Apr 21, 2008 - published work, Society    No Comments

Brag pack

A recent article of mine published in dawn.

In the 15th century, simplicity may have been the ultimate sophistication for Leonardo da Vinci, but it no longer carries weight — at least for us Pakistanis. Consider anything — gadgets, cars, art, lifestyle, food, educational institutions or a wedding invitation — and it will seem that everything has become more elaborate, ostentatious and complex. What was once considered simple and sophisticated is now considered basic and frugal.

Is it just the market economy that’s driving people to go bigger and grander? Or have our values really changed, and being simple is no longer viable in any sphere of life?

Let’s take gadgets first. What used to be a cellphone can now take pictures and videos, store a million songs, catch a hundred and one radio channels and can send and receive email, browse the web… and what not. I am sure many people who own these all-in-one phones don’t even know how to use them. For them a complex gadget is a symbol: it speaks of their status.

In the past, electronic items such as refrigerators or toasters used to be quite straightforward. They now come with multiple control dials, multiple LCD displays and a complexity that defies description. When I recently asked a dealer if things could be made simpler for people like me, he told me that people didn’t want to spend money on simple things.

Extra features, even if they are totally useless, win over simplicity. So if the next time you go shopping for a washing machine and find one which is equipped with FM radio and television to make the rinsing of clothes a much more enjoyable experience, you know it is public demand that should be blamed for it.

A few days ago, I received a wedding invitation. The cards were wrapped in a huge silk handkerchief with velvet trimming and a tissue string to tie it up. The letters on the cards scented in Coco Channel (the brides favourite perfume), were gold embossed and had pictures of the bride — and groom-to-be. There was so much detail to absorb that I did not see the most important part, the invitation date, and therefore missed the wedding. I am sure the wedding was as ostentatious, if not more, than the wedding invitation.

If people are to be believed, no one eats simple food any more. It has to be exotic, foreign and unpronounceable to sound cool. It is mispronounced but happily eaten like the popular lasagna and various pasta types! The funny thing is that the minute most of us step out of the country, we crave desi food. I once traipsed the streets of Laos with a Pakistani colleague looking for a desi restaurant, and this is a man who wouldn’t be caught dead eating Pakistani food outside his kitchen.

Most of the ladies at my gym boast of hiring a chef who is a wizard at concocting Italian and other Mediterranean dishes. Their girth belie the presence of any such chef because if they had been having their food cooked in extra virgin olive oil and eating salads with tomatoes and low fat goat’s cheese, they would not need expensive gym memberships. Eating a simple daal chawal is passé, only an elaborate bistecca alla Florentina will do.

There was a time when having a single car was enough. Now people aspire to have more than one. Someone I know just bought a bright yellow mini cooper, but only to drive on weekends. When asked about it, he said the “mini cooper was a form of self-expression and suited his personality better”. But as an investment banker he has to maintain a sedate professional persona; hence a regular black Honda for going to work. What happened to writing poetry or painting for self expression?

Another trend that I don’t get is the craze for Sports Utility Vehicles (SUVs), especially in a city like Karachi where our cars stay jammed on either Shahrae Faisal or

I. I. Chundrigar Road

(depending on where you go to work) and one rarely gets a chance to drive over 60 kilometres an hour. We hardly drive out of the city (inner city commute is painful enough) and plying those huge monstrosities on the congested Karachi roads borders on cruelty, yet people keep on doing it to show off that they can afford a fuel-guzzling vehicle. Three years ago, a steering wheel was just a steering wheel. They now come with complex control structures with multiple buttons and controls, including two sets of loudness controls, one for music and one for the cellphone. The rear view mirror now comes with an on-off switch and some cars even come with a back-view camera and an LCD screen which shows if the driver behind your car is picking his nose or not.

I am sure most of us can do without that information. Mr Einstein was right when he said, “Any fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent; but it takes a touch of genius — and a lot of courage — to move in the opposite direction.”

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