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Cover story: the insatiables

Twenty years after India opened its doors to the world, bringing in new brands, new choices and lots of new money, it appears that for some at least, the waves of economic liberalisation have morphed into a tsunami of bratty discontent.

brunch Updated: Mar 09, 2013 18:21 IST

French-Canadian poutaine? Mais non! Why can’t we get Peruvian ceviche and Inca Kola instead? Summer in Bali? I’m so over South-East Asia! Let’s do Croatia, no? Sephora is now in Delhi? Pooh! They don’t even stock Nars or Urban Decay. Crepe jumpsuit from Mango? So last season! Did you know Target just did a collection with Prabal Gurung? Any of this sounds familiar yet?

Twenty years after India opened its doors to the world, bringing in new brands, new choices and lots of new money, it appears that for some at least, the waves of economic liberalisation have morphed into a tsunami of bratty discontent. For the first time, there’s a whole echelon of super-snobs within India’s middle class – a growing faction of consumers that is turning up its collective nose at new collections, new menus, new launches and new logos.

You know the type – they’re the ones in Colaba and Bandra’s hip little restaurants scanning the whole menu only to be bored by pork-belly sliders, grilled basa and macaroons, all items that have debuted locally only in the last few years. They’re the ones whining down the aisles of Zara, disenchanted with every one of the 900 items on display. They’re the ones who ask if the coffee is slow-roasted, single-origin Jamaican. They were dying for Ed Hardy to launch, and once it did, they think the brand is now too common.

While urban India pinches itself to confirm that its shiny neighbourhood mall is real, these super snoots have seen it all before, shopped better when they travelled abroad and browsed more on the Internet. Nothing seems to please them, at least not for long.

No one saw this coming. Sixteen years ago, when long queues greeted the first Indian outpost of McDonald’s, nobody envisioned how quickly we’d accept international brands, how readily we’d abandon one brand for its upgrade, and how soon ‘the hot new thing’ would become ‘old news’. But with younger people earning bigger incomes, spending more, eating out more often, zipping across the globe on vacation and browsing the World Wide Web at their fingertips, Indian customers are getting harder and harder to please (and to fool).

“It’s a classic step in evolution; a search for expression of power at a new level for the nouveau riche,” says designer Hemant Sagar of Indo-French fashion label, Lecoanet Hemant. “The newer generation gets bored easily and indulges in a variety of things at the same time. They want more all the time compared to the generation of their parents, who grew up in an era of limited options.”

It probably explains why we’re all feeling their presence now. India’s new young consumers are those whose entire childhoods have been set against the backdrop of economic liberalisation and the rise of the Internet. They’ve never had to experience rationing, never had to make do only one kind of something, and they’ve come of age secure in the knowledge that what’s new today will be replaced with something newer tomorrow. “Their only memory is the memory of having,” says Santosh Desai, author and social commentator. They’re not spoiled; it’s not as simple as that. “For them, there was always going to be more, so their excitement with anything new has been short-lived – there is a perpetual quest for what is surprising. And that has shaped their fundamental view of the world.” He estimates that 15 to 20 per cent of middle-class spenders make up this category of Unpleasables – a demographic that’s “significant without being the majority”.

You could argue that the phenomenon is typical of emerging economies – any nation that comes into money quickly is bound to have its share of conspicuous consumers. It happened when the Middle East found oil money, even with the American economic boom of the 1980s. “Every aspirational society tries to raise the bar – that’s where we are right now,” says writer Shobhaa De, who nicknames India’s constant clamour for the new as ‘Affluenza’. “With more money, and better awareness of global trends, it’s inevitable that consumers get more discerning and are harder to please,” she adds. Desai, however points out one key difference this time around: “The pace is much, much faster,” he says. “With technology, you now have access to information about a product, but you don’t yet have access to the product and the gap isn’t narrowing fast enough.” In other words, we now know exactly what we’re missing, in real time. No wonder we’re kicking up a fuss!


But even before our economy grew up, Indians have always been unabashedly intent on keeping up with the Joneses, Jindals and Jethlanis. It’s just that now that the scale of acquisition has widened, and there’s more within reach – literally and financially. So in a country where supermarkets now stock 20 types of hard cheese, how else do we show off our newly-minted sophistication than with what lies beyond the reach of our countrymen? Why buy Shiseido or Clinique at the mall when you can flaunt a more specialised brand? Sonita Dass, founder of high-end cosmetics store Urban Shore, says that at their stores in Delhi and Mumbai, she sees customers “who are willing to pay upfront and leave a 100 per cent advance to make sure they are the first to receive FitFlops, Rodial’s Dragon Blood face mask, or Philip B’s Russian Amber Imperial shampoo.”

Soumya Jain, chief editor and CEO of and co-editor of The Luxury Market in India: Maharajas to Masses, puts this blink-and-miss transition of our consumer behaviour into perspective. “Among those with new money, this trend of improving themselves constantly is more to increase their social standing,’ she believes. “They haven’t yet reached the rung where they do it for inherent pleasure. On the other hand, the mature, old-money consumers [maharajas, old industrialists], also upgrade themselves, but mostly for their own pleasure.”

You may see India’s spenders as adventurous or incorrigible – but it may as well be two sides of the same coin. Shilarna Vaze calls them the “gyp-set”: people who believe in freedom, in moving around, in not getting stuck in a rut. She should know. A Le Cordon Bleu chef, Vaze has run a restaurant in Goa, owned a sushi delivery service in suburban Mumbai, catered parties for the swish set (featuring khao suey, wasabi sour cream and quinoa sushi) and hosts a TV show that teaches housewives how to roll fresh pasta and prepare other exotic treats. She delights over the rapid turnover of food trends in urban India. “It used to be cupcakes, now it’s macaroons. Health food like quinoa and organic foods are also getting more popular. The general knowledge about food and methods has skyrocketed with food shows and blogs. It’s become pretty democratic out there.”

If you went abroad on a holiday somewhere and bumped into another Indian, you’d fire your travel agent. After all, you’re looking to escape the natives, not to find them wherever you go.

And we, the people, have started to demand greater accountability – or at least expect stuff to stand up to its “international” claims. “Thanks to the influx of all these TV shows, Indians are now genuinely interested in food,” says gourmet expert Karen Anand. So when the Indian hipster, he of the much-stamped passport, foreign degree, flashy job and Provence-hopping, Chilean chardonnay-sipping lifestyle, will waltz into a new restaurant he’ll probably ooh and ah about it. But it’s also possible that by his next visit, when the novelty has worn off, he’ll declare the service awful, the menu dated and the wine list laughable. Anand calls it “validated snobbery”, explaining that the ranting becomes justified when people who have experienced value-for-money dining across the world come back to Indian metros and find that the same meal costs more and offers less.

But it’s not just with what we eat. Almost all every foreign product sold here comes with a markup, putting off the oft-travelling Indian who is familiar with the item’s retail value. Most retail stores in India will stock the authentic imports in an authentically replicated store display, but flounder over similar levels of sophistication of staff and service. A new collection of cosmetics may not launch fast enough locally – or eclipse the Indian market completely. Few Indian outposts accept returns or offer exchanges with the ease that they do in big cities across the world. And almost no international brand offers discounts to match a Black Friday sale in the post-recession US.

You think bling is so déclassé. You’re devoted to this darling eco-divine, fair-trade boho textile top from Prabal Gurung’s lastest line. After all, he’s Nepali, and it makes no sense that New York’s red carpet stars get to grab him before we do.

Santosh Desai believes that this sort of short-term jadedness, this constant comparison of “what we have” to “what they have” actually has little basis in reality. We are in fact, not competing with a real world beyond, but a consumer utopia that, despite our foreign travels, dorm stays and work trips, exists only in our collective imagination. “There is only the assumption that the West has more,” Desai says, pointing out that most average American twenty-somethings don’t have the same access to (or means to afford) Rodial skincare, quinoa sushi, super-polished sales staff and international vacations. “Here we are so tuned to popular culture that we aggregate movements and trends to create an ideal that doesn’t even exist.”

Still, there’s no arguing that some of our high-rollers are consummate eye-rollers – and are willing to pay when it pleases them. So for those offering lifestyle services, super-snobs present a mixed blessing. On one hand, she will purse her lips in pitying disappointment no matter what you do. On the other, the displeasure is actually a harbinger of change – for what the snob demands today, others are bound to ask for tomorrow.

Bangalore-based brand and image consultant Manjusha Maheshwari says that the average age of the premium luxury user has dipped sharply in India and the under-40s are a very large segment of buyers. “The average Indian consumer is far more spoiled, because here, the expectation when you spend is very high,” she says. “Thus, we are very used to being looked after. Having said that, most brands now keep their most current lines in India as well and those days are gone when you bought one-season-old stock from stores.”

Sahil and Nevil Timbadia and Anup Gandhi, the boys behind Mumbai’s new café Jam Jar Diner, see the challenge of keeping up with a restless new consumer as very natural. “With TV shows and social media in our lives, we get access to new trends,” says Nevil. “With more people now being bombarded with so much information, it is natural that they would like to try it.” They say they take it as it comes, even when their home-fries and apple-pie-loving, chilled-out customers find that their Long Island Ice Tea comes with a dash of Jagermeister. “A couple of customers told us they prefer the classic version, but it is still our best-selling cocktail.”

Will the unpleasables ever be satisfied? Are they really ahead of the curve or just pretending to be cooler than us all? Are they the driving force behind every choice we now make? And how many of us are already on their way to becoming unpleasables ourselves? The answer, as Manjusha Maheshwari puts it, reflects “the changing socio-economic demographics of India at its very best!”

Signs you’re a big-city snob Tarantino is a bore. You swear by Azita Hajian and are planning a retrospective of Susumu Hani for brunch with the girls. Vero Moda and Promod on sale? Again? You’d rather die than be seen in what every college girl and starlet is wearing these days. No skydiving and bullfighting this summer. You’re “re-discovering yourself” in Myanmar.

Marion Cotillard’s new campaign for Dior needs some…um…you know, something wild! You won’t eat sushi from a five-star hotel coffee shop buffet. Not anymore. New York bagels taste the way they do because of the water in NYC. And that’s why no other city can replicate the taste. Not even DC.


Sometimes refer to myself as the ‘Last Local Standing’. Not because it makes me sound like the hero of a post-apocalyptic film about VT station, but because, from my school gang, I really am the last of the immobile Indians. Everyone else has morphed into a Global Indian – you know the type: faux accent, foreign degree, multinational job, holidays in Malaysia, fridge full of French cheese; the kind who knows what escrow, 401K and social security mean.

They’ll never say it, but they look at me as kind of rural retro. As if my lack of migration skills is because I can’t cut it anywhere else but here. Because I summer in Leh, not London; in Pondicherry, not Portugal.

These issues become most glaring when one of the gang, a polished, globalised, Armani-clad friend (who used to be a stinky nose-picker in school), comes visiting with family after recently shifting back to India. His little kid asks for a soda, so I get him what I mix my whiskey with. Wrong move, apparently. He declares it’s called sparkling water. Then, in spite of my two-foot-height advantage over him, he manages to look down on me and says that by soda, he means Coke. He says it slowly, like I don’t understand English, or am probably retarded. I smile and head off to do the little master’s bidding, all the time wondering, why the little runt didn’t just say so.

I bring this up subtly when the kid’s dad and I get chatting. Turns out, the little fellow was trying to be polite and accommodative. By asking for a soda, he left the choice to me. Junior personally prefers Diet Cherry Coke, it seems. I wonder how he’s going to survive in a country where we say, “Coke nahin hai, Pepsi chalega?”

Turns out, it’s not going to be all that difficult. The last two decades have changed us more than we even realise. I now know people who’ve spent their entire lives within the walls of their fancy apartment complex in the Mumbai suburbs and still behave exactly like this. They’re not American-Born Confused Desis, they’re Indian-Born World Citizens (IBWCs)– they live in India, are proud to be Indian, but are readily persuaded by international influences and end up feeling like a pot-luck party at the United Nations. They didn’t even need a Green Card to emerge confused!

I first noticed this when people started giving me their visiting cards Japanese style – with a slight bow, card firmly gripped with both hands, Asso! It’s forced me stop presenting my card the Indian way: sliding it across the table with my index finger, in what seems like a show of strength. Slowly, tomato has become to-mah-toe, rubber has become eraser (except, when I mean condoms), R20 tips have become R200 service charges and Inspector Vijay has become James Bond.

Still, there are times I cannot understand IBWCs. They fear pani puri (God knows where the water and ingredients are from) but have no problems with sushi (in which the fish and rice makes a much longer journey from God knows where). They’ll pay extra to eat locally sourced food in New York, but back home in Bombay, they’ll spend extra only if the sea bass is Chilean. The Obama re-election calls for celebration, Pranabda as President calls for a yawn. Halloween means a costume party, but Holi is a reason to skip town and flee the restless natives. Forget the Khannas, they’re keeping up with the Kardashians.

As cultures clash, the IBWC is struggling to make do. He will greet people with, ‘Abey, saale!’ and crane his neck to catch Salman shooting a film scene in his neighbourhood. But he’ll also respond to greetings with, ‘Hey, dude’ and watch Jason Statham movies.

As I count the morphed versions of people I’ve known all my life, I find I am in a minority. When wide-eyed foreigners come to India and ask to see authentic locals, they are pointed in my direction. Forget spotting a rare species in Corbett, I’m the local sight you won’t find in guidebooks. Welcome to India. I am the elephant in the room.

More signs you’re a city snob
You think service in “this country” is terrible! Everywhere! From the CCD next door to that Belgian café with the community table in the centre and no handles on hot coffee mugs.“We just don’t understand the finer nuances of customer satisfaction like Europe does” Qui qui

You love wine, but you don’t really choose from red or white anymore. That’s for plebs. These days you want to know the grape, the region and the label too. ABC stands for Anything But Chardonnay. And you’re partial to Gewürztraminer.

Classic perfumes are for old aunties. Right now, you’re building your ‘library’ of single note scents so you can mix and match a blend that doesn’t smell like a dumb mallrat.

If one more restaurant offers baked Philly cheesecake with a smear of compote on the side, you swear you’ll just gag!

Classic perfumes are for old aunties. Right now, you’re building your ‘library’ of single note scents so you can mix and match a blend that doesn’t smell like a dumb mallrat.

You think bling is so déclassé

You’re devoted to this darling eco-divine, fair-trade boho textile top from Prabal Gurung’s lastest line. After all, he’s Nepali, and it makes no sense that New York’s red carpet stars get to grab him before we do.

You find the selections at Nature’s Basket and Westside Gourmet so skimpy. After all, they don’t have Terra chips! Or single-origin cold-pressed olive oil! And no fresh acai berry juice! The Whole Foods at Union Square in Manhattan was much nicer!

If you went abroad on a holiday somewhere and bumped into another Indian, you’d fire your travel agent. After all, you’re looking to escape the natives, not to find them wherever you go.

Nars, Bobbi Brown, Bershka and Massimo Dutti are just a few of the names you’re dying to run into at the mall. You own a bottle of argan oil.

From HT Brunch, February 17
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