When the story of liberalisation is written, its chroniclers will tell us that it wasn’t an event but a process. Disregard them. This is the sort of throat-clearing noise historians are trained to make, a professional trick that patronisingly suggests countries change too slowly for ordinary people to notice. It isn’t true. India before 1991 was so different, it was another country.
There are many ways of pointing up the difference: the dotted line between then and now could (for example) be written in diapers. My older child was born in 1992 and spent his infancy in cotton nappies that were squares of cloth folded and fastened with giant safety pins. Only those who have shoved sharp pins—while the world slept—through fabric tightly wrapped round first-born bums can appreciate the revolution in child-rearing heralded by the disposable diaper. (Also, given the pointless pedalling favoured by non-walking babies, these were moving targets.).
My daughter, born two years later, lived snug and dry and safe in pampers, spared both the home-made pothra and the plastic knickers that contained its sodden rankness. Nostalgia is impossible to dredge up for this aspect of infancy before the Change, though there is ecological virtue to be found if you look for it: my son’s carbon footprint was certainly smaller than my daughter’s. Modern childhood is built on the bedrock of diaper landfill. And there was nothing subtle about the change the diaper wrought; it was night and day.
Nights, while we’re on the subject, were darker before liberalisation. When I went to England in the early Eighties, I was disconcerted by the absence of darkness; an orange haze always muddled the night sky. Not so in India. Indian nights were inky black; they filled our heads with occult foreboding and made churails and bhoots seem plausible, even imminent. Now, thanks to sodium vapour street lighting, the haze has travelled east to us and our young will never believe in ghosts again.
But to list the world before liberalisation like a menu of discrete experiences quaintly different from the normalcy of now, is to do it an injustice. For the middle-class desi, life in India before 1991 was an ideologically coherent experience. It was a world where the absence of things — Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit, Seiko watches, Parker Pens — was experienced not just as scarcity but as a superior form of austerity.
Superior because the absence of this and that and the other, taken together added up to the republican project of self-reliance. Not consuming the world promiscuously was a form of civic sacrifice in the cause of economic independence without which the political freedom of 1947 was meaningless. Autarky, even if we didn’t know the word, was the state of grace to which we collectively aspired. Scarcity was ideologically sexy because it was the price we paid for self-sufficiency and inconvenience was a hair shirt worn for the greater common good.
The individual craving for foreign things and the collective self-righteousness born of not having them, spawned generations of yearning prigs. In 1972 my brother and I went to Iran for a winter holiday because my father was being paid by the UN to set up a documentation centre in Tehran. The Shah’s Tehran was a temple to consumption. Less than a mile from our flat was a departmental store called Furushga Kourush that in its opulence seemed like Alladin’s cave. Khul ja sim-sim, I said, waving wads of rials, and proceeded to buy cans of tennis balls and quantities of Bic ballpoint pens, two Butterfly table tennis bats and enough Juicy Fruit to see out my youth…and yet when I told the tale of my Iranian travels to my class mates, it always ended with contempt. They import everything, I’d say with the perfect disdain only a fifteen-year-old can muster. Even their butter. The butter in their supermarket comes from Denmark! Amul, in that heroic time, wasn’t just a brand of butter, it was a national champion.
For the most part the unavailability of Staedtler geometry boxes and ink cartridges wasn’t a problem: it was hard to miss things you had never had. The best example of painless envy that I can remember was the sense of wonder stirred in us by a direct marketing pitch on the back of comic books. This guaranteed that American children could acquire Daisy air guns and three-speed bicycles if they sold a certain number of seed packets. Seed packets! A world where kids could turn seed packets into consumer durables was so fantastical that we marvelled at this heaven without the slightest rancour at being excluded from it.
Our pleasures were simple and centred, quite often, on air-conditioning. To walk into the frigid darkness of Odeon or Plaza or Rivoli was to rent three hours of luxe living; the film was almost a bonus. For my generation the smell of sophistication was that blend of air-conditioning, cigarette smoke and vanilla ice-cream that filled restaurants in Connaught Place like a promise. Homes and cars were never air-conditioned. The very idea of air-conditioned private spaces was faintly troubling; for years I believed that men who wore dark glasses and drove air-conditioned cars were likely corrupt and possibly villainous.
It was a massively stable world where shops never died and brands lived forever. Mahattas, Empire Stores, Cottage Emporium, Khadi Gramodyog, Bata, Wenger’s, Handloom House, India Hobby Centre and Uberoi Sports had been around so long that they had gone from being shops, to becoming landmarks and assignations. And when a place did disappear as Cellar, a discothèque, did, there was nothing matter-of-fact about its going; it left a kind of melancholy behind.
All make-up, as far as I can tell, was manufactured by Lakmé while the business of making boiled sweets was shared out between Parry’s and Daurala, though there was a third brand, Dalima, a misspelling of Dalmia that had been allowed to stand. Lakmé was Tata’s frenchification of Lakshmi. There’s something endearing about the story of JRD Tata being nudged into founding a cosmetics business by Nehru because the prime minister was concerned about foreign exchange being frittered away on something as frippery as make-up. Everything, even make-up manufacturers, served republican purposes.
Life in the university was frugal and intense. We were all jholawalas out of necessity, regardless of our politics, because zippered rucksacks didn’t exist. Women wore white kurta-churidars and magnificent tie-and-dye chunnis (with chopsticks in their hair) while men wore vile Jean Junction bell-bottoms that faded in the way a feeble watercolour blue might run.
Our colloquialisms, though, were our own. Where we said ‘yaar’, our children say ‘dude’ and ‘bro’ like stupid, tone-deaf mimic men. To think of the non-specific, native genius of ‘Avoid, yaar, don’t give it those ones’ is to mourn the derivative second-rate-ness of contemporary student idiom.
Many other things were improved beyond recognition by liberalisation. The banks with their tokens, withdrawal slips and paan-chewing cashiers who smoked while counting out money, the railway counters where corrupt babus hoarded tickets, the absence of public phones, the trek to Eastern Court to make a trunk call, the fried hamburgers at Standard Restaurant in the Regal Building, these were just a few unfavourite things.
Perhaps the worst of these was the humiliating mendicancy of foreign travel. There was no foreign exchange to be legally had apart from a derisory thirteen dollars. I remember stuffing fifty covertly bought pounds into my socks before flying to England as a student because I needed money for rail fare at the other end. As a grown-up foreign travel meant begging a bed from some conveniently located ‘friend’ because your foreign allowance wouldn’t run to a bed-and-breakfast, leave alone a hotel, and your credit card helpfully said ‘Only For Use In India and Nepal’.
And who can mourn the passing of the state’s monopoly over radio and television which gave us Indira Gandhi rantings through the long years of her prime ministership and then brought us news of her assassination many hours after she died. Even the worst excesses of shock-jock anchors on today’s 24/7 news channels, don’t begin to compare with the atrocity of gelded news and tedium served up by Akashvani and Doordarshan at the state’s behest, for decades.
Liberalisation brought us a great deal for which we ought to be grateful. But it’s worth asking if the cosmopolitan modernity that it promises can be sustained. It’s hard for Indians to be collectively ‘modern’ because the premise of modernity is the promise of a generalised well-being. It is a promise that has been largely made good in the countries that English-speaking desis admire; not so in India. A knowing hedonism is legitimate in places where you don’t have to step over maimed street children in your New Balance trainers. In cities like Delhi and Calcutta where the poor are a kind of landscape, the promise of liberalisation — that we will consume the world in real time like the denizens of the first world — can seem unpersuasive, even grotesque. For this reason, if for nothing else, it might be useful for policy makers to look back at a time when, for admittedly perverse reasons, consumption was constrained and austerity celebrated. Those of us who lived that time, don’t need a reason to relive it; it’s all the youth we ever had.