They are educated. They are successful. They are affluent. They want out. Like Saloni Gadgil, 24, and Sandhan Chowdhury, 30. A year ago, the couple who live together in Mumbai, began a journey towards simplifying their lives by consuming less.
They first decided to share a cupboard, which meant getting rid of half of their clothes. They then stopped using their credit cards. They began eating almost all their meals at home.
"We decided to spend time and money on experiences and travelling instead of on objects," says Gadgil, a writer. Says Chowdhury, a corporate trainer: "We became more conscious about what we felt we needed and what we didn't."
Several Indians in their 20s and 30s, who initially embraced the new Indian economy and enjoyed its fruits, are now consciously turning their backs on consumerism and what it stands for. In practical terms, they are paring down their possessions and channelling the time, money and energy they save from not consuming into activities that are truly meaningful to them. In philosophical terms, at least some of them have come to define themselves not in terms of what they own but in terms of what they do and the values they stand for.
Not all of them are going simple to the same degree or in the same manner. Ruth Sequeira, 22, a brand manager in Chennai, began scaling down her life by using public transport and walking to work, then cutting down on her carbon footprint and not eating fast-food.
"It is all intertwined," she says. "To simplify, you have to reduce wastage, including of energy resources." Ashok Mohanan, 33, a gadget-loving telecom marketing manager in Mumbai, did it first by resisting the urge to buy a home theatre system and a high-end car.
To the multitude of less fortunate Indians many of these 'minimalists' might appear to be living a still far-from-minimal life. Moreover, some are 'minimising' not out of any social or environmental concerns but to improve their own sense of well-being. Despite the differences and caveats, their questioning is what warrants noting, say experts, because it signals a shift in mindset — one that may never become mainstream but holds the possibility of influencing the mainstream from the margins. "Thanks to needs constructed by advertising, people feel they will not survive if they don’t buy certain products," says Joseph MT, assistant professor of sociology at St Xavier's College in Mumbai. "So a counter-movement is necessary. At the same time, it has become difficult to decide whether something is a real need or a pseudo-need. So this rising trend of rejecting consumerism is a response by young people who feel out of control and feel they are just puppets of the market."
For a generation whose parents had no choice but to be minimalist in pre-liberalisation India, consumerism also meant freedom. Raised in a different context, some youngsters today have the luxury of re-examining this notion of freedom — and redefining it.
Scaling down to essence
Consuming less to create
Vikram Sood, 32
Co-founder of a branding and marketing firm
Over the past year, Vikram Sood has gradually changed the way he eats, shops, travels and decorates. Every purchase, he says, is now based on a simple question: Is that object a need or a want? For instance, he buys clothes and shoes only as replacements. They are no longer branded; instead, he often gets local tailors and cobblers to make them. The number of times he eats out has dropped from about two a week to two a month. Instead, he now cooks at home, using seasonal produce. Sood also makes his own furniture and light fittings, using recycled materials.
Why: "In order to have more time to create than consume," says Sood. "And in order to spend my free time doing better things than eating, drinking and shopping."
The impact: Sood says he is now more relaxed and content. He spends two or three hours every day giving back — using his skills to advise charitable organisations on how to become economically sustainable — and yet finds that he has more free time than before because he no longer spends hours on useless banter at pubs and bars. He spends this free time on engaging and creative hobbies such as writing and working with wood. Finally, says Sood, he is now fitter because he is eating healthy, home-cooked meals.
— Bhairavi Jhaveri
Hanisha Vaswani, 31
Senior manager for the digital arm of a PR firm
Hanisha Vaswani has stopped using her car to commute between work and home and has cut down on air travel, opting for trains even over long distances. She shops for clothes only once a year. She does not own a cellphone or computer, using only basic versions of these gadgets provided by her office. Having fine-tuned her purchases over the past year, Vaswani is now trimming her consumption further, buying second-hand books or borrowing from libraries rather than ordering books online. She only buys home furnishings once a year, usually restricting her choices to locally made eco-friendly cane and straw items.
Why: Vaswani says that, by her late 20s, as the thrill of being able to spend and buy began to fade, she started to feel like she was losing touch with who she was and what was important to her. "So, I decided to return to a simpler, more meaningful life," she says. "Most of the time you are just keeping up with others’ expectations. After a certain age and designation, people expect you to drive a car, buy things and always take the plane. I didn’t want to be making my decisions based on peer pressure."
The impact: "I feel like a huge weight has been lifted off me," she says. "I am free from always caring about how I am perceived. It is liberating to think that you are being judged purely on your thoughts, ideas and professionalism."
Vaswani now spends her commute reading on the metro, rather than swearing at the traffic while driving. "I'm even finding more time to talk to my mother on the phone," she says.
— Bhairavi Jhaveri
Coming full circle
Ajay Chaturvedi, 39
Ajay Chaturvedi gave up a hefty salary, gourmet dinners, expensive vacations, his BMW and other trappings of success, and returned to India from the US in 2006 to set up HarVa, a rural company which also has the first women-only-run BPO.
Where once he experimented with cuisines at fine-dining restaurants, Chaturvedi has given up alcohol and meat, and turned satvik. He no longer buys branded clothes. Late-night partying has given way to early-morning meditation. He travels to the Himalayas every six months to "switch off and catch my breath".
Why: From Dehradun, Chaturvedi grew up in a large joint family that grew its own food and went to the grocery only for milk. When he moved to the US to study and work, he says his life became all about "absorbing the material world". "I had moulded myself according to others’ expectations... I didn't know who I was," he says. "I decided I wanted to do something meaningful. I wanted to keep my eye on my real goal — happiness."
The impact: "From an external journey — literally and metaphorically — mine has become an internal one," he says. He spends his leisure time reading books like the Bhagvad Gita. He's started travelling less for business, more for self-fulfillment, occassionally exchanging notes on Advaita and Judaism with a Jewish scholar in Kedarnath and learning to regulate his breath in Uttarakhand with his guru. "I believe I had to experience all that I did to be where I am now," he says. Life has come a full circle for Chaturvedi — back home.
— Shalini Singh