I consume, therefore I am


Having spent the best part of my adolescence and teenage in mid- to late- 1990s’ Kathmandu, the youth section in Suitably Modern, which chronicle Mark Liechty’s ethnographic excursions into Kathmandu around the same time, evoked a sense of deja vu: Liechty’s portrayal of youth anxieties in the capital is hauntingly accurate.

Liechty weaves his narrative on middle class culture in Kathmandu with the help of Marxian and Weberian understanding of class: Marx’s insistence on material roots to socio-cultural trends, and Weber’s focus on status among middle class. What emerges through the twin lenses is a class rent apart by dichotomies thrown up by its ‘in-betweenness’, between “high” and “low”, fashion and suitability, global and local, traditional and modern. To be a member of middle class is to choose a cohort that is at once widely talked about but rarely pinned down. Middle class means different things to different people.

An example of the angst and dilemma members of the middle class live with, is offered by Gita, a Kathmandu resident in her early thirties. Talking about the impact of fashion on middle class women, Gita says: “(But) if we walk outside wearying nice fashions — looking tip-top — then our children won’t have that feeling (of embarrassment of having to walk with a generation out of step with modern fashion).”

Similar stories of people’s perpetual struggles for ‘being’ and ‘becoming’ dot the book, broadly divided into five sections: Introduction, which takes up the issues of middle-class construction and history of rise of middle class in Nepal; Class and Consumerism, which grapples with middle class consciousness, consumer culture and ‘Doing Fashion’ in Kathmandu; Media Consumption in Kathmandu, digging deep into the social practice of cinema and video viewing in Kathmandu, and analysing the local media culture; Youth and the Experience of Modernity; and, the Conclusion on the space of class in Kathmandu.

Though the book offers fascinating insights into middle class culture in Kathmandu, Liechty’s observations are outdated. Most of his interviews date back to 1991 when Kathmandu was at best a simulacrum of the present-day metropolis bursting at the seams. The author’s assertion, for instance, that Kathmandu’s youth culture is primarily centred on ‘men’ no longer holds true. The patron of a CD parlour I frequent avers: The number of his women customers consuming porn is growing by the day. The practice is so common, the man says, he would not even bother mention it if I had not brought up the topic, the trend an anti-thesis to Liechty’s observation that boys consume all the ‘blue’ films in the market.

Kathmandu is also not as claustrophobic for middle class youth as any foreign reader of Liechty’s book unacquainted with Nepal would be led into believing. An unprecedented number of middle class youth are going abroad, the inferiority complex that comes with feeling ‘trapped’, which the author discusses at length, slowly but surely disappering. By the way, the word Internet does not appear once in the book.

Despite these glaring shortcomings, a fascinating read throughout. Well worth a buy for middle class ‘consumers’ of all the junk going around on TV and net.