Friday, December 28, 2012

Birth of the Consumerist

I clearly remember the year although I can't tell you when it happened. My Australian uncle came visiting us with his family. It was a 200-km journey to Durgapur from Calcutta, so they came in an air-conditioned Hindustan Ambassador, hired from The Grand Hotel, where they had put up like they did as an annual ritual.
It was a white car, shining, with a chauffeur in a white uniform. They came with Japanese toys, as always, and that year it was a racing track with two remote-controlled cars, one white one red. It took time for us to set it all up. Batteries were hard to come by, and I think I had to run to the nearby grocery store to buy some AA batteries. Expensive toy to maintain, and like all the other battery-operated toys, even this one would remain mostly packed, I could foresee.

Once the novelty of the toy wore off, although the novelty of it never really wore off for the next ten years, I came out and stared at the white Ambassador with a lot of wonder. I was 8, and I could see the neighbors across my street standing in their balconies to see who had come to our house in a car. It was a huge thing that I could boast about for many months to come. I often used to pretend to my neighbors that I was born in Australia and that I can go whenever I wanted for high school. Deep inside I knew I would have to continue going to my local school in a cycle-rickshaw, but then I was a kid with lofty dreams and the neighborhood kids were equally gullible. I stared at the Ambassador and the chauffeur was kind enough to open the door and let me in for a dekko. It was a great moment for me. The red leather seats were plush and yielded under my weight like only a feather bed from the Arabian Nights would have in my dreams. These kind of days were rare in my otherwise routine life, and they were so memorable, I still remember the colors of the Lacoste t-shirts my cousins wore that day. They wore Adidas sneakers, something I had never seen before. But the car, just a little smaller than our living room in dimensions, got the lion's share of my attention. I was fascinated by it, not so much for the bragging rights it would give me later as much as for its sheer presence.

When it was time for them to leave, probably around 3.00 in the afternoon, I complimented my uncle on the softness of the car seat. "It is so soft!" is all I could manage in real earnest. Everybody smiled and they even offered to take me to Calcutta in it. Of course I couldn't go. I was eight, and it being a Sunday, I would have to go to school the next day. But they offered, which I politely declined. Moreover, the trauma of having to converse in Australian with three cousins was too much for me. I was shy and my English was limited to probably something like "This book was not available in the market." That was when I was six, standing up for myself for the first time, trying to explain why I didn't carry a particular book to school. In the two years that followed, I hadn't picked up anything more formidable than that life-changing sentence I had spoken once and remembered forever. So, armed with that English, the prospect of spending time with my cousins made me really shaky. But speak I did. The car seat was indeed soft, and I let them know what I felt.

Strangely enough, although I felt the "It is so soft" sentence, complete with an exclamation mark thrown in for good measure, is going to earn me some brownie points at home, my dad was rather upset with it. He saw the ugly head of consumerism surfacing in me through that comment. Although completely innocent as a remark, it shocked him out of his wits and put him in grave doubts about how he was raising me. In the company of classical musicians, listening to Tagore's songs, in the midst of socialists, watching and discussing movies by Ray and Sen, how did his son find a mere cushioned car seat more fascinating? Couldn't he have recited BirPurush instead?

For a long time after that I felt rather ashamed of what I had done, although I placated myself by saying it was inadvertent. But the fact that I couldn't understand the gravity of my mistake made it even worse. I couldn't see the point. What was he upset about?

I can see the point very clearly today though. My dad never forgot this incident and never allowed me to forget either. He said he felt insulted. What in him was insulted by my comment if not for his own sense of incapability? If he had not been a consumerist deep inside himself, why would he be hurt at all? All that glitz of my uncle must have hurt his pride, although they were really down-to-earth people and made us feel very comfortable indeed. And when I praised the car seat, the fact that he cannot buy a car for himself or for me must have pricked him real hard.

I wish I could hug him today and tell him that it was okay to not have owned a car ever. If I had the luxury of roaming around in cars as a child, the excitement of buying my first car, a really battered pre-owned Suzuki, wouldn't have been as much. And that humans are basically consumerist by nature. Having isn't opposed to intellect in any way like it has been preached to the have nots. It isn't a bad thing to crave to do better in life as long as you don't lose touch with your humane side. Poetry doesn't have to be borne out of rags.