The Global Town

In September 2009, I was the valedictory speaker at a National Seminar on Lifestyles hosted by the Social Work faculty of St. Aloysius College. In April 2010 I was at the podium for the inauguration of City  Centre, Karnataka’s 2nd largest mall and the 10th largest nationally, as its co-Promoter. Using Mangalore as the focus of my analysis, both events, in their different ways stimulated my introspection on the evolution and implications of the globalized lifestyle, of how it is possible for a resident of this compact city to feel like a citizen of the world.

Two decades ago, as a student in Delhi, I was conscious of a huge divide between my hometown Mangalore and the capital city, a metropolis which enjoyed the makeover of the Asian Games.( No doubt, it will enjoy another fresh avatar with the forthcoming Commonwealth Games.) Today, the offerings of an Indian metro, or even  a happening  foreign destination lack the novelty element in lifestyle terms. There’s  a sense of déjà vu to these peregrinations- “been there, done that”,  often back on humble homeground.

Undoubtedly the  universalization of technology has shrunk the globe into a giant village. This was especially brought home to me on finding a transmission tower disguised as a tree in Kenya’s Masai Mara to offer some really strong mobile telephony from the remote heart of a jungle. The ever expanding domains of the internet and cellular services foster connectivity  by catering to the human urge for articulation. Community websites are a meeting ground between the hometown and the diaspora, even as Facebook and similar virtual communities  supplant the immediacy of actual social ties. The rise and fall of the Twitterati is a phenomenon constantly unfolding before us, especially when the credibility of governments is  often affected by the tenor of tweets.

A few years ago, flying was a high end travel product. Low cost flights opened up the skies in two important aspects- expanding the catchment ground  of travelers, as well as increasing access to many  more destinations.  Globetrotting has ceased to be the privilege of the  rich and famous, as more people explore more places.
The constraints on lifestyle enhancement from  the Nehruvian brand of socialism  are a distant memory as  productive energies and consumption capacities have commenced to vigorously assert themselves in the ever evolving process of Liberalization. These once artificially suppressed forces have reinforced each other for an unprecedented growth and innovation in goods and services.  The kind and quantum of vehicles on our roads furnish this apt metaphor for India on the move.  Our potholed roads may be the same, but the indigenized presence of global auto majors and the stimulus of car finance have resulted in  that quantum leap in the sheer physical numbers of   private vehicle ownership, and the contemporary, often high end models that ply the streets.  The changing landscape gives us another indicator, as the   countryside makes way for townships that aggregate formerly elusive dream homes, fuelled by forces of competitive entrepreneurship and Housing Finance. From way back in the late 1990’s, Satellite technology made possible online trading of stocks and shares. Greater information flows connect  sentiments on Dalal street with Wall Street with an immediate linkage, for global events to impact the fortunes of Indian investors.

The millennium, I recall was that watershed in national consciousness- of waking  up to the global reach of  Indian players in Information Technology,  accomplished  without either government assistance or interference. It was a matter of proud announcement on National News when Wipro’s  Azim Premji was named the 4th richest man in the world in December 1999. Since then, we have taken in stride many more Indian origin entrepreneurs and billionaires in the Forbes list.

A new breed of global citizens, either returning from onshore assignments abroad or in offshore outfits in India, stimulated lifestyle enhancement. The techie would be the fabled creature  on whom was premised the start of many a new enterprise- from holistic homes, international  schools with foreign curricula for Gen-Next, malls, multiplexes, exotic eateries and feel good services like Oriental spas. These developments would eventually  trickle down to Tier II and III cities, especially when affordable real estate could be combined with a high quality manpower.

Middle class fortunes surely expanded with  hefty pay packages and stock options. The growth of Indian business across sectors attracted a higher quantum of Foreign Institutional Investment,  taking the stock market to unprecedented highs, the Sensex  once touching  the neighbourhood of 21,000. Allowing for volatility, the investing class would correspondingly enjoy  a windfall purchasing power. Rising real estate valuations would unexpectedly enrich landholders even outside the usual elite class- perhaps a small farmer on a city’s outskirts whose holding is converted into an IT venture or an elite residential enclave. Some quantum of this enrichment would also trickle down to lower-end service providers, and generally power growth through a combination of purchasing power and further investments.

The growth of credit cards, combined with a liberalized  import regime, further prompted the retail sector  to organize on the theme

of big is beautiful. A mall is a magnet of employment for everyone from parking and store attendants to the innumerable unseen producers of merchandise on store shelves. A mall subtly promotes the secular spirit because regardless of caste and creed, everyone is a consumer, to be attracted by   collections and discount schemes, often around a cross section of festivals. Merchandise, whether clothes, jewellery, home furnishings are often proclaimed through social  celebrations that sustain the vast ranks of related service sectors. However, it would also be true that the vast new variety on offer tempts us into becoming consumers beyond actual need. Purchases come with the unfortunate baggage of plastic packaging, and there should be some strategies mandated to induce eco-friendlier packaging solutions.

An impact on fashion has been one of the most conspicuous outcomes of mall culture.One of the legacies of the freedom movement was Swadeshi or pride in Indian dress. For the most part, the urban Indian male conformed to a workplace norm of  Western clothes. An NGO observed the diminishing number of saris that arrive by way of disaster relief from the cities,   suggesting that  the  urban Indian woman has begun to find traditional dressing cumbersome. Today she is receptive to relaxed global styles that literally endow her with a new persona. Even a traveler to foreign destinations can be comfortable and contemporary with the current offerings on Indian racks. However, our magnificent traditions of textiles and craftsmanship  have begun to feel the brunt of the shift to convenient apparel.  What saves our famous looms from complete decline is the weight of tradition that  prevails for festivals and ceremonial functions.  A contemporary redefinition of our clothing traditions should be undertaken to stimulate a revival, especially  with the anti- ethnic brigade of the younger generations, as well as to give them a well deserved global acceptance. The Chinese, for example, furnish a growing market for the Salwar Kameez!

The urban Indian family is more adventurous about food, and this odyssey probably commenced in the vast variety of a mall food court and the groaning shelves of supermarkets. Indeed, when there was a spike in the price of wheat worldwide, and the price of pasta in Italy went up,  blame was laid on the evolving lifestyles of the newly rich Indians and Chinese. When KFC sought to make an entry in 1995, I recall, there was a rather needless outcry. If anything, food is one of our most conspicuous cultural exports. Whenever we have allowed big brands into our culinary space, it is on our own exacting terms. The big names of pizza can open shop,but if they have to stay in business, they’ve learned to add tandoori & chettinad to their toppings to appeal to the spice loving Indian palate. Even on one’s travels abroad, one notes that Indian food comprises a substantial segment of a buffet menu. Today macrobiotic diets are a global fad, but it appears that Indians had got the formula for whole grains & lentils all along. The Indian

norm of a vegetarian diet, so unique to our country, if more widely adopted is one of the keys to saving the planet.

Today, a visiting NRI and his baggage of gifts is no longer regarded with wide eyed wonder, because of lifestyle convergence, especially through enhanced retail access. Paradoxically, as India is in the process of transforming itself into an economic  powerhouse, compared to recession afflicted economies elsewhere, it would appear that the good life is increasingly a reality for a greater number, creating its own forward momentum. It is India’s smaller cities which increasingly embody this good life, where facilities and amenities are concentrated in a more compact geographical locus, affording the comparative luxury of more spacious housing, combined with a lower incidence of pollution and commuting constraints.  A returning diaspora finds these comparative advantages attractive. Their acquaintance with goods and services abroad becomes a driver for demand, inducing the lifestyle changes that gradually diffuse into a widespread norm.

Consumerism has its critics- their greatest validity being from the ecological viewpoint. At the National  Seminar where I expressed my views, another speaker lashed out at the irrelevance of discussion on lifestyles given the social and economic inequities prevailing in India.  I personally think it’s worthwhile to consider that  one person’s lifestyle is another person’s livelihood, however decadent it may seem to the abstemious mindset. A diamond is regarded by many as a sinful luxury. Yet, some 2 lakh workers in Surat’s diamond industry were rendered jobless in the global slump, with numerous resultant suicides. Generally speaking, radically reduced consumption would stave off environmental degradation but also precipitates  economic crises that impact the employment of productive persons. An equilibrium would only be possible if population sizes and productive energies are balanced, which would require focused long term policies for  demographic change.

Being consumers is unavoidable, but responsible earthizens should seek to be consumers with a conscience, whose comforts should go hand in hand with concerns. A mobile or a computer may be indispensable to the modern lifestyle, but to combat the growing menace of electronic waste  the frequency of change can be reduced  to reflect actual need over style. Avoiding waste, especially of fuel and energy should be the buzzword of the eco- sensitive, socio-sensitive lifestyle.

We are collective participants of a most eventful and fast paced era in human history, constantly challenged by the dizzying pace of change. As Indians, we are inheritors of a great civilization, and the wide world also beckons with variety and opportunity. The many facets of  Indian culture have been durable; its  wisdom is being universally rediscovered and often brought back to the homeland with interesting redefinitions as with Yoga, Ayurveda, Meditation and New Age beliefs. The accommodative spirit in encounters with foreign cultures have invariably been transformed into unique end products whether in the realm of art, architecture, literature, faith, food or fashion.

The global model before us is rather homogenously Western.  True globalization would entail

heterogenous and equitable  exchange that accepts the unique contribution of every place in the comity of nations. For us, the internal processes of  absorption and assimilation should be matched by an assertive Indian contribution  to the global melting pot-a confidence in the strength of our ideas, commodities and productive capacities to the far corners of the globe. The key to sustainable lifestyle equilibrium is that intelligent fusion between timeless traditions and stimulating change.

– Giselle D. Mehta

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About proteanpen

Giselle Mehta, an entrepreneur, engages in writing, theater,public speaking and activities with a creative/intellectual stimulus. She is the author of the acclaimed novel "Blossom Showers."
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