more abstract – to look beyond the material.

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