Sunday, November 16, 2008

Dear Friends
You'll find here the unedited version of a middle I published in The Tribune last month. The newpapers are always short of space. And they keep telling you to reduce the length of your piece. That is, if at all they accept it in the first place (which is hard enough, anyway). Sometimes, they give you the unkindest cut of all by chopping off your piece rather arbirtarily. And you know, how possesssive all the members of our tribe are about their 'writing.' Just one word out of place is enough to make us start tearing our hair off. So, putting these unedited versions on the blog is the only way we know of indulging our vanity. I suppose, it's your turn now to indulge yours by reading it (or not reading it!).
Penny Wise, Pound Foolish
So goes a popular adage. I gathered so many of these all along the way, as I grew up in the backwaters of a Punjab village. It was our Class VI mathematics teacher, perhaps, who drilled the importance of ‘savings’ into our thick little heads, saying, “A penny saved is a penny earned.”
Often, as he uttered these words, he’d also tug at his trousers, slipping over his protruding belly, with the sudden jerk of his elbows. His characteristic habit of fumbling into his over-bloated pockets as he did so, made us suspect that he was feeling crisp, currency notes inside. Looking back, I now realize that frayed cuffs and collars of his shirts had quite a different story to tell, though.
Our Class VIII English teacher, who preferred to sport a pint-sized dhoti and a half-sleeved khadi kurta, was very fond of repeating “Always cut your coat according to your cloth.” All of us knew that his father was a Gandhian, and had taken part in the freedom struggle, too. Occasionally, the boys laughed up their sleeves, wondering if he had lost his only ‘coat’ to the ‘greed’ of an Englishman or the desperate ‘need’ of a street-beggar.
God be thanked, those days, ‘economics’ wasn’t taught in schools. In my case, though, it wouldn’t have made much of a difference, even it had been. All my efforts in college to wrestle with knotty problems of ‘economics’ (something I was forced to opt for) invariably came to naught.
The intricacies of both the ‘macro’ and ‘micro’ continued to elude my naive mind. And so did the laws of taxation or the hard-to-grasp theories of ‘income and expenditure.’ Despite all the inputs, the curve of my economic understanding never showed an upward, bullish trend, receding instead like the laws of diminishing marginal utility.
Of all the nerve-wracking lessons in undergraduate economics, perhaps, the only ones I still remember are the harrowing tales of how we had failed the Indian poor and poverty after independence, or more sordid ones of how the British had looted us in the pre-independence era.
And yet, all this and so much more had failed to impress upon me the virtues of an over-glorified Indian habit of ‘savings,’ which my teachers, too, had tried so desperately to instill in me. My first teaching assignment took me to Shimla, a pretty expensive town in the early 80s. Worse still, I was expected to survive on what my MBA daughter now describes as ‘a ridiculously small salary of a thousand odd or so.’
The going was pretty tough. In the first month itself, I ran into rough weather. Fortunately, a colleague of mine, whom I had befriended in good time, played the ‘World Bank’ and bailed me out by offering a liberal loan of two hundred or so. Then on, I started borrowing from him frequently, almost as if it was my birthright to borrow, and his to lend.
Into the third month, he bolted, saying that if he continued to help me through, I’d perhaps never learn the much needed lesson in self-reliance. To convince me of his theory, he narrated how in the early 70s, when he had just started out on a salary of less than five hundred, he lived within his frugal means, often cutting down on essentials like ‘newspapers’ and ‘books,’ too.
Reading of the ‘global meltdown’ recently brought back memories of another era, when money was still paper, not plastic; when the ‘savings’ were still sacred; and the ‘sub-prime borrowings’ hadn’t yet begun to squeeze us.
You may say, the times have changed, but have they? The common people continue to look skywards, as they always have done since time immemorial.
The only difference is that earlier they watched the ‘vagaries of weather;’ but now they observe the ‘swings of sensex.’
Why ever not? After all, this ‘sensex,’ too moves as unpredictably as the good old ‘wheel of fortune’ once did. No?
By Rana Nayar


  1. Its actually interesting to watch. Our economic systems do not encourage us to save, but to spend and/or invest. As has been seen during recessions again and again, presidents(referring to the US) have regularly told their subjects to go to the market and spend.

    Then again, there is the fact about all economists being touted as experts non-judgmentally. It is actually strange, people do not look to judge them on the basis of their abilities but on their mundane qualities as looks, diction and so on. Most economists, from what I've read of their columns, end up contradicting themselves. And the arguments are anything but logically sound...always having considered a very finite set for a trend and made a sweeping generalisation out of it, like MBA jargonists do :)

  2. well, thanks for your comments. i wrote this piece in half-seriousness as is evident from my tone. i'm just making a tongue-in-cheek comment, which is about all we can do in our uncertain times. Isn't it? I'm not an economist, nor was ever ment to be. And thank god, i'm not one.