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The myth of the consumer unendurables!

November 11, 2006

Highly priced consumer durables have become status symbols few can resist. But are these goods really necessities? A reality check…

India’s growing urban middle-class has higher disposable incomes than ever before. And they are being tempted by the advertising, the soft loans, the discounts and the gifts! But is it really worth spending say Rs 20,000 for a washing machine or a microwave? Are these machines really useful?
Well, what we should never forget is that these appliances were invented by the developed world. Their life-styles, living conditions (and climate) differs greatly from that of India.

Our clothes need a good scrubbing!
Take their clothes for example. They don’t get really dirty. Our clothes on the other hand get dirty, grimy and sweaty and have to be scrubbed before washing in the machine. Collars, hems of petticoats and salwars need special attention. And as for the delicate clothes which run colour… these have to be hand-washed. Ofcourse, a washing machine has it’s uses. It is ideal for washing bed-sheets, towels and jeans. This often means that it is used once or twice a week. But there are alternatives. One is the friendly neighbourhood dhobi. Another is the next-door laundry or simply, the maid. In fact, many upper-middle-class and affluent households employ full-time maids, even boys, who take on the daily washing.
And let’s not forget that our hot climate make dryers redundant.

They don’t have maids
On the other hand, the middle classes in developed countries cannot afford maids. Besides, those who live there do not wear clothes made from a hundred per cent cotton, and if they do, these clothes use superior dyes which do not run. Thus, their clothes can be washed in a washing machine and still come out looking good. If we wash our cotton clothes in a machine they get ruined. Washing machines tend to over-wash (and yet do not clean out the stains unless the stain has been scrubbed first!) even in their ‘speedy’ cycles.

We don’t need microwaves, do we?
And when it comes to the microwave…well, this is one appliance which has been over-hyped in this country. People actually believe that the microwave cooks faster than any other appliance! This misconception has been propagated by the advertisers as ad lines of their foreign partners are transported here blindly, without checking out the Indian conditions. The fact is that in the US for example, a microwave will cook the fastest! But not in India! The reason? Because we have use pressure-cookers ofcourse.
Pressure cookers cook as fast as any microwave, if not faster. In fact one can also cook lentils and rice in a pressure-cooker, the staple food of Indians. These items cannot be cooked in a microwave unless they have been soaked in water first. And as any middle-class housewife knows, a large pressure-cooker enables one to cook three food items simultaneously by layering them on top of one another in three separate utensils.

The pressure cooker is a necessity, a microwave a luxury.
A pressure cooker is better than a micro-wave for other reasons. It cooks food more evenly and the foods cooked in it retain their moisture even if the food gets a little over-cooked. Anyone who has over-cooked anything in a microwave will realise that the food is inedible after that.
A microwave is good for re-heating and defrosting, and also more suitable for a western diet, which usually contains plenty of meats, steamed vegetables and frozen food. We always fry our veggies so what we need is a kadhai.

Our maids use the mixer!
The high-end food processor, which does fancy things like slicing vegetables and grinding atta (whole wheat dough) is not an item for daily use. Many Indian middle-class households hire cooks and most housewives prefer to keep a very basic mixer handy for the cook to use. The food processor is reserved for special occasions! And those who do not keep cooks often keep a maid to make the rotis. Even if they don’t, the atta is made fresh everytime – by the housewife herself. There is no question of kneading it in a food-processor.

Vacuuming doesn’t get rid of the grime.
As for the vacuum cleaner, proclaimed as the wonder machine which attacks dust…well, what the manufacturers don’t mention is that it does not attack grime and soot! In colder countries where there is less dirt and less grime, the vacuum cleaner is very effective. Specially useful as these countries usually have wall-to-wall carpeting in their homes and the vacuum cleaner is an ideal upholstery and carpet cleaner of loose dust. A small vacuum cleaner is usually sufficient for an average Indian home to clean carpets and sofa sets.
What the floors need is a good wipe with a wet mop, preferably with a little phenyl added to kill the germs.

It’s your decision.
So before you buy make sure that you are not stretching your purse-strings too far. If you are…well, I am sure you have some other favorite things on your list which you could go for. And if your neighbour raves about some consumer durable she has bought, make sure your lifestyle matches hers. Or you might be living out the adage: One man’s meat is another man’s poison.

Related Reading: Vegetable and Dal Noodles are not as healthy as the ads claim
Surrogate advertising in India
Luxuries become necessities over time
Is the Beauty Care Industry a fraud?
Aggressive advertising by supermarkets
New ad code in India

(Published in The Statesman, Calcutta)

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Navin permalink
    January 3, 2007 2:30 pm

    It is a very nicely put article. I hope most of the ladies read it. I already knew about all this, but have not been able to convince my wife about it. Pretty difficult.

    Great thoughts. Thank you.

  2. nudgemunn permalink
    January 5, 2007 5:02 pm

    Rs20,000 for a washing machine or a microwave? I’m not sure about the amount in Malaysian Ringgit (MYR, USD1 = MYR3.60) but it sounds a lot!
    A branded washing machine (top loading, 7kg capacity Japan or Korea made)is sold around MYR700.00. Lesser for a microwave (again depending on the capacity, of course). If we are not lazy, we can look for cheaper China made appliances at the hypermarkets.
    No wonder, household appliances is an issue.

  3. January 5, 2007 5:34 pm

    Actually the prices vary depending on the brand. There are cheaper models available. But the main point is that there are a large number of middle class families in India who cannot afford even these. There are other priorities as food and housing is very expensive here. There are also expenses like marraige of children and their higher education. In India we have to save for these things. Salaries on the whole are low, except in some industries.
    Medical care is exhorbitantly expensive as well – for those on Indian salaries. Few people want to go to the free government run hospitals. However even here the medicines are not free, just the treatment is. Indian companies do not cover all medical expenses of employees unless they are very senior in the company. Health Insurance is cheap only for the young.

  4. medha permalink
    March 7, 2008 5:03 pm

    I don’t agree with you completely. I agree that washing machines and microwaves are not suitable for the Indian needs but think about those working women for whom these equipments act as a boon! Washing clothes after a hectic day at work or during the weekend is not a working woman’s priority. These durables really help them save time and energy.

  5. locutus83 permalink
    November 16, 2009 1:34 pm

    I beg to differ Nita. It all depends upon the type of household one is running, and the amount of TIME ONE HAS one his/her hands. For a household where there are non-working members, part time working members, spending time on cooking, washing and cleaning is feasible. But for a full time working singleton/couple, these chores are a pain and these appliances can be major time saving devices.

    If I have the money to afford and the space to store a washing machine, microwave oven and a vacuum cleaner, I will definitely buy them.

    As for maids, in Bangalore (at least in the colony I live in) they are very expensive, and I would not trust anyone looking after my house in my absence. I generally don’t have fixed hours in which I stay at home even during the weekend, so asking a maid to come at a fixed time is not possible. Right now I have outsourced my major washing to a laundry service, but I am planning to get a washing machine once I move to a larger living space. The only thing I do on my own is jhadu-pocha which is doable as my living space is not too big. But the task is still a pain!
    As for cooking, after a tiring day at office, I don’t want to spend time chopping and cooking things on the gas that take time. I want instant food without too much physical effort. I don’t want to cook complicated curries with ten thousand ingredients! This is why I have altered my home dinner diet to soups, salads, eggs, bread, pasta and frozen meats (what you call a western diet). It takes me at least an hour and a half to wash, soak and cook dal and rice properly (if I don’t soak rice for at least half an hour, it comes out hard even after THREE WHISTLES on the pressure cooker) and my hungry stomach can’t wait for so long! Here is where a microwave oven comes in EXTREMELY handy. I can reheat food real fast in convenient containers and start gobbling from the word go.

    • November 16, 2009 2:07 pm

      But ofcourse locutus, I agree, it’s all very individual. I am talking only in the general sense. I too have a problem with household help and therefore cannot do without a washing machine. However I have seen many households (I have several in my own colony!) who have bought a washing machine just for decoration. Others use it occasionally only. Many households also keep live in help. So well, I meant those who buy these things more for status symbols. However I advise you too buy a stick broom and mop if you want to clean yourself. Unless you live in a non-polluted area. The vaccum cleaner is of no use except for loose dust. And frankly I think eating ready made food on a regular basis is harmful for health. And the more you cook, the easier it will get.

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