Fluffy in character, obscene in pricing and injurious to health, the waffle is the perfect symbol for what passes as progress. A heady mix of American appropriation and empty calories.
Over the past ten years I have traveled extensively across the country covering most of the 29 states. In the beginning I thought I would keep a log of the places visited and the miles covered. Travel blogging wasn’t even a thing back then. But the one good thing about a day job is that it does not leave much time for vanity. The sheer scale and diversity of our country has to be experienced first hand to be believed. From the East Coast to the West Coast and from the desert to the cloudy hills of Meghalaya, the only uniformity is railway stations and bad networks.
But within this period on successive visits to cities and smaller towns I have seen palpable change. Some would call it progress, I prefer homogenization. Malls, call centers and traffic jams, familiar symbols of development to the point that all cities look identical except for the name plate at the airport. Air conditioned, sterile and predictable like any Waffle Joint. This is the Waffle Effect.
Cities; like people, only develop a personality over a period of time or out of the sheer depth of the vision of their founders. Foreign funding can’t wait for either. Local businesses struggle in Biblical proportions just to get a foothold and build some sustainable business all the while fighting off cops, local goons and municipality racketeering. But funded franchises open and shut down by the 100s in an apparently bloodless crime. In the Amazon economy, deep pockets may survive but bottomless tax heavens rule.
Sure it creates jobs. If you call greeting a thousand random strangers against their will at the mall entrance in mock security fatigues employment. City life has always been subsidized by the misfortune of farmers. The rural reality of the country is so far away from your Rs. 500 pizza that even deathly screams are only a faint echo in the urban hum of honking and delivery notifications. The village of Kasol does not have a single doctor but every shop will sell you Nutella on top of anything you want. And it all works till you don’t have to see where the run-off accumulates. Ultimately both sins and plastic end up in the ocean…because fish can’t vote!
Which is why environmental conservation will come much later. We have to first learn basic human dignity. And formal education is not going to cut it. It is as empty as the calories of your waffle. Farmers in school textbooks look so happy you would think they are on acid, like their loans got waived even before being sanctioned. A black and white image of a simple-minded worker who comes out of his mother’s womb with an plough in his hand. Just like you believe you were born to shop. The worst thing you can teach your child to grow up to become is a consumer.
Most shopping districts look like red-light areas for sugar junkies, each shop offering a kinkier ride down the insulin roller-coaster. From milk-shakes to waffles, packaging differs widely but the product is the same: Gluttony. And one can always forgive a few vices in a Godless world. But to patronize vacuous gaming parlors as even proxies of progress would be an insult to our own remaining good taste.
The mall as a symbol of progress is as empty as its shops on a Monday. And we can’t stop it. Money; or more technically capital, has a way of always serving its masters. People celebrating a corporation’s achievements or an individual’s wealth accumulation as sources of national pride have no clue how free capital is of religious, ideological or even national borders. It’s not that everyone in power is corrupt, just that they don’t need your compassion as much as others do. Eventually every mall economy has a breaking point. We will only know the true cost of progress when an entire generation grows up in a deluge of information without knowledge, reward without effort and comfort without empathy.
As fewer people own everything around us as well as basic national assets, fewer options are left for the ordinary tax payer including who to vote for and why. Very soon, the question won’t be whether you like waffles or not, the only question will be which flavor would you like to have today…Sir?
- Punit Pania