What did you give your wife on your first wedding anniversary?
Ha ha. Very funny. Now let’s get serious.
It was a New Year’s Eve party many years ago, and an adult game was on to choose the best matched couple. Husbands and wives were made to sit in two rows away from each other and tested with questions to see if their answers matched.
It was a party organized by the Indian diaspora in Hanoi and the person who asked me the question would not take no for an answer. My explanation that I did not give my wife anything for our first wedding anniversary since we did not have a wedding was beyond his imagination.
If that question were the only one asked that night, we would have won the contest hands down. We didn’t, but the looks of utter bafflement on the faces when my Vietnamese wife’s answer matched mine was prize enough.
For all the gaiety and pomp of Indian weddings, and how romanticized they are in popular culture to this day, including Hollywood takes on Bollywood, I was struck very early on by the toll they took on many families, especially on the women’s side. Families went into eternal debt, and many fathers committed suicide. Of course, never-ending dowry demands by the boy’s family led to torture and even burning of brides, too. Many farmers, the victims of a cruel system, were in fact blamed for using loans for non-agricultural purposes like weddings, funerals, hospitals and so on.
Meanwhile, the rising middle class and the filthy rich class have continued to splurge on weddings, more than on any other occasion.
A former chief minister of the south Indian state of Tamilnadu celebrated her foster son’s wedding in such a grand manner that it became the talk of the town for weeks if not months. I remember reading somewhere the grisly details – invitations delivered on silver plates with gold braided saris, houses on a street leading to the marriage hall evacuated, with residents given money to stay somewhere else till the wedding was over, and so on. I also read that the wedding cost more than $33 million.
Indian steel tycoon Mittal splurged $60 million on his youngest daughter’s wedding a few years ago, and Asia’s richest man, another Indian tycoon, Mukesh Ambani, forked out a cool $100 million for a daughter’s wedding last December. The media, national and international, went all agog again on this event, and the details were gushed about with something bordering on reverence – the number of flights that flew guests to five five-star hotels fully booked for the event, the list of celebrities attending the wedding including Beyonce and Hillary Clinton, the $64 million dollar house that the newly married couple would move into, and so on.
In the age of consumerism, when greed is deified and the ostentatious is no longer considered vulgar, it is not surprising that everyone wants to get on the wedding bandwagon. The Indian steel tycoon who spent $60 million on his daughter’s wedding held it in France and now, Vietnam has entered the fray.
Last March, the Vietnamese media went to town on an “epic” Indian wedding held on Phu Quoc Island in the south of Vietnam. Then a few weeks ago, the media’s breath was bated about another Indian billionaire’s wedding held in Da Nang.
Personally, I have changed my long-standing opposition to the institution of marriage and the ritual of weddings, as I have done with my previous rejection of religion and religious rituals. This does not mean that I condone any of their insidious impacts, of which there are many.
What this is not
So this is not a diatribe against weddings per se, but a questioning of how their opulence is applauded and glorified, and an attempted extrapolation of what it actually means.
Report after media report that has extolled the forward looking attitude of Vietnamese youth has also noted that their heroes, the people they dream of becoming, almost invariably are Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg. No scientist, artist or musician breaks into the top ranks.
The Vietnamese media has also consistently celebrated as a national achievement the entry of a Vietnamese citizen or other into the billionaire class, or such a billionaire’s inclusion in one list or another, marking their place among the wealthiest people in the region and the world.
This is true in India as well, for the most part. Billionaires or extremely wealthy people are touted as matter of national pride, and more importantly, a sign that the system is working, rather than evidence that it is not.
Where does the truth lie?
Perhaps one good person to answer this question is Anand Giridharadas, an American-Indian writer who, among other things, has recently written a book called “Winners take all: The elite charade of changing the world.”
This book exposes the philanthropy of the wealthy class for what it really is – a concerted attempt to maintain the status-quo of vast inequality by hoodwinking people into believing that a win-win solution exists for major problems facing this world, to see the filthy rich and their opulence as a legitimate status to admire and to aspire to.
Many years ago, as an assignment for an anthropology course on Culture and Aids, I wrote a paper exploring this theme, delving into investigative reporting done on massive donations made to the anti-AIDS campaign by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
Even as Bill Gates was being praised to the skies for working to save millions of lives by most of the media, an independent non-governmental organization alleged that “there was a link between Gates’ largesse and the panic that had been whipped up over (exaggerated) AIDS figures.”
The NGO’s convener, Purushottaman Mulloli, said: “Gates’s interest in HIV projects in India is not meant for charity but to protect his billions of dollars of investments in pharma companies interested in conducting field trials in India.’”
Gates denied this during a visit to the country, but other reports pointed out that the foundation had indeed invested heavily in pharmaceutical companies and stood to gain handsomely from its investment when WTO mandated restrictions on developing countries like India producing generic drugs against the disease would force the world to purchase prohibitively expensive patented versions.
Gates’s current backing of GMO solutions most likely falls into the same give-a-little-and-take-a-lot-more category. Good for business, bad for the people.
Even earlier, books like “Lords of Poverty” by Graham Hancock and “How the other half dies” and “A fate worse than debt” by Susan George had opened my eyes to the systemic, structural issues that underlie and perpetuate poverty and inequality around the world.
How it happens
Giridharadas argues that there are well intentioned people who really want to make a difference, but are clueless to how such intentions are subtly co-opted into the larger project of maintaining status-quo.
In an Oxford Union debate on the proposition “It is immoral (or not) to be a billionaire,” Giridharadas recounts having forgotten his wallet at the university many years earlier. It later turns up in a post box with everything intact except the money. He says that this is what billionaires, with very few exceptions, do. They, in many cases, “steal your wallet, take out the money, and use the fact that they returned the empty wallet as proof of their virtue.”
He says the ultra-rich usually use philanthropy to give away some of “the spoils of dubiously gotten wealth, not just to whitewash their reputation, but to actively create the ability to keep doing what they are doing on an ongoing basis.”
A recent trenchant essay by philosopher Tom Wyman is titled: “The worship of billionaires has become our shittiest religion.”
Putting a billion dollars in perspective, he says: “If you, for instance, had earned a million a year, every year since the Battle of Hastings (that’s 1066, for non-Brits), and not spent any of it, you still wouldn’t (interest notwithstanding) be a billionaire. If you earned an annual salary of $43,000, you might eventually become a billionaire (again, not accounting for expenses or accumulated interest) — if you waited over 23,000 years.”
To make the impossibility of this plausible, principles of “manufacturing consent” come into play – debates are framed in ways that leave out huge chunks of relevant information and context, think tanks established and funded to advance and legitimize falsehoods, the overall agenda being to convince people that the system we have, for all its flaws, is the best we can do, that “there is no alternative.”
This is perhaps the most successful mental coup of them all, preventing people from seeing that a minute fraction of the population acquiring extraordinary wealth, and therefore, enormous clout or power, is a symptom of a deeper, systemic malaise.
It results in a situation where those who have the most to lose from real change are seen as the people best placed to make it happen.
Will this situation change? That’s a billion dollar question.
*Hari Chathrattil is an Indian journalist and editor working in Vietnam. The opinions expressed are personal.
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