One morning, early in my banking career, a business manager publicly chastised a colleague for what seemed like a fairly minor infraction.
“Man, I wish I didn’t have to take this from him. Wish I had enough money to tell him what he could do with his opinion,” Pablo said.
I asked, “How much would be enough? What would the number be for you?”
This got the conversation going among our group of young associates. Chris, the American, wanted a million, so that he could get a sports car and a summer home. ‘The Number’ was different for each person. Pablo wanted two-and-a-half million, so that he could go back to Ecuador and start his own tennis club—his original passion.
Soon, other senior colleagues got involved and highest value that The Number got to was 10 million, with justifications about children, parents and mortgages. By now, the discussion was loud and lively, with a lot of ribbing and day-dreaming, when the head of the trading floor saw the cluster and walked over.
“What’s going on?” he asked. When told about The Number and what it was at, he said, “Sounds reasonable,” and then added, “I’d say double your numbers, just in case you get divorced,” as he walked away.
That was 17 years ago. Since then, my own relationship with money has gone through many phases. Eight years ago, my wife and I returned to India to start what a friend called a “no revenue model” phase in our lives, with the security of having made our Number.
Beyond our personal journey, however, what has been extraordinary in these past eight years is watching the changing relationship that Indians are having with money. From a time not too long ago when overt financial aspiration was frowned upon, it seems now that middle-class India is trying to make up for lost time. I suppose this is inevitable—we will become a developed country only when millions of individuals improve their financial position, across the social spectrum. This means the poor become less poor, the middle-class become rich. And a few become extraordinarily wealthy.
There is much work left at the lowest end—evidently, we need to supplement trickle-down with bubble-up economics. However, the middle and upper-income brackets seem to be like the Australian cricket team of a few years ago—they just can’t lose. And boy, are the numbers beginning to add up. Last week, Forbes announced that India had more billionaires than Japan—already 36 in number, having a total wealth of more than $191 billion. The financial fever is evident everywhere, from Rs1 crore salaries for IIM students to freshman design graduates asking for Rs5 lakh starter pay packages.
When it explodes onto a society’s consciousness, money changes all the old rules of engagement. It becomes an obsession that insinuates itself everywhere. Writers, artists, scientists, spiritual leaders, no one is untouched. It’s like everyone suddenly acquired a personal mental calculator that is constantly whirring away, creating one giant humming sound. I wonder at the pressure this must be placing on people, and how they are coping with it. For instance, in my interactions with senior government officials, I wonder: “How can this person be expected to support liberalization and private enterprise, change laws so that people can become millionaires, and yet go home with Rs30,000 a month? Won’t his daughter also want Nike shoes and summer holidays?” It would be naïve to ignore the attendant temptation of corruption, and the moral consequences of the corrosion of character.
This is to be expected. It is impossible not to feel disoriented and unhinged. We are getting knocked off our feet by the onslaught of a new order. I am not suggesting this is all bad, or that we reverse the clock—how could I, given my own comfortable fiscal perch. I do, however, wish—with little hope—that there can be a measured change. Little hope because I recognize that when the people of an impoverished country finally discover economic empowerment, it’s like a dam breaking. We will just have to wait until this thing washes over us for the next few generations.
I think about our country’s historical relationship with wealth—after all, we dominated world trade for centuries—and wonder if we can recollect any subliminal consciousness of this relationship. I sense this often in Indians—most people know that money isn’t everything—but I sense it as a yearning for an old mooring that has been wrenched away. As hard as it is to get on to the financial treadmill, I guess it is equally hard knowing when to get off it. Knowing The Number. After all, even John Rockefeller, the world’s first billionaire and for long the richest man alive, when asked, “How much is enough?” replied, “Just a little more.”
Ramesh Ramanathan is co-founder of Janagraha. Möbius Strip, much like its mathematical origins, will blur boundaries. It will be about the continuum between the state, market and our society. We welcome your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org