When my daughter was about nine, she came out of the bathroom asking why her friend’s dad was in the newspaper next to David Bowie. She had been perusing The Sunday Times Rich List, which I had chucked on the floor in a jealous rage when I got out of the bath.
The friend’s dad is a financier with a few million quid more than Bowie and a few less than Jagger. I explained that he was in the paper because he was one of the richest men in the world but she wasn’t very impressed.
“Really?” she said, “he’s never even heard of TK Maxx”
She’d been round for a sleepover and the dad said he liked her pajamas which she said came from TK Maxx and he said he’d never heard of TK Maxx and she said I can’t believe you’ve never heard of TK Maxx and was so surprised that it was the first thing she told me when she came home in the morning.
She didn’t tell me a thing about the mansion, which the family had recently moved into after trouncing Roman Abramovich and Robbie Williams in a bidding war. It meant nothing to a nine year old. When I asked what the house was like she said it was ‘quite big.’
At what stage does money become a thing? And why should it bother me how much other people have?
According to this year’s Sunday Times Rich List, Britain’s richest people are wealthier than ever before with a combined fortune of 520 billion pounds. That’s a 15 per cent jump on the total wealth of the richest 1,000 individuals, couples or families in just one year.
So, it comes as no surprise, the rich are getting richer. I hear on the news today that even the IMF and the World Bank are getting increasingly nervous about the levels of inequality in our society.
Tycoons the Hinduja brothers topped the list with a combined worth of 11.9 billion pounds. I don’t know how much Mukesh Ambani’s got but that’s probably walking around money for him. I bet he’s never heard of TK Maxx either, or a good architect for that matter.
And now India has Narendra Modi, great news for the economy, not so great for human development.
You could say that many of the super rich are at the heart of the economy and their success brings more jobs and more wealth to the country but does it really filter down to the common man or is the common man exploited to bring even more wealth to the individuals at the top?
I’m going to go off at a bit of a tangent here but when Samir drove me to the airport yesterday he pointed to the flyover and said it was funny that the people who had actually done all the backbreaking work, would probably never ever get to use it. They would probably never ever enter the airport building or catch a plane. Samir and I interviewed some itinerant workers when I was working on a project last year. Most of them came from villages in UP and MP, they came to work and earn money for their families back home. They had no concept or awareness that they were helping to build a mega city, the projects they were working on meant nothing to them. They just needed to earn the money to send to their families so that they could survive. Some of them had come to Mumbai at the age of 13 or 14, they stay in labour camps where they have to cook for themselves and average about five hours sleep a night. The rest of the time they are working. Up at 4 am to cook a bit of dhal before heading off to work again. They have nothing to look forward to but the twice yearly trip home, they all miss their mothers, wives and children, and for this they get paid between 3,000 and 4,000 rupees a month (about 40 quid). It’s bloody shameful actually and I felt like crying when we were talking to them. I asked one of them if he ever got to the cinema on his day off and he looked at me like I was mad. There is no money for leisure, all the money is sent home. Compared to these people I am rich beyond belief.
On the day of the election results I was having a fabulous day in Colaba with my old mucker Bombay Jules, celebrating her birthday in style. We stayed at the Taj Palace, dined at the Table and shopped ourselves stupid. We even went for a ride in a horse-drawn tourist carriage. I loved every minute; it was a day to remember, especially as she is leaving Mumbai, our last hurrah. Of course, I chronicled the day in a volley of Facebook updates: Here’s me at the Taj, here’s me stuffing my face, here’s me shopping till I drop, here’s me quaffing Champers on a dry day. A comment appeared on one of my posts from an activist friend in the UK who (half?) jokingly accused me of (effectively) fiddling while Rome burned. She is right to prick my conscience like that but it didn’t stop me from enjoying myself. I am afraid it’s getting easier and easier to turn off. After a while, one gets used to the poverty.
I went to Amritsar a couple of weeks ago and was deeply moved by the sight and atmosphere of the Golden Temple. The people there were calm, happy and almost otherworldly, they seemed to light up from within. Their devotion and contentment was tangible. It was a beautiful thing but there, lurking at the back of my mind was the thought: “I wonder if there’s a Guru Nanak knick knack shop ‘cos I want to buy a fridge magnet.”
Compared to these people, I’m a pauper.