Examining The Social, Cultural And Personal Changes That The ’90s Ushered In
The ’90s whizzed past in a giddy blur. My salad days were quite over, chronologically speaking. Yet, professionally, life was moving in fourth gear. I was working for the news magazine India Today. Many colleagues thought that the magazine was the centre of the universe, and they the masters of it. We didn’t just travel from one hotspot to another; we ‘winged’ our way to Bombay (now Mumbai) or Bhopal or New York, aping helicopter journalists. Other publications also dispatched reporters near and far, but the mode of transport was more down to earth: buses and trains, while we were up in the air much of the time, along with the foreign correspondents.
Those were the days…. The countdown to this century and the new millennium had begun: entertainment, culture, sports and even politics sparkled and sparked. Satellite television plugged us into the rest of the world. No longer were we just contemplating our own navels. Liberalism came into its own in the ’90s, with Narasimha Rao, the Prime Minister at the time, and his Finance Minister, Manmohan Singh steering the country towards a desi glasnost and perestroika. Consumerism was bumped off the forbidden list.
Hedonism was now a more welcome ‘ism’, pushed along by a robust advertising industry, with Bollywood and Hollywood also lighting the path. My Punjabi Arya Samaj background advocated that the pleasures of life were reserved for a probable afterlife. You know, the simple-living-high-thinking doctrine according to which, ‘Life is elsewhere’. But the temptations were so in-your-face; it was difficult not to succumb. Eating out, so frowned upon by kith and kin, became a way of life — until the calories started piling up on the midriff — and sugar levels catapulted.
Our office was in Connaught Place, then the centre of the universe as far as we were concerned. All roads led to it, with most epicurean delights on offer, just a couple of hundred yards away. These were heady times: working for India Today opened most doors. Socialites, both male and female, flooded the journalists working here with invitations. Celebrity artist MF Husain (with his perambulating ways, bare feet and canvases with horses frozen in mid-gallop) and the journalists du jour were considered prize catches for socialite evenings.
Contemporary art was getting to be all the rage, with new galleries sprouting, including Art Today, started by Rekha Purie, the wife of Aroon Purie, editor (and proprietor) of India Today. It was located a long curve away in Connaught Circus. ‘Happenings’ became quite commonplace in those days, as did openings. Many ‘events’ (as they were called) were increasingly ‘curated’ by PR agencies and professional managers. Whimsy was in short supply, as was spontaneity.
However, I will never forget the evening when Husain used a white horse as his canvas (yes, actually, painting on it with a long brush) in the verandah outside the gallery. We all wondered what happened to the horse afterwards. There were even macabre jokes about the ‘painting’ being ‘removed’ from the unfortunate horse. After all, it was an original Husain!
This decade provided fertile ground for satire. Targeting the world of snobs and the foibles of the upwardly mobile, I wrote a spoofy piece on a kitty party. The hostess had borrowed a friend’s Husain painting (real or fake I never discovered) for the occasion. Unfortunately, she wasn’t wise enough to also invite the owner of the painting. The owner turned up unannounced, snatched it from the wall above the fake fireplace and stormed out, leaving a red-faced and probably open-mouthed hostess in her wake. It was just a joke but I was later told that something like this had actually happened — in Lutyens’ Delhi.
Looking good and being well-groomed had never been so necessary. It helped women move up ladders in the corporate world and elsewhere, and opened reluctant doors to high society. The year 1994, particularly, was a bumper one for India in the beauty stakes: Sushmita Sen was crowned Miss Universe and Aishwarya Rai became Miss World. Their victories sparked an era of mushrooming beauty salons, a booming cosmetics industry, gyms that altered bodies, diet gurus, fashionistas and fashion-and-lifestyle magazines that showed you how to do so.
Nor were men to be left behind: many a Narcissus surfaced. Facials for men became commonplace and beauty parlours were no longer just giving men haircuts but restyling hair (including hair transplants) as well as eyebrows. Cosmetic surgeons became busier because even men were increasingly dissatisfied with what they saw in their mirrors. Mirror, mirror on the wall…they too, asked. Not only did you have to keep up with the Joneses, you had to keep pace with your spouse. If Mrs Gupta was able to get into her daughter’s clothes and turn heads, Mr Gupta also tried to refashion his body and attract younger women.
The internet arrived in 1995 and proved to be a great leveller. Access to information had long been a preserve of the privileged; it was a tool to yield power. For centuries those who had information about what was happening here and elsewhere could dominate those who didn’t. Doordarshan was edged aside as American television programmes, films and music began to inundate India through satellite television, enabling those from different strata of society to be on the same page. American accents proliferated — however slippery or fake.
Imperceptibly, my vowels went all-American. The 10 years I had spent in Washington DC and Connecticut resurfaced in my speech. I suppose it was a kind of homecoming.