The Rise of Manufactured First-World Syndrome
I started writing this before the catastrophic elections took place. In a bizarre (but kudos to his PR team) twist of fate our own Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, stole the Election 2016 thunder by demonetizing India’s 500 rupee and 1000 rupee notes (approx. 7.50/15 dollar notes) at midnight on November 9th. This was the administration's attempt to curb black money in India.
I am not even going to get into this because, really, both the election and India's demonetization has blunted the remaining sane tissue I had in my brain.
So, we’re going right back to my original topic, and pretending that last week didn’t happen. If you are feeling particularly academic, you can try and put last week’s events in context to this article.
This month’s post is about manufactured environments. The one thing that’s utterly fascinated me about globalized India is the ease at which certain classes can literally pitch first-world tents over their heads whenever the need arises. The thing is, in India I am in the top 5% of the population. I am within the 2-5% of people who can be empirically defined as middle class.
This is why, pictorially, I have the ability to demonstrate India to you in a wide variety of ways. If I edit my Instagram life enough, I can show you pictures of my daily life that would have you thinking that Bangalore is not any different from urban U.S. How Would I do this?
- Take a morning (before work with cute work bag) picture of me in that nice-shady spot by my house with trees around
- Show me grabbing an iced-Americano from Starbucks/ Au Bon Pain
- Eating lunch at my office (freshly delivered continental fare)/drinking fresh pressed juice from a delivery service
- Sunday Cubbon Park runs and weekend brunches
- Saturday mall hopping
I could also show you a very different Urban India the same day. How?
- Take a picture of my entry road (which is completely broken, except for that nice shady spot where I took my morning picture)
- Eating lunch at a place where we can get south Indian food for a dollar and drinking juice at a local street vendor (as opposed to yuppie juice) for 70 cents.
- Take a picture of burning garbage just 50 meters away from my house
- Take a picture of a busy street that’s not right next to fancy cafes and restaurants: the people will look a lot different and there will be a ton of men standing around
- My auto rickshaw commute to work
- Sitting in the moonlight because my electricity it off for 2 hours in the evening and my UPS (Backup power itself is a very privileged thing to have) is out of battery
The 2000s in India really recommitted to globalization, and yes that meant the middle class grew, they had access to things they did not have in the 90s: expendable income, cafes, brunches, and lots of visual cues from the Americans and Europeans coming to Bangalore to do business.
We have a joke running (self-racist jokes are always fun). Last time Kala (who founded Write Leela Write with me) and I were at a cafe, watching a group of Europeans on the other table drinking bottles of white wine, their plates of fruit, meats and breads stacked high.
Kala said, we Indians just can’t pull of their swag, and then we burst out laughing. Brown People at brunch was after all a very new phenomenon.
But the Europeans in front of us look very comfortable with it, they’ve grown for generations with this kind of environment around them, they’ve had parents who’ve taken them to lunches, and brunches, with white wine, and white table cloth.
The new millennials urbanites in India want to think of ourselves as no less, and to a large extent, travel, globalization, and income has made that possible. We’re suave, we’re hot, we watch Netflix, and know Western bands better than Bollywood. We’re also probably way more well versed in American and global current events/politics than the average American.
But we didn’t grow up wearing skinny jeans and Crocs. We came from middle class homes with very micro-cultural identities to balance as well. See, the bottom line is this: we, the new Indians, having brunch with pale pastel dresses, glasses of white wine, lipstick laughter- we look, uh, staged.
After all, I’ll wear my shorts on some trendy streets, but not while I need to commute between the first-world tents of the city. When I have to navigate the city on my own, using public transport, there is no room to contemplate the risks of skimpy fashion.
On Sundays, Cubbon park (the city’s largest park,) has vehicle-free Sundays. The lower middle classes always had this one public space to themselves: The parks. The richer had money to pay for their entertainment and stuck to shopping and movies and dinners outside. That changed slowly. As the age of the internet came, it became increasingly cool to roller skate, cycle, and run 5 and 10ks, and we wanted to wear tight lycra shorts and Nike shoes too. Now every Sunday can look like Central Park, NY save for the fruit/fresh sugarcane juice street food venders instead of the hotdog carts.
The question is, can we ever be thoroughly comfortable with manufactured environments? Or will there always be something suspiciously maladroit about a bunch of brown people around a table filled with foods and colorful glasses we saw on TV or read about in books, when we grew up?
Won’t this irony only increase in planet crunched for resources? And what of this absurdity: walking into a first world tent and pretending this was our continuous reality. Where we, for an hour or so, could pretend that bad roads, intense pollution, poverty, 24-hour electricity, and water were not concerns for us.
Starbucks is among the few places around the Indiranagar area, where I feel comfortable sitting alone with my computer for hours on end. That’s because places like Starbucks have manufactured not only an artificial physical ambience, but also, the western behavior that is inherent in its architecture: celebration of isolation, polite smiles, cleaning out your own table when you’re done, and barista’s calling out my coffee by name. The fact that I am a woman alone doing my own thing is irrelevant.
But even as I sit there, sipping my coffee, headphones on, typing away, I always feel a heightened sense of deception, a part of a thoughtful curation in India’s very own New India sitcom. No it’s not guilt, nor the awkwardness of feeling unaccustomed. For the most part, I just feel like a lucky turtle who can carry the many shelter realities of India on my back, and yet be stunningly unaware of the many other worlds the country lives within every day.