India of 'Jugaad', Birkin Bags and Cultural Curry

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February 17, 2013 4:53 PM EST

Excerpts from the book Os Indianos, translated from Portuguese into English, by the author Florencia Costa:

The India growth story has set in motion a churning not seen in this country for decades. There have never been so many frictions as well. The new elite lives in their glass and steel condominiums, and the Gandhian simplicity has been disposed off in a trash can. Amid a huge sea of misery, futuristic cities and luxury towers are rising from green fields in the countryside. There are serious conflicts over land acquisition all over the country. There are new fights every day between the haves and have-nots of New India...

The most interesting thing in India is indeed its people: the most varied ethnic types, who speak different languages, dress in their own ways, eat different foods and pray to different gods. And there are people everywhere. One in six of the seven billion inhabitants of this planet is Indian. And within two decades, they will surpass the Chinese. At times, the crowd can be suffocating, but there is no escape from it. Every inch of space is packed with humans and animals. India's total landmass is just as much as the northern region of Brazil, but it has six times our population...

With so many people crammed in such a small piece of land and with so few opportunities, ordinary Indians survive by what is called Jugaad. All Indians have a great knack for this skill, which literally means "trying to make something work." Just as in Brazil, the people at the lowest rung of the social ladder make a living by innovating, Indians too have a talent for improvising when necessary, which is always. So don't be shocked, when you see a brand new washing machine being used to make lassi -- a drink of yogurt, sugar and ice -- in a roadside eatery on a highway in Punjab; or when someone tries to sell you a cellphone that also works as a mosquito repellent. In India's chaos, which refuses to subside even at night, Jugaad is a very apt way of survival. It's quite appealing, too. But this practice is also the reason why things go horribly wrong in India and the services are poor. From the neighbourhood plumbers to unprofessional road builders, they all rely on Jugaad, which is basically a short-cut method of building or fixing things. This often leads to disaster.

* * *

Daughters of the East

There is no such thing as an Indian woman. Women in this country live in different time periods, depending on their region, social class and caste. But a vast majority of them are trapped in medieval traditions of one of the most patriarchal societies in the world. Their lives are defined by their men. But there are also those living in the 21st century: the English-speaking urban elite who have become scientists, doctors, judges, lawyers, writers, academics, politics, journalists, diplomats, executives and bankers. Some of them have even joined the army and police and gone into space. But even this privileged group feels the pressure of traditions. The desire to have boys in Indian families haunts women all their life. During the Hindu wedding ceremony, the priest, reciting an ancient mantra, says to the bride: "May you be the mother of 100 sons." The minute a woman gets pregnant, sacred prayers are said by other women of the family, wishing that that the baby is a boy, and if not, the female fetus should be transformed into male. Girls are not welcome here. The sons, in addition to receiving dowry in marriage, are also supposed to take care of parents in old age. That's why they are preferred and the girls are seen as a burden. An old adage "Taking care of a daughter is like watering your neighbor's garden" sums up the status of girl-child -- and hence women -- in India.

* * *

Rich India, poor Indians

Parts of India are in the grip of a consumerist frenzy. Never before so many people had it so much to consume. Never before there was so much cash floating about. Never before there was so much on offer in the glitzy malls that dot big cities and even small towns. Never before was India so far removed from the ideas of simplicity, spartan life and ecological awareness as preached by Mahatma Gandhi, who used to practice what he preached. Gandhi is known to recycle old envelopes and writing paper. He never discarded anything into rubbish bin. He himself joked that he did so because he belonged to the Bania community, traditionally devoted to trade and famous for parsimony with which it deals with money. Ironically, his face is printed on all the currency notes -- from 10 to 1000, which are now a symbol of India's purchasing power. Now, the image of Gandhi is often used for selling even luxury items like Montblanc pens...

A good number of Indians have got used to the new wave of consumerism. Today, nobody questions the "right" to consume. Now, a Bollywood star wearing a pair of $5,000 sunglasses doesn't make news for this kind of accessories. Recently, one of the most famous actresses came to regret that she had no more desire to use her Birkin bag, the custom-made fashion item which costs thousands of dollars. "Today everybody has one," she said. There might not be a Porsche in every garage yet, but that's what this India aspires for...

In this India, one has to appear on Page 3 supplements of newspapers to announce their arrival on the scene. One appearance opens other doors, with more invites flowing in for more parties. If a star is not seen in Page 3 gigs, it is because she has fallen in disgrace and should be discarded. Many of these parties, with bubbly and lobsters, are animated by white-skinned belly dancers, many of them coming from Central Asia and Eastern Europe. Some of them earn more than $ 1000 per night. Today, they are almost mandatory feature at the late-night parties of the swish set -- and the noveau riche -- in Delhi and Mumbai. India, with its fixation for fair skin, now faces an invasion from white women, who are flocking to this emerging economy to work as models, actresses, dancers, escorts and even high-end call girls.

The biggest indicator of the consumption boom in India since economic reforms in 1991 is called the "Telecom Revolution". Today the poor are connected as well as the rich. Until the beginning of 2012, India had nearly 900 million cell phones, more than the combined number of handsets in the US, Russia and Brazil. Three out of four Indians have cellular connections. There are more Indians with cellular connection than with the bank accounts...

      * * *

India on the moon

One of the factors that has driven the information technology revolution was the success of Indian professionals in the US, especially in Silicon Valley, California. The Indian engineers work in more than half of tech companies there. The migration of highly educated engineers often sparks an intense debate within India, with the migrants being accused of using the excellent -- and almost free -- education from the government to further their careers abroad, without giving anything back to their country. The bulk of Indians today migrate to the US, Australia, Canada and New Zealand. There are more than 25 million Indians overseas, far fewer than the 60 million Chinese diaspora. But the Indians are the champions of sending money home: in 2010, they sent $55 billion, while the Chinese remitted $ 51 billion, according to the World Bank.

The Indian diaspora is one of the most successful in the world. They work in various lines of business, in universities, medicine, literature, media, and even in politics. They are not only small entrepreneurs and software specialists; they are also business managers, bankers, hoteliers, and academics. They are the ones who study hard and earn better salaries, as compared to white Americans. Some 80% of Indians residing in the US have third-degree diplomas. Indian Americans are the richest ethnic group in the US, with an average annual income of over $50,000...

* * *

Cultural Curry

Indians have two passions: Bollywood and cricket. The game of cricket, just like football in Brazil, is often used as an instrument for gaining power and social status by politicians, big businessmen, celebrities and media. Millions of fans watch the Indian Premier League on television every year, where multi-millionaire sports icons play for teams owned by business tycoons and Bollywood superstars. It generates business worth $4 billion.

The other passion, Bollywood, generates even more money and frenzy. Though the content and style of Bollywood has remained the same over the decades, now the kitsch musical melodramas filled with cliches of love and family are giving way to new cinema, with better story lines and contemporary themes. The films have started to get shorter and less melodramatic. Instead of three hours, the stories are told between 90 minutes and two hours. The seeds of this new revolution, which Bollywood is experiencing today, were sown in the '90s with the emergence of the first multiplex cinema, with only 100-300 seats. Suddenly, the need to fill huge auditoriums with 1,000 seats four times a day was gone...

Tigmanshu Dhulia is one of the most talented directors of this "New Bollywood." In 2011, he was applauded for a film that did not follow the typical Bollywood formula: Sahib, Bibi aur Gangster (The Master, Wife and Gangster), an adaptation of a classic '50s movie, which in turn was based on a novel of a Bengali writer of the nineteenth century. The main character is a woman, the scorned wife of a noble Indian decadent who is busy with his mistress. Lonely and ignored, the wife gets involved with her private driver and uses him to settle her score with her husband. The movie had sex scenes (not explicit, of course) and lots of kisses and only two songs, which is a big departure from the set formula. "The good news is that Hindi cinema has many faces today. The middle class is hungry for entertainment. To meet this demand, major producers have opened space for movies with low budgets but high quality," said Dhulia.

Os Indianos (The Indians)
By Florencia Costa
Published by Editora Contexto (Sao Paulo)
Pages 395, Price R$55 (US$27) 

(GIN - American Bazaar Online)

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