Globalisation has done many things besides open up markets and cause the collapse of local industries. But of course, the other effects have resulted from the opening up of markets. A part of Chennai, where I live from time to time, which I used to frequent was a very conservative area of the city. There is a school there wherein the adopted uniforms consist of a crisp white shirt and a white veshti – a very pleasing sight for a south Indian. The area also has a very active kovil (temple) where bhajans and discourses are held everyday without fail. Apart from the fact that one of my good friends lives here, I like visiting the place for what it is: a live and breathing preservatorium of our essential culture and traditions. The area is West Mambalam. But today, with the nearby Ranganathan street being filled to the brim with shops selling t-shirts with the words like “Armani”, “Billabong” and “Versace” branded right across the torso, all the young men and women on the streets can no longer be discerned as being south Indians apart from careful study of their skin colour. And this is uneasiness is not only restricted to garb. Perhaps I am maturing faster than most people of my age, or perhaps it is my upbringing, but the opinions I have of the people based on the places they frequent is growing to be very judgmental at times. I myself used to enjoy the occasional trips to Silicon Oasis and International City here in Dubai, but the charm per se is lost once I realise what I miss if I could have been elsewhere at the same time.
I walked into my erstwhile tuition teacher’s house in Nungambakkam for an afternoon’s chat earlier this year, in January to be precise. She is dressed in a churidhar – a traditional Indian costume. The sight is calming to the eyes. For someone like me, who very much likes being at home for more than the obvious reasons, walking into a room wherein everything is Indian gives me the feeling of being in familiar company even though all the people in the room could have been strangers. Anyway, as I whipped up an interesting and bristling conversation with my teacher, one by one her students for the evening began to walk in. The first girl to enter was wearing a pink shirt and shin-length jeans (or whatever they are called). The girl following her didn’t have much of a variation to boast about, except that her shirt was blue. It felt, for some reason again, as though the American industries threatening to encroach into foreign territories had actually opened up a store in my teacher’s living room. I hold very deep opinions about such things as choices, and the assurance I derive from seeing a boy in a veshti or a girl in a pavadai dhavani is indescribably satiating. Perhaps it is the comfort in wearing such clothes, or perhaps it is the ease, and so I forgave them – in my narrow little mind, of course! But these are the kind of people who detest those who do don traditional clothes; it is next to impossible, if not impossible itself, to see them wearing “such things” even during festival days. It is this choice that finds disapproval with them. I concede that I wear a casual t-shirt and a pair of jeans at all times, but when it comes to a special day, I actually find it exciting to walk around in a veshti. That feeling of being “a tall and proud man who has nothing to fear and believes in himself if not in anything else” – that sensation – I always have when being seen by anyone in traditional clothing.
(It is for these same reasons that I appreciate Deve Gowda, our ex-PM. I don’t know which political ideologies he represented, but I do know that I like the fact that he wore a veshti to every country he made diplomatic trips to! When people say he’s someone from the countryside and probably doesn’t know what to wear while meeting people from elsewhere, I just think the people who say such things have never really given thought to the fact that he might actually be upholding the same beliefs as I have at the moment.)
As much as I blame the West for what they’ve done to erode the quality of preferences in my country, I know I will also have to consider what my country has done to them in return. The West being the fountain of capitalism, globalisation was a commercial inevitability for their industries. As the shades of power shifted from the labour unions toward the bourgeois, so did the opinions and the decisions. Cultural blankets became curtains waiting to be parted. When the window of the East was exposed to the aspirations of the West, the opportunities of those behind the window doubled when they saw what was in the world out there. We took their jobs, they took ours. We took their means to earn money, they took ours. We adopted their preferences, they gave us new ones to look out for in case we were still interested. We became the instruments for their success, they became the instruments for ours. It is only expectable that one day, we will become them and they will become us. Identity will be lost, just as it is being nibbled away by the minute today, and individuality will tenderly float on still water. The solution lies not in permanently embracing your roots, but in being able to preserve them at least in mind and thought. Globalisation can be handed the blame of opening up markets, but that is all there is to it. We have let our apparently justified choices encroach on the markets of our mind. All that the man in the West is doing is giving us more options. The more we think about deciding which one to pick, the more we are giving in to losing hope. When as many things as charity and politics begin in the comfort of the home, so does our identity. It is our first face.