House of Cards: the Diwali episode

Why we need to rethink the way we shop


Photo: iStockphoto
Photo: iStockphoto

Diwali shopping has always been an excitable, endorphin-soaked sport. A socially sanctioned escape from the otherwise parsimonious restrictions on household budgets for middle- and lower-income groups and an indulgent romp for those with elastic purse strings, it has clearly established values. You bring home the goddess of wealth for her blessings while spending money on yourself, your home, hearth, neighbours, friends and pets to appease her. Since this is all considered money well spent, even if it’s doled out for booze, fat- and sugar-rich food and teen patti gambling, the revelry is at best a remarkable model of an unprofitable asset management plan. For it’s bound to leave us poorer.

So, then, Diwali shopping really is about the human fascination for things or “gifts”. Stuff that magnetically reaches out to us from the market, or online, through non-stop television ads telling us to “unbox our zindagi”, special editions of publications (ours too) filled with shopping ideas and discounts wailing like ambulance sirens. There is definitely a debate out there, whether Diwali shopping is about things we “want” or about things sold to us by strategic opinion manipulation.

There is another debate out there too. About the market’s clichéd matrix. One part of it is the developing repertoire of green and guilt-free goods. The New Age bazaar, so to say—items made from recycled paper, cloth or other materials (elephant poop included), organic foods, natural products, vegetable-dyed clothes, yoga mats, dainty plants and cute pets supposed to bring us smiles, rid us of stress and prevent us from yelling at our colleagues and spouses. Then there is the “free” brigade, and I don’t mean the “buy one, get one free” device of marketing. This one is filled instead with sugar-free rasmalai (a punishable offence, if you ask me), oil-free samosas, gluten-free flours, smoke-free diyas, chemical-free cosmetics and allergy-free jewellery. It codes in a reassurance, but it also amplifies the writing on the wall—beware, it says, from flour to fabric, much of what is peddled in the market is not genuine and is toxic, so trusting the agents of the “free” world is the only way to avoid shopper toxicity. It doesn’t matter that these products seldom come with authenticated organic or natural goods certification. It is just a toss of trust. Heads you lose, tails you lose.

There is of course the category of “handcrafted, handwoven” textiles and handlooms. A romanticized idea that upcycles anxieties from the past (the fear of losing our heritage industries) as responsibilities of the future. Informed shoppers do know that a lot of what is sold as block printing is actually screen printing (a full industry in Jaipur perpetuates it). That power-loom is sold regularly as handloom, while only a few have the discernment to distinguish hand embroidery from the exquisite machine embroidery possible on the excellent machines of Surat.

What’s unnerving is not that we are constantly sold stuff that is not what it claims to be, but that the Indian retail market has absolutely no standardization guidelines that mandate correct labelling. This is not about morality; it is about the right to information. Two months ago, a small display of fabrics and saris was showcased during a brainstorming event on India’s crafts and cultural industries, organized by the Asian Heritage Foundation (AHF) in Delhi for a dialogue with Union textiles minister Smriti Irani. A dozen-odd pieces were purchased by AHF founding chairperson Rajeev Sethi with M. Mohana Rao, head of the Rastra Chenetha Jana Samakhya, a leading federation of handloom workers from Andhra Pradesh, from government-controlled state emporia and Khadi India in Delhi. Sold as handlooms, Mohana Rao says they were all, in fact, power-loom fabrics stamped with the Khadi Mark and Handloom Mark labels. A weaving expert, he rues the state of affairs. At one emporium, Mohana Rao and Sethi were given a separate Handloom Mark tag to add to their purchases. I had attended this display but when I narrated the instance to V.K. Saxena, Khadi India chairperson, he categorically denied the possibility of machine-made Khadi being sold at Khadi India. Alok Kumar, the development commissioner of handlooms whose office comes under the Union textiles ministry, said vigilance against market frauds is being given increased attention.

There are other issues. For instance, very little of the vast and attractive array of products displayed at the biannual India Handicrafts and Gifts Fair (IHGF) in Greater Noida, organized by the Export Promotion Council of India, has to do with “handmade” craft. They are undoubtedly very good products but those in the know say more than 50% are machine-made goods. The end consumer, in this case a trade partner from another country, has no way of knowing the difference.

When, like me, you find yourself disenchanted by all this and bombarded simultaneously with emails from the PR industry on its Diwali gifting rampage, a drop in shopping enthusiasm is unavoidable. That’s why this counterpoint, antithetical as it may be in a Diwali shopping edition with products painstakingly curated by Mint Lounge journalists.

I am calling it my Marxist moment in shopping. Questioning what’s available in the market from a socio-economic angle, only to find that there is little that we might absolutely adore, even less that we absolutely desire, that is authentic given the claims, that does not add to the clutter accumulated over past Diwalis, and that will also leave us feeling at home with tradition.

Last week, I went to the annual Delhi Crafts Council sari exhibition to add to my Kanjeevaram saris. But the silks I brought home crackle like paper, they do not possess the smug sensuousness of genuine Kanjees; something is not quite right. Is it the falling quality of silk yarn used in handloom clusters that is much lamented, or is it the fact that adding more to what one already has—without asking the question “why”—has given me a knot in my gut? Is it the beginning of a de-cluttering phase in my life, or the need to find caged birds being sold as “gifts” and set them free that I must heed?

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