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Friday, June 29, 2012

Confusing consumerism with modernity

In a 2007 column, your correspondent worried about the confusion between consumerism and modernity and still remains worried.


Years ago, on a flight from Chicago to Pittsburgh, I sat across the aisle from a woman and her pre-teen son.
The son asked his mother if he could move to an empty window seat. “Just so long as you obey what the captain said: keep your seat belt loosely fastened at all times,” she told him. The boy sat by the window and fastened his belt as he stared out of the window, wonderstruck by fluffs of white clouds floating by and every now and then, another jetliner flying past in the distance.
Meanwhile, the pilot announced we were headed for turbulence. He instructed passengers to return to their seats and ensure their seat belts were fastened. The little boy quickly went back to the seat next to his mother and buckled his seat belt while I panicked silently at the thought of a bumpy interlude.
Cut to November 2007: On a flight from Goa to Delhi, I am sitting behind a family of four. The parents are engrossed in conversation while their two pre-teen boys run amok.
One of them stood right in front of me, noisily wolfing down a bag of potato chips while crumbs fell all over the aisle; when he finished, he blew into it, hoping it would pop, while his brother stood up on his seat, laughing at the older one’s antics.
They screamed and shouted with little regard for other passengers.
The boys’ behavior was irritating but they could be forgiven because they were both under ten years old; deeply offensive was the indifference of the parents. They mostly ignored the boys. The circus continued through the flight; the parents said nothing in admonition.
As the plane came in to land, the two boys got into a fight about the window seat. They raised such a ruckus that the parents were finally moved to do something: they asked the two to share the seat.
As the flight landed and the parents buckled up, the two sons shared the window seat, without seat belts fastened.
Observing such crass behavior, I began to understand why brats grow up to be boorish men lacking civic sense. They drive rashly, be it bicycles, motorbikes or cars; they cross the street anywhere they want; they urinate all over the place; they harass women; and generally make an all-round nuisance of themselves.
The literature says such behavior begins with the family and ends with the school. In India, both are dysfunctional.
The family is, by and large, a totalitarian setup in which children are made to conform to their elders’whims and fancies; schools reinforce conformism. There is no room in either institution for creativity.
Most children end up as nitpicking nerds or mindless conformists; above all, they become seekers of instant gratification.
Meanwhile, the media are pushing similar notions in which conformity is valued over creativity as is obvious from jewelry commercials; narcissism triumphs over civic values: just look at the motorbike commercials.
I once sat through a meeting wherein a senior adman made a presentation about the changes in India to an audience that consisted of senior executives of a global firm. He said India was modernising tradition; we were taking age-old ways and sprucing them up with glitz and glamour.
He confused rituals with tradition and consumerism with modernity.
The brats in the plane are victims of an emergent culture that emphasises narcissism; as long they conform to the family’s whims and fancies, children are in a curiously cynical manner, indulged and ignored.
Neither the family nor schools focus on socialisation, in which children are taught to balance their narcissism with respect for the rights of others.Not all the malls nor cell phones and fancy cars add up to modernity.
Not all the jewelry at Karva Chauth nor big fat weddings and expensive Diwali gifts add up to tradition. India has a long way to go before it gets the right definitions of tradition and modernity.
This column appeared in DNA, November 21, 2007.


Confusing consumerism with modernity

2 comments:

Unknown said...

I have seen clones of your aeroplane brats at airports, public places and at dinner parties. I confess that I myself feel confused. I see their parents unconcerned; allowing their kids the freedom to continue their wild and disturbing behavior and I silently ask myself if I was too old-fashioned with my children. Was I too controlling? Did I damage their spirit and their creativity. I talk to Ingrid and she rubbishes my feeling of guilt. "Look at your kids today," she says. "Take a little credit for it." But then she's Ingrid, my wife. -- Ivan

Rajiv N Desai said...

funny thing, ivan, is that we brought up our daughters in the us. there were no mediating relationships like uncles, aunts, grandparents. it was just the four of us. so we had to abide by our own common sense and compassion. our granddaughter, on the other hand, is surrounded by family. her parents make their own rules to cut through the clutter of family indulgences. sometimes to 60s children like us, these seem a bit stringent.