"Besides the intellectual and political elite, who have been the historical protagonists of India for over a century, one must also note the emergence of a new middle class in the principal cities. This class -- without much culture and with no great sense of tradition -- is, as in the rest of the world, enamored of technology and the values of individualism, especially in its American version. This class is destined to have more and more influence on society. A strange situation: the middle class, in India and on the rest of the planet, disdains public life and cultivates the private sphere -- business, family, personal pleasures -- and yet they increasingly determine the course of history. They are the children of television."
From Edward Luce's "In Spite of the Gods:"
"Perhaps the most conspicuous item of consumption in today's India is the wedding, which owes a lot to Bollywood and vice versa. Vandana Moha, owner of the Wedding Design company and New Delhi's most successful wedding planner, told me the smallest metropolitan middle-class weddings start at $20,000, and climb to more than a hundred thousand dollars. In 2003, Subroto Roy, a prominent industrialist based in Lucknow, spent an estimated $10 million on the joint wedding of his two sons. The event, which almost every Indian politician attended, was stage-managed by Bollywood directors, stage managers, and choreographers... One much-publicized Punjabi wedding in 2004 had South Africa as the motif. The parents of the bride actually transported eight giraffes from Africa to add that authentic touch. "It is as is if some kind of madness has gripped India's middle classes," says Mohan, laughing."
On a Saturday for myself, I take some time to walk through Missouri, eat every two hours, and enjoy my independence in a new place. Dehydrated and too close to the end of my book to keep walking by this coffee shop, I duck in. Tucked into the corner, I start to read but my attention is stolen. Bad Indian pop music is blaring, scattering my thoughts initially before they fall into a state of intent focus on a group of women and their teen girls against the window. Lip-synching with the performative flair and accuracy required to fill the biggest venues in Mumbai, the words to this song are sung as second nature. Articulate, well-coached English broadcasts the very vague, unmeaning lyrics. Plush, brown leather couches and the complementary earth-tone cushions comfortably support the on looking women, creating a court scene, performers performing and their adoring patrons draped elegantly on an exotic fur as they drink exotic concoctions from far off lands. Wearing sari's themselves, their daughters don the most notorious name brands, the same ones bootlegged all over the world, available on Canal Street and Fifth avenue. Daughter and mother alike are painted a certain complexion, their eyebrows maintained.
My mind is captivated, enraptured by their speech, enchanted by the scene playing out in front of me, a scene I just read about, was told about by the leading commentators on India. As the bill arrives one of the mothers dismissively places a large bill on the check presenter and shoos the boy away. She doesn't say thank you; she's busy gossiping about the latest on Salman Kahn, what earrings she had on at dinner or what clothes he was wearing on his day off from boarding school. Louder than they music, the composition of this scene far more telling of something bigger, more 'Indian,' these women represent the future of India and it is a frightening future that no amount of decadent leather couches can warm me to.
Converted from the theoretical to the real, Octavio Paz's "In Light of India," Amaryta Sen's "The Argumentative Indian," and Henry Luce's "In Spite of the Gods," words enter my mind, their warnings of a rapidly growing population - growing in population and power - of wealthy, educated, privileged, consumer-crazed, well connected, disconnected Indians. This burgeoning sub section of the population, vastly atypical of the average Indian, is a critical mass that is responsible in large part for furthering an obsession with money, products, packaging, labels, the conveyance of status at the expense of the starving people who live in the shadows of their mansions.
Surely this is an overly simplistic diagnosis, reducing the economic problems of the 12th largest economy of the world to a sentence, to the people who go to Bollywood movies on a Friday night. But, it is undeniable that a pernicious classism is emerging and the rich are setting the agenda, controlling the flow of money, entertaining foreign investors. This isn't different from the other countries I have been to and the larger trend of the world today. But, I think about why I am here. Arrived in this country on the wings of funding meant to prompt sustainable development, to cultivate a class of leaders who will try reverse these harmful patterns, poverty. So, often, in the front of my mind are questions about how to do that, how to effectuate positive change in a meaningful, lasting, fair way and in this coffee shop right now the real question is: whose responsibility is this? This fellowship has one thought, suggesting me as a possible answer, and hearing that from them sounds nice, flattering to think that I might be able to do something so big. But, it seems, these women sitting there have also suggested me as answer, seemingly unfazed by such questions, choosing instead to purport the exact system I am thinking about. In Delhi, on the train, in Mussori, in the billboards, malls, advertisements, it feels that the percentage of Indians who have "made it" do not care about where they have made it from, this history that has put them there and the opportunity they represent going forward, instead choosing to blame the poor, caste differences, or varying State cultures as the reasons for the inability of other people to pull themselves up.
They are now taking pictures of the three girls, divas, sprawled on the couch, their shiny digital camera clicking away.
The earth can't support this growth; I know this. So too am I aware that it is hypocritical of me to sit here at the same cafe paying, the same inflated prices for a coffee, very much the product of a consumer crazed country controlled in large part by class structures, to be passing judgment. Admitted. But it feels, thinking about ideas of development and the future and India somehow falling into this term -- set to surpass China in 2030 as the most populated country -- that there is an opportunity to reconsider these assumed thoughts of progress, material gain etc. and change a course because the goal ought not and can not be an American lifestyle of consumption. There are things we can do better, cleaner, more inclusively, to not make the same mistakes that the "developed world" made and continues to make.
Cue the violins. Sure this is idealistic but there is not reason this music should be so bad, - it is a product catered to a consumer class more concerned with communicating their status than listening to good music. A bottle of Jack Daniels costs $90, a sign the stinks of a desire to be American, not to drink good bourbon.