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Cash of civilisations

india Updated: Mar 20, 2010 23:40 IST
Indrajit Hazra
Indrajit Hazra
Hindustan Times
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To say that one finds the brazen display of money vulgar is like saying one finds a dish of rogan josh meaty. Money, honey, is vulgar and people with loads of it are the ones who usually find people with not enough of it flashing the cash so wannabe that it becomes a civilisational threat.

Mayawati is hardly someone we associate with ‘people with not enough money’. She’s the one, after all, who can afford gigantic cakes, gigantic statues, gigantic rallies (who do you think cart people to every political party’s rally?) and, of late, gigantic garlands made of currency notes. But what got our bleating goat last week was her flashing wealth in its least mutated, purest forms. The Imelda Marcos of pret-a-porter salwar-wear preferred to cut through the chase and show off the Real McCoy, the Original Sin, the Fodder of the Nation, the object that can get all other objects — the sacred slips of paper with the non-negotiable words on them: “I promise to pay the bearer the sum of...”

One of the loveliest things about money is that, with access to the right shops (read: goods and services), it can be a great leveller. Or so it should be on (crisp or otherwise) paper. That’s how Old World ‘cultured’ Europe grudgingly but unerringly started to respect New World ‘brash’ America. That’s how deeply intellectual Bengalis realised that empirically-minded Marwaris could be the ones propping up Calcutta, and not the likes of Mrinal Sen.

But entrenched notions of class are hard to shake off, especially among those who have only culture — that intangible gadget that allows you to jump up the winding staircase of social mobility — to boast of. In Satyajit Ray’s Jalsaghar (The Music Room), we find the ageing, music-obsessed zamindar, Biswambhar Roy, clutching on to his notion of being ‘cultured’ even as the physical world around him is literally crumbling because of his fast-vanishing wealth. What infuriates him and drives us to pity him is the arrival of the young, uncultured businessman Mahim Ganguli as a noveau riche neighbour who buys his way to be perceived as being ‘cultured’ by setting up his very own, much more lavish music room (equipped with the new-fangled crassness of electric lights!). I’ve always wondered what happens to the Roy and Ganguli families generations down the line. Is the latter’s descendant a Bade Gulam Ali-listening economist in Harvard while the former’s is a CPI(M) party functionary supporting the Kolkata Knight Riders?

For (yes, Satyajit Ray-watching) me, Mayawati’s displays of Anaconda-sized currency garlands are not the shameful shows of filthy lucre but yet another setpiece in her dramatic production of the politics of exaggeration in the country that gave the world the over-the-topness of Bollywood. If other parties erect billboards of their leaders, Mayawati comes up with statues; if other parties have their spokespersons in the hell that is a perpetual inter-college debate on English news channels, Mayawati rounds up the usual suspects to hold mammoth rallies; if other leaders spend the night in a ‘humble’ Dalit household and make a grand show of austerity, Mayawati will have her bash that will outbash all bashes to show that even though her ancestors missed out on cricket when it was still a gentleman’s game, she — and through her example, everyone from her background — can party hard like any ex-Maharaja and their champagne-swilling ilk.

Yes, it’s all very vulgar, considering that the word stems from the Latin ‘vulgus’ or ‘common people’. And if by ‘common’ we mean ‘majority’, that’s a pretty accurate synonym for ‘bahujan’. Or what posh folks call the ‘aam admi’.