In 2013, Honey Singh’s Blue hai paani song played everywhere. I had heard the song several times but not seen it, until one day I ended my TV withdrawal phase and switched on a music channel. There in front of me was the biggest reason I realised I didn’t want to be a teenager or a really young adult in the present. Whatever YRF and Karan Johar I had seen in the 90’s had already messed me up and it wasn’t even this lavish. I remember thinking to myself, Oh my God, if I were 13 now, I would resent my middle class background because it would mean I would never party like those kids in Blue hai paani and I would also at the same time be bombarded with messages of how my life would only be perfect if I could say ‘photo meri kheench’ in the trendiest clothes beside said blue paani on a sunny din. I was reminded of this recently when a Buzzfeed article about the so called Urban Poor went viral. The article had a resonance because everyone starts out with a low pay. But something was missing.
Then my friend Alison shared it on FB saying that Buzzfeed was being a tad insensitive to the ones who are actually dirt poor. Then I realised what was nagging at me. The author did not really condone the culture that was forcing youngsters to keep up appearances. She was saying that it is the way things are and so she feels sorry for these kids who have to go without just so that they can afford to have a car and go to a fancy restaurant. She goes on to talk about how she notices what her juniors want and finances some of those wants but does not seem to be sitting down and talking to them about financial jurisprudence and being an example as a senior who would rather have that meeting at a chai ki tapri or Udipi than at a Starbucks. I do realise that the author’s intention was good when she wrote that piece, that is to underline the kind of mad rush to keep up appearances in our society today, but there is a fine difference between the privileged young people she talks of and ones like this youngster who had to face poverty because of sudden changes in her financial situation. You must empathise with ones stuck in situational poverty but it is a bit hard to feel sorry for ones who are only going broke to keep up with the Joneses.
But why keep up with the Joneses you may ask? And this is another aspect I wished the Buzzfeed piece had addressed more specifically. Sure there are references made to how the corporate culture demands certain things as a rite of passage but shouldn’t those be the things to be emphasised and ridiculed more? On FB and elsewhere I termed this as the desire to have an Instagramable life. There is immense pressure on the youngster today to be this ‘cool’ (whatever that is) person. In the current capitalistic and mall culture economy, ‘cool’ always means spending more and more money. ‘Cool’ is when you only have vacations abroad, when you watch movies only at multiplexes, your coffee is Starbucks and you can only party at Social. While earlier these things were done once in a while for special occasions, now the Instagram culture is all about doing it weekend after weekend, just so you appear ‘cool’.
More than a decade ago, I moved from my small town to study in a prestigious college that was a bit above our social strata. That was the first time I realised that my comfortable existence back home would have been termed a lower middle class existence in a cosmopolitan city. I was never openly discriminated against. But I genuinely couldn’t even go to Café Coffee Day those days as I couldn’t afford it. I remember having a daily budget, I think it was 75 rupees for all 3 meals of the day.I did miss out on bonding sessions/project meetings that were held at places I couldn’t afford. None of my classmates were obnoxious enough to say I was a loser because I couldn’t splurge but sometimes there would be remarks like oh you are so studious and boring, loosen up a little won’t you. Again, while at that time it seemed to feel bad, now I look at it and realise these were pretty vanilla statements by people who just defined fun as how they saw it. It was not necessarily a mean indictment.
But things were much worse when I started working. There is a silent judgement and bullying in the capitalistic corporate culture that requires you to be a brand slave. You are supposed to have business lunches at places you wouldn’t normally go to, wear labels. You are supposed to fit in with the crowd that had a foreign education and that still ends up borrowing money from their parents despite a 6 figure monthly salary. You are supposed to have the same kind of depth of understanding of wine and cheese that someone who dined at 5 stars from a young age has.
When you start working in an industry that is considered elite, like media or banking for example, you enter with the misconception that these people who have had more opportunities and exposure than you, will actually be liberal and empathetic. But you are shocked to realise that in the boardroom it is a class war all over again and the school bullies have actually got worse with age and affluence. Hence I spent most of my 20’s not feeling enough. It was hard to convince myself that compared to where I started in life, whatever I was doing was an improvement, perhaps even an achievement. It didn’t feel that way and I had enough interactions with fellow humans who didn’t let me forget I was monetarily worth less than them. Imagine being told by someone that they wished they had invested the money they spent on buying a birthday gift for you? Imagine what that does to you when said person knows your financial status intimately? Yes, that happened to me.
Irrespective of all this, I wouldn’t call myself Urban Poor neither then nor now. I also don’t think I was particularly brave to have come slowly to the next level of financial security. I just did what I had to, to survive. Perhaps my parents were even worse off at my age. There were many things I couldn’t afford those days, some of those I can afford now. But there are several others things I can’t afford even today. I still feel insecure about being able to tackle financial emergencies. But so do several others, some even poorer than me.
The problem is that the current culture of social media one upmanship has blurred the differences between wants and needs. Every desire therefore is now a need without which you are not ‘living your full potential’ or ‘not chasing after your happiness enough’. Your life is not good enough unless you are able to curate it and present it like this brilliant exhibition of good times. This also explains the rise of the get rich quick schemes and how even well educated people fall for it. Of course, every problem need not be treated with the argument that there are children dying in Somalia so you cannot complain. But you also can’t feel sorry when Mukesh Ambani complains about high tax rates.
The problem with the Buzzfeed piece is it wants me to believe that one cannot resist peer pressure. One can and it will suck when you resist it, but you will be better off mentally and financially for it. The society too needs to stop judging, after all you wouldn’t feel compelled to keep up with the Joneses unless the Smiths were constantly judging you on it. Also, it takes just a few seniors and bosses to make the change and become the kinds who shun the established corporate culture under their watch, why not be one of those, rather than feeling sorry for that junior? I am sure as a boss or senior you can afford that?