I am the Unknown Indian Outsourcing Worker. And as I stare at the screen my over caffeinated mind drifts to whether I am better off than people who were born a generation earlier. It isn’t just a lazy thought. That’s the unsaid assumption on which all my life choices rest upon. And I am not sure if I know the answer.
Our parent’s generation always had a sense of community, and a sense of home that was as tangible as a dot on the map and a house they sometimes built brick by brick. We usually don’t have a sense of home that is so tangible. Instead, we have a series of cultural elements we are familiar with, want, or are made to want, sometimes with serious commercial persuasion - Facebook alumni pages, the willingness to spend a premium to be served in English, the familiar voice of a friend on the phone, endless series of updates on Orkut, the swoosh on a T-shirt, the iPhone, pasta, vegetables that look like what mom cooked but with exotic colours, the intro to a Pink Floyd song, that helps us recognise members of our tribe, and shun others. We go from city to city with little contact with the local culture, from one vessel of all of these things to another. We are tribal like humans always will be, however in supremely subtle and sometimes very expensive ways.
Our parents had people around they loved and cared for, or who were obligated to help them and visit them twice a year. We have friends who we went to college with, bur rarely see these days. We know that they have moved, or gotten married, became parents - through Orkut updates. We don’t meet them if it’s not convenient. At any given point in time our de-facto best friends are usually our current colleagues, a group that is promptly replaced when we get a new job and move.
Everything is subservient to work. The only thing that seems to be driving us is the belief that as long as we can buy more junk we will all be ok. Granted we are all buying security and undeniable comfort. Insurance wasn’t very common in the 60s and the 70s, and gated communities with swimming pools and gyms weren’t around. Now, I can understand that these things are important. But iPhone applications? – I am not sure. Cars with air bags? Sure, but cars that have additional speakers for 20K? I am not sure. Don’t get me wrong, I think cars are cool. But I don’t really know if I think they look cool because I am bombarded with images of leggy Russian models with these cars or because they are priced so high that I can’t buy them till I get my dream job. There is an infinitely complex path of associations between what every human likes (beauty, admiration, and power perhaps?) and a desirable thing that can be bought, and what I liked yesterday (like Mallika Sherawat) and a product that is launched today (like the label on a Jeans on her that I saw in a glossy at a bookstore). Perhaps the things we like, why we like things, and why we work hard for things will get even more abstract from here. Perhaps, as a generation we are condemned to work day and night to make enough money to buy our kids branded clothes in an alternative reality – like second life, or more ammunition in multi-player internet games. I don’t know, maybe I am just too old.
All of us work hard, and have seen periods of maniacal labor and stress. What are we getting for it? IMAX movies? Are they better than Rambo on video tapes? Reworked Chinese? Better than the humble road side vendors egg rolls? I am not sure again. High end sounds systems for over INR200, 000? How many of us have the aural hardware and education to appreciate the superior sound? How much of our lives and youth are we ready to give up just so that we could feel or appear cooler or be around larger than life images?
None of this is of course new and has happened a million times before in a million places. Perhaps the nostalgia for an imagined simpler time is universal, and could be found on rocks, frescos, and on papyrus. I am simply trying to chronicle the times I live in and the sense of loneliness that some of us face once in a while.
The nature of work has completely changed. A friend from North East once told me that his dad could point to power distribution plants while on long drives, and say – ‘I built this’. My friend and I make a living writing reports. My dad is in the business of taking production output from X to 2X at outfits that managed real widgets made of steel and other metals. Some of my earliest memories involve my dad walking with five storey high liquid oxygen plants and enormous liquid oxygen tanks in the background. I remember him telling me, “I run these things eight hours a day- they are extremely dangerous and could burn down this while area – by the way, they save lives”. I, on the other hand, talk to people, write reports, and then talk some more. Most of my friends do things that make text boxes and drop downs appear on the screen, or make credit card transactions a little safer, or do things that make bank customers or traders less pissed off about their lives, or make cell phones that do interesting things – like make a song play by giving it a little jerk.
Now, I don’t know enough about economics, the trajectory of progress, the shifting frontiers of value generation, intellectual property (or just about anything) to attempt a comment on whether my friend’s dad (the power distribution centers guy) was adding more value to the economy than we are- let alone philosophical questions related to which is more worthwhile. Of course, it could be argued that his dad wasn’t actually building it, but really orchestrating a complex chain of tasks and events – and that lighting a fire five generations ago was the last time somebody did something real. But to ordinary human instincts, building those majestic Christmas tree like structures with beautiful copper and silver, and gigantic arched foundations, seem a little more worthwhile than doing bar graphs and pie charts that might help a life as confused as mine in a little cubicle somewhere.
Again, I am not arguing in favour of one versus the other – I am just amazed and spreading the amazement (and the occasional misery) around.
And then, some of us have developed certain very funny habits. As question of tribal identity has gotten more complex, people don’t really know where they belong or should belong or claim to belong. Decades back, people from Punjab and Andhra Pradesh and West Bengal migrated to Delhi and formed clubs and friendships based on linguistic identity. Chances are my grandfather and my college buddy’s grandfather (the buddy is a Jat from Meerut and Ranchi) had never met. Their identities and lives involved cultural artefacts and practices that could be neatly linked to two regions in the map. They were proud of what their place represented. Now, these regional cultural artefacts are associated with certain aspects of our past we don’t always like. For example, a lot of things overtly bong reminds of the poverty associated with what Rajiv Gandhi called a dying city, and of my home town in the 80s and 90s which represents a life that is less prosperous than the one I have now. I know plenty of people who would be mortified if a stranger in a party identified them as Oriyas, or Telugu, or Tamils, or bongs, or Biharis (depending on where the are actually from. Strangely, a misidentification isn’t so gruesome). The alternative isn’t very clear to any of them (universities are probably taking their place) – but their own linguistic identities aren’t cool any more.
Meanwhile, I will go back to work, think of ways to earn more money, call Mom, and be paranoid about the possibility of burning the mid night oil someday to buy my kid (when I have one, someday) some more video game ammunition.