28 June, 2004

Middle Class Race

Sushma Joshi

My nephew had his pasni (rice-eating) ceremony a few days ago. The five-month old got, amongst other presents, eight racing cars. The brightly colored, glittering toys were inscribed with words such as: “super”, “powerful”, “top driver”, “Police”, “prowl car” and my personal favorite: “conquest”. Racing cars are not particularly indigenous to the Kathmandu Valley, so when they started to pile up I started to wonder why this automobile had taken such a special hold on the Nepali imagination.
You couldn’t trace it back to the influence of television. There are plenty of popular TV shows on boxing and cricket, but there were almost no little cricket bat toys, and no little boxing glove toys. So why the racing car?
Since children play not only for fun, but also to acquire skills useful in later life, I wondered if the racing car symbolized by nephew’s future of mobility in the Kathmandu Valley. This is a valley congested with station wagons, cars and motorbikes. Increasingly, these are private vehicles that belong to the middle class. They jostle for space in the tiny roads, trying to maintain their right of way with speed. The lowly pedestrian cannot, in all honesty, navigate Kathmandu with a feeling of ownership anymore. Only those with private vehicles, and those who can drive the fastest, driving others out of the way, can dream of surviving the Valley’s hectic roads.
Since toys that built skills acquisition were missing – no Lego for building skills, no wooden puzzles for critical thinking skills—I assumed the concern of the gift-givers had not been on building the baby’s future navigational skills. Perhaps a clue lay in the toys’ origins. The majority of the toys (and almost all the clothing) were bought from the Bhatbhateni supermarket, that institution where the aspiring upper-middle and middle class shop for consumer goods and identity.
When the supermarket first opened, the meaning of Bhatbhateni took on a subtle twist. “We’re going to Bhatbhateni” used to mean: “we’re going to the temple.” Now it meant, “We’re going shopping [at an upscale, overpriced institution where we will spend ostentatiously and buy imported goods that make us look good in front of our neighbors.”]
The culture of materialism arrived full-force with the Bhatbhateni supermarket. Although supermarkets such as Bluebird had opened a long time ago, the mall culture of seeing and being seen, the promenade of cars, the lines of causally dressed rich people buying tinned eatables did not start till the five stories of the supermarket at Bhatbhateni went up.
With Bhatbhateni also arrived a slew of brand name goods. These goods have the logos of transnational corporations, and the “Made in China” stamp that signifies the new global economy of cheap, liberalized labor. This sinification of labor has allowed countries like Nepal to take part in the same consumeristic culture that controls much of the Western countries.
You can buy status at Bhatbhateni. You can buy fluffy teddy bears (with synthetic fibre that is dangerous around an infant determined to put anything and everything in its mouth); you can buy an airplane with a “US Army” logo on it, and you can buy armoured trucks with flashing lights and loaded cannons.
What you cannot buy there is a tiny bear, made in Nepal by some unnamed handicrafts industry, made of natural fibres and which does not have any fancy buttons or noses that could detach and choke an infant. It is the safest bear to leave around a five-month old. Ironically, this lone bear of indigenous origins is gifted to my nephew by an American friend.
As a spoilsport aunt, I think one little boy can be happy with a couple of toy cars. My sister-in-law, who has lived in the Valley longer than I have, insists a roomful of toys is the minimum requirement in these modern times.
For the moment, my nephew is still ignorant that a battalion of racing cars and weaponry with US Army logos awaits him in his closet. For the moment, he is happiest with the crackle of wrapping paper, oblivious to the piles of consumer goods that surround and welcome him into the material world.

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