The old new year

Wednesday, 22 January 2014 - 8:11am IST | Place: Mumbai | Agency: DNA
The constant search of the consumer class for newness has led to repackaging of old ideas.

Although we have been told enough times that ‘there is nothing new under the sun’ or repeatedly hear the quaint idiom of ‘old wine in a new bottle’, we still persist in the myth of ‘New Years’, one of which has recently come into being. This new year is packaged in the same old way; my friends went to Goa to get drunk on the same old whisky that they have been having for the last many ‘New Years’. Another set of my friends follow the routine of watching TV at midnight and having payasam to usher in the New Year — except that they have been doing exactly this for the last 30 years.

The way we celebrate our new year actually illustrates something important about our engagement with the idea of the ‘new’. We live in a culture in which newness seems to be the only quality that has any value. The middle and upper classes seem to have escaped their class roots by embracing —  quite blindly — the fascination with newness. We have reached such a stage that it is quite impossible to have the same food every day.

I know a man who lives in a small hamlet near a beach close to where I stay. He cooks rice and some concoction which he calls ‘sambar’ — quite unlike the regular sambar that I know of. He has a little bit of the rice and sambar in the morning for breakfast, comes back at lunchtime and has another helping of the same and finishes off the rest at dinner time. The next day he repeats this pattern.

He is not unique nor is he an exception to what can only be called the rural experience. One of the biggest challenges that I faced after I moved from Bangalore to a small rural place was the monotonous constancy of everything. Unlike urban areas which seem to have fetishised the craze for newness in food by creating all kinds of food items, the rural areas seem to be relatively untouched by this constant need for newness in all facets of life.

Consumer culture is driven by the craze for newness. I have written earlier about what this craze has done to innocent, soft idlis. In the attempt to create new dishes, some enterprising (or in my view, deranged) hotelier decided to deep fry idlis. Soon somebody else created Chinese idlis and the latest in this avatar which I encountered recently was stuffed idli with the usual samosa stuffing.

I once visited a dosa ‘palace’ which boasted of over a hundred varieties of dosa, including families of dosa called ‘Chinese dosas’, ‘American dosas’ and ‘Mexican dosas’. Actually, it is not difficult to guess what these dosas were once you see these names. Thankfully, when I visited that area sometime ago they were closed down. So many dosas were too much to handle for a small town!

Newness is the mantra of today’s competitive world. When people stress that innovation is the crucial keyword for today’s world, they are basically pressuring us to constantly create something ‘new’. The business world believes that without innovation, organizations (and individuals, if they dared say it aloud) die. But creating something new is not that easy. The easiest way to do it is then to package the old as the new: yes, the same old ‘old wine in a new bottle’.

In India, this tension between the old and the new is particularly powerful. More than anything else, this tension is beginning to define the new India. It is now quite difficult to articulate the ‘new’ without engaging with the old, namely, tradition. For cultures which have a strong historical tradition, the discovery of the new is quite challenging.

In a sense, it was easy for America to be the land of innovation since there was nothing old, nothing traditional that served as a constant reference point. In our case, we have to constantly look over our shoulders at tradition, which serves not only as a springboard for creating new ideas, but also becomes an obstacle for the same.

The strength as well as the weakness of tradition is the contentment that it engenders. Like my friend who is content in only eating rice and sambar, tradition, too, leads to a sense of contentment. Rural life is mediated by constancy, repeatability and living with a limited choice. We then get so comfortable being a part of these routines that newness, thinking of cooking something new or building something new, becomes an unnecessary chore. Contentment with the same old thing is like the economic slogan, ‘if it works, don’t fix it’.

Many events that are happening around us illustrate the tension between the new and the old: the radical political experiment by the Aam Aadmi Party is a mix of old Gandhian and early Left politics. New Indian English writing is repackaging old stories from the Puranas and the epics.

New science —  some people claim, however wrongly — is rehashed ancient wisdom. In a land which is soon going to be the world’s youngest, it is ironic how strong the hold of the old is! This is best manifested not only in the hold of ideas but also literally in the ages of our leaders, not just in politics but also in other fields such as academics!

However, in the constant search for newness by the consumer class — the constant changing of clothes, discovering new tastes and dishes, and new gadgets every few months — there is something that rarely changes. It is ironic that with so much drive towards newness, we are still individuals with the same thoughts, beliefs and prejudices. There is little that changes within us and, perhaps as a way to mask it, we keep changing our external manifestations all the time.

Perhaps, this desperate attempt to recapture something new in old ‘New Year’ practices is only to stop us from seeing a stark truth in front of our eyes: we are only old habits and prejudices in new attires, with new cell phones.

The author is director of the Manipal Centre for Philosophy and Humanities, Manipal University

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