Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
TRANSITIONS : September 12, 1999
Global winds of change
Life in its own journey presupposes its own change and movement and one tries to arrest them at one's own eternal peril.
Laurens Vander Post
Times change and we too change with them.
How terrible it would be if nothing changed. One generation following another along a rigidly defined path, the environment around them constant - no progress, no decline, just colourless, uni-dimensional, stiflingly the same.
We cannot complain of that for in the last few years, changes have swept over all aspects of our lives. Some for the better, some for the worse.
Just over a decade ago, how different it all was. You did not see six-year-olds clutching imported soft toys and viewing the world with admirable sang-froid. Or mothers sporting T-shirts,jeans and designer shoes, pick up their children from school in sleek, air conditioned cars fitted with sophisticated gadgets. And get home to switch on the microwave. Then, turn on the Internet to pass on the day's news to their siblings in New York and get ready in the evening to shop in acres of space stacked with goods from all over the world.
The effects of liberalisation and globalisation are evident everywhere in our cities. A wafer-thin slice of the population is being projected into the next millennium on par with the West while millions are left trailing way behind. A small section within a short space of time is being rocketed to a world of comforts and luxuries, travel and technology unattainable till recently. While for those at the grassroots level, time stands achingly still. Globalisation has led to an extremely unfair divide. How will this gap close - will it ever?
Experts agree that the "shrinking space, shrinking time, disappearing borders" theory has failed to consolidate. The recent UNDP report called for a people rather than a profit centred approach. There are protests that the present policy has worked against the interests of tribals, farmers, the deprived and the displaced and that globalisation is working in favour of the developed countires.
Globalisation (read Westernisation especially Americanisation) is swallowing up traditional ways of thinking and living, wiping out small trades, bringing about lopsided development, widening the divide between the rich and the poor, the city folk and the rural and dealing the death blow to indigenous crafts.
But for a creamy layer of the urban population, it has led to an explosion of Information Technology and access to miraculous communication tools.
The American imprint is ubiquitous - from education to eats. Educational opportunities for the privileged young are growing rapidly. But for the youngster who strives against poverty and backwardness to complete his school finals, there is hardly a sponsor or avenue to turn to. Jughead specials have made their appearance at ice cream stalls and Californian quenchers gleam enticingly at juice marts. Burgers and bermudas, cokes and cookies have entered our daily lives. Being edged out are our traditional, time-tested foods - the protein rich dals and refreshing thirst-quenchers - cheap and nutritious, that have led to an extraordinary culinary range. One hardly gets the point of guzzling expensive ice-creams and creamy pastries and then paying the price in working off those extra kilos in gyms. To harassed women working on the eight to eight grind, instant foods are a godsend to pander to jaded young tastebuds which cannot settle for desi vegetables, roti or curd rice any more. Advertisements and commercials thrust alien foods down our throats and alien lifestyles too.
Exposure to a consumerist lifestyle has swept away the simple way of life of a people who believed in plain living and where even the wealthy took pains to play it down. Flaunt it, is today's motto - whether it is your body, your clothes or your possessions. With smaller families and more purchasing power being the norm in a miniscule section of society, the buy-it-when-you-feel-it urge has taken over.
When you are on a point-to-point express or a flume ride, you just cannot get off when you sight your destination or have had enough. While globalisation takes us forward on the wave of technological progress, it also inexorably sweeps away culture and values to flatten the world to one great shapeless lump.
The jeans-T shirt culture is proof of the American cultural hegemony. As a West bound youngster says, "Everyone feels the American way is ideal because the economic system has proved itself." So what if many aspects do not suit us? We follow the West blindly tripping where they tripped and tumbling where they fell. Promiscuity, hasty divorce, break up of the family unit, neglect of the old - we follow the piper's tune since he wears the stars and stripes. And, where do we go from here?
But on the plus side, globalisation has brought access to information. Altered perceptions have led to altered attitudes. If the notion of individuality has led to the break of the joint family, it has also led to more equality between the sexes, and between parents and children. Notions of parenting have undergone a change - you make friends with your children rather than have them fear you or obey you blindly.
A more broad minded and liberal outlook prevails as there is more interaction between various people. Narrow domestic walls have come crashing down as families become international in outlook and composition. Multinationals have gobbled up small manufacturing units but awareness has increased regarding quality products. Gyms have sprung up in many cities, a fall out of the keep-fit trend.
Greater availability and acceptance of technological gains have divested labour-saving gadgets of their aura. Every reasonably well-off middle class household now takes a TV, refrigerator, mixer and grinder in its daily stride.
I remember when we were children how we loved to visit our family friends in Delhi. "TV Dinner," our hostess would announce grandly. Being South Indians this mostly consisted of the humble Kalandha Saadam (mixed rice) - coconut, lemon, or vegetable. But didn't it seem posh to sit in front of the black and white TV set and see the world enter the room. What a technological marvel it seemed then to have the Prime Minister actually speak to us. Now we have grown blasÆ as multi-channel sets bring the events of the world into our living rooms.
If mental horizons have broadened, physical distances have been killed. Apart from travelling to distant parts courtesy the small screen, more and more families are now able to actually land in exotic locations. Grandma's village is not the only vacation vista any more.
The tourist scene on the Continent for example, has transformed in the last 15 years. There are Indians, Indians everywhere - truckloads descending on the Spanish steps in Rome, North Indian dialects echoing through the vast gilded corridors of Versailles, groups of Tamil speaking tourists in Toulouse. Thanks to double incomes, company perks and the willingness to spend and expand your vision.
Conversely, you seem to be transported to a western metropolis as you visit the colleges of Delhi, Bangalore or Mumbai. MTV and travel have contributed to change in sartorial tastes and a mass cultural migration. So much so, I was surprised by the sight of four young women in Chennai recently who appeared to be straight out of a Ravi Verma painting in nine yard sarees and flower adorned plaits. Even in Mylapore they looked quaint and lovely.
Twenty five years ago, there was little exposure to the western world and little choice. You wore the saree or the kameez simply because it was your dress. "The line between the real world and the world of glamour was sharp and well defined. Students did not dress like film stars or models. To look traditional was the mark of "respectability". Modelling and beauty contests were taboo. Thankfully there was no compulsion to adhere to an alien code of beauty or to remain forever young.
Globalisation brought the Western look. Travel and TV again made all the difference. MTV has transformed an entire generation into clones of their American teen counterparts. Even the elderly, now view traditional clothes as old-fashioned and out of sync. Continual onslaught by the media has made minis and halter-necked tops acceptable to all.
Everyone takes pride in flaunting the badge of transition - through their clothes and appearance. And we are treated to self-conscious youngsters parading their western look, casting surreptitious glances over themselves to ensure no strap or frill is playing traunt. Discos, dating and the pub-culture have entered the upper class urban scene.
On the positive side, is the growing idea of equality between the sexes in behaviour and attitude. It is no longer infra-dig for men to help with the household chores.
The tinkle of the ice-cream cart was the welcome note of "eating out" when we were children. An occasional masala dosa at an Udipi restaurant was Eating Out in capital letters and at a North Indian restaurant almost a Roman feast.
Today, "Pizza" bikes whizz past you to fulfil their within 39-minute delivery promise. Global winds bring inter continental aromas wafting across the country and most well-off urbanites can reel off the names and even ingredients of Korean, Italian or Mexican specialities. To pronounce "hors d' oeuvre" or "au gratin" wrong is abysmal ignorance that can make you very red- faced indeed. But it is perfectly all right to get "idiappam" or "ericheri" wrong.
The three expensive new sets of clothes a year for the important festivals was a rule that governed the average Indian's wardrobe for generations. Now, consumerism reigns supreme as we smother ourselves with clothes and perfumes. And stuff our homes with cutlery and curios that don't blend with our lifestyle or decor.
The trump card of globalisation is the communication and information revolution. The wizards with their bits and bytes have made it possible for us to enter a Merlin's cave of knowledge and information.
Ranking high among the top inventions of the 20th century is the worldwide web. The Internet has virtually transformed our lives - intellectually, emotionally and socially. For those who know to use it well, it is literally like the Akshayapatra of legendary fame. But here too, 88 per cent of Internet users belong to the industrialised countries and totally constitute only 17 per cent of the world's population.
From chatting to high-tech research, everything has been made possible by the wonder web. Medical information, travel, shopping, entertainment - the web has it all. You can apply to universities, land plush jobs, advertise your products, let the world know your views, find a compatible partner.
"The Internet is one of the best fall-outs of globalisation," says Dr. M. Anandakrishnan, Chairman of the Sub-Committee of the Information Technology Task Force, Tamil Nadu Government. "The Internet's like rain that falls everywhere and does not belong to anyone - its benefits can be accrued by all. We are way behind in exploiting the power of IT. But computerisation has made transparency possible in the government. It is essential to communicate in Tamil or the regional language of each State on the computer and not in English, which is the language of a very small fraction of the population," says Dr. Anandakrishnan. "We have not learnt to channelise the benefits of Internet, whether in educational research or trade."
"E-Commerce does not mean selling computers, automobiles, fancy goods and women's wear on the net. You must interpret it to suit the needs of the people. Only if the wholesale vegetable merchant in Virudhunagar is able to put his produce on the net, the Pattamadai mat weaver gains visibility for his craft and the Kanchipuram weaver puts up his lovely creations, can the powerful technology bring a perceptible change in our lives."
Says Mr. S. Venkitaramanan, former Reserve Bank Governor. "We slavishly copy global trends instead of being at the leading edge of change. Should we go global the whole way - the Anglo-Saxon way. No, we need a uniquely Indian blend of market forces and governmental oversight."
To mingle with the intellectual and developmental mainstream but not lose our individual identity, to take the best of the West and retain the best of our own, to gain technological strength but not lose out on our traditional values - does this seem too unrealistic as change engulfs our lives and we move inevitably closer to a global society and economy?
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