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Transistor radio

When Bell Laboratories first demonstrated a semiconductor device, which they named the transistor, in 1947, scientists knew it could be used for audio amplification among its many other uses, but they may not have been able to predict that it would become synonymous with listening to music. The transistor brought music into middle-class Indian homes the way its predecessor — the bulky, expensive record player — never could. Between 1950 and the late 1980s (when the Walkman came along), the transistor radio provided a constant background music to urban Indian life. It played constantly in homes, in chai shops, on trains and buses, in restaurants and cafes; as models became more and more compact, they were even carried around in pockets as people listened to music and sports commentary on the go. It was also more than just a medium; it spawned music stations, famous radio presenters like Ameen Sayani, and ultimately gave a huge boost to the Indian music industry, predominantly Bollywood.

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IR8 rice

IR8 rice is often spoken of as ‘a miracle grain’ that changed millions of lives — and this is no hyperbole. The high-yielding semi-dwarf rice variety was developed by the International Rice Research Institute (an organization founded by the American Ford and Rockefeller Foundations) in the early 1960s and introduced in India in November 1966. A cross between Peta, a high-yield rice variety from Indonesia, and Dee-geo-woo-gen, a dwarf variety from China, the seed increased rice yields by almost 10 times. Nekkanti Subba Rao, a pioneering Andhra Pradesh-based farmer, was among the first Indian agriculturists to try the new variety of rice. Before the use of IR8, farmers could expect a maximum of one-and-a-half tonnes of rice per hectare, but IR8 yielded around 10 tonnes per hectare, Subba Rao told the BBC in 2016 during an event celebrating 50 years of the miracle grain being introduced in India. IR8 effectively kicked off the Green Revolution in India, which had become worryingly dependent on grain supplies from Western nations. Along with increasing production of wheat and pulling millions out of poverty, the Green Revolution put India on the path of food self-sufficiency.

Illustration: Jayachandran
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Illustration: Jayachandran

HMT Watch

It might be a quaint collectible item today. But in the initial years of independent India, the HMT watch was a shiny symbol of modernity and aspiration. The Hindustan Machine Tools was set up in 1953, one of the many steps taken by a new state to create an industrial base for a country left impoverished by colonialism. Its watch-making unit came up in 1961, in collaboration with Japan’s Citizen Watch — the first wrist watch manufacturer in India. The first set of ‘Janata’ matches was launched by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. It became a style statement for both the plebeian and the powerful. Among its brand ambassadors were Indira Gandhi and Madhavrao Scindia. It was a watch gifted on all occasions, from weddings to graduations. Coming before the quartz era, the mechanical watches HMT made were sturdy affairs, running without batteries, and needing a few seconds of winding every day. Till the 1980s, it had a virtual monopoly on the market. For a certain vintage of people, it remains the timekeeper of India.

Bajaj Chetak

The vehicle that got the country moving and turned it into one of the biggest two-wheeler markets in the world began life as the Vespa Sprint, manufactured by Italian motor vehicle manufacturer Piaggio. Bajaj Auto bought a licence from Piaggio to build two-wheelers in India, and in 1972, the scooter, re-christened the Chetak after the legendary horse belonging to Maharana Pratap, rolled out of Bajaj’s factory in Akurdi, Pune. Priced at around 5,000, it was an immediate hit — and would have been even more popular were it not for the long waiting periods necessitated by the so-called ‘licence raj’. Nevertheless, the Chetak became a symbol of a newly mobile nation, and of a more globalized one — family albums from the 1970s inevitably show bell-bottomed and side-whiskered young men riding the Chetak, with polyester-sari clad young women sitting behind, smiling (few Indian women rode two-wheelers then, though this would soon change). The Chetak was discontinued in 2005, but has recently regained life as the Chetak EV, an electric vehicle rolled out by the company — manufactured at the same Akurdi plant as the original.

Maggi noodles

The word “instant" didn’t exist in the Indian kitchen vocabulary till 1983, when Nestle’s Maggi noodles entered the market, promising a meal in “two minutes". But where could you fit ready-to-eat noodles into a dal-chawal-roti-eating culture? Maggi noodles pitched itself to the modern Indian urban woman, who needed a “healthy" evening snack for her growing children but wasn’t happy spending yet more hours in the kitchen rustling it up. The Maggi Moms bought it—and, eventually, so did the nation. In the years to follow, Maggi became an iconic Indian snack, as desi as the samosa, the pazham pori and the bread pakora. And it didn’t stay in the kitchen. From college campuses to office hubs, Maggi noodles are sold out of thelas and fast-food joints. In the remotest corners of the country, from border checkpoints to untouched beaches, if you could find a shack selling tea, you could find a plate of hot Maggi to go with it. For every Indian, there is a favourite way to have Maggi — with eggs, vegetables, and ketchup, or even a sprinkling of bhujia. Whether had with midnight conversations between friends or as the hostel student’s hurried breakfast, Maggi’s ubiquity makes it a part of our memories — and that rare thing, a Swiss brand that is now unmistakably Indian.

The cricket (tennis) ball

The Indian win in the final match of the 1983 Cricket World Cup played at Lord’s Cricket Ground on 25 June 1983 was more than a sporting triumph —it signified a country emerging from the shadow of colonialism, marking its excellence in a game that was bestowed upon us by the colonial powers we had now defeated on the sporting field. It marked a watershed moment for Indian cricket, triggering an overwhelming obsession with the game in India. For the millennials who grew up in the 1980s and 1990s, this meant playing cricket and emulating the nation’s heroes in any street or empty piece of land they could find, notwithstanding the puddles or cows in the field of play. And the ball was never an actual cricket ball, but possibly an invention of the subcontinent—a tennis ball that had been hardened to suit cricket conditions, or as manufacturers call these on Amazon listings, “cricket tennis balls". As for that cricket ball from the famous 1983 final match, Sunil Gavaskar revealed in 2020 that he still has it.

The mixtape

Between 1975 and sometime in the 1990s, music enthusiasts and young lovers, who liked to walk off the beaten path, obsessed over owning and exchanging cassette tapes with a personal curation of songs. The everyman might buy albums by popular bands or those with Bollywood music. But those wouldn’t do for the discerning music lover, who painstakingly put together tapes with their favourite songs. These could be collections—say the best of Asha Bhosle—or mixes—think ABBA, Kishore Kumar, Queen and Bappi Lahiri, all on one side of a tape. It was a way of asserting one’s independence from the tyranny of music labels, while also telling your friends how deep and wide-ranging your appreciation for music was. Making a mixtape for a special someone was how several generations expressed the music of their heart. In an era when blending in and not standing out was the societal ideal, they offered young Indians a precious way to assert their individuality.

Coca-Cola

It wasn’t always Coca-Cola for India. In 1977, the company, which had been operational in India since 1950, withdrew from the country protesting regulations limiting the dilution of equity of multinational corporations. That was an era of socialism and protectionist economic policies, which lasted till the liberalization of the Indian economy. Soon after, the brand made a dramatic re-entry into the India market on 24 October 1993, with a highly publicised event at the Taj Maha. Agra became the first Indian city to taste Coke since it had vanished from India. No matter how big a cultural force it has been in the rest of the world, Coca-Cola hadn’t really left behind an impossible-to-fill gap.

The same year, the company acquired its Indian competitor Thums Up, which had become incredibly popular in the intervening years, from Parle Agro. Some say Coke meant to kill off Thums Up (with its tagline ‘taste the thunder’), which became increasingly hard-to-get for a subsequent few years. But the Indian brand re-emerged stronger than ever, becoming a billion-dollar brand just last year.

The smartphone

Apple launched its iPhone 3G in India on 22 August 2008—a little over a year after it stormed the US market in June 2007—providing stiff competition to the BlackBerrys and Nokias that had been ruling the Indian smartphone market, such as it was, till then. A year later, Taiwanese handset manufacturer HTC released India’s first Android-based smartphone.

It is difficult to pinpoint exactly when smartphones became a fact of life in India—around 800 million Indians use them today and tech gurus predict India will have 1 billion smartphone users by 2026. The launch of 4G internet in 2012 and the disruptive entry of Reliance Jio in 2016, dramatically slashing costs and widening the footprint of wireless internet access, are widely seen as tipping points in India’s smartphone revolution.The smartphone has proved to be an unprecedented cultural and economic force. It has democratized content creation and communication, it has transformed payments and economic inclusion by enabling tools such as the United Payments Interface; and it has impacted every aspect of life, from education to healthcare to commerce.

The ring light

In the early days of Covid, as the world was forced to move to work from home virtually overnight, a realisation dawned during video calls—you couldn’t see many of your colleagues very well. To the ubiquitous “Can you hear me?", the default response became, “We can hear you but not see you very well". This is how we were all forced to reckon with the importance of lighting. Suddenly, how we looked in front of a camera—that too the front camera of our office-issued laptops, for god’s sake—mattered in how we were viewed at work. Enter ring-lights—these circular emitters of glow that reflected flatteringly off your face and gave your eyes the “influencer rings"—became an essential accessory for video calls that are now a reality of modern workplaces. The ring lights first rose to prominence in the world of YouTubers and social media stars. Thanks to Covid and hybrid work, we are all now hooked.

 

 

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