At the departure lounge of the HAL airport in Bangalore that night of September in 1997, my friend from school Kavitha R.N. looked thoroughly weighed down. RN, as we fondly called her, had three unwieldy bags to take care of and a brand new “softie” husband who was taking her to Santa Clara, US. To her great consternation, an extended family of 25-odd people had come to the airport to bid her goodbye. One of them had even written a poem about how happy he was about her going to the “States”, which he thrust unceremoniously into her already busy hands. Another put a marigold garland around her neck while a young boy gave her a bouquet. Her aunt made her swallow some sugar. The buzz around her was electric, to say the least, and the conversation was all about which cousin of hers was next in line to marry and which were the best hunting grounds to find suitable US grooms.
To me, her discomfort was obvious, as was her state of mind. She was muttering about how embarrassed and annoyed she was but her eyes told a different story. They had already spotted freedom.
Sleepy city: Bangalore’s glamorous MG Road, pictured in the early 2000s here, was a hub of IT-created nouveau riche. Photo by TL Ramaswamy.
Nothing brought out this sense of “journey to liberation” into sharp relief as much as Bangalore’s great exodus to the “States” in the 1990s did. A successful Kannada movie released in 1995 and set in San Francisco poignantly depicted how the American dream could corrode minds and distance hearts. The movie’s title, America! America!!, said it all. But such cultural depictions of ground realities were rare. People hardly fathomed the possible perils of this ambitious voyage—the goodies they were discovering on the way were too blinding. As often happens with change, what led to it and what came out of it was discovered much later, mostly in hindsight.
The country was liberated economically, politically and socially in the 1990s, but freedom blossomed most inside minds. This was most visible in Bangalore, which itself transformed without ceremony from a boulevard-dotted “garden city” to the glitzy torchbearer of this change. It is hard to determine whether it was the youngsters who were glowing in the reflected glory of a city thrust into global limelight that was suddenly in the spotlight, or it was the city that was preening because of its youth, who literally led the charge into the new millennium. It was perhaps possibly both. What was palpable, though, was the change in body language and thought processes not just of an entire post-reform generation, but also of their parents, aunts and uncles, soaked and dyed for years in pre-reform tight-fistedness and conservatism.
The American dream: For Bangaloreans, the US was the land of liberty and opportunities in the 1990s.
Several things happened simultaneously that culminated in 1990s’ Bangalore making the American dream its own. Cable television, the Internet and the opening up of the markets led to a giddy consumption craze that was both fed by and mirrored in the decade’s movies, music, television and advertising. Whole classrooms of students about to complete class XII in school felt liberated enough to chant “yes, we can”. Silicon Valley triumph tales were sliding off tongues that were unused to uttering names such as San Jose and Santa Clara.
People who had resigned themselves to spending lifetimes in rented houses and travelling by autorickshaws became the dreaded nouveau riche, deliriously smug in their spanking new Marutis and Cielos, not to mention declarations in “Kanglish” of plans to buy a “flat-u”. For young Bangaloreans, IT was the magic word that turned stone walls into doors; for their parents and extended family, it was the road map to deliverance—the best way to notch up social status. All they needed was an offspring whose life story could be narrated at weddings and family functions as “Computers madthaiddane” (he is “doing” computers).
Most were happy to be described as such and more than willing to undertake this journey. If the odd soul or two did demur, they would have to have a core of steel to ward off the intense peer and family pressure. Thus, somebody like me, who detested physics and mugged up integration sums to pass my class XII board exams, nonchalantly took up tutorials for the Common Entrance Test (CET), with grand plans of studying engineering (electronics or computer science…the others were infra dig) and somebody like my friend, Seshadri, limerick king and impromptu Kannada poet who dreamt of writing “one suspense novel every year”, ended up in Sunnyvale, US, with an MS, two children and a house.
The majority believed that this three-point formula—study engineering, get a “software” job, and then go to the US either on work or to study—would not just take their family into the software hall of fame, but also grant them individual liberties, both cultural and economic. And indeed, it did. These were the subliminal trips, the mental journeys that were both the result and the cause of the actual physical voyage to the US.
The narrative though was thoroughly unlike that of the Swinging Sixties. If the flower children were all about rebellion and celebratory capriciousness, the yuppies were about being practical and ambitious. The world wasn’t a marijuana- induced “mayanagar”, but a gritty, real place where money should be chased. As far as the yuppies were concerned, this climb up the social ladder was both desirable and legitimate. So it was that at the heart of it all, “States” actually spelt m-o-n-e-y. Whether they recognized it or not, the older generation fully supported this enterprise, sometimes visibly, sometimes silently. And you couldn’t blame them. For families that hadn’t seen any wealth for generations, these were heady times.
The youngsters though were clever in various other ways. They didn’t let go of their tradition but they were self-assured enough to work around it and if need be, underneath it. The most striking example is that of drinking alcohol. In conservative middle-class homes of Bangalore (from where came the majority of the “softies”), drinking was not exactly in vogue and in many cases, even strictly prohibited. But drink beer you did (and pronounced it to rhyme with “heer” as b-e-e-r), and boozing was really the surest way to arrive. Of course, you never got so drunk so that you couldn’t get home at a decent hour (after gobbling up fistfuls of mints). The flower child might have stood up to his dad and demanded to know why he was against alcohol, but the yuppie never crowed about it, nor did he question his parents. It was vital that they be on his side.
The young men and women would give their parents the slip and go on dates, but would not say no to an arranged marriage a few years later. The “boy” would work in the Bay Area but he would gladly take leave and come home to take a Kannadiga bride from his sub-caste. Of course, there were exceptions—and there will always be.
This was also why for many girls, the journey was much shorter. All they had to do was marry a US “softie” to arrive. For many of my friends, it was the ultimate liberation—you could live away from in-laws, wear what you wanted and booze! For the girls’ parents, it was an achievement to marry their daughter to a “softie” and pack her off to the US, complete with the kind of farewell that my friend got and carefully packed saarina pudis (rasam powder) and thokkus (tamarind pickle).
While the 1990s’ children undertook many such journeys, physical and otherwise, their parents were on a trip of their own. They were living vicariously through their children and often making up for their own lack of spending opportunities by overindulging. What’s more, soon it would be time to actually take that flight to the US, pose for pictures in front of the Golden Gate Bridge and the Statue of Liberty, patently uncomfortable in “Punjabi dresses” (as salwar-kameezes were then called), sneakers, and baseball caps, not to mention the triumphant return journey bearing Mars bars, Hershey’s Kisses, some colourful umbrellas, “scent” bottles and teddy bears. The American voyage became their identity, and so powerful was this identity for many from the pre-reform generation in Bangalore that it continues to hold sway even in 2011.
Which is why at a wedding recently, a distant aunt was introduced to me as the one “who is going to the States this September”. Some journeys never end.
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