Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
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Wealth : August 27, 2000

Middle-class obsessions

V. Gangadhar

Freelance journalist based in Mumbai.

As a long-term member of the Middle Class, I admit I am interested in money. I would like to make more of it. And why not? A Tamil saying comes to my mind, "Panam irundal podhume, ponamum vayai thirakkume" (Even corpses open their mouths at the mention of money).


The above saying will find acceptance with most of our people. Reading financial newspapers, I find it hard to believe that India is a poor country. The front pages of these papers are full of big companies merging with other big companies and the amounts mentioned are astronomical. We are told that representatives of corporate houses haunt the campuses of Management Institutes offering salaries to fresh graduates (Rs. 1,00,000 and above plus perks) which make my heart beat just a little faster. The salaries of men who control some of the largest firms in the world could be more than the annual budgets of some of our civic bodies.

Everyone loves a lover, goes the saying. But a lot of people, particularly those who work for the financial papers love the rich and the super rich more. The copies about them make fascinating reading. John Paul Getty, the Rockefellers, the Sultan of Brunei, the Queen of England, more recently Bill Gates and our own Mr. Premji of WIPRO. Forbes and Fortune magazines go on updating details of the richest men in the world. Sometimes, the lists confuse me. One fine morning, the papers tell me that Premji is the third richest man in the world, but by evening, he slipps down to the sixth or seventh position. It all depends on the value of the shares of his company. But to my simple mind, if a man is really rich, he stays rich, morning, evening and night.

Such affluence invites both favourable and unfavourable comments. Don't we know that money is the root of all evil?

The entire world is obsessed with money. Indians are no exception. Several years back, my sister took ill when she visited me in Ahmedabad. I took her to a local doctor. It was slack time. After prescribing medicines, he sat back in his chair, talked about his practice and said, "Do you know, I make four-figures every month?" My sister, trying hard to hide a smile and congratulated him. While travelling long distances by train or bus, Indians never hesitate to put personal questions to their neighbours on how much they earn and what their assets are worth. If this is regarded as unhealthy curiosity or impertinence, they are surprised. For the middle classes, the financial status of a man is not confidential. He should talk about it, answer questions and in turn elicit information from others.

Such an approach hints that by and large, people are judged by how much they earn. I remember stories in Anandavikatan or Kalki during the Fifties which described the hero thus: "Ramakrishnan (Or Krishnamurthy or Anantharaman), after finishing his schooling in Tamil Nadu had left for Bombay. Railwayile nalla velai. Sambalam arubadhu roobai". (A good job in the Railways. A salary of sixty rupees). The authors of these stories made it clear that a young man earning a monthly salary of Rs. 60 was a big catch in the matrimonial market. Today, the same amount will have to be spent to buy some snacks and tea at a railway junction.

Yet, it is natural that the value of money changes according to the times. Indian society has become highly commercialised and every one is judged not only on how much he owns but also how he flaunts his wealth. A friend of mine, Ashwin Dutta, spent more than

Rs. 1,00,000 on celebrating the mundan (head shaving) ceremony of his son. "Why can't I do it?" he asked. "I have the money and when I spend it like this, my status among my friends, goes up."

Brought up in such an environment, young boys and girls acquire the taste for money and good living from a young age. In Mumbai's flashy, elitist schools, boys and girls not yet 18, flaunt their credit cards, move around with mobile telephones and spend huge amounts daily in the canteen. Confessed the Principal of one such school, "I don't like this one bit and I have warned the parents. But what can I do? They do not listen to us."

On an individual basis, some of the parents I talked to did not approve of such big spending by their children. But the urge to do better than their friends was very strong. People met their friends daily at the posh clubs, discussed their children and came to know how much they had spent. Said an upper middle class businessman, "I learnt that some of my friends spent more than Rs. 3,00,000 in sending their children on a foreign holiday. They were boasting about it non-stop in the club. I felt small and though my business was slack wanted to show them I can do the same thing. So I organised a Far-Eastern Asia holiday for my son and daughter."

Some of the youngsters I talked to, despite belonging to affluent families, picked up part-time jobs which included marketing cigarettes in posh offices. Selena, a pretty 19-year-old college student explained, "Oh, I really did not pay much attention to the health hazards of smoking. The money is good. I can't go on asking my dad for money to visit the disco or to buy shoes which cost around Rs. 2,500 a pair." Another girl, Kathy, learnt western dancing and performed with a band. "I make about Rs. 2,000 a show and can get seven or eight nights work in a month. But I blow the money in shopping. You are young only once."

The disparity in such spending among the different classes of people is visible and can lead to tension and tragedy. In Bandra, a Mumbai suburb where I live, a teenage boy who was a promising school cricketer killed himself because he could not afford money for his kit. All his team mates flaunted imported bats, leg guards, white flannels and so on. He had to make do with some second-hand stuff which obviously bothered him.

Ajay Lall

Such social tensions bother western societies too. When I was in New York some years back, my hotel staff warned me not to go out after dusk because of the fear I would be mugged and my shoes removed. "The poor black kids in the area are keen to sport Nike and Adidas shoes and since they cannot afford them, mug and rob people who wear such shoes" they told me. They were not convinced when I told them that I myself could not afford such shoes and had to be content with Bata shoes made in India! Well, I was not mugged.

There is nothing wrong in a society which wants to enjoy the fruits of its labour. But there is too much of easy money floating about. I guess it is no use comparing the present with the past. When we were in school, money was a mystery to us. All our needs were met by our parents, but we seldom handled cash. The few rupees we got on our birthdays were given back to the elders. I guess I first touched a Rs. 100 note when I got my first pay at the age of 18. When my college returned the "caution money" deposit of Rs. 25 in 1956, I did not know what to do with it. But today's affluent children, after getting all their needs met, still enjoy pocket allowances ranging from Rs. 500 to Rs. 1,000 or more. They see nothing wrong in spending more than Rs. 2,000 in a fancy restaurant in one evening, a far cry from the days when we occasionally spent some annas on eatables like "kamarkattu", "nellikkai", "nelakadali" or "kodukapuli". The daily baksheesh for the Victoria College cricket team members while on tour, was 12 annas a day and we happily managed our breakfast and dinner, lunch being served on the ground.

What we have today, I guess, is progress. But I am a bit uneasy that some of the finest young brains in the country are roped in and paid unbelievably high salaries to work for financial companies whose main aim is to make the rich richer.

Shouldn't these young men do something for their own country in making life slightly less miserable for the poor millions?

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