Everyone has their own view of what constitutes luxury. My definition—and this is hardly original—is this: Luxury is time, customization and discreet luxe. The reason I like my definition of luxury is because it appeals to the egalitarian in me. These three things—time, customization and discreet luxe—can be experienced at every price point.
Customization, for instance, be it bespoke clothing or a customized pair of shoes, is easily had in India, what with our embarrassment of riches with respect to craftspeople, artisans, and traditional handicrafts. At Good Earth homes, an eco-community outside Bangalore, I came across a wonderful way to customize architecture. Instead of grids, their windows have whimsical metal sculptures of animals created by indigenous Bastar tribals. It supported local artisans, served its purpose of being a window grid and was laugh-out-loud playful.
My sister-in-law, Priya Sunder, is a busy entrepreneur, but she will only wear tailored clothes. She buys the silk fabric, designs the cut and hemlines and has them tailored. Affordable bespoke tailoring is one of the pleasures of India. Thiruvananthapuram is hardly fashion-forward but, even here, amid the bylanes of the old ‘Fort’ area is a sign-less shoe shop where they will take the outline of your foot and painstakingly create custom sandals with intricate details according to your specifications—couture attention at a micro-fraction of the price. Stylish boutiques and NGOs all over India have taken the country’s craft traditions and applied them to everyday objects, be they Rehwa’s Maheshwari saris; Kala Raksha’s embroidered cushion covers; Auroville incense; Sruti Foundation’s handbags; or Kondapalli toys from the Andhra Pradesh government showroom.
Time is true luxury (Illustration by: Jayachandran / Mint)
My own customized indulgence is to buy essential oils in bulk and use them in lieu of perfume and moisturizer. In my closet are about a dozen giant bottles of oil from—I hesitate to give you this name—Falcon Essentials outside Bangalore. I have ylang ylang, mandarin, cedar wood, jojoba, eucalyptus, sweet almond, sandalwood and several others. I get them shipped right to my home, custom-mix them daily according to mood and moment, and feel wonderful. Another good source for essential oils is SPR Fragrances in Fort Cochin. As long as you can do a bank transfer, they will ship to you.
Time. For most urban Indians, be they super rich or middle class, time is the greatest luxury. We each have our ways to maximize our time and productivity. For me, the luxury paradigm shift with respect to time happened when I decided that I wouldn’t use time as a commodity to be maximized but to be enjoyed. Most of us view time as something that needs to be “organized”. You schedule meetings in the same location; fly private; or have your garments Fedexed to your hotel, all so you can gain a few precious minutes. But what if you thought of time as expendable and expandible? Going to music concerts, for instance, can be viewed as a waste of time or as a luxury. As someone who forces herself to go and then ends up enjoying herself, I can tell you (and you probably know this anyway) that listening to live music in a concert hall is a completely different experience than listening to it at home amid chores, or on your iPod in the gym.
I love attending music concerts. The way I justify it to myself is that I get some of my best ideas when I am leaning back and listening to, say, Aruna Sairam elaborate on a Bhairavi raga; or watching Amit Heri and his band jamming at Ambedkar Bhavan in Bangalore. The act of snatching time away from the everyday to do things you enjoy, be it getting a massage or poking around a second-hand bookstore, is luxury time in my mind. Most of these activities tend to be solitary. I don’t view going to a Page 3 art opening as luxury; it is social climbing. Going to a gallery alone on a rainy afternoon to look at the art, on the other hand, is luxury time.
The other mind-bending thing that I have started doing with time is to do what Zen monks call “Be here now”. Like most children, my six-year-old has a wonderfully infectious giggle. Last week, as she giggled and giggled about something nonsensical, I kept saying, “Ok, Malini, time to wear your shoes now. Let’s go. We’ll miss the school bus.” And then I stopped. And I started giggling along with her. Like two idiots. We went on for a few minutes. Luxury time. And we made the school bus. It wasn’t something profound that caused me to stop and giggle. It was realizing that my 11-year-old doesn’t break out into peals of giggles at the slightest provocation like my six-year-old does. Soon, Malini would stop giggling. And I would have missed that entire life stage because I was too busy “managing” my time. So I giggle. I get on the floor and tickle her crazy. It’s a complete waste of time. But in my planned-to-the-minute, time-challenged, completely-crazy existence, those few minutes are sheer bliss. And a luxury.
The thing with what I call “luxury time” is that you can’t pre-plan or manage it. You just have to learn to recognize and enjoy it. It could be taking the phone call from your mother and stopping yourself from saying, “Let me call you back in five,” because you recognize some excitement in her voice; or forcing yourself to go for a walk around Ulsoor Lake with your spouse when you both have deadlines and a million things to do. Or saying “yes” when a dear friend calls and says, “Want to have lunch today?”
Discreet luxe is not my idea (it has been embraced by some of the most stylish people on the planet) but it resonates with me. Simply said, it is luxury without the logos. Think Martin Margiela, Bottega Veneta, or Boudicca. Read about it in my column next week.
Shoba Narayan leads a luxurious middle class life. And no, that’s not an oxymoron. Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org