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May 29, 2017

Are We Succumbing To The Trend Of A ‘Designed Life’?

Text by Madhu Jain

It’s all ‘my way or the highway’ for us now…

The other day, I was waiting for a friend in the lounge of the India International Centre (IIC), an oasis sharing a border with the magnificent Lodhi Gardens in Delhi. The place was filling up with the usual teatime regulars when I spotted another friend, Ashoke Chatterjee, former executive director of NID.

I happened to be carrying a copy of The Indian Quarterly, the literary and cultural magazine brought out by the same publishers as Verve. I took it across to the other end of the room, where he sat with two people who were not exactly my friends, but more than nodding acquaintances, in a large circle of people. When I began to take the magazine out of the plastic sleeve (its purpose to protect the cover) one of them made a face signalling disgust: “Why do you use plastic?” she asked without even a perfunctory nod or how-are-you. Nor did either express any interest in the magazine. Perhaps they were green warriors. But does that give them the licence to be rude?

A few days later, a good friend who prides herself on being the mistress of etiquette, ticked me off for putting a cube of ice in a glass of red wine that, I hasten to add, was in April much warmer than the ‘room’ temperature that it commands. “That is just not done,” she muttered, and sped away.

Life, for her and others, including the sneering, impeccably dressed couple in the IIC lounge, had to follow some kind of pattern based on blueprints from elsewhere. It was their way or no way. So, if the gurus they followed forbade plastic bags and sleeves for magazines, anybody who didn’t follow those rules had to be shamed. Etiquette and the rules set by lifestyle experts are what mattered. Forget climatic considerations.

It wasn’t just about the interiors of their homes, the ‘look’ they cultivated, the cars they drove, the parties they gave, their table settings and how they vacationed. Some invisible force, like a puppeteer, seemed to be orchestrating their conversations, the moues they made, their social and familial interactions. In short, their ways of being. Perhaps, these tone and moral setters were not even aware of the distant rule-makers pulling their strings.

Like Mr X, a gallery owner. These days he is a bit of a dandy, impeccably coiffed and dressed, wafts of the latest aftershave permeating the air, with a studied air of busyness and the don’t-bother-me-now body language that renders those waiting to see him invisible.

A few years ago, I dropped in at the gallery, a bit before his ascent to ‘importantdom’. His bespoke desk was covered with interesting teapots, tastefully ethnic ash trays, crockery and cufflinks, as well as other signifiers of having arrived. He was engrossed in a conversation with somebody I presumed was an important buyer — oblivious as he was to his employees, his ringing phones and the artists who had come to see him. Wrong guess: the VIP in his cabin was a cross between an interior designer and a lifestyle coach. Apparently, he was moving to a new home in a more ‘posh’ area, renovated by another designer who had even chosen the bed sheets as well as his toothbrush holders. A fashion designer might have shopped for his pyjamas.

Mr X had opted to join the growing tribe of those leading Designed Lives. Their mantra: leave it to ‘those who know better’ — even if they don’t cater to your needs and idiosyncrasies. Some years ago I was working on a story on bathrooms because a ‘revo-loo-tion’ was going on then. In the palatial home of a newly minted industrialist, the raison d’etre of the guest bathroom was nowhere in sight. There were expensive paintings on the walls, an antique open chest overflowing with fake pearls and a dressing table. But where was the loo? Well, you had to press a button and it slid out of the door, returning to its hiding place after the business of the moment was done. I was told that the family never used this, preferring Indian-style bathrooms attached to their bedrooms.

Edgy furniture has often posed similar issues. When modular pieces were all the rage it proved dicey for many, like the family who moved to an upscale neighbourhood. Growing affluence had made the services of an interior designer inevitable. They were used to sitting on sofas with their legs crossed. It wasn’t done with this furniture. Perhaps their personal spaces had low diwans that were presumably more comfortable.

Designed lives may be fine for some. But what matters for me is the need to take charge and design our own lives. So while summer still rages, do plonk two cubes of ice in your red wine.

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