Breaking Norms in India

By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, August 7, 2008

BANGALORE, India -- When Anand Mahesh was a boy, his parents dreamed that he would become a worker bee in India's mammoth civil service. Like many working-class people, they saw job security for him pushing papers or stamping forms in one of the world's biggest bureaucracies.

But young Mahesh dreamed of a career that his parents found peculiar: designing or selling private cars in a country where, at the time, transport usually meant bikes, buses or trains.

A self-described "tech-head," Mahesh applied to work as a salesman at Reva, India's first electric car company, which is helping drive a surge in first-time car ownership here.

"This is a future job in India," beamed Mahesh, 27, as he turned on the gently purring engine during a recent test-drive of a dent-proof, bright yellow car that whizzed through Bangalore's traffic like a golf cart. "My parents think the car is kind of odd. But all my friends say I do a new, dream job." From sales, he hopes to move on to design.

In an increasingly affluent India, Mahesh's job is one of many new or rapidly expanding professions that are breaking norms and creating fresh opportunities for the country's young generation.

Women now work as gas station attendants, filling tanks and checking oil, shrugging off suggestions that they're prostitutes. Indian magazines are filled with stories about hip new career prospects: disc jockeys and bouncers at nightclubs that opened after many middle-class Indians gave up their habit of drinking only in private clubs or at home.

Bright billboards hang in nearly every small town with ads featuring stylish young women enrolled in flight-attendant training schools, a glamorous job in a country where trains were long the primary mode of long-distance transport. And women can now work as bartenders, after the Supreme Court of India recently overturned a 1914 British colonial-era law that blocked them from the profession.

The new jobs are especially empowering to India's middle- and working-class women. By becoming economically independent, they are delaying marriage, a trend that is slowly changing the male-dominated power dynamic in South Asia.

The new jobs also reflect changing habits and values in a society that is one of the youngest in the world, with 70 percent of its 1.15 billion people under age 35.

"There's a massive loosening of family pressure. That's because today, the rising middle class doesn't have to worry about basic necessities anymore," said Jagdip Bakshi, head of the Contract Advertising agency in Mumbai, which tracks societal trends. "It's a complete shift in India for the 'Over my dead body you will become a golfer or a drummer' type of Indian parental mentality. Now, some parents are actually saying, 'Okay, you want to try graphic art, well go for it.' "

Shopping for an electric car recently was Shantanu Kalamli, 21, a ponytailed hipster with a guitar slung over his back and a very unconventional career choice. "I am studying to be a pet veterinarian," he said proudly, laughing as his friends -- all "vets-for-pets in training" -- explained how significant their new job choice is.

"Traditionally in India, vets were only for cows or goats in the village," said Suranjana Ganguly, 21, who is about to graduate from veterinarian school in Mumbai, where visiting foreign teachers lectured on the internal organs of dogs, cats, parrots and hamsters. "In the past, Indians would never keep such pets, let alone feed them, pay for surgery and vitamins. But middle-class people have more income now and it's seen as trendy."

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