I, too, would like some black money.
There, I said it.
Such a statement is not politically correct for people like me: advocates of honesty, integrity, transparency, doing the right thing. But lately, something else has been washing over me, something really dangerous in these inflated times.
It started at the jeweller a few months ago while running an errand for my mother-in-law. Another woman walked in, saw a multi-tiered ruby necklace, didn’t bargain and threw down a few lakh rupees—in cash. As she left, the man behind the counter answered my incredulous expression: “Happens all the time and is happening more. Her husband works in real estate. She doesn’t even ask me the price half the time.”
I didn’t buy a coveted pair of earrings—too expensive.
Bling fever struck again in April in Guwahati, where my parents, still living in the US, own a second home. My mother has been after me to buy a proper signboard with their name and address. Less than a kilometre from the house, I chanced upon a beautiful one, etched in silver to match a silver gate. I looked in awe at the bungalow it guarded. “Wow. Maybe something like that.”
“You definitely can’t afford a sterling silver sign!” my cousin said, bringing me back to reality. “This house belongs to a motor vehicle inspector.”
The last straw was last week when my husband and I finally found a flat we could buy, fix up and turn into a home in this India we are trying to make our own. We asked an architect to take a look.
The broker called as we were on our way. “It’s gone,” he said. “The buyers already put money down.”
“Is there anything we can do now?”
“Half in black,” he said curtly. “You can’t compete with that.”
Oh yes, I can, I thought. I move in the same circles, shop in the same malls, vacation in the same places. Our children are educated side by side in the same fancy private schools. Bring them on.
Yet, every month comes the fundamental reality and dividing line: my salary slip and a long column of deductions for taxes. I bitterly thought of “them” last week while scrambling to find receipts for my accountant showing proof of payment for a refrigerator, overseas student loans and tuition fees for my daughter’s preschool.
Of course, those of us in this middle class are much more fortunate than so many Indians, inspiring begrudgement ourselves; the reminders of what I can’t have are rare. In some places, such as Assam, the pay for civil servants is such a pittance that breadwinners’ insistence that they bribe to survive is almost warranted. I say almost because even that admission comes after decades of debate with family members. “You don’t live here,” one distant cousin said years ago. “For us, it’s not so black and white.”
But now I do live here. And I scarily see how the white moneyed move into the tainted zone.
This confession of my own hunger for cold cash comes just days before the whole world will celebrate on 15 August the success story India has become. Lesser known is that 1947 also happens to be the 60th anniversary of the Prevention of Corruption Act.
Consider the government’s own words back then in explaining the measure: “Opportunities for corrupt practice will remain for considerable time to come. …There will be for years… extensive schemes of post-war reconstruction involving the disbursement of very large sums of government money. All these activities offer wide scope for corruption and seriousness of the evil and possibility of its continuance or extension in future are such as to justify immediate and drastic action to stamp it out.”
On this issue, little has changed in 60 years, perhaps even worsened as the government rolls out funds to bridge the two Indias and devises ways to inspect (read: cash in on) the rush of new entrepreneurs and their ventures. Those businesses then practise similarly innovative methods of bookkeeping. We have entered a sad state of acceptance, possibly defeat.
As we revel in India’s freedom next week, it would not be hyperbole to suggest that British imperialism has been replaced by something just as disturbing and powerful, reeking of the abuse of privilege and a sense of entitlement. Even as an economy hungers to open up, those who stand to lose the most from a consumer’s right to choose are holding back a nation and its potential, driving up prices and making the climb quite arduous for the rest of us.
Thankfully, supposedly, the government is getting stricter on tracking just where our money goes. Soon, finance ministry officials pledge, it will be hard to dump large amounts of cash unnoticed into my favourite things, ruby necklaces to three-bedroom flats. I welcome that—and the day that envy gets replaced by another raw and not-so-nice human desire: revenge.
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