Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
Wealth : August 27, 2000
The road to affluence
S. Mohan Raj
A consultant psychiatrist based in Chennai.
Arvind* was tearful; he hated going to school. It was December and two terms were over but he did not know any of his classmates or teachers. It was a new school for him. In fact, it was his fourth new school within two years. His first and second standards he had studied in Bangalore, Pune, Hyderabad and Chennai.
Changing school is one of the most stressful life events in childhood. Children have to leave friends and teachers with whom they have developed a bond and then form new relationships in the next school. It takes a while before they feel comfortable. Frequent change of school does not allow them to settle down and this leads to emotional disorders.
Arvind had to change schools frequently as his parents were changing jobs just as frequently, for "better prospects". Frequent change of job is a new malady of the Nineties, fuelled by the opening of the economy. Loyalty to the organisation has become old-fashioned. As young men and women rush in pursuit of wealth, they leave behind maladjusted children, confused parents and a chaotic office culture.
Why do people rush to pursue wealth at the expense of other aspects of life? No matter how wealthy or comfortable a person is, there is a constant sense of inadequacy. Manohar, an industrialist said about his wealth, "What is the point? I will never be like Ambani." This sense of inadequacy of wealth has caused more misery to mankind than actual inadequacy. Add to this a world where a person is judged and respected more by his wealth than by his talent, attitude and personality traits.
Needs keep growing, as they become attainable. A vacation on a Pacific Island with an unpronounceable name becomes a basic necessity. As needs grow, the pursuit becomes vigorous. While pursuing wealth, they reach certain milestones and it is mandatory to announce to the world that they have arrived. Changing vehicles is the first step to flaunting wealth. Kiran has been changing his car every three months, to stay ahead in the snob race. Recently, with two new launches every month, he found it difficult to stay ahead of his neighbour and has started changing cars with every new launch.
Throwing money around in an eccentric fashion attracts attention and gives money real value. Like conducting a marriage on an airplane or a submarine, giving away exorbitant return gifts, buying shoes or shirts everyday or renting out a whole amusement park for a birthday party.
Auctions are a good avenue in the game of one-upmanship. You pick up an obscure thing for a huge amount and can score on two counts: you are a connoisseur of art and you can afford to be one.
Reckless spending is often seen as a psychiatric illness called mania, the other symptoms being excessive happiness, grandiose ideas, increased talk and activity. A milder form of the illness is hypomania. But, most of the overspending and flaunting we see around us are not due to mania or hypomania. They are indulged by seemingly normal people with certain personality traits.
* The histrionic and attention seeking, who would flaunt anything. Wealth is the easiest to flaunt, for it takes some effort to flaunt skills.
* The insecure, whose buying spree starts when the chips are actually down.
* Those who use wealth to bend rules and make bureaucrats and politicians pay attention.
* The impulsive, who cannot postpone gratification.
While some are flaunting their wealth, some others are busy hoarding it. They deny themselves and their families even the basic necessities. Loganathan, in spite of his wealth, gives so little for the family, that his son, a student, works part time to supplement the family expenses.
The miser considers tax as an injustice. "When I deny comforts to myself, why should I pay the government?" is Dhanraj's logic. Since most of the money is unaccounted, it has to be invested in shady schemes or stacked away. Fear of the taxman and anxiety regarding safety of the money keeps Dhanraj sleepless and suspicious. "I am saving so that the next generation will be comfortable," he adds. But the next generation might have different ideas.
Seethamma is depressed as she looks at her bungalow. Despite the good memories, it is the reason for the prevailing bitterness in her family. After her husband's death, her three sons have gone to court regarding its partition. "I have not seen all my grandchildren play together, even though they live in the same city. My sons do not attend marriages in each other's houses. What can be more miserable for an old woman like me than seeing my children fighting each other? I wonder whether all this wealth was worth it," she sighs.
Kesavan, in his fifties, has some advice to avoid property disputes. "If you have four children, you can ensure harmony only by constructing four houses or none at all". He adds as an afterthought, "It is not foolproof, though. They might fight over who gets the city house instead of the suburb house."
Some families have an ingenious way of avoiding partition and preserving wealth - consanguinous marriages. "Why let the wealth go out of the family?" they ask. Akila says, "Before marriage, my husband was my cousin, nephew, uncle and grand father, depending on how you look at our family tree." she adds, "I missed out on the excitement of a non-consanguinous marriage. Like getting to know each other and their families. Getting to know each other's interests and views about things. There were no funny anecdotes about his family which I was not already aware of, as I had also grown up in the same family".
The Non Resident Indian epitomises the pursuit of more and the inability to say enough. The usual, "Will make $100K and will be back," comes back only on short holidays. The needs expand for the NRI, just as they do for the RI, only that it is multiplied by 43. The price they pay to attain their needs is the sense of belonging.
Any thought of returning to India is vetoed by the conversion rate of the rupee. Entrepreneurship is a good exit strategy for NRIs who consider returning. But the risk of entrepreneurship discourages those who are used to copper bottomed jobs. Instead of taking a firm decision about returning or permanently staying abroad, he postpones the decision by telling himself and his family that he would return after three years or so.
Years later, he returns to look after his sick and elderly parents, looks for a job, compares salaries, leaves parents in the care of the neighbour, and leaves. Balamma and Subramaniam, parents of NRIs say, "We enjoyed watching our son and daughter grow up. Now, with more time at our disposal, we look forward to seeing our grandchildren growing up. But, sadly, we are able to do it only through photographs and telephone calls."
Amar, remembers a folktale. The hunters of the Western Ghats trap monkeys by placing narrow mouthed vessels filled with groundnuts. They also scatter a few groundnuts on the ground nearby. The monkeys arrive and eat the groundnuts. They look for more in the vessels. The narrow mouth of the vessel allows the hand to be squeezed through. The monkeys take a handful of groundnuts and the fist gets stuck in the vessel. They can take their hands out if they drop the groundnuts. But, the monkeys do not want to and stay trapped until the hunters come back.
Amar adds, "In a way, I am like that monkey. I am in a job, which is not very exciting, and in a country where I really don't belong. I am free to leave but I don't want to drop the groundnuts... yet".
While his son was undergoing treatment for drug abuse, Hariharan said, "I had no time for my children as I was busy pursuing money. Now, I realise that there is more to life than money and material comfort."
That there is more to life than material wealth has been highlighted by folktales for years. Yet, each person realises it in one's own unique way. Some do it in a few years. Some spend a lifetime before they do it.
*All names are fictional.
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