On the digital shelves of that once-abundant portal, now rests just a single unit of Venetian pasta. In the physical counters of Modern Market, Korean noodles are drying up faster than our collective morale. The well-to-do in India are combating an existential crisis that goes beyond just the material. Giving rise to a unique intra-class conflict, the rich are boorishly fighting the rich while the poor are bemused bystanders.
By rich I generally mean the urban affluent, driven by a narrow yet telling truth – those with more have a lot more to lose than those with less. It starts with the longevity of earthly tenure, access to finest produce and treatment assumes an indefinite presence. Which then extends to the privileges of service and products – the finest at your instant command, digital or analogue. Post-liberalisation, the supply scenario drastically improved, so no more waiting lines and bureaucracy. Till the constraints and insecurities of now – the equilibrium guaranteed by wealth shattered in every sense and we know not how to react.
This tussle starts interestingly with our residential lifeline, the one-time servant now gingerly rebranded as domestic staff. Significant traces of apartheid still dominate our behaviour – the insignificant them often not allowed on sofas or to consume our virgin fare. Part-timers are being welcomed by a desperate few, the sheer inability to clean or cook overwhelming the perceptions of safety. While stolid life-enhancers are resisting their entry, the spectre of corona overwhelming the germs on the kitchen floor. What both lobbies flightily avoid is an insulting reality – being a first-world disease they have a lot more to fear from us. Debates are fierce on community groups, fierce friends are now fiery foes, on whether the ‘bai’ must become a bygone.
Quite interestingly, the above sharply demarcates the rich between the western-exposed and the local-entrenched, currently at deep loggerheads. The former trying to impose DIY values to a set of folks who believe in doing nothing themselves, as a perquisite of arrival. Remarkably, this cultural tension has manifested itself strongly during the crisis, the entailments of wealth sharply segmented. A certain old-world expectation of people and facilities available on demand versus the new-age supposition of needing to self-manage in a sustainable and efficient manner. Caught in the cross-fire is the definition of right and wrong, comfort may well overshadow worldview.
One intriguing sidelight is the attitude towards conspicuous consumption, most ably defined by the Instagram post on the gourmet lunch. A section of the haves opining that life as usual is necessary for morale, so the privileged rack of lamb must inspire every digital fellow. While many of either cadre vehement that this is indeed in poverty-stricken taste, gorge if you must but show you cannot. On the surface this seems like a classic ‘values’ debate, the Antilla brigade versus the Tata camp, but there is an underlying sub-reality that must be recognised. That of hypocrisy and denial, classical Indian traits, in conflict with effusive candour, an emerging western sentiment.
Also, quite notably, another copybook debate, whether at times as such the rich should abdicate their indulgences, as necessary solidarity towards the hapless migrant. An emotional logic that by leading super-simple lives, the affluent will contribute towards restoration of normalcy, flawed in more ways than one. As the propensity to donate is totally unconnected to the savings in operating costs, the former a mindset and not capability issue. Also, the so-called ‘indulgence’ does lead to significant employment generation and state funding, be it the delivery boys or the bakery industry or indeed, excise revenues. But truth be told, half the rich are fighting with the other half on this matter, the morality of indulgence competing doggedly with the economics of indulgence, the jury is truly hung.
So while often emanating from such a high ground, the intra-class tussle extends sharply to the store shelves, as suggested earlier. Which does reinforce a timeless but underrated insight, the poor are way more capable of sharing limited resources than the rich ever will be. When the once-fertile modern trade counters started to resemble Brezhnev’s Soviet Union, the Darwinian instincts re-emerged with manicured fangs. E-assistants cannot be bribed but the store employee certainly can be, the Balsamic vinegar delivered straight to the Mehtas in Phase 1 before Mrs. Sharma from Golf Course Road can step out of her convertible. Information sharing is now at KGB levels, the source of goodies concealed with the zeal of a bounty hunter, till the time inventory is proven sufficient.
History offers enormous evidences of inter-class differences, an alarming version of which is live today, as food shortages and human dignity. But then public-private mechanisms are conditioned to handle such scenarios while the intra-class war is truly an innovation of the corona battle. Invaluable insights are emerging daily on the Indian affluent, which can be successfully exploited by businesses in the normal future. On our attitudes towards demonstration, valid for the mutton biryani at lunch and the significant donation to the requisite fund. On our philosophy towards home and lifestyle management, whether at the mercy of the freelancer or personally navigated. On our feelings towards equitable distribution within peer groups, sharing the source of truffles or the number of the amenable bootlegger. On the attitude to tenure, the entitled desperation to live forever versus the inspired wisdom to live meaningfully.
As a telling repercussion, the rich are sharply divided on whether to meet friends and family, even when distancing guidelines are observed. Many do fear inadvertent transmission and are willing to thus forgo their hitherto-precious affiliation, by now proven insincere. Make no mistake, this is a war more complex than every other social war – where sameness is feared much more than differences and a treaty is nowhere in sight.
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