The shopping mall is not the ideal place for displays of patriotism. But about five years ago, probably as a consequence of reading too many biographies of freedom movement leaders, my wife and I began a Khadi experiment. To start with, we decided not to spend on branded apparel to the extent possible and switched to clothes that were sold as “handspun” khadi.
We were in need of a reason to justify to ourselves this change. Back when Congress was a social movement and not a political party, the membership fee was four annas or a few yarns of the handspun fibre. Gandhi and some of his leading disciples explained that this was a means of accumulating the moral ammunition required for Satyagraha against the British. Quite pretentiously and with a new found piety, I told my wife at the time that this too was an exercise in accumulating the necessary arsenal to combat consumerism, and the pursuit of simple living, high-thinking.
Soon enough, the large government-run showroom next to Regal theatre in Delhi’s Connaught Place became our only option, and we plundered the store. I had a wardrobe full for khadi shirts with the most expensive costing Rs 250. In October, the shop offers a further 20% discount (Gandhi Jayanti is the pretext, but it’s actually a Diwali sale I suspect) which meant you could clothes for as little as Rs 130. I have never spent any money on branded clothes since. By a conservative estimate that represents an annual savings of Rs 2500. But basement bargains and crisp khadi shirts come with attendant costs. Now, what started off as an experiment has developed into a full blown fetish. The Saturday afternoon sport in our household involves washing a mountain of clothes in painstakingly procured buckets of soft water, and subsequently soaking them in a variety of starch solutions, all in an effort to increase their longevity. And trust me; khadi shirts have outlasted those bearing expensive, foreign labels.
The once popular slogan ‘be Indian buy Indian’ today sounds hollow and meaningless. No one except those on the extreme Right and Left who fear the baleful influence of “foreign culture” and the West-led “neo-imperialism” respectively, bother mouthing it. Walk into a toy store or one that sells electrical appliances, you will hardly find anything that’s not made in China. Uday Kotak, the chairman of Kotak Mahindra Bank in a recent newspaper interview lamenting the state of economic affairs in the country pondered whether India could “afford to import Chinese Ganeshas”. Forces of globalization have ensured that the brand and not provenance of goods (with the exception of alcoholic beverages such as wine and whisky) that matters.
With the economic slowdown, if not stagnation, and rising inflation becoming the new normal, it’s a good time for the middle class to rethink its consumption patterns. The effects of the slowdown are visible everywhere. Sales of car and two-wheelers are down dramatically. Factories are paring production and jobs. As a result consumers start what marketers call down-trading. That in effect means switching to cheaper brands. But is there way we can make this process of down-trading a little more meaningful beyond saving a few rupees here or there? Which is why I think it’s a good idea to mix a little bit of patriotism to our penny-pinching ways.
For instance do spare a thought for India’s eight million textile workers and most of them working in sub-human conditions. Muddled government policies in recent years have meant that countries such as Bangladesh and Vietnam have become more favoured manufacturing destinations. The prospect of job losses and the persisting economic slowdown hurts such workers the most. The quality of most Indian goods, if not superior is certainly not vastly inferior to competing imports. Let no one tell you this is jingoism. If our consumption decisions can help keep Indian factories humming, rather than just those in China, we would be doing the right thing.
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