A meditation on why we Indians constantly sniff each other for clues of status, much like dogs in a park to figure out who’s on top.
“Most of us admire a star more for his material success than his growth as an actor,” rued director Subhash Ghai in a recent Times of India article lamenting our current superstars’ unseemly eagerness to trade in their fame for ever fatter paycheques. There’s no such thing as being ‘overexposed’ in Bollywood. Each time Shah Rukh Khan lends his smirking, over-bleached face to sell Fair & Lovely, he merely confirms what his fans already know: you can never be too fair or too rich in India.
Critics would like to blame this ‘greed is good’ mentality on the evils of globalisation, but I am inclined to agree with Pavan Varma’s less comforting thesis on the effects of liberalisation. “The year 1991 removed the stigma associated with the pursuit of wealth,” Varma writes in Being Indian. “Most importantly, it made policies congruent with the temperament of the people.” The crass materialism of New India is less a tragic loss of national virtue than “an exultant escape from [the Gandhian] emphasis on austerity, and a smug—more confident—return to tradition.”
We’ve always been obsessed with money, not just ours but also that of our neighbours, relatives, friends, even total strangers. Whenever we kids received a promotion or changed jobs, my father would carefully write down our new designation and, more importantly, salary so as to be able to offer the correct information when inevitably questioned. “Tell me in rupees, not dollars,” he would grumble, perhaps scarred from the time my grandmother pooh-poohed my brother’s respectable $100,000 job, saying “But my nephew Ramu makes one lakh a month!"
My father was an old-school TamBram, his paternal pride firmly straight-jacketed by the facts. Our generation of ‘new Indians’ talks far more about money, and lies almost just as often. Growing up in Delhi in the distant 80s, ‘show-off’ Punjabis were content serving desi whisky in Scotch bottles, and relabeling their Karol Bagh shop a ‘garment bij-ness’. In these gleefully immodest times, even stodgy Bangaloreans are blithely adding zeroes to their income, doubling the square footage of their homes, and claiming ownership of entirely imaginary coffee estates in the hills.
Globalisation may set our inner Gordon Gekko free, but it has also created an acute ‘status-identity’ crisis, particularly among affluent urban professionals, the self-appointed vanguard of the new Indian revolution. Bereft of the genteel security of caste privilege—meaningless in upwardly mobile circles, where your name matters less than the name-brand of your handbag—the new Indian yuppie is engaged in a perpetual struggle to appropriately signal his upper class membership.
The old symbols of superiority, be it vacations abroad, a predilection for phoren khana like pasta or dim sum, or Marks and Spencer undies, are now sadly far too accessible to the aam junta, i.e. upstart middle-class folks. Appalled at the sight of young men and women dressed in their mall-bought finery at a five-star coffee shop, a designer friend wrinkled her nose and declared, “Bangalore has become so-o-o bad! These call-centre types are everywhere,” no doubt echoing the lament of the well-heeled across the nation.
“[A]n Indian is a homo hierarchicus,” observes Sudhir Kakar in his latest book, The Indians. In India, “a person’s self-worth is almost exclusively determined by the rank he occupies in the profoundly hierarchical nature of Indian society,” writes Kakar, and “the determination of relative rank (‘Is this person superior or inferior to me?’) remains very near the top of the subconscious questions in an interpersonal encounter.” It’s why we constantly sniff each other for clues of status much like dogs in a park to figure out who’s on top.
The single-most important demarcation, however, is the one that separates us from the class immediately below. We rarely worry whether we are doing better than a waiter or worse than Mukesh Ambani. When those immediate boundaries begin to blur, all good Indians start to panic.
Therein lies the triumph of 21st century capitalism. The free market offers greater access to encourage consumption; greater access creates ever-greater class anxiety, which in turn spurs ever more consumption. The hyper-inflated and conspicuous consumerism of the past two decades has taught us money is king, but it has also raised a new and alarming question: how much money is enough? As in, how much money ought we to have in order to ensure our sense of superiority, and therefore wellbeing?
Unable to discern a secure answer, we lie, shamelessly and with abandon, often to ridiculous effect. Like the aspiring socialite who claims her monthly bill at her favourite restaurant is Rs 60,000 because she worries that spending a mere Rs 30,000 a month on high-priced salads doesn’t quite cut it. Or the high-ranking MNC executive who pretends his Rs 4 crore house cost him Rs 6 crore in a depressed real estate market (better to boast about one’s net worth than a great deal). And they’re hardly different from the bank officer’s wife who pretends he flies business class to London because even her maid’s husband goes economy to Dubai. We’re all little Pinocchios now.
The Great Indian Dream is best summed up by that immortal Three6Mafia line, “I look, I feel, I smell like money. Just look at me, dummy.” Trapped in this nuclear arms race of mendacity, we’ve just learned to look/feel/smell a lot richer than we are.