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The neutral observer

Vanita Kohli-Khandekar | 2010-03-12 01:30:00

Status match for very pretty, very fair, Brahmin girl. Decent marriage, father government servant, mother pious lady.

Just in case you wondered about the title of the book, that ad is what appears on the cover page. It sets the tone and tenor of the book. If, like me, you have a problem with people who form the top two percentile of the population commenting on “people like them” a la MTV and Bheja Fry, you can relax. Santosh Desai sticks to the knitting and puts together an interesting collection of short essays that are “open-ended, ruminative observations”, as he puts it, on the middle class India and Indian consumers. Some are from his column in The Times of India and the others are freshly written for the book.

Desai, 47, is the managing director and CEO of Future Brands, a part of Kishore Biyani’s Future Group, which is largely into retail. Future Brands creates, owns and licenses in-store brands for the Future Group as well as other firms. It also offers advisory work around brands to clients such as Titan, Godrej and Pepsi, among others. Desai was earlier the head of McCann Erickson.

As a former adman and strategic planner, and now part of a large retail group, he sees Indian consumers from a vantage point that few people have access to. Add to that a witty style and you have an eminently-readable book. Desai is clearly a keen observer of human nature. So nothing, from the rising popularity of western toilets and pubs to why Indian women love nighties, escapes his peering mind.

Sample this one on Indian traffic as a metaphor: “If the church is serious about reviving interest in religion, then it should sponsor more trips by Westerners to India. For nowhere else is god remembered and prayed to as fervently as it is when they encounter Indian traffic… Even for Indians, traffic is not a mere occurrence but a test of some cosmic kind designed by powers higher than us… .” You get the drift.

The observations are broken down, roughly, into three parts. The first deals with the past, the second with the changes that were happening during the transformation of India from its “caged tiger” status to a roaring one, and the third is set in India as it exists now. Desai doesn’t shy away from any subject that touches the Indian consumer, nor does he have any problem calling a spade a spade. Read his observations on media and journalism. Having said that, the book is surprisingly non-judgmental. He retains the essential quality of an observer — neutrality.

If you have grown in the 80s, are a Doordarshan kid and a Rajiv Gandhi era teenager, like me, Desai’s writing has a certain poignancy. He reminds you of indolent summer vacations, long train journeys, and the days when nothing in a home was thrown away. This was a time when there was very little money and goods, and a lot of time. So, the whole context of consumption was different. For example, you kept using “neel” or ultramarine to keep your whites looking respectable, even though they became blue in the process! The only indulgence the middle class allowed itself was on festivals. Desai dips into the world of media, Hindi films, relatives and jobs to paint a very accurate picture of India prior to liberalisation and in the early period after it.

This is where the heart-warming stuff for old fogies like me ends. So, even though the tone remains the same and the observations are of uniformly good quality, the book gets a little repetitive. And at the end of it, you wonder what it was all about. To his defence, Desai says that the book is not meant to be a “A for apple” kind of tome. It is more like a patchwork quilt of warm and witty observations about India. And thankfully, unlike other marketing and brand consultants, at no point does he go into an orgiastic analysis of numbers and demographic clusters, preferring to stick instead to a somewhat intuitive and anecdotal approach.

The quilt work notwithstanding, the book does suffer from some sameness — of both style and substance. Also, sometimes you question the relevance of knowing what the middle class India was like 20 years ago. Desai reckons more than the change, it is the pattern of the change that is important especially if you want to contextualise it, and that is what the past helps establish.