Saturday, February 9, 2019

Reflections on money and the moneyed

When I was a little girl, my parents never gave me an allowance, or ‘pocket-money’ as it is called here. Instead, they asked me to lend a hand with household chores and gave me ‘payments’ for whatever work I did. Now I know a certain line of thinking about parenting would condemn this as a bad idea since children should learn to do household work as a matter of course and not as something for which they are rewarded; I do not want to go into that debate here, because while an interesting thought, it is a completely different issue from the one I now have in mind. My parents’ method successfully taught me the joys and responsibilities of owning money that is hard earned. In other ways too I was exposed to the family finances from a young age, and as such came to handle significant sums of money with confidence and care far earlier than most of my contemporaries; indeed some still probably don’t, particularly among the girls, and we are now in our twenties.

I never put a lot of thought into my relationship with money, though. I come from a well-off middle-class family, which puts me into the top 1% of India’s population. By God’s grace and Baba’s hard work I have never had to know financial hardship, and my only exposure to poverty has been through literature and cinema, and the fact that I live in a country with an abysmal and ever-growing gap between the haves and the have nots. In my family, the norm has always been to put money firmly in the role of an instrument providing safety, comfort and convenience, along with the ability to indulge in charity and the occasional luxury, the former being viewed as an integral duty by virtue of being human, the latter highlighting rare and special occasions such as vacations, the savouring of fine liquor or festive shopping sprees. Our family has always believed strongly in the value of living simply if not frugally with little attention to conspicuous consumption. I spent the first sixteen years of my life in a small town without ever using a ‘branded’ lifestyle product. Cell phones came late in our lives, smartphones later still. Eating out was done maybe once in six months, maybe less. The family car spent far more time in the garage than it did ferrying any of us about. And our lives were none the worse for any of this. I never felt any sense of loss or inadequacy from the absence of any material objects and experiences that most families in our social class see as integral parts of their lives, particularly in the big cities.

When I moved to Calcutta for my higher secondary education, I joined a somewhat ‘elite’ institution where a large number of the students belonged to one of the richest business communities in India. Soon, I got used to seeing luxury cars outside the school gate, and a certain snobbish stance in classrooms that translated into the financial and psychological equivalent of ‘tu janta nehi mera baap kaun hai’ (don’t you know who my father is?!), though the latter was never directed at me personally given that I was academically far ahead of most of them and somewhat intimidating in my physical appearance and demeanour! This crowd was conspicuously absent during my years at Jadavpur University, where the student body’s so-called Marxist stance in life made way for the reverse snobbery of turning up to class looking like homeless madmen who had just woken up from a roadside ditch the done thing. Since I moved to Delhi though, the high school variety of people have skyrocketed in my vicinity, particularly in my university, which attracts that very crowd through its social as well as financial model. I now reside and study in an atmosphere where branded merchandise rule the day, as do parties and ‘fun’ that involve all sorts of lavish lifestyle choices. And recently, from my time working at the India Art Fair in Delhi, I have first-hand stories about the uber-rich who throw money at artwork the way kids do in candy stores, and I am talking about seven-figure sums here.

I have had the time to muse long and hard about the issue of money and how it affects human lives. And at this point, I feel sufficiently confident of having seen the entire spectrum of financial capacities of people. And I must admit, I have come to despise money and the moneyed more than ever before. I also pity them greatly, and I will presently explain why.

My first and possibly greatest grievance against the moneyed class is how money and civility seem to be inversely proportional. This, I suspect, is particularly true about the rich in India. We as a nation do not place much value on politeness and courtesy to begin with, and the few of us who do practice these values to some extent often do so more from the fear of being called out for misbehaviour than from an innate sense of civility. As money brings a certain privilege and social protection with it, that fear melts away, exposing the natural rudeness and uncouth behaviour of the person. It is also a way for them to exercise their power over the lowly plebeians; after all, how many will raise a voice of protestation against someone who earns a hundred or even a thousand times as herself? This brings me to the inflated sense of self-importance that these people have about their lives and work. As part of my work for the Art Fair, my group had to collaborate with some fashion designers, upcoming names in the Indian fashion industry. One of them was an uncivilized lout who liked to strut about ordering people with a sense of importance that was frankly ludicrous for someone who is, in essence, a glorified master tailor. I am happy to say I had the chance to take the individual down a peg or two and made good use of it. Afterwards, as we trundled around the Art Fair thoroughly uncomfortable in the rather mediocre looking but cut-throat priced designer-wear, we were congratulated by several of the collectors (I have been using a rather less civilized term invoking the canine family to refer to them in private conversations, as it seemed to reflect their attitudes more aptly, but I will desist here for the sake of propriety) for our ‘luck’ at getting to wear them, and advised us to ‘enjoy’ it while we could. I could not decide whether to be more astonished by or full of pity at their idea of what brings joy in life.

That, I suppose, is my second biggest complaint against money, as well as the source of my contemptuous pity for those who have too much of it. The more one devotes oneself to the pursuit of money as the sole aim of one’s life, the more disconnected one seems to become from real love and joy and peace. Lives are given meaning through the possessions one owns, and the prices one pays for it. The art becomes insignificant unless the artist is expensive enough, the vacation becomes pointless unless it is where all the other millionaires also go and spend their money. The worst affected, of course, are not those who are the real earners of the millions, but those who are his family – usually the wife and children. The sense of entitlement they bring with them is mind-boggling, as is the stupidity that is often an unfortunate additive. But I suppose you do need the thick skin (and head) if you have to survive the plastic lives they do, with their kitty parties and leather bags and gossips about the latest ‘in’ things.

I feel saddest, though, for the middle class, the class that aspires more than anything to be like their uber-wealthy counterparts. And what they cannot emulate in earnings, they try to make up for with the spendings. We have more and more families that are aiming for designer trousseau and destination weddings but do not have adequate medical insurance or retirement funds. And, perhaps worst still, far too many people are giving into the lure of commodity fetishism and ‘living it up’ at the price not only of their futures but of their present mental and emotional growth.

Which brings me to the idea of charity. Increasingly I am coming to the conclusion that human beings are not inherently good and kind and keen to help others. They are often quite the opposite, in fact, and have to be coerced by social institutions into putting up a veneer of civility and self-restraint. Since no similar institutional coercive measure exists in the case of charity, it is a small surprise that few people, particularly among the rich, feel the need to do much about human beings subjected to poverty. A former friend from Jadavpur who belonged to one of the traditionally rich north Calcutta families and had no qualms while talking about his collection of pens worth lakhs routinely fought with poor rickshaw pullers over a few rupees and thought I was a gullible fool and a bit of a squanderer for giving money to the various aid seekers, usually the old and infirm, who regularly came to our campus for help. I am not denying that there are many rich individuals who give away huge amounts of their money for charity – I hear J. K. Rowling lost her billionaire status because she donated so much of her wealth. In India, however, it is too little done by too few. In my personal experience, it is often those who have to skip outings with friends because they have to buy groceries that make charity a regular habit. One of my history professors at Ashoka, while discussing communism in class, told us about how he heard people at his gym defending the Ambanis spending obscenely at the daughter’s wedding by arguing they had the right to do whatever they wanted with their ‘hard-earned money’ while criticizing the idea of loan waivers to farmers as it would make them lazy and encourage the bad habit of not paying back on future loans.  What does that say about the rich, and about those who aspire to be so?

I know many will consider this essay a classic piece of sour grapes, but I have myself considered this possibility and rejected it with a laugh long ago. As I started out by saying, I am acutely aware of my privilege of belonging to a comfortably-off family. Having said that, I have not been able to decipher how several more zeroes to the sum in the bank account would have made my life significantly more fruitful. Greater scope for charity would have been one, and it would have been nice, as Rowling had once said, never to have to worry about paying bills in one’s life, but apart from that? What could I have been able to buy that would give me greater long term life satisfaction? The consumer habits practised by the moneyed, I have noticed, is based almost entirely on the question of bragging rights. In my family though, the practice of discussing our incomes with outsiders or asking after another’s has always been seen as a sign of ultimate bad manners and unrefined culture, and the same goes for talking about the prices of our possessions. Growing up with such cultural inclinations, how on earth will buying a bag from Louis Vuitton or a watch from Gucci give me greater joy than my present ones from Dressberry and Titan respectively?

I will close with a reminder, to myself as much as to my readers, about what I said earlier about making money a mere instrument and not the master of one’s life. It is frighteningly easy to lose conviction if one is exposed to a frivolously wasteful environment for too long. Far too many of my friends in Delhi have Apple phones and laptops, and my open ridiculing of Apple users has, as a result, become more guarded. It is only a matter of time, I’m afraid, before a sneaking desire ‘invest’ in a designer accessory may take root in my heart. I hope I will remember to revisit my own writing then, to remind myself where that particular path leads to.