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Bliss Krieg

The live-for-today urban Indian is in the material whirl of malls, mobiles and multiplexes. And he is gasping for more.

Bliss Krieg
Photo collage by Bishwadeep Moitra
Bliss Krieg
Ambling through aisles lined with desires on display, the couple's eye catches products for their teeth. Fusses she in faint frustration: "I don't like the colour of my toothbrush." Picking up three variously psychedelic-hued tooth-cleaning tools, she then coos confusion over choice: "Which one of these should I take?" He smiles, decides to colour her mornings: "What's to think about, darling? Take all three. One for each loo at home..."

Buying this, that, and a lot more, the thirtysomething couple seems to have figured out, is little price to pay for happiness. So, they proceed in further pursuit, and purchase, of pleasure. Taking the lift crowded with others like them, to be elevated to higher levels of readymade rapture in Delhi suburb Gurgaon's five-storeyed City Centre, a megamall chock-a-block with shops, restaurants, discos, pubs and movie theatres. Here, on a two-kilometre stretch on the Mehrauli-Gurgaon Road, three malls, many cineplexes, a shopping arcade, a restaurant complex, scores of bars and nightclubs better each other at delivering the goods. To insatiable thousands only too willing to indulge themselves, have fun, live it up, and the figure on the bill be damned. Adds up then that nine more malls are in various stages of readiness on this stretch, toting upward of 31.3 lakh sq ft of retail space. In Bombay, 22 new malls are slated to open by the year-end.

Bliss, as far as the Indian middle class is concerned, is now buyable. A new generation of uninhibited urban consumers are snapping up enjoyment off the shelf, drawn by the magnetism of the malls, shopping till they drop, pubbing, eating out, discoing into delight and dawn, pampering their bodies at the salons, holidaying lavishly—fervently treating themselves to an extravaganza called Good Living. They are the Pleasure Seekers, for whom spending is more than a means to happiness. It is happiness.

Here's a statistic. According to a recent consumer behaviour study by management consultancy firm KSA Technopak, urban India notched up a 12 per cent surge in consumer spending in 2002. And, hold your breath, this came purely from feelgood items like clothes, footwear, cosmetics, movies and dining out (see table). In fact, people were actually spending less on mundane necessities like groceries than they used to (down from 48 per cent in 2001 to 42 per cent last year). And not only are urban Indians splurging their way to pleasure, they are also doling out delight. The spend on gifts, the study found, has soared by a whopping 130 per cent!

"Life is not seen as a condition anymore, it's seen as a product, a product to be enjoyed," analyses Santosh Desai, president of advertising agency McCann-Erickson. "Senses have taken centrestage, and each sense needs to be gratified." But buying that gratification now also fulfils a deeper need, feels Desai: "There's a desire to be different from the collective, to be Individual, reconstruct one's identity from scratch, and what one chooses to wear, to drive, where one eats, drinks and holidays does just that. Because the currency of upward mobility is currency now." Lifestyle is the new surrogate for life.

And the lifestyle industry is on a breathless growth track. Bangalore, the citadel of cool, today has 130 pubs, 30 wine taverns, and, count them, 1,353 bars and restaurants. A typical pub, on a typical weekend, sells eight to 10 kegs of draught beer (one keg fills 180 mugs), 300 litres of bottled water, and 60 litres of liquor. Even ostentation-shy Calcutta has been going through an entertainment explosion in the last few years, and today boasts of more than 250 restaurants, with a new one opening nearly every week, seven huge shopping malls, and three high-acreage entertainment parks. And it's not only the metros.Central Indian boomtown Indore now has over 1,000 beauty parlours and around 500 boutiques.

Austerity, that legendary Indian middle-class value, is out; flaunting one's money and what it has bought for one is now almost an admirable trait. Or, as marketing guru Gurcharan Das puts it: "The Bania-fication of Indian society is complete. For Brahmins and Kshatriyas, it is the mba degree that is premier, entrepreneurial spirits are soaring; money, like sex, is out of the closet. Everybody wants to be rich, and live rich."

Like Chennai resident, banker Sunil Mathews, 31, who enriches his life some every day. Donning his ColorPlus shirt, Hush Puppies shoes, some Hugo Boss thrown in for freshness, Ray-Bans on, Mathews loves vrooming into office in his Hyundai Accent. Dinner, at least once a week, is with friends at Mainland China or Matchpoint, where bills add up to Rs 5,000 for four, and then maybe a few drinks at his favourite pub Geoffrey's, roughly another Rs 2,000 spent. He buys gifts up to Rs 9,000 every month, and has recently gifted himself a "sleeker" mobile handset priced at Rs 17,000. Mathews doesn't have much to show for savings, but has clarity of mind: "I am doing stuff I always wanted to do. I want to live and enjoy life fully today, while I can enjoy the things that I buy."

Spending half her monthly salary as she does on clothes for herself and her husband, Kala Nayar, 28, who works in a call centre in Bangalore, echoes the sentiment: "Shopping gives me a high. Splurging over the weekend is some kind of a stress release." Calcutta residents, IT professional Dipanker Sen, 36, and his media professional wife Priti, 26, meanwhile, find happiness in romantic restaurant rendezvous and night-outs at discotheques. "The older generation's scrimp-and-save policy was so boring," they chime in critique. "What's the use of sitting on a pile of money at old age and regret not having enjoyed one's youth?"

When Big Bazaar, a large discount store in Mumbai's Parel, celebrated its first anniversary this July, more than a thousand people stood in the pouring rain waiting for it to open. Eventually 35,000 customers came in that day. It continues to be more than crowded, and not just with people who have come in to buy food—many an unlikely candidate like Vijaya Rajwadkar, houseproud mother of a security guard, has contributed from their moderate family kitty to this bonanza. Almost every afternoon Rajwadkar strolls through Big Bazaar, buying clothes, keeping a hawk's eye for items on discount, and her latest—she's always used cotton towels, but wants to buy terry towels now, they feel good. The average bill at the upmarket branded products store Pantaloon, in the same complex, has gone up to Rs 1,000 from Rs 800, in just eight months of its opening.

"The consumer boom is not just about the sale of super-premium brands, not just about value, but about volumes, the numbers of products that are being sold," says Arvind K. Singhal, chairman of KSA Technopak. The frenzied activity in the markets today, therefore, is not because the rich are buying more than they always did. It is because those in the middle of the economic pyramid have discovered a penchant for purchase. A growing class of professionals—working hard, partying harder. Like the thousands of youngsters employed in the business process outsourcing industry and the software sector, earning Rs 12,000 to Rs 25,000, doing odd hours at job, and splurging themselves into a de-stress.

Tomorrow, these Buy Boomers seem to have decided, will take care of itself. According to the Central Statistical Organisation, savings and investments fell dramatically, from 12 per cent of the consumption basket in 1999 to 5.2 per cent in 2002. Doesn't matter that their credit cards are notching up huge payments that'll need to be made later.In fact, according to Credit Card Management Consultancy, an organisation that tracks the industry, purchases via plastic have risen 30 per cent in the last two years.

Desai explains it as an "unspecific optimism for the future". Says Das: "It's the present generation's confidence in their skills. If they lose their jobs today, they know they'll find another." The economic reforms, globalisation and the boom in the service sector have made sure that most urban middle-class men and women are doing far better materially than their parents ever did. And they see no reason why their economic trajectories should not continue in the upward direction. They may be wageslaves in their professional lives, but their personal lives are lived with a bold entrepreneurial spirit.

So the present is for pampering, partying and purchase. Remorse is out, revelry rules. "Everyday is a celebration now," observes Rajendra Jain, professor at Indore's Vaishnav Institute of Management. "No longer is an occasion or excuse needed to splurge and enjoy. Apart from the 190 festivals we have, Sundays, Valentine's Day, Father's Day, Fresher's Day, the dawning of every day is reason enough for spending now."

The pleasure principle has taken small-town India too by storm. Poonam Vora runs a boutique in Indore. "Prices in my store are on the higher side, but sales are no problem at all. Some of my clients even come in with vcds of films to show us what kind of dresses they want, and are willing to pay however much I ask." A similar desire for designer life thrives at Coimbatore. It's a little past 9.30 pm, and the city's newest apparel outlet Upbeat at RS Puram is bursting at its seams. Men in shiny, slinky black shirts are shopping for shinier, slinkier shirts; women are picking up blouses, capris, short skirts. Further afield, in the city's far-flung Sai Baba Colony that isn't even seen as having arrived yet, Yaminee, a designer women's store, has its cash register clinking continuously. "We have clothes ranging from Rs 500 to Rs 5,000, and there are takers for both," says the store's owner. "It's the new generation that has changed the spending scene here, there is a hankering for the latest, the different, at whatever price."

At Studio Loo in Chennai's super-swank Khader Nawaz Road, a personalised potty costs Rs 2.50 lakh, silently glides open as you get near it, automatically adjusts the seat size and water temperature. One such is sold every month. Further down the street, lingerie boutiques Underlines and Mermaid market skimpy underwear at hefty prices, up to Rs 3,000. And to make the body worthy of these satin tie-up bikinis, Chennai has sprouted gyms by the hundreds: fitness studios with hip names like O2, Shape Up, Gymania, Dimensions. Geoffrey Vardon's dancercise classes are hugely popular, overflowing with more than 120 students a month: "Earlier we worried about pricing, now we name a price and get takers."

More than anything else, economic liberalisation has transformed mindsets. "Thanks to liberalisation, the consumer has been spoilt for choice, he has options to buy better products at prices more competitive than ever before today," observes executive vice-president and general manager of Bates India, Shovon Chowdhury. "So his buying needs are much more evolved. Someone who was 12 to 15 years old in 1991 is today in his late 20s and unlike his parents, was not brought up in deprivation, whether of money or product choice. He did not have to perforce drive an Ambassador or Fiat." A car, now, is not just about transport and fuel-efficiency, it's also about the add-ons, the image, the brand; a cup of coffee now is also about the ambience you sip it in—which is why you pay up to Rs 50 for it at a Barista.

"I think we underestimated people's ability to adapt to the new consumer culture," says Nikhil Vora, retail analyst and senior vice-president with investment banking firm ask Raymond James."Lower interest rates have made savings less attractive, while new, exciting options to splurge are luring people like never before." And the Pleasure Seekers are only going to grow in their numbers. Forty-two per cent of those surveyed by KSA Technopak said they would be spending more this year than they did last year. Not a single respondent thought he or she would spend less. Today, as many as 13 per cent of all sec (socio-economic class) A and B are double-income homes. By 2010, this figure could rise to as much as 35 per cent. That translates to tremendous discretionary spending power and the freedom to live life as pleasure paramours.

Will this love affair have a happy ending? Some observers have their serious doubts. If highs and happiness are so centred around the desire to splurge, if the things one buys are so linked to how successful others think one is, then psychiatrist Dr Mohan Isaac of the National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro Sciences in Bangalore sees huge mental turmoil in the future. "Look at what happened in Kerala (post Gulf-boom), a state known for its consumerism," he points out. "Suicide rates are three times the national average, because of people who fail to make it stand out, and just can't cope."

In agreement, Shiv Visvanathan, sociologist at Delhi's Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, adds: "Commodity has become identity today. And apart from participating in the controlled frenzy of the malls, where all people do is go up and down the escalator and in and out of chaotic buying, there's little else a whole generation will grow up to enjoy. The Boutique Busybodies are bereft of all ideology."

But still, seeking out pleasure is philosophy. Propagated passionately as early as the 4th century by the original hedonist, Epicurus. Life's goal should be to minimise pain and maximise pleasure, he had believed, as his Letter to Menoeceus reiterates: "We recognise pleasure as the first good innate in us, and from pleasure we begin every act of choice and avoidance, and to pleasure we return again...." Today's Pleasure Seekers have tweaked Epicurus's philosophic formula a little. In an Ahmedabad mall, the poetry of new consumerism is plastered big: "Enjoy, See, Shop, Eat...Repeat."

Soma Wadhwa and Gauri Bhatia with Vaishna Roy in Coimbatore and Chennai, K.S. Shaini in Indore, Saumya Roy in Mumbai, Ranjita Biswas in Calcutta, B.R. Srikanth in Bangalore
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