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Business News/ Politics / News/  The national language of desire

The national language of desire

Once, aspiration was for the privileged few. But Indians have learnt to have faith in their tomorrows, and dream of new selves

Illustration: JayachandranPremium
Illustration: Jayachandran

The story of aspirations in India is a relatively recent one. For a long time, the idea that a human being could significantly change the trajectory of her life within her lifetime was one that did not make too much sense to anyone but the handful born to a life of privilege. Life was a condition into which one was born, the circumstances that determined the course of one’s time here were already scripted; what remained was for us to live out what had been determined for us by birth. ‘Duniya mein hum aayen hain to jeena hee padega/ Jeevan hai agar zahar toh peena hee padega’ -- the sentiment expressed by this Mother India song captures the feeling quite accurately. 

The future was to be feared rather than looked up to. The cultural mechanisms developed to cope with the fickleness of fate were many. We distrusted all compliments (putting a kala tika on an infant the moment she was complimented) and downplayed any sign of good fortune. At a time when stories of unexpected success were few and sudden disasters were many, to articulate any aspiration was to tempt fate.

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At the individual level, one aspired to a stable life. Reducing uncertainty in life was an extremely important goal, and ambitions were usually restricted to getting a stable job, getting children educated and married off, and retiring quietly to a life surrounded by family. Education was important because it was the only possible vehicle of mobility. Even so, the end goal was quite modest, a steady job, preferably with the government. This preference continues to this day in many parts of India, but in an earlier time, there were virtually no other options. Medicine, engineering and the civil services were the most coveted professions, as were the armed forces. Beyond that, the imagination faltered. 

For most, consumption was beyond the scope of aspiration. The fear of being seduced by one’s impulses meant that a tight check was kept on all forms of spending. The Bata price of 99.95 was emblematic of a time when all expenditure was seen as a form of regrettable leakage and all purchases were tinged with a sense of grudge. Advertising for even things of everyday consumption like cigarettes, coffee and soft drinks positioned them as a rarefied form of luxury. 

The democratisation of aspiration began in a real sense with liberalisation. This took the form of both increased access to an optimistic imagination of one’s future as well as the expansion of the avenues in which to express this aspiration. TV exploded into our lives and brought with it a structural amplification of desire. It spoke to us in hot whispers of immediacy and desire -- it made the past a perpetually departing blur. The present was what it revelled in. 

Consumption represents aspiration in its most granular form. It breaks down a sense of progress into small everyday actions. This soap instead of that, a slightly better shampoo, eating out at a restaurant a little more often, buying a branded pair of shoes instead of an unbranded one, being able to treat one’s children to ice cream on an impulse -- these served as the small milestones to the lived experience of a better life.

The availability of credit added velocity to aspirations as it became possible to acquire things before their time. The traditional Indian resistance to credit dissolved slowly, and EMIs became a part of one’s everyday vocabulary. Credit was still reserved for the purchase of big assets, beginning with the home, and credit card usage was still limited. But the fact that one could conceive of getting into debt was by itself a sign that, at long last, the Indian middle class began to have some faith in their tomorrows.

The other axis of aspiration was education. As the number of colleges expanded, thanks to the entry of the private sector, newer professions started gaining currency. The ability to imagine a life beyond a narrow range of options opened out a sense of the future for many young students and parents alike.

Post-liberalisation India was marked by a strong desire for more. Pepsi’s tagline Yeh dil maange more! captured the spirit of seeking out the next act of consumption. Accompanying it was a new freedom of the senses. Surfaces of all kinds became more colourful, dancing became more uninhibited, festivals become louder and more celebratory, and weddings started becoming grander. 

A brand like Maruti symbolised the new sense of access -- the idea of being able to buy a car, so far very removed from the horizons of most middle-class Indians, felt real thanks to the car’s price. What was truly delightful was that it also represented a quantum leap in terms of technology and looks over what had been grudgingly available till then. The penetration of TVs and VCRs grew at a rapid pace, delivering advertising to a vast bulk of the consuming population, and accelerating aspirations.

The other big shift was in learning to deal with choice. In a scarcity-laden atmosphere that the consumer had grown up in, there never really was a question of choosing between equally desirable things. Nothing illustrated the inability to make choices than the love triangle in Hindi films -- one person had to die for the plot to resolve itself. The idea that someone could make a discretionary choice was unthinkable.

The coming of the mobile phone was the next inflection point in the journey of aspirations. More than any other device, the mobile phone democratised desire by giving the individual not only a voice but a personal relationship with the world outside. The two-way relationship that was enabled -- the ability to be exposed to whatever was happening outside without any mediation and the ability to broadcast to the world at large -- has dramatically widened the horizons of anyone armed with the device.

The mobile phone gave everyone an identity. For many Indians assigned the faceless label of ‘masses’, the phone offered a way of distinct individual existence – a radical step up in life. With the mobile, one could vault over hierarchies. With the coming of social media, one had the unprecedented ability to not only communicate with anyone in the world but also have one’s voice heard on a common global platform.

That came with a realisation that the space called the self must be filled with choices. As the ability to showcase oneself on the social media stage grew, so did the need to contrive a worthy presentation of the self. The aspiration to be popular, to attract many likes, and to be able to command a following is the new goal for so many people, especially the young.

Aspirations are also far more horizontal than they have been in the past. If the earlier goal was to keeping ascending a single ladder of aspirations -- a bigger car, a house in a premium location, a fancier restaurant, a more expensive brand – now they took on a more qualitative hue. Consumption started becoming more personal -- the search for interesting options or those that spoke to one’s individual values began to emerge. It is early days yet, but there is an emerging need for more conscious acts of consumption, particularly among the young. There is also a need to wear multiple identities. One was no longer defined by one’s educational background, job title or possessions. One needed an array of interests, a width of identity labels that filled up the self with little pixels of identity. Instagram bios speak eloquently of this new need to capture an ever-expanding definition of the self.

One of the constituencies that has seen the greatest growth in aspirations is that of women. Across all ages and classes, we see a dramatic change in women’s imaginations of their own life script. Education, greater access to personal mobility, the ability to connect with the outside world through technology and exposure to popular culture have all combined to drive a new sense of hunger to do more and broaden experiences. 

Aspirations have perhaps been the biggest engine of ground up change in India. There is an impatience that has helped push against the passivity of an earlier time, and a hunger that isn’t satisfied easily. But there is still a substantial section of society that can only tentatively engage with the idea of aspirations. Perhaps in the next 75 years, the right to dream with hope will truly become universal.

The writer is a brand consultant

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Published: 14 Aug 2022, 10:48 PM IST
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