It was a panel discussion in a television channel on the pros and cons of the galloping consumerism that has overtaken the nation. A panelist could not have been more forthright. No, he would have no sense of shame to own five hundred pairs of shoes. He realizes such indulgence is the epitome of luxury living, but why should he suffer from any prick of conscience' How does it matter if, in this poverty-ridden country, large sections go barefoot because they do not have the means to buy even a single pair, or if close to one-third of the nation goes to bed every night with hunger in their belly, or if India has about the highest infant mortality in the world' Why should he bother if one-half of the nation is still illiterate, and malnutrition and pestilence claim millions of lives every year in different parts of the country' He is concerned only with himself. If the others are not in a position to enjoy the goodies of life in the manner he does, that is their problem, why should he be involved'
It is an interesting point of view, and there need be no surprise either at the fact that considerable sections of the audience present in the television studio warmly applauded the unabashed hedonist. No use putting blinkers over our eyes, globalization and liberalization have marked a watershed in the cerebral processes of young and not so young Indians. Issues of social welfare are bunkum, the Impossibility Theorem worked out by mathematical economists has proved beyond a shadow of doubt that there can be no such thing as a social welfare function, my preferences do not bear comparison with yours, my value system is as much a sovereign entity as yours. I would therefore rather concern myself with my own preferences alone; you and the rest of the so-called society can go to dogs. This is at the core of the neo-liberalism held in total regard in American society, and there can be no running away from the reality of American modes and manners increasingly tending to be the beacon-light for the enlightened Indian community.
Socialists of the old school, we are being told, are an anachronism. Such being the hard datum, mor- al issues are an irrelevance, we are not, must not be, our brotherís keeper; let us pay homage for the present to the Impossibility Theorem and leave issues of conscience aside. In any case, the conscience of the panelist was clear: he had absolutely no guilt complex: was he not spending his own money'
What about the problem of aesthetics though' We are supposed to be well-versed in literature and the arts, the history of impressionism, post-impressionism, pointillism, fauvists, post-expressionism, far-out abstractism, and so on, rolls off from our tongue, we know the ins and outs of post-post-modernism, we discover symmetry in aspects of organic and inorganic phenomena, symbolic poetry bowls us over by its innate urge to explore layers and layers of convergence in seemingly autarkic impulses and experiences. And yet, a cross-section, a non-negligible cross-section, belonging to this stratum of society, is inviting us to extricate ourselves, from the fetish of aesthetics.
Why should we not spend fifty thousand rupees in the course of a single evening on dinner and drinks at an exclusive restaurant merely because thousands are facing starvation deaths in adivasi belts' Why should we not move into a mid-town penthouse costing ten crore of rupees even if millions are without a covering over their head in village after village and shantytown after shantytown' Why should I adjourn my scholastic activities ó such as writing a fat tome on 18th-century French cuisine and its linkage to Napoleonís Civic Code ó on the ground that these would be incomprehensible to the unlettered genus who constitute the Indian multitude: in short, because it would not look nice'
This is tricky territory. Aesthetic questions, it can be argued, are in large measure a red herring, we must not flog the horse of aesthetics beyond the point of reasonableness. As human beings, we subsist on asymmetry; there are as many asymmetries in nature as are symmetries. Human existence is riddled with myriad instances of both unity and contradiction. It is puerile to suggest that because my neighbour is out of a job, I too should join the reserve army of the unemployed. On the contrary, the expenditure I incur from my income will conceivably create work for some people who are currently out of work. Or my buying five hundred pairs of shoes will provide a fillip to the nationís leather industry. This is good rhetoric, but may not happen though. With our high import propensity, our footwear fixation may actually buoy up the Italian shoe industry, howsoever marginally. That apart, if the country is in the first place directly in need of capital formation, diversion of potential savings to frivolous expenditure would not boost either production or employment.
Even so, as with moral issues, the lobby pressing for discarding aesthetic reservations is formidable. We are not yet out of the woods though. The real issue concerns our own narrow self-interest. Frontiers have of late been flung open, including frontiers of information and awareness. Till very recently, our ignorant and impoverished millions used to catch glimpses of outrageously high living in affluent households, abroad as well as inside the country, from motion pictures or glean ideas from folklore narrated about the rich. Sometimes stories would filter through newspapers, the radio and other media.
Now, as imitative luxury-living percolates through the system, even the poorest of the poor see with their own eyes the conspicuous display of wealth right in their own neighbourhood. Thanks to the electronic media, even villagers are no longer immune from the enchantment of the fabulous lifestyle of the wealthy set. The filthy rich are no longer a fictional category. The down and out millions are no longer dependent on gossip or occasional peep shows to learn the details of ethereal existence of the crême de la crême. The hiatus between the rich and the poor in our country has widened at a ferocious pace in the course of the past decade; moreover, the poor are now direct witnesses of the excesses flaunted by the rich: they occupy ring-side seats at the spectacle of rampant conspicuous consumption.
In biological terms, the poor still are human beings. They nurture the same urges and emotions as the affluent do. They suffer from hunger, but they are afflicted by curiosity, greed and lust as well. To live up to the Joneses is a dictum equally applicable to them. The state may adopt measures to prohibit strikes, ban processions and rallies, declare unlawful, on the plea of national security, attempts at organizing the wretched of the earth. The history of humanity has however demonstrated over and over again the futility of such endeavours. Discontent will out, aspirations too. The panelist on the television programme may be proud of his lack of conscience, he may be devoid of the minimum of aesthetic taste, but he has no control over other peopleís demands and wishes.
If X takes pride in his possession of five hundred pairs of shoes, others too will get into the act. The idea of possessiveness is infectious. The idea is also dangerous. It can induce others into nurturing and fostering similar ideas. That apart, five hundred pairs of shoes have to come with other concomitants of high living: a galaxy of imported cars, a palatial house, Fifth Avenue dress and décor, and all the rest. If the Xs have arrived, the Ys cannot be far behind. They, however suffer from a technical handicap which must be overcome right at the start. They have no money. That situation has to be redressed. The Ys set about the task.
They begin with small-time operations such as snatching and pilfering. From there, they graduate, slowly but surely, into high-tech murders and hijackings. And accidents do happen in society. Those without the talent to take directly to highway robbery may take to organizing politically the discontent of the masses. Things could then go out of hand. The organized or half-organized masses may one day decide to declare open and violent rebellion, whether formal or informal, whether guerrilla or something else. They may go to the length of making a serious try to topple the political infrastructure which permits our television discussant to boast of his five hundred pairs of shoes.
So better take care, possessing five hundred pairs of shoes can be risky business. It can create a murderous riot in the neighbourhood, and uprisings are contaminating.