Home / Opinion / Views /  Why contentment could let people down as India grows

As I do not hang out anymore with literary novelists, people with a moral compass and those who study sociology, I feel highly optimistic about the immediate economic future of India. It is not hope, which is a form of sorrow. It is not something some taxi driver told me. Or even the self-confidence of individuals around me. What I sense is that people feel that other people will do well, and they will somehow benefit from it. As a result, there is a vast expectation of India’s well-being in the near future.

This is a bad omen for people who are prone to contentment.

To be satisfied with what one possesses is one of our most famous virtues. This means that it is a personality type that has been, over centuries, promoted as an admirable quality. The content are usually people who inherited money that has grown faster than their nation’s economy, or those who used to be ambitious and unhappy but have decided to be unambitious and unhappy, or those who never had the will to exert themselves.

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Over the next five years, if there is tremendous and unprecedented economic progress, content people will be priced out from their good lives. If they are tenants, they will increasingly find it hard to afford their rent; if they own their homes, they will be under pressure to sell and move away; they will also see other sort of people surround them in their neighbourhood who may make them feel poorer; good hotels and holidays will become unaffordable to them. It would still be cheap to be middle-class in India, but it will become very expensive to be considered rich or upper middle-class . A bit of all this has already happened.

You may argue that India is so poor, its median household income so low and its middle class so stingy, or if you want to say it nicely, ‘price conscious’, that there will always be a band of good life that remains affordable. This is a country where poverty subsidizes the consumption of the middle-class and wealthy. Discounted food, electricity and conveyance meant for the poor are enjoyed more by the affluent, the section from where most of the content emerge. So you may argue that even if the content are priced out of their old affluent life, India will provide them a new affluent life that is affordable to them.

But this argument is flawed. Let us look at what is about to happen. Over the next five years, the affluent who have not prospered will see their lifestyles deteriorate. And affluence is primarily a feeling of being affluent. Also, precisely because India is, broadly speaking, poor and its default setting is to assume everyone is poor, affluent lifestyles are led by very few. Unlike in advanced economies or even other middle-income nations like Thailand, the difference between fine living and second-best lifestyles is quite steep and perceptible.

There is worse. The fact that I have faith in India’s immediate prosperity does not mean I am optimistic about the quality of life. In fact, it is going to deteriorate as it often happens w

hen you unite Indians and money. Urban traffic is going to get worse, the air will kill, faster highways will be fatal and crimes will rise. The third-rate quality of our cities will not reduce the economic activity of society. We will still get richer because we have a low bar for living.

The cost of fine living in India is not entirely about living well. A significant chunk of the expense is merely on excluding a majority of Indians. The good life, in India, is an island that keeps out ‘real India’. That is the meaning of gated colonies and ‘progressive schools’ and ‘fine dining’.

As the qualify of life in India deteriorates in the wake of the country’s economic progress, the content will be priced out of their islands, too, that guard them from the tumultuous ocean of India. They will increasingly find it hard to escape India within India, and that is a kind of poverty.

You can see a bit of this already. Look up five-star hotel rates in Goa this December—they are generally higher than the room tariffs of similar hotels in Western holiday destinations, Dubai or Singapore.

After Annie Ernaux won a Nobel prize for literature this year, I encountered many times this passage from her book Simple Passion: “When I was a child, luxury was fur coats, evening dresses, and villas by the sea. Later on, I thought it meant leading the life of an intellectual. Now I feel that it is also being able to live out a passion for a man or a woman."

You may have guessed that the point of this passage, and the reason why so many people shared it, is in the beauty of its final sentence. But I was struck by Annie Ernaux’s second line.

I can see the literary beauty in a sentence that claims passion is a “luxury", but I don’t find that true or convincing. What is true is that one of the great luxuries of the rich is the option they have to lead “the life of an intellectual".

It is a luxury that has brought humanity great riches. Of course, there were and are the ungifted rich who dabble in mediocrity and sermonizing, but almost all our intellectual wealth has come from the gifted rich who had the “luxury" to do what they wished to, or who built great sanctuaries for pure arts and sciences.

It is this ultimate luxury that some of India’s content people will try to hold on to even as they slowly turn bitter, unable to accept that they are not the country’s elite anymore. Thus do we arrive at the origin of intellectual lament.

Manu Joseph is a journalist, novelist, and the creator of the Netflix series, ‘Decoupled’ .

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