Sunday, November 16, 2008

Penny Wise, Pound Foolish

Dear Friends

You'll find here the unedited version of the middle I published in The Tribune last month. Somehow, the newspapers are always short of space. As a result, the meaty sections of the write-up often get excised. The writers are known to be quite possessive about their writing.

But they have no choice but to submit to the arbitrary editorial cuts. The only other option is to start your own blog (the way I have done) and inflict your write-up twice upon the readers.

Well, it's also being done for another reason. Often the readers of the blog and that of the newspaper(s) live in two separate worlds.

Here is the unedited version for your eyes:

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

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