Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
Wealth : August 27, 2000
The good life
T. G. Vaidyanathan
Author, film critic and former Professor of English, now based in Bangalore.
In a widely read book a couple of years back - The Great Indian Middle Class (Viking: Penguin Books India, 1998) - the author, Pavan Kumar Varma, a career diplomat, describes a "loo" theme party thrown by a young fashion designer at a disco in the countryside on the outskirts of Delhi. The regulation dress, we learn, was "apparel worn normally in the loo" and the general decor of the venue did its matching best to "resemble a loo". After this brief description, the author breezily editorialises: "Is this great party idea just a frivolous, juvenile ripple of the affluent class? Or is there just the hint of the vulgar and the perverse? Not in moral terms at the choice of the theme, but in what the evening demonstrates: the unthinking acceptance of the enormous gulf that separates the tiny group of people living out, bang in the middle of a semi-rural setting, an idiom that fits in with the wild side of Manhattan from the thousands of people only a few yards away who still use the fields to defecate and walk a kilometre or more to obtain something as basic as drinking water." There is proper moral indignation for you! But not to be mistaken for a country bumpkin himself - for whose collective fates Pavan Kumar Varma's heart bleeds profusely throughout his 232-page book - the author comes down heavily on "fashion conscious" Delhi women "who still pronounce lingerie as linger here." I find it absolutely incredible that fashion conscious westernised Indian women cannot pronounce lingerie correctly or at least acceptably! I read somewhere that there are some 40-odd pronunciations extant of this slippery French word and even Webster's Dictionary of English Usage (1989) after calling it, the "queen of foreignisms" admits humbly that there are "multiple pronunciation variants of this word" (lbid, p. 517). Even the new Burchfield-Fowler - unquestioned authority on current British usage - has to concede that "the pronunciation of the word is still very unstable in all English-speaking countries" (H. W. Fowler's Modern English Usage, ed., Robert Burchfield (Clarendon: Oxford, (1997) p. 461, italics mine). So when did Pavan Kumar Varma, this apostle of the downtrodden, acquire his Daniel Jonesian certitudes about the pronunciation of foreign words? At St. Stephen's presumably - that Mecca of IFS hopefuls, that acknowledged portal of Higher Ambition! All this only goes to show that Pavan Kumar Varma is cut from the very same cloth as the fashion fanatics of Delhi that he so pitilessly pillories.
For the truth is, in today's world there are no Archimedian moral vantage points to criticise the rich and the famous who also happen to be the bold and the beautiful. Never mind if you are wealthy: Do you support any worthwhile causes? Look at Steve Waugh and his support of children afflicted with leprosy in Calcutta. The case against Hansie Cronje is that he has done nothing with his shabby millions except squawk the name of God (or is it Satan?) at regular intervals. His Indian counterparts - still under suspicion - are not exactly known for their support of worthwhile or laudable causes except feathering their already overflowing nests. Wealth in India - certainly the pursuit of it along with the other purusarthas - dharma, kama and moksha - has always been recognised as one of the goals of human life. Hinduism does not have Christanity's hostility to either sex or money ("... it is better to marry than to burn" says Paul in the First Letter to the Corinthians (Chap. VII: 9) and in the Gospel According to Matthew we read "Ye cannot serve God and mammon" (Chap. VI: 24) and this is probably why, except in the final stage of sanyas, man does not have to abjure either. The Householder (grahasthya) is no ascetic: indeed, he is enjoined by the Dharmashastras (of which Manusmriti and Yajnavalkyasmriti are an integral part) to enjoy the benefits of wealth and sensuality, albeit within the bounds of matrimony.
And nearer home - Tamil Nadu for most readers of The Hindu - the Kural's 900 verses on wealth (or Porutpal in the original Tamil) are of vital importance to the "good life". Its legitimate pursuit is lustily encouraged by Valluvar - who probably wrote it somewhere around 600 A.D. if we are to go by Vaiyapuri Pillai's scholarly History of Tamil Language and Literature. The great Tamil poet writes:
"Aakkam karudi mudalizhakkum
("It is not wisdom to lose capital For the sake of interest")
(The Kural: Translated from the Tamil with an introduction by P. S. Sundaram (Penguin, 1990), p. 67)
So even Valluvar warns the reader of the folly of putting interest above capital! So those scores of small investors in Tamil Nadu's numerous fly-by-night blade companies would not have come a cropper if they had remembered the Kural.
Still, the pursuit of wealth has come to stay in India. Gurucharan Das - he studied International Relations under Henry Kissigner at Harvard, after dabbling in Sanskrit under the great David Ingalls for a whole semester - in his best-selling India Unbound (Viking 2000, p. 420) estimates there are a million millionaires in China (lbid, p. 272). Das's book is a veritable mine of anecdotes about Indians who have made it in today's infotech-driven world. There are fascinating portraits of Dhirubhai Ambani and the rise of Reliance - in 1995 it had 2.4 million shareholders, so many in fact that it had to hold its annual general meetings of shareholders in a football stadium (the Cooperage) - and of Aditya Birla and the story of the success of the Marwari community (G. D. Birla's advice to his grandson, Aditya when he went to study at MIT was: "Eat only vegetarian food, never drink alcohol or smoke, keep early hours, marry young, switch off lights when leaving the room, cultivate regular habits, go for a walk everyday, keep in touch with the family, and above all, don't be extravagant" (lbid, p. 203) but none as fascinating as his own rise to CEO of Procter & Gamble along with the success story of Vicks Vaporub (surely the piece de resistance in the book). But I will stick to success stories that pertain to the South - "the rise and rise" (to borrow the title of one of Gurucharan Das's chapters) of Narayana Murthy, CEO of Infosys. Infosys' legendary Narayana Murthy, we learn here, couldn't go to IIT, Kharagpur in 1962 because his father "a government servant" - "an assistant education officer" - couldn't afford the Rs. 150 per month for the hostel on his Rs. 500 p.m. salary! (However, according to Outlook, June 19, 2000, Narayana Murthy's father was a mere school teacher on a monthly salary of Rs. 170/- which looks a slightly plausible reason for Murthy not going to Kharagpur in 1962. We also learn from the current Outlook story that Murthy's mother paid him and his brother "for bringing sawdust to boil water rather than pay the man who carried it from the timber merchant" (lbid, p. 48) when they were living in Mandya on the Bangalore-Mysore highway. Shades of Dhirubhai Ambani's early hardships! Truly a rags-to-riches story because Infosys' market capitalisation in February 2000 was Rs. 51,290 crores and with a third of its staff (1,800) rupee millionaires and a hundred rupee billionaires - thanks to the stock options for its employees! Das has also nice things to say about a couple of the Sundaram Group of companies in Chennai. Commenting on the success of "Sundaram Fasteners of Madras... (in) bidding and winning a contract to supply radiator caps to all General Motors plants in the U.S. in competition against 12 global suppliers," Das points out: "Against a standard reject rate of 150 parts per million, it has achieved 6 parts per million" (p. 312). And this about its sister concern: "The legendary loyalty of truck customers to Sundaram Finance is based on excellent service" (p. 314).
The new financial mood of Madras is well captured in Das's little vignette about two South Indian brahmins at the Madras airport - "Their foreheads are smeared with horizontal stripes of paste, their brown faces creased with gossip and laughter. Their jocose voices conjure up coconut groves and the sweet sounds of the veena and a Carnatic musical heaven. Both wear starched white dhotis and chappals which seem just about right on the polished floor of the new Madras airport. Their voices are light and accented in the manner of their caste, and look like a pair of decent characters from an R. K. Narayan novel. They are a comfortable sight as they create around themselves a rich aura of incense, temple gods, and Chola bronzes" (p. 273-74) - who have started a software company. Although the metropolitan Das is bothered by the city's "maddening traffic" and "grasping nastiness", the two brahmins aren't. For them "it is a nice change from their old, suburban temple life." They are the true avatars of the "Subber Mainyam" - the former Minister of Food and Agriculture in Shastri's cabinet in 1964 after Nehru's death who charted a fleet of Boeings to bring in 16,000 tonnes of seed of the miracle Mexican wheat, Lerma Rojo, which ushered in the Green Revolution in Punjab - who so impressed Lyndon Johnson in the early 1960s.
So what price the old brahmin Hindu ideal of poverty - Kuchela in the Mahabarata comes at once to mind - and the age-old adage of "Simple living and high thinking"? Perhaps the best answer to old wisdom lies in a story about Edward De Bono - best known for his ideas on lateral thinking. It seems that when Gurucharan Das met him in Bombay, he "offered me an engaging definition of 'business'." "A little boy asked his father, 'Daddy, what do you do? The father replied, 'I am a businessman.' 'But what does that mean?' the boy said. The father scratched his head and explained. 'See here, son, I go to work, and I make money. At the end of the month I give the money to your mother to run the house. What does that make me? Capital. And your mother? She is management. Since they were well off, he pointed to the maid and said, 'She is labour'. The boy also had a baby brother and pointing to the baby, the father said, 'That is the future'. That night the baby's cries woke up the boy. He went to the crib and discovered that the baby was wet and needed a diaper change. He rushed upstairs to find that the mother was fast asleep. He looked for his father, and he found that he was behind a closed door entertaining the maid. He came downstairs, threw up his hands, and declared to the baby, 'This is hell of a business! Management is asleep, capital is exploiting labour, and the future stinks.'"
The discerning reader will have inferred from this that capitalism can no longer be held at bay. Since it has entered the sanctuary of the family itself, it has come to stay. Which is why the future of India no longer stinks.
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