Saturday, October 27, 2007

In India, lots of spending on poor quality

Over the weekend in Bangalore, I had promised my daughter I would take her to an up market store that sold a variety of breads with exotic names and ingredients ranging from olives to sunflower seeds.

On Saturday morning, we braved the maniacal traffic and went to this place, only to find that the breads were two or three days old. The cheese-and-garlic loaf, a favorite in our household, was three days old, according to the label. An employee graciously recommended the wheat bread that was only a day old.

Close by is a Chinese restaurant that serves Indo-Chinese food, a mix of Chinese flavors and a pungent Indian idiom. The “ drums of heaven” there are usually soggy, while their noodles can be very sticky.

But the bakery and the Chinese restaurant continue to attract customers by the droves. They stand in queues outside, something unthinkable say a decade ago when most of Bangalore eat home-cooked food. A number of restaurants, with claims to offer Thai, Spanish, Italian, Provencal, Egyptian and other varieties of cuisine have also sprouted across the city. The fare is in most cases indifferent, but that does not deter customers from queuing up and paying exorbitant prices.

That had me surprised until I recalled an old, but no less relevant it seems, concept in sociology. An eminent Indian sociologist, M.N. Srinivas, observed in his field studies among one some of the communities in India, that the castes positioned lower in the hierarchy tend to imitate and modify their culture to resemble that of the dominant caste in the locality. Srinivas called the phenomenon Sanskritization, as the values and culture that tend to get imitated by the new social upstarts were the Sanskrit, Brahmanical ones.

What does this have to do with the large number of crowded restaurants and malls in Bangalore ? A lot, I think. Unlike previous upstarts, who believed that assimilating Brahmin and Sanskrit culture, rituals, and customs was key to their social climbing, the new upstarts have in a strange twist decided on American culture as the dominant culture to be imitated and assimilated.

These days Indians have wine tasting parties, to refine their taste for something they never consumed earlier. You have chefs of five-start hotels and other, usually self styled gourmands, writing in the society pages of newspapers on the finer points of rare delicacies like caviar and truffles.

A lot of affluent Indians are turning their back to their own rich and ancient traditions in food, dressing, and other aspects of culture, to a new world of mainly American kitsch. They are getting there rudderless and without discernment, creating an opportunity for a new set of consultants and purveyors of culture, most of them parvenu. Add to them snooty restaurateurs and five-star chefs. If you find the pasta sticky, don’t complain to the chef. He is more likely to turn around and tell you, without batting an eyelid, that is how pasta is eaten by the Italians. Probably he is learning too.

Maybe this is a transitional phase, but these days in Bangalore, and most of urban India, good food is a rarity, particularly if the idiom is not Indian.

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