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City City Bang Bang, Columns

Does wealth have a social value?

The Forbes list of billionaires has arrived and with it has come the by-now familiar excitement about how many Indians have made the list. For a brief period a couple of years ago, 4 out of the world’s 10 richest people were Indian, a fact that was seen by many to be a sign of India’s coming status as a superpower. Interestingly, the urban middle class reaction to news about some Indians amassing the kind of wealth that they could not dream about let alone acquire, has been curiously positive.

In a country where so many people are still so poor, and where the visible signs of poverty are hard to escape no matter where one lives, it is a bit strange to find such support for the idea of wealth. This was certainly not the case a few years ago, when the rich took extreme care to hide their wealth, and every display of one’s affluence was met with disapproving sounds, and sentences starting with ‘in a country where half the population is below the poverty line, it is shameful that..’ abounded. Part of the reason for this is that the media, which was earlier a fierce watchdog that snapped at the heels of the rich, admittedly with a bark much worse than bite, is now happy to play the role of a loyal accomplice. It is visibly seduced by the idea of success, and goes to great lengths to associate with the rich and powerful.

But there is something more at work. Wealth, and visible wealth at that, seems to playing a significant role in India today. In a time when mobility was restricted, and the acquisition of wealth by anyone was a remote possibility, it served to emphasise the difference between those born rich and others. Wealth underlined the futility of ambition, and implicitly told the rest of us to make our peace with what we had. Of the few who tried to argue with the unreasonableness of being defined by one’s birth, most failed, and used the idea of luck to explain their situation. The idea of luck became a sad refuge for the defeated whose lives were forever embittered by catching a glimpse of transformative possibility and seeing it slip out of their grasp. Luck, by virtue of its capriciousness, firmly detached itself from any visible causality, any connection between effort and reward and emphasised the belief that there was little correlation between wanting and trying for something and getting it.

Perhaps nothing illustrates the social value of wealth as much as two buildings in Mumbai. Shah Rukh Khan’s Mannat, his seafront bungalow in Bandra, tells the mythical story of how the scalar of luck turned into the vector of ambition. The idea that one can purposively aim for untold greatness and achieve it , that one can, as the name of the house suggests, ask for success, indeed demand it, and receive it, changes the idea of luck and fate. The idea of mannat is different from seeking a vardaan, or a miracle for in the former, one undertakes to work hard for one’s success whereas in the latter, it is a benediction that falls out of the sky. Luck now becomes an enabler, an accelerator rather than a mysterious throw of the dice.

If Mannat tells the tale of seeking out the impossible and getting it, Antilla is the story of the limitlessness of human ambition. For this sign to work, the verticality of the building is extremely important, for it serves as a beacon to all those struggling below. The rich of yesterday lived in sprawling estates, far away from the sweaty milling of the others. All that was visible were the tall walls of their bungalows; one could only imagine what lay inside. It was clear that the rich were another species, that carried on their lives in their own habitat, careful not to infect us with their good fortune. With Antilla, the rich now live amongst us, challenging us with their success. There are those that find the idea of an entire building for a single family an exercise in vulgar excess, and regardless of whether they are right or not, they miss the point that vulgar excess is the point. Without money becoming a wailing siren in the dead of night of ordinary lives, it serves little purpose as a contagion of ambition.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that there are no questions to ask when such signs become so visible. The biggest question about money is not so much about the noise it can make, but about the silence it can buy. Loud money serves some purpose, but the silence that follows in its wake is good reason for us to feel some disquiet

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