Neon lights and McJobs

Neon lights and McJobs

In the last 10 years, the urban Indian landscape has undergone a dramatic transformation. Dusty, opaque shopfronts have given way to snazzy, glass-fronted showrooms. Pizza parlours, burger joints, coffee bars and big music stores have opened on the high streets of several Indian towns and cities.

They are India’s first English-speaking “working class", an entirely new class adding another layer to an already complex society. They are willing to abandon desk jobs—almost a birthright for those who speak English—for physical work on the shop floor. Most young, middle-class Indians find this democratization of toil liberating.

For generations, English-speaking Indian kids were forced into a handful of professions by their parents, aptitude notwithstanding. An Indian father would sit his adolescent son down and lay out the options: medicine, engineering, banking, government jobs. Middle-class Indians had historically displayed an aversion to manual work.

If you were educated and English-speaking, you did not lift a finger. The driver washed your car on Sundays and you never even made yourself a cup of tea—the maidservant was there to do that. If your father worked in a bank, you would not dream of taking a job in a restaurant kitchen. In the Indian context, you belonged to the middle class, not the working class.

In contemporary India, by contrast, any work is good as long as it helps one stand on one’s two feet. Independence at a young age is now a prized value. So is personal satisfaction. A new economy spawns new opportunities; new jobs create new identities, new lifestyles and new ways of seeing the world. The average Indian’s attitude to work has changed fundamentally and irreversibly.

While a section of the young in the Islamic world seethes with resentment, young Indians are in love with the American lesson that education, competition and hard work bring prosperity. Accompanying this feeling is a new-found respect for physical labour. Class barriers, too, have broken down in these showrooms for global capitalism. The bank manager’s son works side by side with a new migrant to the city and they both start with a clean slate. Caste identity usually resides in the surname, so when workers wear name tags bearing only their first names, centuries of prejudice are instantly wiped out.

Ram Chandra Singh, a carpenter’s son, is 25. He comes from Nagrajdhar, a remote village in the Himalayan mountains. For his college education, he came to Mussoorie, a hill station dubbed “Queen of the Hills" by the British. While pursuing his BA, he took a part-time job working at Club Mahindra, a timeshare resort. The move from village to city was not easy, but Pizza Hut made it easier. “Of course one feels awkward in the beginning. But I like it here. There is no hierarchy. On busy days, even the manager rolls up his sleeves and does the dishes. I am allowed to take my own decisions." Ram acquired basic skills in English from a small hole-in-the-wall institute, one of many that have mushroomed in post-liberalization India. The Finesse, for example, offers “special courses for housewives, students, aspirants and professionals". Rosemount’s promises to make English “easier than your mother tongue". Or you can go to Mentor—its catch line, following Protagoras, is, “mentor is the measure of all things". While the quality of instruction is often not very high, these private institutes serve their function: equipping their students with a functional knowledge of English that enables them to join the global workforce, even if at the lowest level.

Nehru once said, “English would be more widely known in India in the future than now; though it will not be known for better quality." His prophecy has come true. It is the diploma in English that puts a spring in Ram’s step, gives him the confidence to walk around Pizza Hut like he owns the place. It allows him to penetrate an alien neon world, one which must have seemed impossibly foreign and forbidding from the outside.

Chirag’s father is a senior manager with a bank. Like Ram, he works in Pizza Hut and has no qualms about it. “Look at that," he says, pointing at a poster hanging on the wall. It advertises “cool jobs" for people with “passion, dedication, mania". Next to it is another poster. It shows Olympic rings filled with pizza topping. Chirag is the “achiever of the month". His face has been given pride of place behind the cashier’s desk. He is “Lord of the Rings". “Initially," he says in a quiet voice, “my father had a problem. He said it’s not a good career, serving at tables. Now he understands that this is not the same as working for another restaurant. This is a multinational, so there is glamour attached to it. I don’t think sweating it out to earn a living is such a demeaning thing. The Indian fast food industry is growing at 40% per annum. There are avenues for growth. If I am good in my work, then in a few months I can rise to a higher position."

Both these stories are revealing in their own ways. In a developing economy such as India, unlike in the West, McJobs are not seen as soul-killing. The bank manager’s son is happy to be seen doing manual labour—something he wouldn’t have agreed to 10 years ago—because there is “glamour" to those corporations, no matter what the work. For the carpenter’s son, a vernie (vernacular) boy from a remote village, it gives him a foothold in the city. It provides him with an entry into the world of modern jobs. He teaches himself the ways of the world by observing his customers and watching training videos supplied by his employers.

Amit, who works as a manager at Yo! China, strikes a cautionary note. After five years in the business, he feels there is an urgent need to look beyond “the glitz and the glamour", the neon, the air conditioning and the loud music. “That’s what attracts an 18-year-old initially. Soon, he realizes that the working hours are long. There is hardly any free time. Kids get frustrated. They come with unrealistic expectations. They want to buy the expensive Reebok sports jacket the customer is wearing, but cannot. Salaries are not that high." He’s also critical of the management. “In the West, these things followed a more organic process. All we do is import, stick labels on things. Somebody buys a franchise—all he wants to do is make money from it, recover investment. They work you like a dog. In the West, people get breaks; there is more leisure time. You don’t just go on and on and on, like here." He mentions a friend in New Delhi who committed suicide and another who has picked up a drug habit along the way. “It’s not easy balancing work, family, girlfriend. Some people just crack up."

Palash Krishna Mehrotra is currently working on The Butterfly Generation: A Personal Journey into the Passions and Follies of India’s Technicolor Youth, to be published by Rupa, New Delhi, and Portobello Books, London