This article originally appeared on VICE India.
Growing up in Nagpur, a mid-sized Indian city devoid of a McDonald’s until very recently, I felt like a G–the missing one from ‘I’m lovin’ it’. How could I love it when there wasn’t an it to love? Is it even possible to experience happiness if you’ve never tasted a Happy Meal? But from August 9, 2019 onwards, it became possible to love it, and to be happy in Nagpur as McDonald’s opened an outlet—the first in the city and the 303rd in West and Southern India. The new McDonald’s was met with celebratory stampedes on escalators, social media takeovers and exalted disbelief. Those from Nagpur couldn’t believe that “Mac-D”, as it’s often called in places where people only hear of it, had finally arrived even as those from bigger cities couldn’t believe that it had just arrived.
My flatmate from Mumbai (a city with 82 McDs) quipped, “Nagpur just got a McDonald’s? What’s next, they’ll open up an airport there too?” When I got defensive about the pride of my city, he reminded me of the score: 82-1. It’s not only my insufferable flatmate who thinks of McDonald’s as a parameter for development. With more than 37,855 outlets in the world spread out over 120 countries, McDonald’s has achieved a globalised universality, which makes its profits a score sheet for neoliberal development. The everywhereness of McDonald’s has made it a universal currency of sorts. The Big Mac Index published by The Economist tracks how much a Mac costs in different countries, and uses this to measure purchasing power parity between nations.
On a psychological and personal level, the lack of a McDonald’s for all these years was seen as a symptom of Nagpur not being developed enough. I’ve seen my friends gauge the progress of our city by the brands coming to the local malls. Thus, the opening of a McDonald’s is a new milestone celebrated by the residents as a sign of ‘development’ in the city. It doesn’t matter that Nagpur has the highest crime state in the state (more than twice of Mumbai), or that 7,700 farmers in Vidarbha have died by suicide in the last five years, or the financial woes of the Nagpur Municipal Corporation or the closing of 220 MIDC factories, or the many accidents caused by potholed roads. What matters is now residents can flavour their fries in an official McD Shake Shake bag! I’m Lovin it!
Why all these other issues aren’t a big deal is a difficult question. What’s easy is answering why McDonald’s is such a big deal. Desire is birthed by lack, and so it’s no surprise that Nagpur has forever yearned for a McDonald’s. A page called ‘We Want McDonald’s in Nagpur’ was started in February 2012 describing its mission as “We want a McD in the center of India. That's all!!!!!!!!!!”. Here, you’ll find people thinking of having a McChicken with a chilled coke in hand as a distant dream. The egregious number of exclamation marks used in posts and comment threads visibly depict the overpowering desire of someone in a tier-2 city in a third-world country wanting to taste what seemingly everyone else in the whole world is savouring and lovin’. One of the first images posted is a picture of a McDonald’s outlet in a different city, captioned “does this photo makes your heart burn???? Becuz it makes mine…”
Anyone who has grown up in a city without McDonald’s can perfectly relate to the aforementioned heartburn, which is much different and less dangerous than the one caused by eating too many fries. This is the heartburn induced by feeling left out from a globalised world. McDonald’s isn’t just seen as an iconic fast-food chain with pocket-friendly hyper-localised menus. It’s a pathway into a global dimension, a conduit into a simulacrum projected by advertising, capitalism, and globalisation seen through the broken lens of neoliberal glasses. The desire for McDonald’s does not stem from wanting burgers and fries, but rather from wanting to be like Other Cities. This is perfectly summed up by a Zomato review gifting the outlet five stars and commenting, “Happy to see McDonald’s in Nagpur. It’s taste is good just like you would find in any other city.” It doesn’t matter what the taste of McDonald’s is, as long as it’s like everywhere else.
A testament to how ecstatic Nagpur is to finally have a McDonald’s is the outlet’s rating on Zomato. With a rating of 4.5, McDonald’s is in the top five restaurants in the city. When I went to check it out myself, there were queues that stretched beyond the floor, and why not? The tales we had heard from cousins in metropolitan cities seemed too fantastic to be true. With their eyes all starry and consumed with wonder (that can only be brought on by seeing Piri Piri fries made live and not just in an ad), they would speak dreamily of sitting on Ronald’s lap and attending birthday parties at McD’s special party rooms. A friend from Mumbai fondly recounted her fifth birthday party at a McDonald’s. Upon asking her what the return gift at her party was, she said “There were neither gifts, nor return gifts. No one wanted anything else because a Happy Meal was the only gift anyone needed,” she said. While this was what she went through a couple of decades ago, this wave of feeling like our city or town was finally cool and is progressing, is what smaller places in India are going through right now, as the fast food giant further penetrates into India.
How has McDonald’s managed to co-opt basic human emotions like happiness and love? With more than $2 billion spent in advertising every year, McDonald’s has the power to dictate not only your desires but also your calendars. Close-reading a recent tweet by McDonald’s gives an insight into the insidious nature of branding it propagates. The official McDonald’s account tweeted: “Thanks for celebrating #NationalFrenchFryDay with us! We hope you celebrated with someone who makes you just as happy as perfectly crispy fries.” With this, McDonald’s puts the reader in a difficult position. By equating something as important and sacred as what would be interpreted as a partner, with fries, McDonald’s attempts to simultaneously cheapen your relationships and raise the value of its fries.
McDonald’s is something I couldn’t escape because of being bombarded by advertisements, wet dreams about a Maharaja Mac, product plugs, and the more fortunate kids from school bringing back Happy Meal toys and day-old burgers that had survived overnight train-journeys. But what made this inundation so sacred was the inaccessibility. While the image of a Happy Meal was vivid, real and inevitably underwhelming for anyone who had the misfortune of actually going to McDonald’s, for me, the image was incredible beyond measure because it hadn’t been actualised. A reviewer on Zomato says, “The disappointing thing is that the products aren't really made in a way they're shown on the menu or in the poster.” After consuming the McDonald’s ad propaganda and then the food, the commenter feels betrayed as she’s pushed into the valley lying between ‘Mac-D’ as a signifier and what McDonald’s actually signifies. It’s better to watch the view from afar, instead of trying to make the journey just to inevitably fall into this gap. I’m not a fan of the new McDonald’s—because I’m deeply nostalgic for when I didn’t have the option of going to one, when what McDonald’s signified in my head wasn’t sub-standard fries or burgers that make you feel like shit, but an imaginary unattainable happiness and lovin’. It signified an unrealised desire, which was better off not getting fulfilled. McDonald’s tastes best when you’ve never eaten it.