Saturday, October 16, 2010

An Unraveling, Of Sorts

It is possible to stumble upon the unknown in Bombay even after spending a lifetime here. I visited a set of fairly standard-issue corporate offices this morning – there was little traffic to contend with, and I managed to make my appointment well ahead of time. As I took a turn off the main road to find my way to the parking lot, I was suddenly confronted by a totally different landscape – acres of land, still green with shrubbery, upon which were situated the crumbling shells of abandoned textile mills.

Bombay’s mills are rapidly being converted into shopping complexes, residential and commercial properties, parking lots, hotels and even nightclubs. This is a city hungry for real estate, and any available space is acquired and redeveloped with unusual rapacity. But remnants of the city’s past – moss and lichen covered chimneys, rusting gates and signboards, stone-built sheds and storehouses, dilapidated structures that will soon be dismantled by wrecking balls – are still visible, most notably in central Bombay.

In the immediate aftermath of the textile industry’s bitter and acrimonious collapse, a pall of gloom hung over the mills. Rumors began to swirl around these contested tracts of land – some of them were believed to be haunted, others actually became sites for petty crime, even murder. Soon, the mills were visited only by the suspect – prostitutes, drug dealers, gangsters. Even today, late at night, the streetlights in many of these precincts are dimmer, the roads are wider and darker, and the by lanes are quieter.

Much has been made of the dismantling of the mill-based ecosystem. The erosion of tenements, community kitchens, recreational spaces, local celebrations and festivals has been swift and seems irreversible. Urban activists are attempting to document these spaces and nuances by collecting narratives and memories and organizing seminars and lecture series. But the oncoming surge of gated communities, superstores and supermarkets is insistent, and is bringing a new demographic and culture in its wake. This is evolution, of course – but the new seems very roughly grafted onto the old, and it is obvious that stakeholders in the mill communities have had very little control over the terms of the ‘revitalization.’  

All cities change, constantly. But it is critical to attempt to negotiate such changes collectively. This is why the mills are symptomatic of so much that has gone wrong in Bombay - unemployment and concomitant resentment run deep, and today the area is not so much a saffron as a linguistic bastion, home to political parties that preach parochialism and peddle violence.

I spent two and a half years working in a redeveloped office complex in central Bombay. My surroundings felt oddly unfamiliar – to step out of the office was to stand out, to be conspicuous. I may have been a resident of the city, but I obviously came from someplace else. Since then, I have felt this way several times – not only in Parel, but across the city. Most of the newer offices and residential complexes I have visited seem to bear little relation to their immediate environment, and it is often easy to identify who occupies which side of these micro divides.

Like most people, I appreciate being pleasantly surprised by my city. But I find it somewhat discomfiting that I need to travel only fifteen minutes away from home to feel like I no longer ‘belong.’ Urban coexistence is many things, but I cannot accept that it involves occupying self-contained worlds that overlap only occasionally, in the most superficial ways. 

Friday, October 8, 2010


There are certain things that can never fail to tug at your heart. Going through old photos is one of them.

I spent the better part of one of my evenings this week rummaging through stacks of dog-eared photos and dusty albums for a photo montage my parents wanted to put together. I had expected to stumble upon the embarrassing and the amusing - photos of my mother in bell-bottoms, photos of my father taken during his (mercifully) short experiment with a beard, photos of my aunt in shoulder pads, photos of a gap-toothed, boyish self. 

But something else happened. It was as if memory, long stoppered, had suddenly been set free in all its bittersweetness. Over the course of a few hours, I saw my grandparents as newlyweds, as first-time parents, young, ebullient, full of ambitions and hopes. I saw my parents, aunts and uncles as wide-eyed and wild-haired children and awkward adolescents. I saw my family as it had once been - closer in both joy and sorrow - before disputes over property, business, and insults real and imagined bred resentment and fractured relationships. Looking at those smiling faces made me long to reach back into the past, to warn them of the untimely deaths, debilitating diseases and bitter arguments that lay ahead. 

It would be wrong to say that all I felt was sorrow and nostalgia. Because those stacks also captured moments of unalloyed joy - celebrations to mark a birthday or the purchase of a first home and a first car, weddings, graduations, holidays. I realized that many of those familiar faces had in fact formed the unvarying, unchanging nucleus of my 'family life.' And there was ample fodder for jokes - photos providing unassailable evidence of questionable sartorial choices and hair styles gone awry. 

Later that night, I wondered what my grandmother, one of the focal points in the small universe of our extended family, made of these memories. Did she mourn the passing of her once striking beauty, now faded into a quiet dignity? Did she often think of those who were no longer present?  

I can't pretend to know the answers. But I do know that when I get to be her age, I want to look back on a life filled with photo-opportunities, captured in decades and generations worth of dusty albums and dog-eared photos. What's a life without pictures? 

Thursday, October 7, 2010

'The Rebel Sell' - Bluster That Just About Passes Muster

I’ve spent the better part of the last few days reading a book called ‘The Rebel Sell: How The Counterculture Became The Consumer Culture,’ co-authored by Andrew Potter and Joseph Heath. It is an unabashed polemic that outlines some of the self-defeating contradictions that lie at the heart of the idea of counterculture, and indicates that the well-entrenched lines drawn between consumerism, capitalism and countercultural rebellion might be surprisingly blurred.

Potter and Heath make a case for incremental change achieved by working within and with institutions, draw an important and compelling distinction between dissent and deviance, credit capitalism with offering consumers choice as opposed to conformity, and reclaim respectability for mass culture, civility, predictability and norms. In doing this, they take apart the well-worn and much-loved narratives and tropes of our times – ‘finding ourselves,’ ‘altering society’s consciousness,’ ‘seeking deep and meaningful solutions,’ ‘being authentic,’ ‘ethical shopping.’

This is useful, especially for those of us who question the myth of a single, overarching system and find it difficult to believe that articulating protest solely through lifestyle-centric gestures is worthwhile. The authors also interrogate the value of a continuous agitation against all forms of society, order and business. What I found most interesting was their description of counterculture as the unwitting engine of consumer culture. According to Heath and Potter, as self-styled rebels continuously redefine the cultural ‘edge,’ ‘cool’ becomes a moving target, and companies churn out products that help individuals compete against one another in the race to be different. As symbols of cool become mass, rebels have to find a new way in which to distinguish themselves, and so a new set of desirable products is created.

Rebel Sell is an intentionally provocative analysis delivered with sometimes scathing snarkiness, and is frequently problematic. Sweeping arguments are constructed on the basis of a handful of pet theories – whether these are Hobbes’ ideas about man in nature, game theory constructs such as the prisoner’s dilemma and races to the bottom, or Veblen’s theories about competitive consumption. The authors also seem to have envisioned contemporary history as a pre-60s, post 60s binary. As other reviewers, most notably in the Guardian have already mentioned, there is an almost complete preoccupation with the counterculture as it has evolved in the West, particularly in Northern America. An attention to fringe and non-mainstream movements in other parts of the world would have leavened their arguments with some nuance.

I find it difficult to dismiss countercultural ideas on the grounds that they haven’t effected tangible change – this depends to a large extent on how one defines change. Countercultural ideas have provided alternative ways for us to look at ourselves and the world, have inspired works of art and creativity, have compelled people to ask significant questions of their governments and institutions. These ideas can have murky origins, and often descend into indulgence, superficiality and violence (summit protests, anyone?) but they have also catalyzed thinking and action committed to change.

Potter and Heath are advocates for a well-regulated market, global trade, and entrepreneurship, which seems reasonable. What is bizarre is their dismissal of the idea that industry and trade lobbies shape global policy, and negotiate from a position of strength with governments in impoverished nations. This assertion is made on the basis that there is little conclusive evidence to prove that governments are buckling to industry on issues such as environmental protection. That sounds suspiciously technical, and the throwaway nature of their claim makes it evident that the authors expect us to take their word for it.

Even if I were to concede that business exerts limited influence over Canadian politics, anyone even glancingly informed about the developing world would have to consider this an instance of breathtaking disingenuousness. Most of us in India consider bullying by big business a given – just opening a broadsheet or tabloid in Mumbai, on any day of the week, offers proof enough.

But in spite of its many flaws, Rebel Sell is an interesting read. It offers a refreshing perspective and is highly recommended for anyone seeking an alternative to the Chomsky-Klein paradigm. Most importantly, it is a timely reminder that deliverance and good karma do not come packaged in fantastic smelling body scrubs, organic groceries, Burning Man festivals and fair-trade lattes – we cannot change the world by simply changing where and how we shop, and it is a stinging indictment of so many of us that that is all we are content to do.
Creative Commons License
This work by ToruJ is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.