Sunday, September 6, 2009

Of desire, logic and social conscience

The Buddha describes lust/desire as the origin of suffering. Brihadaranyaka Upanishad states pointblank that a person consists of desires. For Manu desire is one of humankind’s ten vices. Every source of wisdom warns us against desire, greed, avarice, the craving for more and more.

Yet, desire drives us. The latest example of this is cricket star Harbhajan Singh driving an unlicensed Hummar vehicle in Chandigarh. It may seem like a minor matter, but it is a symptom of what seems to have become a national trait – the arrogance of money.

Even California Governor Aarnold Schwa has given up his Hummar as unnecessarily showy. If an Indian cricketer lusts for this military-type macho car, we can’t stop him. But couldn’t he wait until it was registered? Contempt for such a simple legal requirement comes from arrogance of New Money. He will get away with it, thus justifying the Indian VIP’s contempt for the law.

Our Newly Rich display their wealth with what can only be described as vulgar abandon. Simply put, they lack class. Old Money is more civilised. Can we imagine Ratan Tata or Kumaramangalam Birla importing a Ferrari and asking for tax exemption on it as the other VIP cricketer, Sachin Tendulkar, did?

Two characteristics mark out New Money pretenders from Old Money aristocrats. First, their ostentatious consumption is devoid of all logic. What is the logic of construction company boss Amit Bhonsale with three helicopters and twenty-five super luxury cars adding three new super luxury cars to his collection every year? What is the logic of paying Rs 15 lakhs for a bottle (that’s right, just one bottle) of Glenfiddich 50 Years whisky in a Delhi hotel? There’s no logic at all in paying Rs 10,000 for a bottle of Zacapa, a Guatemalan rum, in Mumbai when the 180-rupees Khoday’s rum is just as good except in snob value.

The other characteristic of the arrogant rich is their complete lack of a social conscience. The billions America’s super rich donate to charities is legend. Without the helpful tax structure that encourages philanthropy in America, many corporate entities in India have taken to social responsibility projects in a big way.

Elsewhere the picture is depressing. Some years ago in Bangalore, Amitab Bachchan’s company held a show promising to donate the proceedings largely to charity. That didn’t happen. Then it became known that he had bought land in Maharashtra on the false pretence of being a farmer in UP. Last year he got a show-cause notice after the Director of Revenue Intelligence charged that he walked through the Green Channel without declaring Rs 36 lakhs worth of clothes and accessories he bought in London. Why does one of the richest men in the country get into such problems?

Which is the same as asking: Why don’t our mega stars of sports and entertainment do more than token projects for the needy? The answer has something to do with character. National character, perhaps. Indians hold $ 1500 billion in personal deposits in Swiss banks making them world’s No. 1 in the slush fund league. The No. 2, Russians, hold only one-fourth of what Indians have. The Indian amount can clear our national debt and still leave a surplus the interest on which will be larger than the national budget. That means India can abolish all taxes.
Lovely dream! But note that modern living periodically gives us sobering thoughts. The latest has reminded us, sadly and poignantly, that all power and glory, all Lamborghinis and private jets and yachts can end suddenly in a lonely jungle in the mangled mess of a flying machine. RIP.