Friday, November 24, 2006

Sameness

Work was deserted by the lunch hour on Wednesday. Black Friday sales and deals was a topic of conversation among the few of us stragglers that stayed longer. We were talking about a business that could earn down and out students and homeless people some quick cash for squatting in those serpentine queues in pre-dawn vigils for Xboxes and more.

Lazy shoppers could sleep in and still get what they wanted maybe for some extra money. Turns out that there are such services even if not in a very organized way. It usually takes a pretty major crisis to make me go shopping and it would be a cold day in hell before I went near a store the day after Thanksgiving. I prefer to vegetate in the Tryptophan induced stupor from the turkey dinner.

My mother first came to the US the year J was born. I took her shopping a few weeks after Christmas after the frenzy of shopping for deals had died down. I bought her some interesting trinkets and a coat. That was her first time in a mall in the US. She had seen the flyers in the mail in the weeks preceding and knew what was on sale. She has been in the US a few times since then and tells me how it amazes her that nothing changes.

From her predominantly suburban experience in this country, everything everywhere is shiny and new, the style of clothes and the design of jewelry is fairly static as well. Needless to say she finds the jewelry on the flyers too boring to look at. To her all American perfumes smell the same - you could have smelt a hundred different ones and not recalled a single one that stood out. French perfumes to her are the real thing - you remember because it piques your interest with subtle yet significant variation - the sameness about America is pervasive she thinks.
If she had a Macy's flyer from five years ago she would have found very little in it that was different from the one in the mailbox this afternoon.


I'd be curious to see the effects of inflation of the price of a cashmere sweater. To my mother, America is like a shop window mannequin prettied up to attract passers by. Unlike human beings who are buffeted by the forces of circumstances, a mannequin can remain eternally youthful, happy, plastic and perfect . Time does not touch it.

I think each time she comes back, she looks forward to seeing something change - the sameness is at once perplexing and soothing to her. She calls it her escape to a simulated paradise – maybe a Walt Disney version of the real thing but where else would you find a replica of such grand proportions. She find it hard to answer the question that her friends and relatives here ask so often “How do you like it in America ?” Saying I like it just fine is trite, to explain the feeling of having escaped to a world of manufactured serenity that seems to remain unfazed and untouched by a multi-year, nearing trillion dollar war is too complicated.

Back home, the crowds oppress, the dust and the grime gets more out of control, the traffic is noisier and more chaotic, new houses are mushrooming around her home, a stretch of empty sky she used to watch from the window is increasingly harder to come by, the patch of green which is the park has more and more morning walkers stomping on it, the kids are becoming westernized, the sari is going out, jeans and kurtis are taking over, premarital sex and living in is going mainstream, call centers are spawning a new way of living where day and night have traded place and significance. It is like living inside a boiling , seething cauldron of relentless change and churn.

You want for it to pause sometimes so you can catch your breath. She wonders why change is not as perceptible in the US - surely people, places and everything that they interact with change here too - so how does a visitor not feel it when they return after a year. The pace of life is apparently faster in the US with people are constantly on the move, businesses trying to stay nimble so they can adapt to changing market conditions, uncertainties are rife – it could take merely some unexpected medical emergencies and the loss of a job to go from living in a McMansion to filing bankruptcy.

Yet to an outsider looking in, all seems tranquil and at infinite status quo. The grass is trimmed close, the dogwoods bloom on schedule, the smiling girl at the neighborhood coffee shop takes your order just like someone else like her had done a few years ago. They are identical down to their blond highlights and nose rings.

I had never noticed or thought about this. Maybe there is the economies of scale factor playing here. Maybe change happens but it is dispersed so widely that its effects are not felt. Nothing dramatic has happened in the world of fashion - ethnic is getting to be more mainstream and affordable and the color palette more earthy. There are four distinct seasons, the holidays bring in their wake an increasing amount of commercialization, in defiance of rising gas prices and elaborate security rigmarole at airports people continue to travel .

Christmas trees are being set up sooner and staying on longer, there are more choices for Halloween costumes. However, the larger themes do appear not change. It is more confusing when you view India as the much older civilization. You would expect cataclysmic change to characterize the one which is still nascent. Maybe I am missing something obvious and fundamental here - or it could be as some people say, India is real and America is an artificially put together country and culture. In as such, no parallels can be expected to exist.

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