The cold, drizzling rain did not deter me from stopping my car, made warm by the humming air conditioner, on a cold November day in Kashmir and walking into a what may be the equivalent of a 7’11(or even corner store) in the West. I had to buy supplies for my home and chocolates for my daughter. As I was about to pay, a little girl, ambled toward the shop counter, tugged at her mother’s sleeve and beseeched her to buy a certain chocolate. “Mama, I want this chocolate. Please buy it for me”,’ pleaded the little girl. The mother did not have the money. She responded to her little girl’s plea in an irritated but rather sad voice: “ I don’t have enough money. Come let’s go”. There was pain in the mother’s eyes and voice. It was a poignant scene for me. I could not bear it. I turned to the storeowner and asked him to give the chocolate to the little girl and bill me for it. The mother was happy but the little girl happier.
I left the store with a bouquet of supplies , clambered into my warm car, sallied towards , what would be my even warmer home, and allied comforts. But, the scene at the corner store, dominated my thoughts and I asked myself a bevy of questions: how many of us, in Kashmir, would have enough heating, gadgets for keeping warm, adequate clothing for the cold, harsh winter of Kashmir, supplies and other essentials? How many actually had warm homes to head to on this dreadfully cold day? How many had money to sate the needs or even wants of their little children? I am not a statistician but I would guess there would be innumerable people in Kashmir would be bereft of the comforts that some of us take for granted. Can we, as a society, do something about it?
Before I answer this question, I will make a digression.
I will write about Naomi Klein- the iconoclast, gifted writer and activist- who had written a brilliant critique of capitalism in an era of globalization. Klein denounced capitalism in terms of “the age of the brand” by calling attention to the original raison d’etre of branding as assuring the quality of a given product . This rationale, according to Klein, no longer held: “global corporations had transmogrified “brands’ so much so that brands were now detached from the product”. Klein deconstructed brands that had become household names and synonymous with lifestyle choice(s), individualism, athleticism , multiculturalism , and so on. The usurpation of these meant and implied usurpation of the statement of being “cool” and was aimed , often times, at the youth segment(or markets).
I read Klein, when I was wandering in Australia. Her thesis, which besides calling to attention the nature of branding and its inorganic relationship with manufacturing, also illustrated the Dickensian conditions- sweatshops, child labor and other unethical practices- that went into the making of, branded products, like, say, Nike shoes. Brands, in Klein’s schema, obscured these Dickensian practices. It was this more than Klein’s critique of brands that left an impression on me. But, that’s that. I gave away Klein’s book to someone when I had to leave Australia.
Readers, at this point, might wonder what the relationship is between the little girl at the store, her mother, Naomi Klein and brands. I would like to think that there is. The nature of the relationship lies in “the propensity to consume” of the well off classes of Kashmir, and the rather structural inability of many amongst us who cannot even afford to warm their homes in winter or, as in the case of the little girl and her mother, have to kill their needs, wants and desires against the backdrop and shadow of poverty.
One segment of our pyramidical society, with a tiny wealthy elite at the top, a middle class below this small triangle and then a vast, amorphous people who have to struggle each day for their daily bread, braving political uncertainty, volatility, inclement weather and the ups and downs of life forming the larger portion of the pyramid, has become what may be called the “consuming class(es)” of Kashmir. This class , albeit not very large, is a consumer of global brands and products thereof. The other portion imitates the “consuming class(es)” of Kashmir and opts for brands within their income range. But, most , or majority of the people of Kashmir have no such luxury. They either buy and make their purchases from Rediwallahs or small businesses catering to this segment.
The point that I want to make here is that as our consuming class(es) throw money at brands and branded products( even though the trend is not as noxious as it is elsewhere), for mere identification with a prominent brand, which may or may not have taken recourse to odious business and /or labor practices, there is a vast segment of people in our society, which does not have enough money to pay for their children’s school or college fee(s), stay warm in winter , or , in the case of the little girl at the store and her, to buy a chocolate and candy for their children.
I may add here that I too have been and am guilty of wearing branded clothes or using branded products. But, the encounter at the corner store and prior observations about our needy classes have , kind of chastened me. I will, henceforth, do my best , to buy ethical products, which may mean, staying away from brands , to the extent possible. Broadly speaking, while it may be a task of an impossible nature to convince people of disavowing brands, but rooting for sparing a thought for the needy and the vulnerable while making purchases would be a good starting point for a sense of proportion and prudence in our consumption habits. In the least, we can be minimalists, in terms of brands and branded products. We owe this, in the least, to the less fortunate. It will, as I experienced, at the corner store, make us feel good about ourselves.
—The author can be reached at: [email protected]