One of the many anecdotes in ‘My Two Indias: A journey to the ends of opportunity’ by S. Mitra Kalita (Harper) is about a flat that the author and her husband wanted to buy on the eve of India’s sixtieth anniversary celebrations. “It was a rundown DDA flat, meaning it was built in the transition of government serving as developer – and it looked that way. But it was in a great part of town with a Metro scheduled to be built in 2010. We had looked at several flats, and this one seemed the most affordable and within the boundaries of south Delhi, like we wanted,” she narrates.
“We asked an architect to take a look. She was to meet us at the flat on Thursday night. My phone rang as we were on our way. It was the broker. ‘It’s gone,’ he said. ‘The buyers already put money down.’”
Surprised, the author asks if there is anything they could do now. “Half in black,” says the broker. “You can’t compete with that.”
Can’t I compete, if I move in the same circles, shop in the same malls, holiday in the same places, Bombay to Bangkok, and educate children in the same fancy private schools, she wonders. Not for long, however, because a fundamental reality and dividing line sobers her: the monthly salary slip and a long column of deductions such as taxes.
While scrambling to find receipts for her accountant – showing proof of payment for a refrigerator, overseas student loans, and daughter’s preschool tuition fees – Kalita bitterly thinks about the black-moneyed who earned conceivably hundreds of times the paltry amount she paid in cash to her landlord, and who didn’t have to pay a drop in taxes. “In so many ways, they were an invisible part of the formal economy – and yet its showiest members, able to afford the biggest cars and houses and diamonds.”
The black-moneyed surfaced daily, everywhere, the author observes. As, for example, during her visit to a jeweller, when she found another woman walking in, seeing a multi-tiered ruby necklace, not bargaining, and throwing down a few lakh rupees, in cash.
“As she left, the man behind the counter answered my incredulous expression: ‘Happens all the time. 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 behind the case – too expensive.”
Stark contrasts that come through an engaging style.