“Is that a snake daddy?” my five-year-old son asked me upon seeing Mayawati’s money garland that flashed on TV screens across the country. Surely my son wasn’t making a profound comment on the implied symbolism of what materialism stands for in society today. After all, the garland did actually resemble a snake: a python that slowly suffocates its prey to death. The human ATM that Mayawati turned into will certainly hold its place among the over-the-top things rich Indians regularly do to inform others of their wealth.
While the money-snake was in a different league, one only has to see how affluent people in this country conduct their weddings and birthday parties to see how deeply we want to scream to the world: we have the cash! After all, what is the point of having money if your relatives, colleagues, neighbours and even random strangers don’t know you have it?
There is a show on TV called the “The big fat Indian wedding”, where rich families allow television crew to cover their weddings. In the only episode i could bear to watch, the wedding functions were spread over a week in Delhi, Rajasthan and Bali with 500 guests shuttled around. At the end, like every wedding, only one boy and girl got married. An international newspaper had a recent frontpage story, this time about a village in Noida. A farmer made a killing selling land to developers, and hired a helicopter for his son’s wedding in the village.
An argument can be made defending such behaviour: if someone has earned the money, he has the right to do whatever he wants with it. We should be happy Indians are finally coming into money. So if someone wants to give Mayawati a money-python or a money-elephant, what is anyone’s problem?
Yet, at one level, it just doesn’t feel right when i see my kids witnessing vulgar display of wealth. Because here’s the message running in my child’s head: this is what successful people do. This is what life is all about. I’m asked to work hard so that one day i can make money and smear my face with cash and burn money to tell the world i’ve arrived.
Wealth displays diminish values like self-control and being down to earth, humble and sensitive. Winners inspire the young generation. The loudness created by money dwarfs the contribution made by other people in society teachers, honest cops and doctors, to name only a few who may not be as rich, but still are good role models for children. For this reason, i’d like to request the country’s rich people to hold their horses. Calm down, we know you have it. Put it on your website if you really want us to know how much money you have, but don’t let it all hang out. We are impressed you made it well done, 10 out of 10, bravo! Now let us plebeians be.
Not all rich people live like this. Warren Buffet, one of the richest individuals in the world, still lives in a simple three-bedroom apartment in Omaha. One of the most respected figures in American society, he didn’t have to show it off. In Silicon Valley, hundreds of self-made millionaires go to work in T-shirt and jeans. Flashing wealth is frowned upon. Crassness is not a necessary part of affluence. Grace, while seemingly still a new concept to rich and powerful Indians, is possible to learn.
This doesn’t mean wealthy people do not deserve their luxury. Surely, they shouldn’t slum it like the rest. However, there is a difference between private and public luxury. They can eat in gold plates and bathe in Evian water at home if that is a source of satisfaction for them. However, when their wealth display goes public, they should think twice. If Mayawati finds inner joy in surrounding herself with currency notes, it is tough to argue with that. She can wallpaper her room with 1,000-rupee bills (the Gandhi images may add a nice touch of irony to the decor). However, she doesn’t have to wear million dollar cash garlands and display it to Indian kids. Her sycophants, and people who believe money equals greatness may even admire and applaud her for it. However, there are some, if not many, of us who don’t.
We don’t want our kids to emulate such behaviour. We want them to emulate true leaders. Leaders who show excellence, benefit society and help people. Leaders who show restraint, poise and humility. Those are the people we truly call rich. On the day Mayawati wore that hideous garland, she did not come across as rich. She came across as a helpless woman, trapped in a bunch of notes, which threaten to strangulate her political career like a python. Hope she can wriggle out of the grip.