The drought-like situation in many parts of the country, coupled with the effects of the economic slowdown, has prompted the ruling party to launch an austerity drive. While the results may have been a bit on the comical—if not outright farcical—side, “simple living and high thinking” has always been held up as a worthy ideal in Indian thought. Here are the names we got when we asked some well-known personalities about who they think embodies the austere way of living today.
Martand Singh, chairman, Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (Intach), qualifies as a no-frills person for me. The whole idea behind austerity is not to make a big deal about it. Plus, I believe no one can decide to “become” austere suddenly. It is not a decision but a way of living, an awakening. Martand belongs to the royal family of Kapurthala and travels the world over, yet whenever I have met him, he is simply dressed in a kurta-pyjama. I met him in Paris once and even there he was dressed in a kurta with a shawl and chappals. I have known him for 23 years now and every time I have had a meal at his place, the meal was simple and served in peetal (copper) vessels. There is no over-the-top element in anything he does. What I admire and consider a true mark of his austerity is the kind of work he has been involved with. He works for the betterment of the girl child, better education for children, for weavers and the revival of dying textile traditions in India.
Scientist and former director general of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR)
(clockwise from above) Martand Singh (India Today), Narayana Murthy (Hemant Mishra/Mint) and Manmohan Singh (Pankaj Nangia/Bloomberg) made it to our list of India’s most austere
The criterion I would use to define austerity is when people have wealth and still choose to live an austere life. The person that jumps out at me is Narayana Murthy, the chief mentor of the IT firm, Infosys Technologies. I have known him and his wife Sudha for many years. I have travelled with him, and everything in his persona—his attire, his behaviour—is extremely austere. He never flaunts his wealth. At home and at work, he feels no sense of shame in doing all his work himself. That to me is austerity exemplified.
Educationist and former member, Central Advisory Board of Education
For me, it has to be Jyotibhai Desai, the eminent Gandhian educationist who lives in a village called Vedchhi in Surat. He works with great dynamism and vigour for the causes he espouses, whether it is education or issues of displacement such as the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA). All this despite the fact that he has no regular source of income and manages from savings from his younger days. At 84, he continues to be tireless with his activism and writings in the newspapers and periodicals and is perhaps the moral force behind several movements, especially the NBA. He leads a life of simplicity that is guided by great values and vision, which is what I think is austerity. Most importantly, he has a critical appreciation of Gandhi. He is not a blind follower but an informed Gandhian in principles and practice.
Writer and author of the just out ‘The Difficulty of Being Good’
Manmohan Singh, our Prime Minister, is an austere man. I went over to his house soon after he relinquished office as the finance minister in 1996. As it happened, nobody was at home—his wife was away, visiting friends, and the domestic help was out on a chore. So Dr Singh prepared tea for me himself. I was moved by his quiet simplicity. I told my wife about this and she said, “Are you surprised? He is the only dignitary we know in Delhi who answers his own telephone.”But more than austerity, what I want from our leaders is effective governance which comes from determination, will power and persistence. Austerity in a leader, be it Gandhi or Dr Singh, is certainly nice, but it is not enough. It can be seen as good PR. If Dr Singh were to tackle police reform and administrative reform with the same determination today that he showed when he opened up the Indian economy, he would impress me much more.
Having lived in several countries, I have never seen anywhere a more potentially explosive mix of general want and excessive ostentation by, and deference to, VIPs, as I have in Delhi. In London you might expect the traffic to be held up for the Queen or the Prime Minister, but that’s it—in Delhi, traffic will be held up for the minister of fertilizer distribution. Senior civil servants too have the right to put the red beacon on their car, even if they are just heading out for dinner. All this makes for a greater contrast and a culture of irritation between the haves and have-nots as compared to anywhere else I have lived. To me, Dr Yunus Jaffery, the professor of Persian, who used to have rooms in the old Ghaziuddin Madrasa or what was the old Zakir Husain College building outside Ajmeri Gate in Old Delhi, exemplifies living with style and dignity in a very basic economic environment. Just the trouble, for instance, that he would take to make this Persianate chai and serve you the best cup of tea in Old Delhi. I am struck by his elegance without having position, money, or any of the other trappings that the politicians here demand for themselves. Charisma and dignity lead to deference in others—you should not have to demand it as so many politicians seem to do these days.
Austerity has become a national debate, but according to me in a country like India, most people, including our politicians, have an austere lifestyle. I have an austere lifestyle or what I would prefer to call a life of moderation. The movies I make are more important to me than anything else. If I have a car it is because it takes me from point A to B, and a driver only because I can’t drive. I don’t hanker for a Mercedes. I want money so that I can afford healthcare when I need it. My friends and people around me also have a very functional lifestyle. There’s more poverty in this country and even in a city like Mumbai how many Mercedes or BMWs will you find?
Himanshu Bhagat, Pallavi Singh, Krish Raghav, Seema Chowdhry and Rachana Nakra contributed to this story. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org