The 12-storey luxury hotel in Gurgaon was booked solid from floors two to ten as the wedding came marching in. For two days the guests took up positions in the lobby, commandeered the lifts, planted their flag in the coffee shop (which the hotel declared off limits to the rest of us) and machine-gunned us with a rainbow scattershot of spangles, sequins and crepe silks, forcing our eyes to beg for mercy. Twenty-four hour live coverage of the pre-nup ceremonies assaulted us through the inescapable flat screens in every public area, and insinuated itself into our rooms as well, via a dedicated TV channel. Two chartered planes had landed, with guests from abroad. There was music thudding below, and dancing till midnight, and when a major outdoor function was washed out by the unseasonal rain, nobody broke out in a cold sweat: what’s a few crores this-way-that-way, eh?
In short, it was just your average Dilli wedding bash. And I said to myself, well, everybody is a multimillionaire these days.
Here’s when you’re going to confront me with the inevitable question: “What were you doing there?” Two words: official invitation. I cannot say more: lips are zipped. I couldn’t afford a room there in ten lifetimes, as the expression goes. But it’s funny how the title of this column had been fixed before I made my trip to the capital. I had approached the subject from an entirely different angle, with a new take on the word ‘millionaire’. Simply think in rupees instead of dollars and pounds. A million is Rs 10 lakh. If that’s the net worth of your assets and/or your bank balance, why, congratulations, you’re a millionaire!
Let me give you an example off the top of my head. Say you bought a flat, oh, shall we say 19 years ago? And that you scraped together, umm — picking a few more numbers out of the hat, purely random ones, you understand — Rs 3.6 lakh for 660 sq ft. Today you hear that the going rate for a similar flat in your old building is about six times what you paid. My new definition would give you the right to announce, “I’m a millionaire.” Has a nice ring to it, no? But there’s not much benefit you can derive from it. While real millionaires have money to play with, a notional millionaire like you would have to be content with a rosy mental picture of your ‘wealth’. Because if you were foolish enough to sell your property, the cash would be barely enough for you to buy a single room on the city’s outermost limits.
On FM radio you’ll hear a stream of ads for flats going for “unbelievable” prices: 32, 46, the numbers roll on, and they’re talking lakhs. A woman chirps: “My dad retired by the time he got his own house; I’m only 28 and I already got my own.” She must belong to yet another breed of mock millionaires, what I would call ‘moc’: millionaire-on-credit. Like so many young professionals today, she would have built her entire universe on the slippery sands of loans. Mocs, like most nouveau riche including our Dilli wedding hosts, spend lavishly, but they try their best to do it with a modicum of sophistication. New Money is always scoffed at by Old Money. Traditional business families cannot stand garish displays of opulence and tend to keep a close track of their expenditure. Mothers pass on their thrifty habits to their daughters-in-law, and thus ensure that their sons’ wealth is in safe hands, unless of course the sons turn out to be wastrels who reduce the khandaani millions to ashes.
Here’s a radio commercial for a 4,000 sq ft flat — we’re getting into the big league now — just one flat per floor, 10 floors in all, and the price, upward of Rs 5 crore. After a while those large numbers just stop making any sense to me. If everybody is a millionaire, the word loses its potency, just as money in general has lost its value. ATMs are now spewing Rs. 1,000 notes more easily than 500s and 100s. Two years ago a news report about our currency gave us this rather self-evident fact: the number of Rs 500 notes has increased dramatically in the recent past. But the report contained another fact, less sexy but more telling: the number of 10s far outstrips that of the 500s. The note with the single zero is the currency of the common man, not of the millionaire but of the millions who live on air — that’s all they can afford to eat, if you consider the poverty line.
Meanwhile, France imposes a super tax on those earning more than a million pounds a year. And what does our hero Gerard Depardieu do? Migrates to Russia to avoid taxes! The more you have, the more you want. And vice versa, perhaps. Some years ago our dhobi planted a seed next to the tiny shed that gives him just enough elbow room to iron clothes. Soon a yellow-flowering creeper entwined his shed and bore fruit. He knocked on my door one morning with a generous chunk of ash gourd. To discover that he’d shared his wealth with only two or three of his special customers made me feel — what else? — truly like a million bucks.
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