India's premier luxury lifestyle women's magazine
December 24, 2017

The New ‘Me’ Generation

Text by Preksha Sharma. Illustration by Rahul Das

Often labelled narcissistic, millennials are shaking off the self-absorbed tag and moving towards a more aware existence. We take a look at the evolving mindsets

Today’s generation, if nothing else, has inspired a glossary of new age stereotypes. Much of this, mostly from the West, is a protest over this generation sticking out a tongue at their duties, namely: getting a stable job, owning a house, investing in pension funds, getting married and having kids. We — as I am also a part of this bandwagon — have earned imaginative name tags, such as ‘adultescents’ or those whose adolescence extends well into their adulthood, or its more scathing version, ‘kidults’; my personal favourite is ‘Generation Boomerang’ for 20- to 30-somethings, who come back to stay with their parents. (My mother would dismiss this one with a brush of hand. She is delighted and proud to have her two very adult daughters live with her. It is an evidence of her success as a parent even in new age India.)

Time magazine sums it all by branding millennials as “the lazy, entitled narcissists” and the “me generation”. If there is one slogan that is repeated in our lives every single day it is ‘you are special’. It relentlessly comes blaring, in not-so-small doses from WhatsApp messages, social media memes, Imtiaz Ali movies, or multiple brands that tell you to ‘be you’, ‘because you are special’ or ‘love yourself’…you get the drift. No doubt that ours is a cohort, obsessively absorbed in the self which also makes us prone to extreme self-scrutiny. ‘What is the impact I am making’ is the perpetual inquiry and analysis for this generation. A natural offshoot to this self-scrutiny is an examination of the individual effect on environment, of the waste we produce, animals we eat and the carbon footprint we create. “When you question the impact of your everyday actions on the environment, your perspective changes,” says 24-year-old Mallika Arya, one of the three women who have started the Ditch the Straw campaign. “The easiest thing you can do is to say no to the straw, which is the most useless piece of plastic on this planet,” she says — and two bamboo straws and a container for coffee have found a permanent place in her bag.

Making a change starts by breaking old habits, a process so personal that it has to start at the self. Maybe that’s why, for the first time, the modern world is witnessing a tectonic shift in dietary habits — a mass conversion into veganism and vegetarianism. Last year, The Guardian reported — to the horror of our earlier meat-loving generations — a whopping 350 per cent rise in veganism from 2006 to 2016 (according to research by Ipsos Mori, commissioned by The Vegan Society). “The movement is driven by the young — close to half of all vegans are aged 15 to 34 (42 per cent), compared with just 14 per cent, who are over 65,” it said. In their interviews, all the teenagers cited cruelty to animals and the degradation of the environment as the main reasons for making these choices. “I went vegan for three reasons: animals, health and the environment,” says 17-year-old Abigail Wheeler, one of the teenagers interviewed. “My dad thought it was really strange at first — he’s from South Africa where they have heavily meat-based diets. He feeds me beans all the time, as he worries about me not getting enough protein,” she added.

I have been closely witnessing a dear friend’s gentle transition into a conscious way of life. She is 29 and a designer at a retail design studio in Bengaluru. Ideas of sustainability are naturally reflecting in her work, her thought processes and her life as a whole. “Many a time even if a client doesn’t care, we try to work with principles of sustainability, minimum wastage and upcycling,” she says. For this millennial, the idea of self has extended into her work, her house, her locality, her city, and to her planet.

Five months ago she signed up with The Ugly Indian to clean a lane close to her house that she would frequently pass, always with her nose and mouth clamped tight shut. “It was a dumping area for garbage, infested with rats and filth. Since it was also a favourite urinating spot, there was a horrible stink that would make your stomach churn,” she remembers. The Ugly Indian is an anonymous group that takes on the filth in our cities with interested volunteers. “Our philosophy can be described simply as: kaam chalu mooh bandh. Stop talking, start doing,” says their website. Perhaps the sense of entitlement and being prone to self-aggrandisement — most common accusations thrown at this generation — helps in building the belief that they can change the world, which after all may not be that impossible a reality.

A similar movement in Mumbai by a lawyer, Afroz Shah, reclaimed the Versova beach from five million kilogramme of waste. Shah started this drive with his 84-year-old neighbour but soon hundreds of people, many from privileged families, swept and cleaned alongside him. In 2016, the United Nations presented Shah with a Champion of the Earth award. His efforts were lauded by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the country’s most popular political figure in recent years, who is also the architect of Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, a nation-wide cleanliness campaign modelled on Gandhian principles of sanitation and cleanliness.

Looking for answers
Last year during the Christmas weekend, I devoted myself to an intimate and emotionally draining task of decluttering my wardrobe. There was a quick buzz in my circle that I had also ‘KonMari-ed’ my wardrobe. KonMari is a contraction of Mariko Kondo, the 30-something empress of the (ironically) growing decluttering empire. “Have you also fallen for the mindless Western trend?” asked my friends. Only I hadn’t. After two years of yoga practice, my teacher spent a quick 20 minutes or so in explaining the first of the eight-limbed yoga, which describes ethical and social guidelines for yoga practitioners: non-violence, truthfulness, not stealing, moderation of senses — and the fifth, aparigraha, the avoidance of unnecessary acquisition of objects. That my trivial cleaning routine was a part of study of a rich Indian subject and not a fleeting trend mattered to my friends. Ancient Indian wisdom became a frequently discussed subject at our meetings. Towards the end, I would see my friends growing despondent, kicking themselves, and their parents, for straying thus far.

One of these meetings ended with a pact to restore our grandmothers’ knowledge in our kitchens. We worked to de-plasticise our kitchens, do away with microwaves and restore clay ware. When we set out to find places where we could buy utensils of olden times, we realised we were not alone. “We go an extra mile to ensure that the raw materials we use are uncontaminated, be it copper or clay,” says Madhumitha Uday Kumar, co-founder, The Indus Valley that sells traditional kitchenware. One of their bestselling products is kalchatti or kitchenware made of soapstone that was once a staple in South Indian kitchens, but not so easy to use in the modern kitchen. “Initially we thought people are buying these out of nostalgia, but people were quick to adopt these in their kitchen for reasons related to health,” she said. The Indus Valley’s promise to restore the USPs of ancient Indian kitchens makes it a desirable brand for today’s generation.

After kitchens, our second stop was clothing. A corner of my ‘minimalised’ wardrobe is stacked with clothes that are produced consciously. Though my mother scoffs at these boxed dresses with experimental silhouettes (branding them as babaji ka chogha), I feel proud and at peace wearing them. When minimalistic expressions percolated to the clothing business, organic, sustainable, ethical wear, socially responsible fashion and such terms soon started rolling out. Was it another fashion trend wafting from the West? Perhaps. But in translation, it gained a fiercely Indian identity. After all, abnegation is the proof of intellectual and spiritual superiority in Indian culture. And not so long ago, it was a formidable political power.

Perhaps we view the past as a utopian environment — with cleaner air, plastic-free water bodies, abundant resources, milk not laden with hormones and food not coated with pesticides — that we are so deprived of. In 1843 magazine, formerly known as Intelligent Life, associate editor Rebecca Willis analyses sartorial distress and makes an observation about the current generation. “The trend for distressed clothing seems to be saying that modern life, with its materialism and homogeneity, is no longer worthy of aspiration. It is a kind of refusal, the visual equivalent of a diet that cuts out junk food. We know that consumerism is strangling the planet and that society’s addiction to the new is not sustainable. So it is hard not to discern in distressed dressing a post-apocalyptic subtext: is it a foretaste of how we’ll look when we’ve used up the earth’s resources?”

The fast catching ‘trend’ of environment consciousness, conscious living and sustainability could be a response to the warning signs of exhausting all resources. At these times, when my thoughts grow so grim, I remember the words of my friend: “Even if I don’t make an improvement in the urgent state our planet is in, I still want to do the right thing, because whatever said and done, you do make a difference.”

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