Of monocultures and malls

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Warli painting by 5th standard students of Prakriya Green Wisdom School, Bangalore.

The alienation of man and land is at the crux of the unsettling of India, culture, and agriculture.

When I moved back home from the US, five years ago, I did not expect much change to have taken place in just a span of 12 years. I was brought up in Nagercoil, a small town in South India, and had spent nearly fifteen years, from grade six to my post-graduate years there. While I carried with me this romantic idealism of living a simple and down-to-earth life in the US, the reality was that we really had to work hard towards it. We struggled to resist the lure of the mall and travelled 20 to 30 kilometres just to get our vegetables from a farmer’s market. Besides, there was so much hype and continuous sales-pitch happening all the time that it became difficult to constantly filter the real from the unreal, sift the genuine from the illusions created by the market place. “God forbid that India should ever take to industrialism after the manner of the West… it would strip the world bare like locusts.” Mahatma Gandhi

Then we decided to make Bangalore our home in 2005. Within two days of moving into the city, I felt I could see with vivid clarity where Bangalore was heading. I saw mall-culture taking root; the TV-centric and ad-centric, commercialization of the Indian middle-class forming silhouettes against the backdrop of a dying farming community. Definitions were being narrowed down: community now did not include one’s immediate neighbourhood with its innumerable chaiwallas, flower and vegetable vendors; the countless festivals, local carnivals and celebrations. Instead ‘community’ now meant one’s walled and sheltered apartment with its neatly laid out lawns, swimming pools, play areas and tennis courts- eerily similar to the American suburban dream.

More than anything, I saw towns and cities on display – each displaying its vitality, its tenacity and perseverance to catch up with their upscale, developed sisters; where I would expect trees, sidewalk stalls and cobblers, I saw hyper-markets exhibiting this heightened sense of order, colour, space and taste. I began to wonder about the status of the ever-bandied about Indian middle-class dream.

Something seems strange about the way we are relentlessly buying things; something is worrisome about the way we get enticed into buying. India, fifteen years ago was not like this! When did consumerism become such an integral part of the middle-class dream? When did purchasing power take over one’s common-sense, prudence and habits of thrift? How did this disconnect between man and his environment happen; these questions slowly gnawed at me. It was during this time that I re-read Wendell Berry’s ‘The Unsettling of America, Culture and Agriculture’

What Wendell said twenty years ago about American culture holds true for India now. The crux of this disconnect has its origin in the alienation between man and the land and community he belongs to. The Indian consumer, like his American counterpart, is alienated from the land, its soil, its fertility and its cultivation processes. He is a global citizen, uprooted and dislocated, living for now in a city where opportunities are plenty- tomorrow, he may leave seeking better opportunities elsewhere. Something seems strange about the way we are relentlessly buying things; something is worrisome about the way we get enticed into buying.

The mall culture in cities seems to be driven by specialists, sitting in front of his laptop, working at Pacific or Mountain Standard Time. He is constantly reminded that he needs to prefer convenience over quality; he needs to have more leisure and less work. He is continually told to aspire to what his American counterpart has - the ideals of ‘perfect days’, ‘perfect vacations’, ‘perfect homes’ so on and so forth. And then he is told he needs entertainment - the Indian Premier Leagues with its Twenty-Twenty matches, the hype around every Bollywood movie star, the build-up around every movie release, constant celebrity interviews and celebrity-related news items, a marathon here and a walk for charity there, he is constantly being soothed by entertainment. I saw similar things happening fifteen years ago in the US and I was baffled. I see this happening now, here in Bangalore and all over India and I am heartbroken.

The disintegration of the small diverse communities will eventually lead to the disintegration of the fabric of humanness and shared interests holding us together. Wendell Berry talked of monoculture in crop cultivation slowly creeping into monoculture everywhere in America – isn’t it happening in India today? The diversity we see amidst us in terms of food, clothing, languages, celebrations and culture will be slowly replaced by one-size-fits-all Americanisation.

Again Wendell Berry lamented over the withering away of the agriculture town, of farmers who loved the land committing suicide when they were pushed to destitution by the huge agricultural corporates with their huge machines. Almost two hundred thousand farmers have committed suicide during the last decade in India too. What are we to lament over – the agony of those who feed us, the helplessness against the juggernaut of mindless development, or a free-market economy that seems to have become a modern day Rakshasa?

The old order changeth, yielding place to the new… Twenty years ago, Wendell Berry wrote about American agriculture. But his book seems to document also the gradual, unseen, unnoticed evolution of the US into a country that is responsible for 25% of carbon emissions. If India, today, is following merrily in the footsteps of America, what will be our contribution to carbon emissions in another two or three decades? One positive fallout of the climate change crises seems to be that a whole lot of people around the world seem to be dreaming anew.

Dreaming of living more in harmony with earth and each other, questioning consumerism, questioning their addiction to excess and waste; everywhere in the world we hear of people awakening to an understanding of humankind’s compulsion to live beyond our means, and learning to ‘think global and act local’. Perhaps, there is a possibility of a unifying dream in our divided world.