90s Nostalgia – what life used to be like

For the longest time, I have shunned nostalgia. Which is not the same as avoiding old pop culture (or non pop) products.  One of the first books I remember reading and enjoying was Arthur Conan Doyle’s Hound of the Baskervilles and one of the first Hindi songs I remember loving was Pukarta Chala Hoon Main (Tamil was different as I was lapping up then contemporary works of Raja and Rahman). I have absolutely no problem with ‘old’ art because art isn’t old or new, it’s just an act of expression at a point of time.

But, getting back to nostalgia, the last few years have made me reminisce what life used to be like.  I don’t want to say life was better then (albeit it was, in a way, which I will get to), but the thought occurred to me that it’s time for those of us who grew up in the 90s to start writing about it.  To stop being in denial and accept we are adults 😉 and old enough to ‘reminisce’. 😦

This isn’t just going to be about all the things we did in the 90s that we don’t have to do/don’t get to do anymore.

I am going to talk instead about my journey as an observer, an onlooker of rapid change.  The transformation apace in India made it a very exciting time to live through.  It’s possible that in some sense, the transformation in smaller cities in recent years has been equally exciting but the time I speak of was before our metros got clogged and overburdened beyond control (not that they weren’t already overburdened at that time).

I am just about old enough to remember when we didn’t have a computer.  My late grandfather got a 286 ( 286 Mhz! Yes!) around 1992-93.  There was not much I could do with this so-not-user-friendly computer but I did get to play Pacman.

Music was exclusively consumed on cassette or radio. There was a Videocon TV with only 12 channels and a Videocon washing machine that didn’t have a timer. We had both till 1999, go figure.  The fridge was Godrej.  When foreign brands didn’t offer cheap options, you bought Indian by default. Did Indian brands somewhere get the branding wrong, or did they fail to stay abreast of improvements in technology in consumer durables?  Oh, my air conditioner is still a Voltas.

Oh, what did we watch on TV?  I don’t remember the exact timelines but until 93 or so, we had just DD National, DD Metro (now dead) and a pirate channel run by the local cable operator which would broadcast movies in terrible print, with ads that covered up all but the core of the TV screen.  Then, Zee came in with Hindi programming. And Star TV.

The programming of Star TV was very different from today.  The sitcoms of the day were Bold And The Beautiful, Santa Barbara, Picket Fences, LA Law.  AND British classics like Yes Minister, Hercule Poirot and Sherlock Holmes.

Today, it would make no sense whatsoever to excitedly watch reruns of old American and British series.  But when you don’t have wiki to tell you just how old they are and you have never had the chance to watch such programming all these years on your TV, you don’t complain over such trifles.

Speaking of, anybody remember deferred live?  I do. One particularly memorable instance of it was when Star TV was showing Agassi v/s Chang at the Australian Open LIVE with really good picture quality.   But Agassi was off colour and it turned into a boring display of attritional baseline tennis (who knew then that that would describe 90% of ATP tennis today!).  We switched to DD where a deferred live telecast of Becker v/s Woodforde was underway.  We barely saw anything of the ball as the two got to net more often (or so it seemed) in GAMES than Agassi and Chang in entire SETS, but we loved it.

As we moved into the late 90s, the first truly radical changes to our way of life happened. We got our first Windows PC with a Pentium 1000 processor.  Soon, we also got a VSNL internet connection.  It was so slow that internet over a 2G datapack would fare better than it, seriously.  But again, when you have NEVER had internet at all, you appreciate whatever internet you get. We got our first audio CD, a Kishore Kumar-RD Burman compilation.  I am not sure we fully appreciated it because you could only play it on PC speakers then (there were no CD stereo systems yet, at least none that we could afford) which didn’t offer the most amazing sound quality.

This was also the period when at least moderately swanky cars and cars in all sorts of varieties began to appear on the roads in middle class areas and in distant suburbs.  En route to Thane from Kalyan (where I lived then) via the Bhiwandi Bypass, you could see cars like Daewoo’s Cielo.  What Daewoo?  What Cielo? Google it man! 😉  Of course…YOU didn’t have a car and YOU were in a hired Ambassador.  During that period, the changes underway were sometimes, if not often, out of your reach.  But even to see Cielos, Ford Escorts, Opel Astras and Honda Citys on the road was exciting when you could count the models on the fingers of two hands before – 800, Zen, Esteem, Ambassador, Padmini, 118 NE and Contessa (very occasionally).  The most successful personal vehicle segment today – the SUV – didn’t even exist then – you had straight up Jeeps like the Mahindra Jeep, the Commander or Maruti Gypsy. The Sumo would join their ranks soon as well.

The life that we led then in the suburbs would be regarded as impossibly dreary today (though we didn’t know it then, because us kids played and played, mothers were busy with running the household as they still are and fathers came home from work to unwind to TV programmes and/or music. )  Anything exotic meant a trip to the city (meaning downtown Mumbai coming up to Dadar/Matunga).  And that could mean something like looking for an audio cassette of K L Saigal hits.  Listen to this: my uncle living in Chicago is a huge fan of Saigal and asked if we could get a cassette of his hits.  We looked for it in a couple of music stores in Dadar with no luck.  We finally found it only in Rhythm House.  We asked if we could get to play the tape (because so often you would get a cassette home and play only to hear that dreaded off key sound that told you the tape was spoiled) but they said their policy wouldn’t permit it and asked us to rely on them as it was, after all, Rhythm House.  I am happy to report they didn’t let us down.  Not that it matters because Rhythm House is dead! Oh well.

My first taste of liquor-tinged chocolate was also in South Mumbai.  At the Central Plaza theater in Girgaum. We went over there to watch Lost World and paid what was then a princely sum of Rs.80 for lower stall tickets.  When I say lower stall, it was the first or second row!  But the theater had the aforesaid chocolates among its food offerings to taste during the intermission.  And it brought on yet another attack of bronchitis for poor me, but I didn’t regret it.

More changes had been afoot during this time.  Star TV made way for focused channels to cater to Hindi and English audience.  Star Plus which had sitcoms whose sole concern wasn’t saas-bahu intrigue.  Saboot was the favourite at our home of all these offerings.  It was a whodunit with a twist in the conceit – you saw the murderer commit the crime and THEN this diminutive female police officer who was as persistent as a bloodhound would investigate the crime and keep asking questions, first to others, then to the one you already knew was the murderer.  And the questions kept getting more and more uncomfortable as she drew closer to the truth.  The show worked brilliantly even though you knew who had committed the crime and you knew she would get to the murderer in the end.  Would that our mainstream TV programming had even this level of creativity to offer today!

But the more exciting development – both for me and my grandfather in particular – was Star Movies.  Now you could watch movies any time of the day on a channel that showed nothing but movies. Imagine that!  😀  Oh, when such seemingly small pleasures meant the world to us. But let me tell you that the catalog of Star Movies alone then was far better than all the English movie channels put together today.  You know why?  Because they were less risk averse.  So you could watch oddball films that hadn’t exactly set the box office on fire.  And even if you didn’t enjoy all of them, you got exposed to different genres, different styles of filmmaking. It’s where I watched movies like Dead Zone, Phenomenon or The Edge.  If you haven’t watched them, google them and check out their subjects.  And keep them in mind next time somebody mouths a truism that isn’t really true like “oh, all plots, all conceits have been exhausted”.

In 2001, we moved to Vashi which immediately upgraded our lifestyle significantly just by being there.  In Kalyan, we didn’t dare eat out and if you saw what those places looked like, you would agree too. We could now go out frequently. The company too offered a car to my father as the driving distance from Vashi to his Lower Parel office would be within their fuel allowance limits.  I discovered the existence of expensive coffee chains like Cafe Coffee Day and Barista (also dead). I did not enjoy the taste of cappuccino then and do not now but the notion that you could be with a friend and take your own sweet time to sip coffee in comfortable, air conditioned environs was itself so new then. Likewise, bookstores like Oxford (again…I don’t need to mention its fate) in Churchgate allowed you to just get a book off the shelf and read for a while before you decide to purchase it.  And you could return without purchasing anything at all.  That was a level of trust retailers had never shown before and that felt…revolutionary.

By 2003, Navi Mumbai had its first mall, Centre One.  Its original avatar has since downed shutters and reopened to tenuous existence…whether this existence will re-exist post covid-19 is anybody’s guess. I got to borrow my mother’s mobile phone when I went to a coaching class in Ghatkopar every evening. By 2003, we had also enjoyed our first ride on the Mumbai-Pune expressway.

We didn’t notice, I think, when the end of our (my generation’s) innocence happened.  When you’re on a treadmill of rising aspirations, you don’t stop to take a look and notice something odd.  But in retrospect, that moment was the Gateway blasts in 2003.

There were two repercussions of the blast.  Gateway became a high security zone and could no longer be a venue for live events.  As a Mumbaiite, it is hard not to remember the blasts every time I watch this video (and, as a music lover, I watch it often):

But the more significant consequence of the incident was it exposed what news reporting in India had become.  Every news channel reported wildly different death tolls and none, I repeat none, got it right. This was the moment that exposed clearly that information had become a mere commodity for those who professed to bring you the news, that getting there first mattered more, far more, to them than getting to the truth.  When you could not completely rely on what news channels reported, it was hard not to become cynical. It is why I am somewhat unsympathetic when I hear liberals of a certain stripe moan about fake news in the age of Trump (and Modi).  Darling, that train left the station long ago and you didn’t notice.  Maybe because you had a good life then and a world order that was agreeable to your worldview?

This combination of rising cynicism AND rising aspirations (along with improving abilities of the market to provide the consumer what he seeks) has marked developments since then.  I took my first flight in 2006 and it was a memorable experience for me, particularly because T1 as we know it had come into being. But it was also in 2006 that I returned home from work to face angry parents who were upset I hadn’t received any of their multiple calls (the phone was in my pocket and I couldn’t hear it ring in the noisy bus).  The reason?  There had been a blast in a local train in rush hour, right around the time I had been returning home.

In 2007, I attended a rock show for the first time and had made it two by the end of the year (Iron Maiden, first, then Scorpions). But the 26/11 blasts in 2008 drove big bands away for quite some time from Mumbai.  And by the time Mumbai became less unsafe again, big band rock was either not in great health anymore or was overbooked in America and Europe with no need for an India outreach. And you know what Barkha Dutt did whilst reporting on 26/11.

At some point, the dam has burst and the cynicism has been replaced by anger, by fury.  I do not think the fury is all bad.  Even if you think – as I do – that the conspiracy theories floating around Sushant Singh Rajput’s death are wild, unless you are on the take, you probably agree that the debate around nepotism and the industry’s unprofessional practices is a much needed one.  It is good that we care.  But is it so good when a Union Minister incites a mob to fire bullets at protesters in crass, expletive-laden Hindi?  Again, if you stepped back a little from whataboutisms, you would agree with me that what a minister cannot do, at least in principle, is to tell people to take law into their own hands.  Just the same as you cannot say the mob wouldn’t have rioted and destroyed property in the city they live in had somebody who purportedly made an offensive Facebook post been arrested ‘in time’.

And that is partly the purpose of recounting what I have.  As I said, mine isn’t the nostalgia of ‘going back to those days’. No, my purpose with this recollection is to show that there was a time not so long ago when we were, if not happy, at least a lot less angry as a people with  a lot less.  Materially, our lot has not got worse since then; it has improved.  I remember when there was no JJ Flyover, no Eastern Freeway, no T2, no metro, no air conditioned Volvo buses being operated by city transport undertakings.  No 4G Data, no streaming, no ecommerce.  No malls at all, forget about malls as big, as awesome as Seawood Central. The Windows PC I mentioned?  It cost the same, in 90s rupees at that, as a decent notebook (I mean the little brother of the laptop, to be clear).  Think about that.  Think about everything that we take for granted that didn’t even exist not so long ago.

And…that’s all.  Not going to issue any judgments, any ‘pearls of wisdom’ (!).  You’re probably an adult, just like me. You need no advice.  But if I have at least made you pause and introspect, I will consider my job done.



7 Responses to “90s Nostalgia – what life used to be like”

  1. Srinivas R Says:

    My takeway from this post:

    “there was a time not so long ago when we were, if not happy, at least a lot less angry as a people with a lot less”

    Nicely written Madan.

  2. Meghna Says:

    Good article. My personal favorite line: “information had become a mere commodity for those who professed to bring you the news, that getting there first mattered more, far more, to them than getting to the truth”- so true, and would love to see you write about this more in another post.

    • Madan Says:

      Thanks Meghna. Worth writing about indeed. Will get to it. Suffice it to say that disinformation is much older than social media. I am listening to Joe Scarborough talking about how when he was in Congress, his mother used to send him email forwards spouting crazy conspiracy theories about Congresspersons (like, did you know that 200 Congresspersons are bankrupt and stuff).

  3. Nostalgia part 2: the noughties | Pictured life Says:

    […] wrote about the 90s here. I haven’t much reflected on the noughties – I did in the earlier post touch upon a […]

  4. Ram Murali Says:

    Lots of delicious little details in your post, Madan. I really enjoyed reading it and recollecting a lot of similar memories. This one in particular made me grin ear-to-ear:

    “There was not much I could do with this so-not-user-friendly computer but I did get to play Pacman.”

    Thanks for sharing this piece.

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