It's a Sunday afternoon in Bangalore's Total Mall and the staff at Killer are ready to sell some jeans. The lights are bright, the air-conditioning is on full blast, and the denim is stacked along one wall dark to faded, skinny to distressed. The assistant manager, Emmanuel Mathew, with a trim mustache and slight paunch, sidles up to a gangly young man and shows him a popular style. "Slim fit, very nice." He doesn't respond, so Mathew tries another pair, another approach. "Stretchable, very comfortable." But this customer is only interested in making a deal. "No, we don't give discounts." Disappointed, he walks away.
It's a challenge selling high-end men's clothing in a shopping mall the cheapest pair of Killer jeans retails for about $25 when most Indians are used to bargaining with street vendors or in open-air bazaars. Every pair of jeans, Mathew explains, has subtle details that justify the price: pocket detailing, shanked buttons, finely woven fabric. He holds up two pairs in the same style, one of them in a deep indigo wash, and says knowingly: "These, you could wear to the office."
Never mind that no one in Mathew's family has ever worked in an office. This is Bangalore, IT hub and symbol of the new India, and there's no reason why the son of a carpenter can't relate to the fashion dilemmas of software engineers. Mathew was born in 1991, the year that India started liberalizing its economy. He belongs to the generation that grew up during India's boom. They are as diverse as the country's people but have one key thing in common: the new India is the only India they know.
The Indian Dream In 1991, I was a 20-year-old college student, visiting India for a summer internship. No one was talking about economic reform; India had just narrowly averted a balance of payments default and the 20-somethings I knew fantasized about escape to the U.S. or Britain. No longer. "India is a fundamentally different country in this decade," says Narayan Ramachandran, former head of Morgan Stanley in India. "If you ask the average 25-year-old, they'd be interested in setting up a business, moving forward with their lives. It's exactly the opposite of the way it was 20 years ago."
India will need that optimism. The country's boom is slowing, amid deep concerns about corruption, woeful schools and violent land conflicts. India has the largest under-20 population in the world nearly half a billion. They could prove to be a powerful demographic dividend, energizing India while the rest of the world ages or turn into a massive cohort of unemployed, disaffected youth. These portraits of three Indians born in 1991 reveal much about the two Indias (one of promise, the other of despair), the gap between dreams and reality, and their determination to bridge that divide.
The Bangalore Connection
Before Bangalore became an information-technology powerhouse, it was better known as a sleepy, southern state capital with a mild climate well suited to migratory birds and retirees. Mathew grew up in the city. "I walked to school," he says, in the days before the city's now infamous traffic.
Change came slowly. It took years after the initial reforms for the government to implement laws deregulating major industries from telecommunications to finance to power. "They went sector by sector and put in the plumbing," says Ramachandran. By 2000, India was primed to absorb some of the billions of dollars of capital surging through financial markets because of low interest rates in the U.S. and Europe. Some of that money poured into the campuses built by global giants like Microsoft and IBM, and the call centers set up by Indian firms like Infosys, Wipro and TCS.
India's tech sector now employs more than 2.5 million people a tiny fraction of India's labor force but a tangible presence in Bangalore. The gulmohar trees are plastered with ads for rented rooms for single men or women IT workers and shopping malls have proliferated. They cater to a young population flush with disposable income and, thanks to late-night call-center shifts, hours to kill during the day.
Mathew tried to get his father's old job in a post office when he died in 2008. "He told me when he was dying that they would give me the job on compassionate grounds," Mathew says. It's a common practice, but Mathew says he found that the job wasn't a proper government position at all it was just temporary and he would have to pay a "commission" for even that.
A year later, Total Mall opened. "I just asked," Mathew says. "They gave me the job." He proved to be a natural salesman. Mathew worked 12 hours a day, six days a week, for about $115 a month, barely enough to cover expenses. It might look respectable, but it is much like any work in India's informal sector off the books, with no benefits. And no security: the store closed several weeks ago for lack of customers; now Mathew has a new job selling CDs for even less pay.