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April 02, 2017

A Nani’s Quest To Find The Next Hip Thing

Text by Prabha Chandran. Illustration by Charbak Dipta

Millennials looking for the next cool thing often forget that this quest began in their grandmothers’ heydays…

It’s the monthly lunch with Nani. All four grandchildren sitting around the table are busy thumbing their cellphones while granny is smiling benignly at the waiter. She’s oblivious that two of the kids are texting each other about her boring lunch. Nani knows each generation has its own code of cool behaviours. Today it’s apps and smartphones, in her day it was bellbottoms, beads and pot. “OK guys, this is my time,” insists Nani, but the kids are only physically with her. One is tracking the delivery of a camisole from Amazon, another is watching a video about a racist brawl that’s gone viral, the third is chatting with a ‘camgirl’ on chaturbate.com and the fourth is checking email…. Lunch with Nani can be what you want it to be — great food with lots of personal masala on the side.

In 2017 it’s normal to be online 24/7: research says the average Millennial spends 8-10 hours a day on his or her smartphone and some even confess to checking Facebook during sex. In the land of Kama Sutra, the grammar of today’s foreplay is not found in the subtleties of sola shringar but in bold selfies, emoticons and sexting in abbreviated nuances. Gen X and Y have discovered the seductive discretion of the world’s fastest growing love app: Snapchat is designed to vaporize revealing selfies and explicit messages in ten seconds. That’s the shelf-life of a modern epistle. In Nani’s day, lovers waited anxiously for the postman. If you opened her trunk you’d find a stack of handwritten letters tied with a faded ribbon smelling of pressed roses and heaving bosoms. From postman to instant messenger, real-time communications have accelerated the pace of affairs; romance is on steroids and the pathways to meeting your significant other are only as wide as your broadband connection. From dating apps like Tinder, Hinge and Coffee meets Bagel which use your Facebook account to reduce the chance of being catfished (lured online by a pretender) or Tastebuds, which allows you to find your mate through shared music, there are many avenues to love for a generation that’s notoriously fickle.

But if this is the new cool then it’s not very different from the promiscuous flower children of Nani’s time who just wanted to make love not war, all the way from San Francisco to Kathmandu via Woodstock and Varanasi. It was the hippie trail, littered with the overdosed offerings of the most brilliant artists of the era. Dylan was in because he articulated the angst of the era. So was John Lennon whose marathon (24X7) ‘love in’ with Yoko Ono was aimed at ‘Giving Peace a Chance’ during the Vietnam War protests. Each generation defines the world anew and the hippest are among the boldest — not so bold as to be considered weird, but nonconformist enough to inspire their peers. The quiet dissent of the hidden tattoo, the purple highlights and the belly studs.

Literature is replete with characters whose silent rebellion made them hip in their time — Lizzie Bennett in Pride & Prejudice, Jo March in Little Women and the flawed and fantastic Lisbeth Salander in Girl with the Dragon Tattoo who lives according to her own fierce moral code, not what others want her to be. That’s always been the essence of cool and worthy of respect. Being edgy in one’s lifestyle choices — food, clothes, music, slang and work — began with Nani’s generation of Baby Boomers when the seeds of consumerism and globalisation were sewn. Trends and fads became the outerwear but the inner core was, and remains, talented individuality.

In the days before demonetisation, Indians of a certain class bought their ‘char choodi’ (read Audi) cars, Gucci bags and Swiss watches with bundles of notes. On the night the currency was suddenly revoked, the most upmarket stores stayed open till the stroke of midnight while the rest of the country slept…and India awoke to empty Dior, Prada, Louis Vuitton and Jimmy Choo stores. As every self-respecting fashionista knows, a bag is not a bag, but a badge; it affirms that the arm it dangles on belongs to a person of discernment, style and (moneyed) class. And if her shoes and accessories are worth a small art collection then her wardrobe is a major outlay. In Nani’s days, Marks and Spencer was the label to flaunt, or tie-and-dye T-shirts and shaggy Afghan coats from the hippie trail. Today, ready-to-wear versions reflect the New Girl Power, with the successful arrival of brands like Zara, Forever 21, Mango and Victoria’s Secret all providing instant access to the Paris runaway for those who disdain salwar kameez.

But in 2017, it’s real money that bestows real cool, oodles of it. If you want respect, wear original Stella Mccartney or Max Gengos, whose ‘responsible luxury’ entices Kylie Jenner to grace magazine covers; or maybe Kim Kardashian and Taylor Swift’s fashion guru, Jonathan Simkhai whose clothes are redolent with androgyny, blurring traditional and fringe sexuality. Money buys designer gear, exclusive cars, offbeat holidays in private islands, Bollywood stars for your shaadi and a ticket to the Indian billionaires’ club — the third largest in the world.

Billionaire brats and Bollywood Millennials are the new icons of style, so when Navya Nanda, Leana Mallya and Isha Ambani attend the Bal des Debutantes in Paris, it’s because it’s the hippest place in the world for a young girl to make her social debut. Mumbai is too provincial. In fact, most things Indian, including Hindi films, are too desi not just for these billionaire babes but many of their humbler peers as well.

For those not born with a silver spoon, the traditional path to being cool remains. Embrace a contemporary cause (it was spirituality in the ’70s) such as the environment or disappearing species and work ferociously at incorporating your cause in your lifestyle choices. But be careful to maintain a detached facade while doing so. Being indolent, ‘just chilling’, remains important even if Millennials are the hardest working generation since the last World War. Perhaps fewer causes have inspired cool crusaders more than climate change. Its effects can be seen in the rise of green tourism, veganism, Uber, AirBnB and websites that rent out designer and wedding clothes…anything that reduces the carbon footprint of consumption. So for conscientious consumers, organic is the label of choice for everything from food and clothes, to cosmetics and footwear.

An interesting fallout of the proliferation of health-conscious, vegan and fusion cuisines has been the slow food movement; the growth of India’s wine industry, organic farming of salads, herbs and ‘English’ vegetables and the rise and rise of the rock star chef. Strawberries arrive from hill stations, rabbits and turkey are raised on a French farm in Delhi and imported fruit is available all year round.

In Bengaluru’s silicon valley too, the Day of the Nerd has arrived. Once caricatured for their sloppy appearances, anti-social behaviour and single-minded obsession with algorithms, the nerd has spruced up his or her act after joining the ranks of the New Rich. India’s Millennials have created the largest IT startup system in the world, and they are far more altruistic about sharing their professional knowhow and giving back to those less fortunate than their parents. When demonetisation unleashed a cash crunch of disabling proportions, nerds found solutions not just for digital payments but for bartering a variety of goods and services online. Author Gurcharan Das tells an anecdote that reflects this change in status. When he asked children in Indian villages who their hero was, he was shocked to hear it was ‘Bill Gay’ not Gandhi, because ‘he’s the richest man in the world’. In that apocryphal tale beats the pulse of Gen Next. It’s cool to be rich —particularly if you set up charitable trusts and help solve the problems of poverty and governance that plague India.

And what if you don’t have the international exposure, the money or the brains to be really cool? Hmm…meet the ‘faux cool’ whose desperation can be seen in things like wearing fake designer sunglasses during class, with jeans pulled low so you can read the underwear label, posting selfies with hip people he or she doesn’t know, wearing Che Guevara tees without knowing who he was…and so it goes with every generation possessing its own share of ‘aspirationistas’. As Leonardo DiCaprio said, being trendy is not cool, being yourself, is. So maybe there’s something Nani knows that would surprise her Pokemon-chasing grandkids.

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