The Stuff of Life

More money and more things to buy with it must mean a country is doing well. But have we forgotten in the celebrations of excess that wealth is, in essence, dignity?

Written by Parvati Sharma | Updated: October 15, 2017 1:51 pm
money, wealth, indian economy, indian beggars, money in india, poverty in india, france  In short: once there wasn’t much money and not much to spend it on, then there was plenty of both. Even our scams are a gauge of this. (Thinkstock)

When I was six, I had a dream. It was not, I’m sorry to say, a dream of transcendental dimensions; I did not dream of a better world. I dreamt of chocolate. Specifically, of one of the two (or three?) kinds of chocolate available in those days, a sticky disc wrapped in gold foil embossed like a coin. I dreamt we had bought an armload of this gleaming confectionary, stuffed it into the car’s glove compartment (it would hardly close, straining against the bulk!) — and forgotten to take it up home. I woke up in the morning and ran to my father, urgently, telling him to open the car, take out my sweets. He said there was nothing there, tried to calm me down, but what did he know? I went hurtling down the stairs, hopped by the car door as he unlocked it. He plucked at the glove compartment and it fell open with its usual ease. I leaned forward… and there was nothing there. No bulk, just air.

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Did I want things as a child? Sure. But I did not want for things. I had food and clothes and dessert. Did I want more, then? Yes. And no. But yes. In the very early years of my life, I could dream of a chocolate bounty, yes, but I did not know what excess was.

Soon, this would change. Within a year or so of my dream (which may, in this light, be termed prophetic) my mother was posted to France. Overnight, I went from a land where ice cream came in three flavours to a wonderland of supermarket aisles devoted to sweets categorised by genre. I remember it now, how I revelled in it, the ice cream in tubs, the chocolate in bulk, the whipped cream flowing from machines. I remember a lunch at which my mother’s guests all turned to look at me: they couldn’t help it, I was wading with such single-minded purpose through such a vast quantity of dessert. How much I ate. It was heaven.

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Then, we came back home. I don’t suppose Delhi had changed very much in the three years we were away, but it certainly looked different to me. For the first time in my life, for example, I really, truly noticed a beggar. He was a kid, about my age, standing by my window in our taxi. No one had ever begged for money from me before, so I turned to my mother and demanded some. Rummaging impatiently in her purse, she found a coin just as the light changed. I held out the money but the taxi began to move and, instinctively, the boy stepped back towards the kerb. Our hands couldn’t meet, though he kept his eyes on me. I leaned out and threw the coin towards him; it fell to the ground as he lunged for it. I sat back in my seat and breathed. From the back seat, my mother said, “Done your good deed for the day?”

This is the kind of dry, puncturing humour my mother specialises in, so I shouldn’t have been surprised. She wasn’t being cynical, even if, a little bit, she was: a protective cynicism is one of the things big-city mothers must pass on to their young, I suppose. Caring too much is a dangerous thing. Still, I was deflated. I had been feeling good about my good deed.

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It was three decades before I went to France again, earlier this year, and in that time I’ve learned, as everyone does, a little bit more about consumption and excess and their opposites — about money, in a word. As Philip Larkin has it, “Clearly money has something to do with life.” But what exactly?

Not to Saleem-Sinai myself unduly, but sometimes I feel the country and I have been wrestling with the question together. I grew up socialist but I became adult just as the first fruits of liberalisation had ripened. I grew up knowing to make my share of Thums Up last through dinner; the idea of asking for a second glass wouldn’t occur to me. As an adult, I’ve spent the equivalent of my driver’s salary at a restaurant. I grew up with my mother giving me haircuts on the verandah; as an adult, I spent Rs 800 on a t-shirt to celebrate quitting a job. When I grew up, you were either in salaried service or family business — or a prospective drug dealer. As an adult, I’ve consulted and freelanced and worked from home in my pyjamas, and managed to make something of a living in ways that would have seemed as impossible as the internet 30 years ago.

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In short: once there wasn’t much money and not much to spend it on, then there was plenty of both. Even our scams are a gauge of this.

Over the years, and trying hard to steer clear of scandals, I evolved my own relationship with money, without, in deference to my socialist upbringing, ever quite looking it in the face. My first job gave me an ATM card, and the first money I ever withdrew with it, I blew up on Domino’s pizza — which, until then, my mother had insisted on making herself (with baked beans and capsicum, if you must know) — and this has remained, more or less, the template of my financial transactions. To put it another roundabout way: I spend too much of what I have; I worry I’ll have too little when I need it; and, like the old man in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Memories of My Melancholy Whores, I worry that “I appear generous in order to conceal my meanness”.

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Things were more straightforward when I was young. Money was a kind of necessary evil: you had to make it, then you had to save it, and unless you absolutely had to use it, you never did without keeping both eyes open for any hint of profligacy in your soul. I, however, was free to spend my money at, and therefore on, my pleasure.

It’s a seductive teleology of progress: more money and more things to buy with it means we must be doing well.

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Then I went to France again. And I will not lie: I had second helpings of that whipped cream. But it wasn’t the aisles full of goodies that got me this time. It was the girl with Down’s Syndrome, travelling alone and carefree in a tram; it was the speed at which cars move on highways, everyone sure that everyone else will follow the rules; it was the abundance of leisure on display, in the parks, by the lakes, in cafés.

This time, when I came back, I wasn’t engulfed with feelings of guilt about the poverty around me; for the first time in my life, I felt poor myself. For all the money we had made and the things we had bought, it was apparent that we hadn’t bought clean air or clean streets; for all the bling we could now afford, we hadn’t thought of either public health or infrastructure or even a bit of public beauty as essential to our everyday lives; and, most of all, for all our money, we had forgotten that wealth, in its essence, is dignity.

Instead, we scramble. To cross a road, to please a boss, for arguments that prove we are better even though it’s clear that we are not. In my youth, which was the kind of youth that is incomplete without some aspirational reading of Albert Camus, I read The Stranger, and all I remember of it is this line: “I often thought that if I had had to live in the trunk of a dead tree, with nothing to do but look up at the sky flowing overhead, little by little I would have gotten used to it.”

It’s always made my stomach clench, this depressingly acute expression of how easily people get used to so very little. This time, though, when I came home, I thought of it another way: sometimes, getting used to a dead tree and a sliver of sky can also mean proclaiming it the very best wood and shade of blue in the world, any criticism of which unleashes a carnival of bitter glee. Oh, what we might have been if only so-and-so hadn’t come and reduced us to such-and-such. Do not tell us what to do, we knew it a millennium ago, if only we’d not been interrupted by history.

Of course, we will have to leave the tree. Already its roots are rotting, but where shall we go when it falls? Shall we put our faith in strength — in strong politicians and strong market indicators that will lead us, strident, into quibbles about whether our GDP is growing a few points above or below what it should? Shall we wake from our dream of mysteriously misplaced chocolate coins covered in gold, hopping in anxiety, waiting for the treasure to fall upon us?

And, perhaps, the treasure will fall upon us. I hope it will. I like chocolate. But experience has taught me not to hold my breath.

Parvati Sharma is the author of Close to Home and, more recently, The Story of Babur

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