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To the guy knocking on the rolled-up window of my old Swift Dzire, I’m surely rich. I get driven around and sit reading a paper in air-conditioned comfort. But as I turn into the office parking lot and my car becomes one among the many parked there, my aura of “richness" fades a bit. To the parking attendant, my value-for-money car compares unfavourably with the high-end cars parked there. To the young intern who lives in a south Delhi barsati, I must seem rich—life looks sorted and the home bought. But to a financial sector business leader who I meet the same day—I surely seem very middle-class, not rich. The same chief executive who looks rich to me—with his small aircraft-like car and the two digit with a crore at the end of it house in Cuffe Parade—looks positively poorer than the 20-something e-commerce entrepreneur who is now worth a few million dollars, or to the third-generation inheritor with the right last name to do business in India. Who then looks not-so-rich when he finds his name missing in the list of the 100 richest people in the world. But then, one of the richest people in the world who sits on that list still cuts out coupons to eat cheeseburgers and drinks Cherry Coke rather than the finest single malt. That’s not a very “rich" thing to do. Want to guess who that person is? It’s legendary investor Warren Buffett.

Plunge into the subtle world from the material and the word rich changes clothes. Off go the golden threads. Arms are shoved into well-worn comfort. In every philosophy, religion and spiritual tradition, richness is described as a state of mind rather than in terms of material possessions. Ignore the fervent rants against the rich—they’ll never see the kingdom of God and they’ll all rot in hell fire (an aside—why then do all religions that eschew wealth and riches become giant money gathering organizations?)—and you come upon sagacious philosophy and well-worn phrases surface. “Wealth consists not in having great possessions, but in having few wants." Or, “It is not the man who has too little, but the man who craves more, that is poor." Or then this one: “Money never made a man happy yet, nor will it. There is nothing in its nature to produce happiness. The more a man has, the more he wants. Instead of filling a vacuum, it makes one." And then the classic, and my favourite: “The shroud has no pockets." The subtle world believes that wealth is a state of mind and that you are as rich as you believe you are.

Tell this to reasonably well-off parents of a child who needs a treatment that only a lot of money (which the super rich have) can buy and the state-of-mind argument begins to wear thin. They’d exchange a whole library of such pious words for the money to save their child. But equally unwilling to bow before the altar of wealth would be the person with all the money but facing the death of a loved one. Truckloads of cash don’t do it when your time is done. So how much is enough and who is rich and how rich should you be? At the end of these 700 words, I am no closer to finding out who is really rich. Is it the person who thinks she has enough or that one who has all that money can buy and then have something left over? Being rich seems to me to be a point of view depending on where you stand—materially, emotionally and spiritually. And possibly after a certain basic set of needs and wants are no longer the cause of daily stress, the rest is really about who you are, what makes you tick and how you gather that right amount of wealth you desire.

Monika Halan works in the area of financial literacy and financial intermediation policy and is a certified financial planner. She is editor, Mint Money, Yale World Fellow 2011 and on the board of FPSB India. She can be reached at expenseaccount@livemint.com

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Updated: 18 Aug 2014, 11:01 AM IST
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