Christmas spirit and the shopping mall

Published on December 10, 2013

By Ngamjahao Kipgen

Over the past few years, the number of showrooms has grown enormously in the capital city of Imphal in Manipur (a Northeast state in India) ushering fascinating options for market delights. Come the month of December, one can be amazed to see customers thronging the markets for the much awaited ‘Christmas shopping’. An acquaintance once told me that you literally need to squeeze yourself to advance your steps in the crowded Imphal boulevards. On the other hand, the shop-keepers often impose a hike to their price tags to compensate their year-long deficits.

Everyone is ready to cough out their fortune to meet the exorbitant prices. Someone hilariously made a remark that ‘beauty parlours’ in the hill localities too have increased immensely to satisfy the growing demands of the already heavily adorned trendy wives of the different armed groups.
Market commodity prices have skyrocketed and parents are compelled to cough out their year-long savings to pamper their youngsters. Even more so, dining out with peer groups at restro-bar have become a common culture of the current consumerist society. What then is consumer culture?

Peter N. Stearns in his consumerism in world history maintains that “consumerism describes a society in which many people formulate their goals in life partly through acquiring goods that they clearly do not need for subsistence or for traditional display. They become enmeshed in the process of acquisition – shopping – and take some of their identity from a [possession] of new items that they buy and exhibit.”

Few years back, I happened to witness a pre-Christmas programme skit show entitled ‘Christmas in the Shopping Mall’ performed by the Sunday school kids of Kuki Worship Service (KWS) based in Delhi, India. The parody tries to depict the tension hovering around most of the Christian families during Christmas season. This cause annoyance and animosity to most parents who get a meagre amount of salary, struggling to meet their children’s basic needs – such as education, food and healthcare expenses. A conflict-like situation is rampant in most of the family as there is an endless list of demands by their children and in the process, the true essence of ‘Christmas’ is often put into oblivion.

The tribal Christian life in the midst of consumerist culture (which I fondly call materialism) has constantly put everyone in a state of delirium. This instills in me a profound enigma which I feel is thought provoking. This piece tries to locate the impact of modernity among the Kuki community by underlining the socio-cultural reality and changes taking place.

The article does not delve into a critique of modernity. My intention, however, is simply to reflect the undermined socio-economic and cultural changes vis-à-vis the Christian values among the tribals in general and the Kuki society in particular. In a sense, we should rather redefine and understand the true sense of modernity from a tribal-Christian perspective.

Christian values are no longer gauged by the essential talents, for instance – that of being spiritual, generous, devoted in praise and worship, and so on of an individual. But the church congregations are merely judged by the tangible standards such as attires/garments they put on and the gadgets or cars they own. This depicts our attachment to materialistic values or possessions.

Factually, humans are seen as rational beings who try to maximize their gains and minimize their loss. The seeds of consumerism have taken roots in the tribal-Christian psyche as well. We all are material-profit driven and money oriented in every aspect of our lives. We seldom care to even trade-off the life of our near and dear ones if it benefits and satisfies oneself.
In the process, we lose our self-respect/dignity and integrity, which was once claimed to be an inherent characteristic of a tribal culture.

If one were to conduct a quick random survey with a query: have we become materialistic? The prompt answer would be: Yes, we have become more selfish and disrespectful. We left no stone unturned to gain something (may it be wealth, pride, honour or reputation) but we turn a deaf ear and are blind-folded when it comes to helping one another. And we as a human being are losing sight of our values and vision. If you gaze around, it is pretty evident that how materialistic and greedy the Kuki people have become. Greed has made many capable leaders blind in our society.

Social change, no doubt, is an ever-present phenomenon in any society. There is no static structure of every known society which does not undergo transformation. The Kuki society too has witnessed and undergone certain changes in the past few decades. The introduction of western education, the adoption of Christianity, and consumer culture are some exogenous forces that bring societal change. Intervention of market has caused a deep social and economic cleavage. In a sense, market defines one’s status in the consumerist world. And this is exercised by only the privileged few.

So, what does being ‘modern’ mean? Is it about being technologically acquisitive, inhabiting places that are plush and expensive? Or, is it all about thriving in material aspect? We may be technologically modern, many institutions can boast of being up with the latest gizmos and gadgets, but much of that is very superficial.

has to do with attitudes, especially those that come into play in social relations. s outlook; accountability in public life. Also, an objective indication of modernity would also be the number of primary health centres, imparting quality and affordable education, basic amenities for the poor and the underprivileged.

Modern society surely promises a lot of avenues for making our life easier, more comfortable, and healthier. It also provides opportunities to use our creative energies productively. So, how modernized are we then? In other words, how many of us have really benefited by the process of modernization? Majority of us are still deprived of all the modern amenities and are mere spectators. We are very much in the midst of modernity; we could feel the aroma but still deprived to savor it.

The gap between rich and poor has increased steadily in line with economic progress. This is primarily because the rich get richer day by day grabbing all the opportunities of the weaker sections. This is exactly what the classical thinker Karl Marx termed as ‘alienation’. In short, the widening gap between ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ has only broadened. The principle of ‘egalitarianism’ among the Kuki society has diminished. Shouldn’t true modernity mean liberation from pauperism and bring forth sustainability to all sections of the society.

Modernity, for its fruition/completeness, necessitates an economic, political, and social space that guarantees individual dignity and makes available to all the opportunity and resources to pursue the good life. In short, none should be deprived of his life’s chances. Herein lies the future of Kuki that is the well-being of everyone – the young, the old and the poor.

Sadly, we seem to fail in all these aspects. Ironically, a majority of the masses live in grinding poverty and face deprivation every single day of their lives. This is where the problem lies with us.
There is a missing link between all these factors.

With the increasing demands of modern lifestyle that comes with materialism seem to have deflected our efforts and energies leading to a morally decadent and valueless society. Some values and virtues, such as material modesty, self-sufficiency, honesty, and benevolence are, I assume, would provide an enriching life if we can practice them consciously and consistently. This is where the Church (religious teachings) has a role to play.

We all claim to be Christian but do we really stand up against oppression, corruption and all kinds of injustices, and take side with the weak and the marginalized. Jesus did stand up against all these and sided with the poor and the weak.

‘Church’ is an influential body in our lives; it is an institution that truly comprises the people. Therefore, Church is the appropriate place for social transformation. But does Church really succeed in transforming the lives of the people? It has a minimal effect. The influence of Church is limited within the premises of the building. So for most of us, we do attend Church services religiously but remains hollow spiritually.

This is why we rarely are moved by the teachings of our Church leaders. There are hardly any Churches that fight (practically) for justice and social upliftment. Rather, we are so divided and lack a vision by competing among ourselves in modernizing the Church buildings.

No doubt, the church today has been ingrained within us so much so that it has become part of our culture. However, the true Christian values are degrading among the churches and the congregation. Whom do we blame – our Church leaders or the general public? I do not have an answer to this either. So the question remains – are we better off by being Christian or should we agree and accept the fact that our forefathers (who were non-Christian) better than us?

The world is changing rapidly, yet our un-modern attitude still conditions our social lives and relations. This seems to be an inherent illness we all are afflicted with. Probably, this is why there is so much contradiction between the religious and socio-economic aspect of our lives. This illness is rampant among us and the symptoms surface in the form of greed for materialism, momentary pleasure, and losing sights of the future.

The true essence of our Christian ethics and values end up in the quagmire of modernity and materialism. And no wonder the Christmas spirit ends up in smoke in the ‘Shopping Mall’.

Ngamjahao Kipgen is an assistant professor in Sociology at the National Institute of Technology, India.

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