An embarrassment of riches, that’s what most magazines would have you believe, is the age we are living in. Everyday I read about what a great age this is, the huge number of choices we have in everything, in fact, some people are even starting to agonize over “too many choices”. A recent article in my favourite magazine spend two pages wondering if shopping was going to become traumatic soon, with one having to decide between so many options.
It makes me sad, and frankly a little disappointed, that no one has bothered to think about what “kind” of choice we have today. What we seem to have, from what I can see, is a range of options, allowing you to choose between many types and brands of only the “popular” products. This applies to every field, every walk of life, and every possible case where you may need to buy anything. And what it essentially means is that people like me, the ones who are not so fond of the “popular” stuff, and periodically (even routinely) look for “off the beaten track” things, are left totally high and dry.
Something as basic as shopping for food is a clear case in point. Of course, things are much better now, compared to the dark ages when packaged instant soups were a new idea. But the predominance of one kind of food, or the makes for it, is clearly due to the “popularity factor”.
The middle class Indian consumer has suddenly woken up to the existence of “other” kinds of food (for breakfast and ‘tiffin’ if not for a meal) than the age old staples like idli and dosa or puri and paratha. Mainly achieved through a dogged advertising for Kellogg’s, followed up recently by something horrendous called “instant pasta” (a la Maggi), the trend has resulted in a sudden increase of interest in PASTA.
However, this still does not mean that’s we have a good choice in pastas, or makes thereof. There are barely two or three brands available, a highly overpriced “international” one and some competing, cheaper, but not all that great, local brands. A couple of brands are even stocking the supermarket shelves with heretofore unheard of things like pre-made pasta sauce (mainly tomato based), brine preserved olives, olive oils, and capers.
But pasta is, more or less, as far as it goes. Although a tiny minority of stores offer Ragu, and a few have interesting vegetables (nothing more exciting than broccoli or gherkins though), by and large, if you want to experiment with food, you better be super rich.
Cheeses have made shy, tentative, baby steps into the retail scene. In places like Pune, partly because of a huge non-Indian population and partly because of a generally higher level of “tish”ness in most educated “yuppy” middle class types, things have always been a little better. Cheeses are good, cheaper than other cities, and easily available in a large variety. I think nothing of ordering yak cheese on toast at the German Bakery, or buying very, very good Emmental, Gruyere, or a robust goat cheese at the nearest ABC Farms outlet. But the rest of the country isn’t that fortunate. Recently, some chain supermarkets like Spencer’s have begun stocking processed, packaged, cheeses that go by names like Emmental or Brie, but the quality is anyone’s guess, and the pricing is frankly exorbitant. I can walk into Dorabjee’s and buy anything from balsamic vinegar to fresh cold cuts, and a million other interesting things to set my culinary imagination on fire. Less fortunate are the people who fancy good food, but must shop at Spencer’s or Big Bazaar.
When I walk into one of the many MEGASTORES for anything else though, even in hip old Pune, chances are I will be disappointed. I walk into a CROSSWORD outlet for a book I want, and not only do I not find it on the shelves, but I am in for a horrendous time. The so called book advisors, fancy name for useless counter sales people, are not just uninformed but completely incompetent. You give them the name of the book…. Total blank… author…another blank…fumble with the computer, and then…”sorry ma’am it’s not in stock”. You can supposedly order books, and they will be nice enough to get them for you. Don’t believe a word of that. The books I have ordered at Crossword, and other such stores, and never received, would fill a room!
In the past, even as recently as six or seven years ago, the pavement dwelling, second-hand bookstores usually has something to pique my interest. Now, they too, not surprisingly, have gone the way of the bigger stores. While you will find hundreds of GRISHAMs and COELHOs, choices in the matter of any offbeat title or author have become severely restricted to the point of nonexistence.
It’s the same scene with music too. One of the branches of Music World in Pune exemplified the fact by having “helpers”, or whatever they are called, not even knowing what a CCR was when I asked for it. Everyone wants the hip-hop and the bubblegum pop that is everywhere these days and the tweeny “hip” sales people have never even heard of Creedence Clearwater Revival. White Snake? Spandau Ballet? Don’t even think about it! And here I am still in the realms of fairly mainstream music, in a global sense, just going back in time. If you have any hope of finding a contemporary offbeat or underground artist still remaining in your heart, that’s just plain ridiculous. It’s NEVER gonna happen.
Yes, we do get a lot more Hollywood movies now than we did 10 or 15 years ago, but it’s still just a tiny bit of the popular stuff. Even a cursory look at the Oscar nominations every year is enough to show anyone what didn’t make it here. And the Oscars are VERY mainstream! Indie films, shoestring budget experiments from the present or the past are NEVER gonna hit the plexes. Not only that, you will not hear about them either, or find them in any store.
The only reason I get to even hear of interesting non-mainstream writers, poets, musicians, films, and film makers is thanks to my equally crazy and equally non-mainstream brother who just happens to live in Chicago. And, much as we like to think we are becoming another America, THAT’S the difference. While you are equally flooded with the mainstream and popular stuff there, you actually have a real choice, and real access to the “other” if that’s what your heart desires. No such luck in the spoiled for choices India of the 21st century I am afraid. Here, for people like me, it’s either put up with the crap or shut up about it. If it weren’t for the once a year supply of books, music, and films, and the frequent “didi you MUST see/hear/read this!” that I get from crazyuddie, I would die of intellectual starvation!