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Making sense of everyday India

Madhukar Sabnavis | Print Edition: May 2, 2010

Middle class Indians today are different from what they were in the '70s. Beyond the consumerist streak that we are all familiar with, the mindsets have changed. We have moved from a saving to a spending and investment mindset; from long-term thinking to instant gratification; debt-shy and risk-averse to debt-open and risk-taking. But the change is just not economic. The idealistic and cynical man of the '70s has transformed into the realistic and pragmatic man of the new millennium.

If security drove much of desires in the '70s, today's man is looking for fame and glory and is not shy to go looking for it. His relationships have changed. Elders are becoming "friends", the arranged marriage has given way to the "arranged" love marriage and joint families have evolved into "extended" nuclear families where children and parents live close by in different houses with two kitchens.

Yet, as India has changed, there are things that have remained unchanged. And that's not too surprising—we are a culture with strongrooted rituals. Like in the past with foreign invasions, India has always been an adaptive culture—imbibing the elements of others and modifying herself to a new environment. The economic revolution is not any different.

In this context, Santosh Desai's book provides an interesting perspective on "then" and "now". He holds a mirror to a changing India by looking at and commenting on some everyday rituals and symbols around us. We of the '70s are familiar with the Great Indian Journeys, the summer holiday, the hand-me-downs and the unannounced guest. Desai has some interesting interpretations of things as diverse as street food to pickle, an item number to "Antakshari" and the disappearing "pig tail".

He reflects on the moods and attitude of the new India by looking at some new symbols of change—the western toilet, the suburban city, the vanishing village with the growing highways and expressways that make unusual but interesting connections between things we naturally would not think of.

All through this journey, Desai comes up with some very insightful gems. In the '60s and '70s, "we didn't travel, we returned"— referring to our hometown visits when families came together to spend their summer holidays. In the past, "time was a communal property as was space to a large extent". "Marriage as a relationship is between stations in life and not individuals."

And these are true for many middle class migrant workers even today.

Desai has a very charming and easyto-read writing style. Deep down there is a cartoonist's streak in Desai—his ability to see through the idiosyncrasies of people and society around him. And the book is set in short, crisp chapters that you can begin anywhere.

There is, perhaps, one quibble I have with the book. The net takeaway about India and changing Indians is one of "superficiality, hypocrisy, escapist, self-denying, coping"… and that may not be the full picture of the country. A stranger reading it may get a onesided view of India. Maybe this incompleteness is a blessing in itself—it provides Desai an opportunity to write another book on the "other side of us".

If you want to get a fresh perspective on India through the familiar, this is the book for you. Once you get engaged, it's hard to put down.

— The reviewer is Country Head (Discovery and Planning), Ogilvy & Mather India

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