Gandhi, meet Pepsi: Western culture is sweeping India. Urvashi Butalia, a Delhi publisher, says that few can resist its power

Urvashi Butalia
Saturday 09 April 1994 23:02

INDIA has never stood still in this or any other century, but suddenly it is changing at a speed that nobody envisaged 20 or even 10 years ago. Delhi in the past few months has seen a stream of foreign politicians, businessmen and 'media moguls': Rupert Murdoch and Kerry Packer have come, and Ted Turner of CNN was prevented from coming only by a fault in his private jet. India, which contains one-sixth of the world's population, is no longer aloof and mysterious. It has dismantled its trade barriers and liberalised its economy. The philosophies of its modern founders, Gandhi and Nehru, seem as far away as Sanskrit texts. We have satellite television. We are a market. We consume.

One night last month I was doing some consuming myself at a restaurant on a rooftop in a quarter of Delhi known as Hauz Khas village, where the old houses of artisans and tradesmen have been converted into boutiques filled with ethnic chic. I overheard a young couple at the next table.

Girl: So in the US were you, like, seeing someone?

Boy: Yeah . . . there was someone, you know. In that country you have to . . . sex and all that . . . but it wasn't really love.

Girl: Infatuation?

Boy: Yeah, I guess you could say that . . . she wasn't the kind of woman I'd marry though. For marriage you know one wants someone stable, someone who can adjust . . .

The attire was Western, perhaps from Weekender, the latest fashion chain. Clearly it was a first meeting, probably arranged by their parents in order for them to 'get to know each other' with a view to matrimony. A modern-day arranged marriage; none of the exchanging of photos and matching of horoscopes. As the clock struck 10, they paid and left, very likely driving their own cars, back home to their parents.

This is the shape of much of urban India now. In the early Seventies when I went to college we rode on buses. An all-route student bus pass cost the equivalent of 40p. Today, my students come to college in their air-conditioned cars, stereos blaring, jeans and Benetton T-shirts to the fore. The cheapest of these cars costs about 200,000 rupees (about pounds 4,000 or more than three years' salary for a university lecturer), and many families own at least two. Where does all this money come from?

'Black money' is no longer a dirty word in India, to be spoken of in hushed tones. If you want to buy property, for example, a lawyer will tell you how much you should pay in black - that is, undeclared to the revenue authorities - and how much in white. The usual proportion is 40/60. A two-bedroom flat in south Delhi can cost about pounds 60,000. How much you paid in black money for your newest flat, and how often you go to your 'farmhouse' to 'get away from all the noise and pollution' are standard dinner party conversations. Practically all rural land on the outskirts of Delhi has been sold to the city elite.

That last bastion of 'tradition' - female dress - seems to have collapsed without so much as a squeak. Some years ago a woman teacher in a shalwar-kameez (loose trousers and long shirt, traditional Punjabi wear for men and women, but long discarded by men) was frowned on. Teachers wore saris, students wore shalwar-kameez. Today students come in mini-skirts, off-the-shoulder T-shirts, tight dresses, and show a lot of leg and thigh and even a little bosom.

'Food, women's clothes, and rituals relating to birth, marriage and death - these are always the last to change. And these too are going. Death, perhaps, is the only constant,' said a friend.

Once the subziwallah came to your door every morning with his cart offering fresh vegetables; the small grocery store down the road stocked Indian brand names; an imported refrigerator was unusual. But now the supermarket ('one- stop shopping - so you can shop like housewives the world over') is replacing the subziwallah. And you can buy refrigerators made by Sanyo, faxes by Canon and Minolta, stereos by Sony, computers by Apple and Olivetti. If you go abroad, no one needs to ask you to bring back Levis or Wranglers. Even the roadsweeper has abandoned his pyjama-kurta for baggy jeans.

There's a whole new culture of money and aggression, of lip service to a particular kind of 'Westernisation' that is barren of of idealism, a culture of Pepsi and Coke and mean jeans. What foreign brand names and money have done for Delhi, satellite television is doing for much of India. Students in small towns in Bihar and Orissa watch MTV and find it liberating: 'It's really great, man. Now we can listen to this music and dance at home and in the college hostel. And the girls love it, too.'

In Delhi's lower middle-class area of Lajpat Nagar there's even a young man whose mission in life is to perfect the art of Michael Jackson lookalike dancing and gyrating. 'I hope he gets some recognition for this,' says his father.

With Star and Star Plus and BBC and Zee TV,and CNN and Pakistan TV all available, Doordarshan, the government-owned channel, has had to respond with five new channels: Metro; Sports; Business; Music; and something called 'Enrichment'. Commercial Indian cinema still makes up the bulk of Doordarshan's programmes on the 'national' and Metro channels, but even Indian cinema looks different. Heroes and heroines wear cut-off denims and bare-all blouses, though so far they still circle trees and sing love songs in time-honoured fashion, only occasionally risking a tentative kiss on the lips. For anything more passionate rural and urban television audiences can turn to the imported soaps such as Dynasty and Neighbours. The language is foreign (and there are no subtitles) but the message is clear. A government clerk in Madras said he enjoyed watching it, but found it a bit embarrassing if he was with his wife: 'That music is quite a bit about sex,' he said.

The 'invasion from the skies' has created confusion and ambivalence. And we who wear Indian clothes and feel proud of being Indian (and so far buying Indian) are reluctant to criticise liberalisation. Would we turn down a Coke on ideological grounds? Or give up driving our air-conditioned Suzukis? That's the real rub.

At some level everyone - rich, poor, urban, rural - wants to have access to the comforts offered by 'the good life'. Haven't we all complained, time and again, of the inept and painfully slow Indian bureaucracy; of how frustrating it is to get even the smallest thing done? Haven't we often said: 'Let there be a bit of competition. It may shake the complacency of our industry'? It is difficult to say that it is fine for us to have it but, because of its unknown effects on more 'traditional' society, the masses in the villages should be protected. And then there's another dilemma. The only critical voices are those of the Hindu fundamentalists. They want to protect their own idea of Indian culture, which means (for the rest of us) a closed and intolerant society in which women, religious minorities and low castes are assigned their 'proper place'.

So the critics of Westernisation are undermined either by their allies or by their own humbug. The only way to avoid humbug is to eschew television, cars, air-conditioners, computers, just as Gandhi sought to avoid everything from the West (railway trains apart) that he thought conspired to destroy the fabric of Indian life. That means renunciation of luxury and a living out of your beliefs. There are very few Gandhians now.

(Photograph omitted)

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