Less is more: Why affluent Indians are going minimalist
“I was never a shopper. But these things were gifted to me,” she says.
Five sets of expensive crockery, all gifted and some never even opened. Precious antique heirloom furniture adorned her spacious apartment in Ghaziabad. But they didn’t bring happiness.
Instead, they made her feel asphyxiated. Hundreds of books from her schooldays lay virtually abandoned at her childhood home in Mauritius. “While coming away I had instructed my mom to not touch them. They lay there gathering dust, unopened for years. I love books. But they weighed heavy on my mind,” she says.
A Guide To Minimalism
It was not just the big inherited stuff. It manifested everywhere in her apartment, from kitchen to her bathroom. Her pantry perpetually felt stuffed to the gills. Discounts and deals led her to buy stuff she didn’t need or quantities that never got used before their expiry period.
Once she ran short of tamarind in the kitchen and no neighbourhood store had it in stock. The moment they came, she bought seven packets, which rotted in her pantry for months. “Instead of the food serving me, it was I who was serving the food,” she says. Make pasta as its red sauce is close to expiry date. Throw out the wheat flour bag as it is past the expiry. Perpetually, she was putting out pulses and other stuff out in the sun because they were infested by insects.
“The clutter in the house constantly weighed on my mind.” Six months ago, Gujadhar decided to declutter her house and embarked on a journey of material detox. “My mom and others were sort of horrified at first. Slowly, they have come around,” she says. Her books in Mauritius — 100s of them — were given to the public library. She found good homes for her crockery and gave them away. She gifted her expensive and beautiful collection of sarees to friends and family who cherish and wear them regularly.
“I find joy in seeing that my sarees have found loving homes where they are being worn,” she says. Besides household staff, cartons of other stuff were given away to Goonj, a not-for-profit that recycles old stuff and donates them to the needy. Her friends/family no longer gift her stuff but just give cash. “I have a long way to go. But I already feel better and lighter. A gift should be loved, not become a burden,” she says.
A wave of minimalism as a lifestyle choice has been sweeping the developed world. And in affluent corners of India, where people can afford to consume conspicuously, many are walking away from the tiresome update-and-upgrade consumerist lifestyle that ends up clogging their spaces and weighing on their minds, and embracing minimalism, with a focus on needs, quality, experiences and decluttering. In a world worried about global warming and ever growing mountains of trash, a minimal lifestyle is finding many takers on ethical grounds as well. Footloose millenials, many of them digital nomads, wholeheartedly cheer from the sidelines.
There is academic support to the underlying idea that the less you own, the happier you are. In 2005, a psychology professor at Illinois’ Knox College studied minimalism and its impact on happiness and well-being. The study found that adjusting for age, gender, geographical differences, voluntary simplifiers reported higher life satisfaction, more experiences of pleasant emotions and fewer experiences of unpleasant emotion.
Cornell University professor Thomas Gilovich, who studies happiness, has found that experiences bring more pleasure than possessions. Globally, there have been several influential messiahs of minimalism. Many people have helped propagate minimalism around the world. Marie Kondo, a Japanese author, ranked among Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people in 2015. She has written four books around minimalism, including the bestseller The Life Changing Magic of Tidying.
She champions a method called the KonMari Method — a path to emancipation and self-discovery — for minimalists to declutter their lives. Science fiction writer Philip K Dick was on to something when he coined the word Kipple, which means useless objects that accumulate in a house. This was in the 1960s, well before minimalism as a popular lifestyle choice had caught on.
Influential podcasters Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus run theminimalists.com and claim to have helped more than 20 million people embrace minimalism. Author and minimalist Colin Wright, who inspired Millburn and Nicodemus to pursue minimalism and has spent some time in India, told ET Magazine : “The concept of minimalism has meant, and continues to mean, different things to different people across cultures and countries. The core principles are similar but the specifics change.”
During his stay in India, he got a flavour of consumption here. “My experience in Kolkata actually reinforced in my mind that compulsive consumption is an issue everywhere, irrespective of average income or traditional approach to spending.” The world has been sold this idea that one needs to accumulate more, always, and that this is the only way to be happy. “That ideology has pervaded eve cover ry country I’ve lived in, and India is no different in that regard,” he says.
India, with its low per capita income, is nowhere near the first world in its consumption curve. Yet, in a small but significant way, minimalism is taking root among people like Gujadhar.
“India is evolving its own shade of minimalism. They (minimalists here) aren’t completely walking away from consumption but they are being much more thoughtful and selective about it. Expect their lot to grow,” says Santosh Desai, CEO, Future Brands. Meanwhile, Diwali is around the corner.
Preparations for the consumption frenzy have begun. From Facebook to WhatsApp, malls to melas, the rising tide of deals and discounts have begun. Companies will lure the Indian consumer with a reported Rs 25,000 crore in advertising spends. Millions of shoppers will doubtless respond eagerly in the festive season. But a growing minority of minimalists, like Gujadhar and her 13-year-old daughter Manya, will be harder to tempt.
“We will celebrate Diwali. But shopping isn’t on our mind,” she says. Her house is being deep cleaned. Curtains are being washed. Puja, diyas, festivities and guests will all be par for the course. “Manya has a lehenga and two nice dresses. Enough to choose from,” she says.
Indian Wave Minimalists come in different shades. Meghna Verma, 36, discovered it in 2009. Out of college, working, she found herself moving cities every year. The turning point was when she moved to Paris. “I had to pack all my stuff in two suitcases. I had no choice,” she says. In Paris, living in a 27 sqft apartment, she had to maintain a no-frill life to live comfortably.
She returned to India in 2016 but the habit stayed. “My life now has to fit in two suitcases,” she says. Living in a one BHK apartment in Gurgaon with her dog Hendrix, she has a limited set of clothes, shops only when she really needs and buys stuff that may be pricey but long lasting. She says she is a very focused shopper who knows fully well what she wants. Her minimalist philosophy percolates to all aspects of her life. A fuss-free eater, she cooks every Sunday and stocks her fridge and does not have any help except for a dog walker. “This simplicity frees up a lot of my time, money and mindspace to do things I really want to do, like travelling and painting.”
Mumbai-based Hardik Nagar, 24, a writer of microfiction, discovered minimalism when he was 17. A tad adrift, half-heartedly pursuing a career in accounting, minimalism helped anchor him, he says. He started documenting his journey on his blog That Indian Minimalist. He has five basic sets of clothes, few possessions and
before buying he asks himself does it add value to his life. “Like a cult, some minimalists prescribe a certain way of living. I think all of us should find our own equilibrium.”
Counter to Consumerism
Unny Radhakrishnan, 47, a freelance consultant now, grew up amidst modest means. His income grew as he moved up the corporate ladder. Most recently he was a highranking executive at advertising conglomerate Group M. But he refused to buy into the upgrade-update lifestyle. For a long time, he didn’t own a car or an AC and has a limited wardrobe. A high-fidelity audio system is his guilty pleasure. “Travel is where we spend the most. Off late, we do stock some wine, our indulgence. These days we buy some organic stuff from a Kerala farmer to support him,” he says.
Historically, Japan was known for its minimalist culture and the Scandinavians for their minimalist designs. Among consumer brands, Apple has exploited the minimalist design ethos to lure buyers. The rise of minimalism is relatively new.
Consumption today is at its peak thanks to multiple factors — rising per capita income, fast fashion, ease of anytime-anywhere e-shopping and a wider embrace of use-and-throw culture as technology advances make frequent product upgrades a buyer’s ritual. “Amid constant stimulation from social media, many consumers now feel that things may have gone beyond their control,” says Future Brands’ Desai.
Minimalism is their reaction to regain control. It suits millennials and their worldview well. Especially in the US, the financial crisis and flat-lining wages have forced them to cutback. Further, this helps today’s footloose digital nomads who want to move cities and countries with ease. Minimalism tugs at the heart of conscientious consumers who worry about the rising pile of trash, environment and global warming.
“Living with less, with just the right things, makes us part of the solution even if it doesn’t entirely free us from being part of the problem,” says Wright, the pioneering minimalist. For many, minimalism is also a natural path of evolution. Having experienced the drug of opulence, mindless consumption no longer offers the dopamine high it once did.
So, they are purging. The changing worldview of the super rich, who plays a big cultural role in setting aspirations, matters, too. With luxury and high fashion democratised, “overt materialism is generally a less clear marker of status today,” says Elizabeth Currid-Halkett, a professor of public policy at University of Southern California. They are spending more on building cultural capital and experiences.
Digitalisation helps, too. From books to music, photos to letters, consumers can declutter and yet consume without their physical formats. New pay-per-use business models like Uber (rent a car, don’t own) and Furlenco (rent furniture) where consumers can rent what they need, helps. Miniaturisation and converged devices mean consumers needn’t buy multiple devices. A mobile phone is not just a phone but also a watch, calculator, camera, computer and much more rolled into one. In India, however, minimalism will find its own growth trajectory.