India's saving grace

India's saving grace

We Indians save. And it’s not just for our immediate pleasure. We feel gravely responsible for ourchildren and their lives. We tend to store for the next couple of generations if we can. In fact,saving money — or indeed, saving anything at all — has been written into our DNAs, writes SHREEKUMAR VARMA.

We have a designated spending timetable, we Indians. Right from birth until the time we stop remembering the dead, we spend. Our rituals are sacrosanct. Everything has been written down.

And we can’t cock a snook at The Written without being termed rebellious and so edged out of the society that we belong to and are comfortable with. Along with the highway, we also have bylanes and cut-paths and overnight detours. Which means to say, we have The Written, and then we have guidelines in every community, sub-sect and stratum. Not to mention individual eccentricities.

So, when the guidelines become rules and the rules become unavoidable, we find ourselves straitjacketed by habit and ritual. Which is a madness that turns deadly if not attended to sensitively.

Rituals cost money.

Especially when we have to keep up with the Boses. Before a birth, we celebrate its coming. Then we celebrate the birth itself. We bring up our child better than our poor neighbours brought up theirs. We send them to a better school, a better college and try to bribe them into better jobs. We marry off the child with money-drenched celebrations even if we don’t have the money for it. If it’s a girl child, we huff and we puff and conjure up a suitable dowry. Death has its own grim ceremonies. If it’s a conscientious or cautious offspring we’re talking about, then the parent’s death surfaces in his diary every year afterwards, ceremonies, ceremonies, ceremonies.

And there are the social and religious festivals and celebrations.

All this costs money.


Another important commandment in The Written is: Thou shalt be Home.

From a society that sprang up from a typical joint family ambience when everyone lived together — and like my father used to say, “there were some children and there were some parents, they just ran into a home whenever they were hungry, hurt or happy, and were tended with equal affection or indifference” — it was traumatic to go nuclear. In the early shake-up years following Independence, Indians trawled the country looking for jobs.

When the dust settled, we were going the other way.

From joint family to living for oneself is a rough journey (of Me, by Me, for Me). So then we need a house. Even though we have our ancestral home in ten acres of land in the back of nowhere and we have servants, supervisors and labourers to keep it going, we do need that flat in the city. Even though we are dirt-poor in the village and relocated to the city only to improve our life, we must get that flat and that needs money, so we have to forego other things to afford the flat and, finally, here we are, living as wretchedly as before (except for that nice little flat of our own) and slaving our noses off to afford the flat. Since we don’t have money to buy/ rent it, we borrow.

We don’t have no money, so we’ll blow it all away.

That ought to have been our anthem!

Besides respecting the old, we also amass the new. So whatever comes out in the market, be it electronics, household wonders, private transport, holiday offers, eating outings — well, we have to have them too. The best TV, the best mobile phone, the best laptop, the best dinner in town. As long as there’s money with us — present or future money, that is — we buy NOW.

It’s all about ritual. Either esoteric, traditional things we’re afraid to dispense with. Or merry, material things we feel will give clear, beautiful meaning to our otherwise, well, esoteric lives.

Frankly, there are too many of us.

And we are always scrambling to be the first to pick up things. Watch that traffic. Find an inch of space and you’ve nudged your vehicle in; or squeezed yourself through it. You are like that airline passenger instructed to look after himself before tending to others. You have to stand up and be counted in the crowd. The crowd will drag on, stolid, stubborn and self-centred. If you’re not in the first queue, your chance will disappear.

We need money. All the time. Not just to live and breathe, or to enjoy and holiday. We need money to follow The Written. To look after our people and our perceived needs. To hold up a wad of notes and say, ‘See? This is me!’

Put these two together — the concern for survival and the perceived shortage of money — and you have the first simple reason why Indians save. And it’s not just for our immediate pleasure. We feel gravely responsible for our children and their lives. We tend to store for the next couple of generations if we can.

So then we made a virtue of saving. We inculcated it as a principle our children could follow.

There was a popular article, replete with charts, tables and anxious projections, on the Internet a couple of years ago. It said America spent, while the rest of the world saved to keep America spending. The charts showed the alarming fall the US would take if every country were to withdraw its funds and sought some degree of economic independence. Imagine a new scenario where the dollar is no longer dada.

It’s probably a reflection on the respective psyches. Cautious Asia, Aggressive America. One built up actuals and then worked on them. The other spent notional amounts and then worked to earn them. Was it surprising then that an entire economy grew up based on the Future: trading, buying, spending, saving, all in the future! You looked at “trends” and predicted what would happen, and then spent your money to reap a harvest from that future. I remember spending almost an entire night with my friend, his consultant and a computer, trying to grasp the elements of futures trading. That was nearly 15 years ago. Now, the groping has yielded assurances (and in some cases, bad spills).

And yet. This is India!

Borrowed glory

I also remember when the credit card was introduced in our country. It was so difficult to dig into a treasure that wasn’t ours. Happy advertisements showing families splurging spectacularly on borrowed funds spread the fallacy that a piece of plastic meant disposable income. The magic card was a boon to those who had no relatives abroad or expandable incomes. The magic card was magic until the spending grew alarmingly and unconsciously and you were, for the first time, introduced to a species called the collection agent. Slightly boated, frightfully couldn’t-care-less, they were rumoured to treat defaulters the way a cat treated a rat. And that was that.

Indians were a different breed. We were both protected and bled by the Government. We were conservative, and believed in doing the done thing. We slaved and we saved. Our calendar is full of rainy days, both expected and unexpected. We have to be able to rise up to the occasion. Whatever the occasion.

Saving is not just an item on our personal economy list.

It’s an item on our Soul & Spiritual list as well. Those who take the most basic bites at our spiritual legacy (or believe the western interpretation of Karma is the right one) look at life and action as a savings bank where you deposit good deeds and withdraw a bonanza later. Or sow your bad seeds and reap a horrible harvest. Also, frugality is always seen as virtue. So when you earn well, you save for the future, yours and the next generation’s.The tradition is safe and trusted: You earn well by working hard. You live frugally, without pride or pomp. You keep something by so that you can give to charity or be hospitable to guests, both known and unknown. And you save what you don’t immediately need. Your children will not only inherit the money you saved, but also the good habits you demonstrated so diligently.

Tradition. That’s what the good guys are supposed to follow.

But today’s turned topsy-turvy.

You are bombarded with greed images, of wickedly magnificent ways to live with things you don’t need. There is a counterpoint, indeed stark contrast, to that old frugality pitch at every second step. And it’s called Advertising. That’s the old sexy siren, the devil in silken garb, the temptation for the road less taken.Advertising is the new temptress!

Counting chickens before they’re hatched

There’s the story of an old Brahmin couple who expected riches from the king. To cut a long story short, the wife disregarded her husband’s caution to wait for his return before pinning her hopes on a new future. She first made a bonfire of all her clothes, including the ones she was wearing. And then, consumed by joyous expectation, she burnt her husband’s clothes as well. Well, to cut it even shorter, things didn’t go all that well at the palace, and the old Brahmin returned home with nothing at all.

His wife wouldn’t open the door. “Come on!” pleaded the husband. “I’m tired and hungry.” And she replied: “I can’t! Just throw out one of the silk sarees from the palace and I’ll open the door and walk out in style.” But there was nothing to throw. The poor old man had just one set of clothing left, and his wife had not even that!

It’s a simple story to demonstrate the true face of greed. Otherwise, if you’re a good man on a good day, you don’t expect anything from others, and rely on yourself and your honesty. That will not only carry you through to the next level of spiritual living, it will secure your children’s future, raise you high in the eyes of your guests and extend your fame for the benefit of an even better future.

Saving money — or indeed, saving anything at all — has been written into our DNAs. When the old head of the house dies and the children come home from abroad to clean up and, perhaps, sell the house, they are confronted by a mountain of undisposed things.

 From old photographs to a rusty screw from the first radiogram, they are all there. We don’t like to throw away things. The old Brahmin lady from that story was perhaps an exception, or a victim of psychotic expectation. Having “money in hand” is worth everything else.

But it also, of course, depends on the sort of person you are.

Life’s little surprises

Take the beggar (or beggars, because you keep reading this all the time) in your morning newspaper who was found as a corpse on the street and turned out to have bank deposits worth millions of rupees. The wretched  lifestyle may not have suited his riches, but it certainly did support it. Even a beggar’s life is an earning one like everyone else’s. And even he must save for a rainy day. We don’t know if he went out on secret holidays to the Bahamas or had a hidey-hole to hoard his hedonistic habits away from the sympathetic eyes of his poor patrons, but money in hand must have fuelled his dreams of the future.And then take Ayyappan.

Ayyappan A is a much-feted poet of Kerala. Most of the feting took place, however, after he was found unconscious on the road near the Trivandrum Central Railway Station and died soon after in hospital. At 61, he was addicted to drink, drugs and poetry. In two days’ time, he was to have been in Chennai to receive the prestigious Asan Award. I was the chief guest at a memorial event soon after, and prepared for it by reading him, about him, and watching several YouTube clips featuring him.
 It was clear this wasn’t a man who’d save anything. Not even his poetry, perhaps. His body wasted away, pain his constant companion, and he wouldn’t say salaam to fame even if it begged him to.

Ayyappan could have been a child of celebrity, cuddled in the lap of mass adulation. Ayyappan could have amassed money. He could have become influential. All that happens in Kerala. Artists have a way of getting into committees and deciding the fate of other artists. The videos I watched showed he was of different design. He scoffed, but he was compassionate. He needed appreciation, but he wouldn’t clown, smile or bend for it. He’d rather sleep on the street or in some slum-dweller’s hut than rise to someone else’s idea of a Poet.

So, when he died, all he had in his pocket, and thus his world, was a scrap of paper with a scrap of poetry, and Rs 375 in cash!

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