"A Tale of Three Worlds or More: Young People, Media, and Class in India"
When I first considered the topic of Generation X in India seriously at the editor’s request, I was assailed by doubts about the meaningfulness of a study that worked from the barest stereotype in an attempt to delineate any aspect of social life in a contemporary nation of the global south. India’s presence in a variety of online literatures from those on development or politics to those on trade and the economy is shadowed by clichés—the “fastest growing market” with “a middle class of 50 million,” the “second-largest” economy in the developing world, the “biggest democracy,” “friend” of the US and Europe in the fight against global terror, and so on. Similarly the presence of youth in academic and policy literatures the world over has been tainted by journalistic pronouncements about declining participation levels, civic disengagement, individualism, risk culture, remix culture, hybrid identities, and a postmodern, global cultural sensibility. Academic articles on Indian cultural production and circulation often open with implicitly homogenizing assertions: “The times they are a-changing! For India, these are historic times. Her long-established and often fiercely guarded traditions are undergoing rapid and sweeping transformations as she flexes her muscles to compete in a global economy” (Chakravorty 112). In my research on both media cultures in India and youth cultures across South Asia and the UK over the past decade these clichés have proved more a burden than a guide. They have clearly worked in the interests of some and against the interests of others. So, whose interests have they served?
Numerous academic papers, projects, and studies have been funded and spawned by the notion of a risk society and youth civic disengagement and voting decline. Talk of generational breaks and intergenerational rifts, McDonaldized youth culture as well as of patterns of youth consumption can clearly serve the interest of marketers who play on notions of “cool” and “hip” regardless of the context. Counter-arguments—suggesting continuities between generations and heterogeneity within generations, cross-cut as they are by class, ethnicity, ability, religion, age, nationality, gender, and sexuality—are briefly heard and then strenuously ignored. At times it even seems that both academics and marketers are colluding to create the absurdly impossible phenomenon of which they speak: distinct generations with distinct characteristics, the world over. And this, unfortunately, means that real distinctions drawn in India by people campaigning on or researching issues of labor, class, gender, or religious discrimination between the everyday experiences of the powerful few and the exploited many, are being ignored in favor of clichés. With regard to India, for instance, it is not uncommon to hear that “everyone is now connected” so “let’s move it online.” What these businesses mean is that “everyone who matters in terms of service capital” is now connected: the upper middle classes, to be precise."
~ Shakuntala Banaji, Excerpt from Generation X Goes Global
Director of the Media, Communication and Development Programme in the Media and Communications Department at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). She lectures on international media and film, , development and the global south. She has published widely on Hindi cinema, audiences, children, youth and media, creativity, news reception, and online civic participation. Her edited collection South Asian Media Cultures is available from Anthem Press and her forthcoming study The Civic Web co-authored with David Buckingham is forthcoming with MIT Press.
The following are interview extracts conducted by Prof. Banaji and meant to accompany the her essay in the Generation X Goes Global volume:
Regarding, most notably the hypocritical enforcement of norms of clothing for young women in India:
I’ve seen the younger generation of girls in schools and colleges wearing these kinds of things, netted cloth stockings and mini skirts … I feel that this is dangerous in the sense that the kids might be more of a target for eve-teasing and India might go the western way with more child pregnancies; I feel that dress plays a part in this. You should wear dresses but only ones that suit you and that you are comfortable in and a girl might wear a short skirt but keeps on pulling it down. They have no self-defence experience. [Gautham, unmarried clerk, Bombay, 2000]
Azhar: [D]uring our college days, I dressed her in all those dresses, tight clothes, I told her I like it very much. In college I made her wear model dresses. While we were together. Whatever she wanted to wear. Even she felt uncomfortable wearing things sometimes and say she preferred salwar kameez and I’d tell her ‘please go on, when you look so horny in it, and it’s worn by actresses and models, go on’. To me I felt she should wear hipsters, sleeveless T-shirts. Even she began to like to wear those clothes.
Shaku: Does she still wear such clothes after marrying you?
Azhar: Of course not! How would she? She wears salwar khameez … Before she was my girlfriend. Now she’s my wife. There’s a massive difference!
Shaku: Like in films–
Azhar: –See, in some films, like in Raja Hindustani, the guy doesn’t like such clothes on the heroine even before marriage. He’s old-fashioned. But I liked her to look like that and wear those things when she was my girlfriend. See, how I feel is, I wanted her to look modern [Eng.] when she was my girlfriend. I wouldn’t let her expose [Eng] much but she should wear tight jeans, which make her look modern [Eng.] but cover her up. It’s mod. That was my attitude. Now I think she should not wear all this as because it is my custom in my religion, girls should not wear masculine clothes (mardavni kapde), manly dresses and I am very religious, so she can’t wear jeans or any non-customary wear.
Shaku: But didn’t that religious principle apply before?
Azhar: See, when she was my girlfriend, I didn’t think we’d get married, so it was okay. And now she’s my wife. Before I didn’t care if men said things about her. [laughs] But now if they say things about her then it is an insult to me. I feel bad, you’re getting my point? I don’t want all that, I don’t want to be insulted because of how she dresses…I don’t want her to expose her body. She never wants it either. I convinced her it was necessary for her to give up all those sorts of clothes like jeans. [AZHAR, 21 year old salesman, Bombay 2001]
When given a chance to talk and think through issues, some young lower-middle-class viewers are thoughtful about the kinds of compromises materialist fantasies might entail:
Reena: I like to look at all the beautiful clothing that Kareena and Aishwarya wear in the films, and at their slippers, and their handbags; it gives me ideas for my outfits. But I then I start to think that if I have to behave like a ‘good Indian girl’ either with my father or my husband in order to have the money to buy all these things, then I would rather not buy them, rather study hard, and have a job of my own. It is okay to like Nike-Shikey stuff, why not? But I know friends of mine who don’t ask ‘does this boy respect me?’ they only ask ‘How much does his daddy earn?’ Somehow in the films, like in Yaadein, boys are rich and they let you work outside, but it doesn’t always end so well I think in our lives. (20 year old, lower-middle-class student) (Bombay, 2006).
2007, Santosh (39) and Malini (37) who live with their three children in a one-room chawl describe their frustration with their teenager daughters’ requests, but Malini recognises the tensions her children face:
Santosh: Sometimes I feel that everything I earn each month just disappears into their mouth, or it is used on rubbish – hair bands, films, school trips, pencil cases, mobile phone plans, gifts for festivals to each and every friend and relative, sports gear, new clothes for our festivals... we will never save enough to move out of this room. I will never be able to retire and spend some time with them.
Malini: (Smiling) He’s right. They don’t seem to understand the value of money the way we did in childhood. I never requested anything from my parents. [pause, looking at Santosh] But then, I could have been doing a job all these years, and your parents told me no. Now we are much better off, I don’t like to refuse the girls when their friends have these nice things, and tv shows such things. As it is, they all sleep in the same space, there is nowhere to go that is safe and costs no money. So I try to make him understand them too. No-one in our families can afford to help us, and this is still better than living with his family as we used to. Then I had no say in how to bring up my own children.
Dev, their thirteen year old son, commented in a separate interview:
I’m mad over photography. My mother tries to help me to get my snaps printed. I want to be a photographer. We have a deal. If I study hard and get good grades, she will never say no to me. But my father hopes I will do engineering. He doesn’t know how much money photographers make.
When researching responses to the film Slumdog Millionaire in Bombay in 2009, I was told a variety of disturbing stories in and around discussions of the film’s depiction of slum-dwellers and street children.
Sushil (19): Now I do deliveries with my cycle for this restaurant, and even this has its dangers - but when I was eleven I came to Bombay from my village in Utter Pradesh. I was employed by my uncle in his teashop in Wadala and then it closed down. [pause] so he made me go and work for a family. They were not happy with me because they didn’t want a boy. They wanted a girl – but no-body was willing to let a girl work in their house. The most fights used to be because they thought I was looking at them with my eyes. My uncle had to intervene and tell them, ‘He is a good boy. Why would he look at you?’ One day I was beaten very severely by the grandfather because he thought I was watching television instead of massaging his feet. If you ask me, ‘do I miss my village and my family’ then the answer is yes, and no. I haven’t forgotten them, but there is just Nothing. Nothing at all.
Asmita, who has a three year old daughter and moves from building-site to building-site with her construction-worker husband, described the only time in her life when she had the opportunity to watch television:
Asmita (22): After getting married I worked in construction with my husband, but when I got pregnant, he made me stop and find work as a bai (maid). It was hard. There isn’t much work and the wages are so bad for a woman like me. I was looking after four children in the family. Madam was at work all day. The children were nice, but one of them had a bad temper and she used to slap me if she got angry, even kick me in my lap, though she could see my stomach was big. They were all wanting to see something different on television, and I had to give each one a turn to see something they wanted or there would be no peace. But still that was a good job. They let me go when my baby was born, even though I promised they would never hear her. I think the Madam was afraid Sir would start touching me improperly. I heard gossip that they only employed older bais or pregnant ones for this reason. But maybe it was not true. He never looked at me once in the six months I worked for them and men on the street make dirty remarks or touch me when I pass – one has to learn to be vigilant all the time.
Najma, quoted in a recent paper on Slumdog Millionaire, was full of regret at the absence of her children from her everyday life:
I am 24 and I live in the local juggi (shantytown) with my husband, he has a vegetable stall. I clean for six families, but this is my best job. She lives out of town and comes once a month. I have two children in the village with my mother. My son is eight and he misses me very much. My daughter is two. I don’t see her so often. I last saw my son five months ago. I feel like crying all the time when I think of them, but what can we do? There’s no place for them in our hut here, already my husband’s sister lives with us [inaudible]. I saw that Slumdog picture two times when I was in Mrs G’s house, her family was watching it. I didn’t watch the whole thing then, but later I watched the rest of it. I missed some parts. I love to watch films. I see Hindi films whenever I can but that is not a lot because I can’t go on my own and my husband is only free in the daytime when I am at work so he then goes on his own to the pictures but sometimes we watch on TV at night and sometimes I go with my sister-in-law on Sunday. Slumdog seemed like an okay ‘picture’ (English). I could understand how it showed the life of common people. You don’t get that so much in the Hindi films. Half of me thinks well you don’t want to just go to the pictures to see crying and sad stuff like that with children begging and what happens to the poor (bechare) girls. The other half of me thinks that it is good to show that as well, so everyone knows how it is. Of course it is not always that people think about what they watch is it? Some of them might just watch that for fun. In fact everyone was just waiting for the poor boy to become rich. It was in his stars, so he won. Most of us are not so fortunate. In the end I think I would not waste my money to see a film like that, I would prefer to see a Hindi film. But I did cry when the children’s mother was killed because I thought of my son, and what would happen if that was him and he was alone and I felt very bad.
~ Shakuntala Banaji