Talking about how much things have changed is an easy thing to do. Human brains are well tuned to notice shifts in the environment. We’re also apt to see the past as purer and less complicated than the present. That’s the central mechanism of nostalgia.
On a recent visit to an Indian city where I lived for nearly two years in the mid 1990s I was immediately struck by change. I was initially overcome by nostalgia. Hardly surprising after too long away from a place I adore.
And then, after looking harder and reflecting more deeply, I realised two things. If you want to escape the tendency to be nostalgic you need to get some data. And second, when you’re exploring change, you should be as specific as you can.
So let’s be specific.
What’s changed in India (or the bit of it I know best)?
The 20 years since I did fieldwork in India have been significant for the country. Its economic growth has had its ups and down, but mainly ups. Over the last two decades the economy’s average growth rate has been 7%. Between 2001 and 2011 its population increased by 17% to 1.2 billion people. The process of economic liberalisation that began in the early 90s has taken hold. The consumer technology and mass media landscape is almost unrecognisable. India’s relationships with the world are different.
So on the face of it much has changed. But if I get more specific about the lens through which I look at India it gets harder to make definitive claims about change. I got to know one city very well. The city in question – variously known as Varanasi, Banaras, Benares – is one of the oldest living cities on earth.
A city that was already old when the Buddha was young (as Salman Rushdie once put it). How impertinent is it to talk about change in a city that’s been continuously inhabited for over 2000 years and prides itself on its eternal nature?
And given that my original area of enquiry was mass media and consumerism (see more here) what change did I detect 20 years after my first study?
Here’s a very brief summary:
- Colour TVs were premium items and B&W sets were increasingly unwanted.
- There was no internet in the city. (Though I managed to squeeze one email out of the country in late 1997 after several hours of effort).
- Mobile phones (and calls) were hugely expensive and the typical use case was ‘phone as pager’. An incoming call would be dropped and the owner would use a payphone to return the call.
- There was a large number of cinema halls in the city.
- Newspapers were plentiful and there were plenty of people reading them.
- The first shopping mall in the city had opened.
- Flat screens sit at the top of the television hierarchy.
- Mobile phones are, of course, everywhere. Mainly feature phones and cheaper Androids. Many users get memory cards pre-loaded with content and they become portable TVs and cinema halls.
- Broadband is widespread, but a bit on the slow side. (I observed many families switching it off between uses and especially at night).
- There are three multiplex cinemas and one ‘old style’ cinema left (31 have closed in recent years. Yes, 31).
- Newspapers continue to boom (but I suspect they may be enjoying a pre-decline heyday?)
- Shopping malls and mini-malls have sprouted up all over the city.
So these are the headlines. But look beneath and observe what people are doing and saying about consumption in modern India and the picture is different.
Two areas of real continuity in ‘consumer culture’ struck me hard. Both underscore that, beneath a patina of apparent homogeneity, consumer capitalism is culturally specific. While the acts of shopping and consuming can appear similar across culture, the very opposite is true. Consumption is a deeply cultural phenomenon. In emerged and emerging markets consumerism should never be expected to follow the same cultural logic as its equivalents in individual developed markets.
How Indians shop
Back in 1996-7 I found that consumption of consumer electronics (and much else) was often tied to specific religious festivals and holidays. For example Dhanteras is the first day of the five day Diwali festival. Traditionally, and still, this has been a day to buy stainless steel items for cooking and eating. For decades now shops, manufacturers and advertisers have used festivals as hooks to hang special offers and giveaways. Dhanteras is now a good time to buy a new Android phone as Sanjay the servant in the family I stayed with had done.
There may have been, and for many still may be, deeper religious significance to these acts of consumption. Either way it’s worth reflecting that however unhinged from sacred life capitalism may appear to be religious these festivals can act to underpin consumption. We typically talk about capitalism undermining the sacred. Here the sacred fuels consumption.
How Indian’s spend (or not)
“Indian are not very good at spending money”, said an old friend when telling me about his decision to buy a patch of land on the outskirts of the city, “we don’t derive much happiness from money”. What day-to-day pleasure was he going to derive from a plot of land 30 minutes drive away?
The thought he was expressing is one that I find widely shared. India’s wealth has risen markedly over the last 20 years. But it is not always clear that culturally and socially appropriate ways to spend that wealth have emerged alongside it. Yes, there are new mini-malls, fast food joints, fancy clothes shops but these all seem to lack cultural resonance and excitement. They are empty shells awaiting a change in shopping habits. Like the plot of land waiting for the rest of the city to expand and announce that a house should now be built.
As China’s leaders struggle to encourage its populace to be real consumers and spend their way to a stronger economy it’s worth comparing the situation in India where saving, not spending, is also the order of the day. Global commentators are talking excitedly about the prospects for India’s economy but if growth is driven by spending how will this play out? 20 years on it still feels to me that India consumers are a very different breed to our ‘proto-typical’ version of an obedient all-consuming consumer. Instead we find a form of consumerism with distinctly Indian characteristics.
And so to that extent, while on the surface much of Varanasi had indeed changed over the last 20 years, there’s much that is really just the same.
It’s easy to say that change is everywhere and that ‘the only constant is change’. Seeing what’s the same is arguably more important, just a little harder. The deep knowledge I have of this city allows me to see continuity where others might see change and yet I’m still aware that after 2000 years it’s impertinent for me to even state an opinion….