- The Washington Times - Friday, October 14, 2005

NEW DELHI — Where marriage has since ancient days been deemed a sacred duty, Yuvika Bader, a quick-tongued 20-year-old woman, rejects the very concept of matrimony.

“If someone’s going to live with someone, then I’d just do it,” the college student said recently. “I don’t need to get the marriage stamp on it.”

Where not long ago few besides beggars and cows wandered after dark, the son of a leather exporter goes clubbing four nights a week. The longhaired 24-year-old, who requested anonymity, said he once downed a vial of LSD and became convinced he was the Hindu god Shiva. “I was completely gone,” he said.

And where older generations viewed luxury spending as vulgar, Bhavdeep Mehta, a 24-year-old retail manager, has splurged his salary on three cars, a giant flat-screen TV and a $370 cell phone, his sixth upgrade in five years. “Phones,” he explained, “go out of fashion very quickly.”

A new brood has come of age in India. Part of a plumping middle class — the first to enjoy satellite TV and U.S.-style consumerism — India’s well-to-do twenty-somethings spend freely, date casually and party hard. As if slipping out of a medieval corset, many now reject their ancient society’s taut restraints on personal freedom.

Heirs to a booming economy, more than 50 million young adults in India are now affluent. They are trailblazers for the country’s huge under-30 population, a demographic balloon that amounts to 60 percent of a billion-plus population. Their frustrations and desires will soon dominate India, a nuclear-armed nation of rising global ambitions.

New set of norms

“In many ways,” said Nandu Ram, sociology professor at New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, “they are forcing India toward a new set of norms.”

Indian press have offered several names for the group: “zippies” for the zip in their stride, “indies” for their financial independence, and perhaps most aptly “liberalization’s children,” coined in reference to the 1991 fiscal reforms that marked the Indian economy’s lurch skyward.

Middle-aged Indians call them aliens. Following independence in 1947, that generation faced decades of civil conflict and war, along with a dreary, socialist-inspired marketplace — consumer choice meant two models of car and a yearlong wait for a phone line. They obeyed their fathers and revered the principle of Gandhian austerity.

Fourteen years into the liberalization project, their children have entered adulthood with little or no memory of their country’s sedate past. The changes don’t apply to everyone — a third of the country remains mired in poverty. But interviews with more than 20 middle-class Indians between the ages of 18 and 30 found that most view themselves as vanguards of an emerging, more modern Indian identity.

“We think the idea is there is no harm in fun,” said Nitin Mehndirata, 23, a software engineer in rimless glasses who mingled at a late-night DJ party south of New Delhi, the capital. “If you want to have a pool party — that’s OK.”

‘Losing our identity’

Some Indians worry that middle-class youth have become scornful of their heritage. They note how young men now sport baggy pants and slick goatees like U.S. hip-hop stars, how young women spurn saris for Capris and spaghetti-strap tank tops, how drug use and one-night stands have become routine among the urban party crowd.

“Aren’t we losing our identity?” asked Usha Harikrishnan of Young India, a group that sponsors community activism among young professionals. “Why can’t I, as an Indian, be proud?”

At the heart of the new orientation are television and rising white-collar employment. Since the early 1990s, the number of TV channels has grown from two to more than 100, broadcasting U.S. shows like “Friends,” “Sex and the City” and, most recently, “Desperate Housewives.”

It was Indian MTV though, with its idolatry of youth, fame and stylishness, that spearheaded a new culture of egotism, said Vamsee Juluri, author of “Becoming a Global Audience: Longing and Belonging in Indian Music Television.”

“There was this whole sea change,” said Mr. Juluri. Where duty to family had held sway, individualism became the mantra.

Careers have multiplied in industries like retail, tourism, banking, and most notably Internet technology, where the average employee is under 30 and takes home roughly $1,100 per month, a handsome sum here.

Outsourcing creates jobs

Thanks in part to outsourced U.S. jobs, software and IT-enabled employment has in the past three years doubled to about 1,045,000 jobs, according to the industry lobby Nasscom.

As marketers scramble to corral young Indians’ estimated $14 billion in spending money, shopping malls have spread like an advancing empire across India’s slum-ridden cities; from the first in 1999, around 300 are planned by 2010.

At glass-paneled Ansal Plaza in New Delhi, packs of shaggy-headed teenage boys prowl for thin girls in low-waist jeans as Bananarama’s “Cruel Summer” plays over the sound system. They shop at Benetton, eat at McDonald’s.

Influenced by television

Sitting in the ground-floor coffee bar Barista, Surojit Dev, 25, a stubbly-faced advertising rep, said the freewheeling market has opened the minds of his generation. “Whatever is shown on TV, we want to try that,” he said, fiddling with a Nokia handset.

“In my parents’ time, they didn’t even listen to radio. They were more into books — ancient stuff.”

While not long ago a family trip to the cinema was thought the height of entertainment, India’s metros have now spawned a kinetic party scene. More than 100 nightclubs have opened in the past five years in two of India’s most “happening” cities, New Delhi and Bombay.

Pitfalls of progress

Liberalization’s children are beset with new temptations. In the last five years India has witnessed a dramatic rise in middle-class drug addiction, an affliction that was before largely confined to street dwellers, say observers.

“It’s all related to the rave party, trance, nightclub boom,” said Yusuf Merchant, head of Bombay’s Drug Abuse Information, Rehabilitation and Research Center.

The scene has also become staging ground for a secret sexual upsurge. India remains a land where nonmarital sex is highly stigmatized, particularly for women; public kissing is not done, and boys and girls traditionally grow up sharply segregated.

According to separate studies though — by the Indian Journal of Social Work and researchers Deepak Gupta and D.K. Gupta — urban, educated youth open to premarital sex has shot up to 59 percent from 10 percent in 1993. Middle-class partiers say one-night stands are common.

“People are going absolutely mad,” said Raghav Bhalla, 24, a New Delhi night-life regular and self-declared playboy.

While the growing penchant for mischief has gone largely unnoticed within India’s extended families, many young people are breaking more overtly with tradition. Increasingly they are choosing to remain single well into adulthood, or picking partners of whom their parents disapprove.

More than a third of single, urban women now reject the tradition of arranged marriage, according to a recent poll by the newsmagazine the Week.

Seema Prakash, a New Delhi family counselor, said generational clashes will become increasingly common among India’s middle class. “The value system is fast eroding,” she said.

For Miss Bader, the college student who rejects marriage, this erosion is not happening fast enough. She sits at a Barista with her friend Kanika Sharma, 20. Both women are from affluent business families, attend a top women’s college, and wear short, tomboyish hairdos.

Living television roles

They love the TV show “Friends” and have assigned characters to everyone in their circle of friends by personality: Miss Bader is Phoebe, Miss Sharma is Chandler.

Miss Sharma, who wears a silver hoop through her left eyebrow, teases her friend about her anti-marriage policy. “Basically, she doesn’t believe in love,” she explained.

Miss Bader snaps back: “No, I don’t believe in long-term love: you like someone and then you stop,” she said. “You don’t have to, like, be with one person forever.”

Asked if her parents know she plans to forgo marriage, Miss Bader shakes her head somberly.

Rather than face the wrath of her deeply conservative father she plans to go to New York for graduate school — and never return. “If I stay here, I’ll never be totally independent,” she said.

Just outside the cafe child beggars pick plastic out of fresh monsoon puddles. With a modern world opening up to them, the women say, they have little reason to abide by the rules of yesterday’s India.

“Some people don’t really want to take on their parents,” said Miss Sharma. “Actually, when it comes down to it, what can parents really do?”

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