Hasan Suroor

Unlike its cash-strapped and debt-ridden British counterpart, India’s GenerationNext is flush with money. The exposure to western lifestyle, coupled with the purchasing power to finance it, has led to a conspicuous exhibition of acquired taste.

Some years ago, I met a young white Briton on Heathrow Express, the train service from the Heathrow airport to Central London. He had just returned after a six-month tour of Asia and Africa. Instead of being happy to be back home, he said gloomily: “God, nothing has changed, absolutely nothing …”

At the time, I didn’t quite get it. What did he mean by saying “nothing” had changed? What did he expect to happen while he was away? A revolution or something? But looking back — and having myself just returned after spending a few weeks in India — I think I know what he meant. He was, presumably, referring to the predictability of British life, its somewhat dull “sameness” in contrast to the so-called “vibrancy” of the Asian and African countries he had been to.

It was the response of a typical well heeled western tourist who, while trying to escape the regimented routine of his daily life, is so often seduced by the chaos, tension and unpredictability of less organised societies that their own people so despair of. Sometimes, they try to become part of those societies, which the locals find terribly patronising.

V.S. Naipaul has had some pretty harsh things to say about this kind of white western traveller. His biographer Patrick French quotes him as saying that western liberals seek out such places in order to confirm their own security. Attacking “foreign Indophiles” in an interview to The New York Times, Naipaul declared: “How tired I am of the India-lovers, who go on about ‘beautiful India’ — the last gasp of a hideous, imperialistic vanity.”

I know people who never stop speaking nostalgically of the time they spent in India and go on and on about how “wonderful” and “lovely” it is. But try asking them whether they would be willing to trade places and the answer is likely to be an awkward smile. The fact is that all of us feel more at home on our own turf, however much we may admire another country from a distance. Gabriel Garcia Marques has written that the very smell of Colombian food still makes him homesick.

But I am digressing.

Coming back to the predictable and dull “sameness” of British life, I was again reminded of that Heathrow Express man as I returned to London a few days ago. Despite the frothy headlines, the news agenda in Britain had barely moved in the previous weeks except that Labour had got a mauling in the local elections: Prime Minister Gordon Brown was still “struggling” to get a “grip” on things; pollsters and commentators were still undecided whether Labour had finally run out of steam; Tory leader David Cameron was still going on and on about the crime rate; Labour backbenchers were still said to be in a “rebellious” mood over one thing or another; the tabloids were still obsessed with immigration; and the royal family still looked none the worse for all the recent controversies.

In contrast, in India, during the same period, there was hardly a day when you felt that a conversation was in danger of flagging for want of a “sexy” opening gambit. Whether it was Priyanka Vadra’s meeting with one of her father’s alleged assassins in jail; or the new phase of sycophancy in the Congress; or the BCCI’s newest cricketing tamasha, there was at least a sense that something was happening even if in the end it might not have amounted to much.

Two British tourists on the flight to London, while pleased to be escaping the Indian summer heat, said they would miss its “energy” and planned to return “soon.” They marvelled at India’s “transformation” since their last visit in the 1980s when, as one of them remarked, it had “Third World written all over it.” They did complain, though, about India’s “primitive” infrastructure and public services saying they had a “nightmare” trying to book train tickets because all computers at the station were down. “They [the people at the counters] just threw their hands up and said they couldn’t do a thing,” one of them said.

Eight years ago when I left India and moved to Britain to report for The Hindu, the country was in the first flush of its post-liberalisation phase. And although there was a lot of breathless chatter that, eventually, India had turned the corner and gung-ho commentators were already advocating a more “muscular” foreign policy to go with its putative new status, the popular mood was largely sober and innocent of pretensions.

Besides, the economy had yet to open up fully and it was hard to find too many visible symbols of a competitive free market: Air India was still the country’s only truly international airline; the retail sector was still overwhelmingly ‘desi’; and Maruti still defined the automobile market.

Eight years on, India — at least urban India which represents the country’s public face — looks a different place altogether with glittering new malls; roads chock-a-block with foreign cars; a proliferation of new suburbs with plush and fashionably expensive tower blocks; and the consumer boom set to go through the roof.

“New” money is everywhere and the urban middle classes are living it up like there will be no tomorrow. To a lay observer, guided only by anecdotal evidence, it would seem that the white collar urban Indian never had it so good. In Delhi, I noticed a distinct change in the lifestyle of my own old friends and acquaintances. Families which once had no car now have more than one; air coolers have given way to heavyweight air conditioners; a single-computer household is now a rarity with some families boasting of an individual computer for each member; more and more people are sending their children abroad for higher education; and dining out is an elaborate affair.

At some point, a typical dinner party conversation in Delhi these days is likely to turn to one or more of the following issues: problems of parking; the relative merits of new car models; plans for the next foreign holiday; argument over the best eating joint in town; or how the desi Marks and Spencer is peddling old stock.

Taste for ‘good life’

The younger generation — young professionals with their allegedly five-digit incomes, cosmopolitan attitude and a taste for “good life” — is leading the consumption revolution. Unlike its cash-strapped and debt-ridden British counterpart, India’s GenerationNext is flush with money and is flaunting it. Besides, the exposure to western lifestyle, coupled with the purchasing power to finance it, has led to a conspicuous exhibition of acquired taste so that a nation of tea-drinkers is now hooked on to Starbucks coffee; children brought up on the virtues of vegetarianism are tucking into mega ham sandwiches at Subway; and expensive imported wine is the new preferred drink on the cocktail circuit.

Yet beneath this spanking new India, there is still a whiff of the old India Naipaul so provocatively and rudely described in his controversial An Area of Darkness all those years ago.

For one, public manners remain appalling. It is not just about forgetting to say “sorry” or “thank you” but about motorists spitting out paan from cars; about not letting pedestrians cross the road even at a zebra crossing; about a complete disregard for basic courtesies; and about defying rules meant for their own safety.

And the worst offender is the new bling-bling elite — the so-called “global Indian.” It is the man in Gucci shoes and Kelvin Kleine goggles who is more likely to bulldoze his way through a queue, insist on using mobile phone where he is not supposed to, park illegally or behave rudely in public.

There is a new arrogance abroad which at least one Indophile Briton told me he found extremely upsetting. “I don’t recognise this brash new India,” he said.

There is also a creeping insularity that comes with the idea that we are now the Big Boys and don’t need to know about other countries, especially those which are not in the same league as us. One young man thought he would be “wasting” his time reading about what was happening in Darfur or Somalia. “Why should I?” he shrugged.

Indeed, much of the coverage of non-western world in the Indian media, particularly in the regional press and the electronic media, consists of the sort of frivolous “offbeat” stories that were once the staple diet of India-based western journalists and that infuriated us so much when we were still in the junior league.

Such insularity not only smacks of a misplaced arrogance but goes against our grain — a people with a long tradition of seeking knowledge. Besides, such an attitude can easily turn into hubris.