Book Reviews

Book Review #15/50 – Who me, Poor?


My friend Vidya had re-posted an excerpt from this book on FB about how a young working girl was ready to sleep with a guy for money because she needed to buy the latest smartphone and I felt a chill in my spine. I don’t sit in judgment of that young girl at all, and I don’t view it as immoral … I felt a chill because we as a society and our education system have failed our young. I remembered the article that Manu Joseph had written where he said, Indian middle class and upper class parents want their children to turn out like Modi but they are brought up like Rahul Gandhi – totally spoilt, no financial literacy, with a sense of entitlement and no education about the hard knocks that life does give.

I bought this book instantly and Gayatri Jayaraman has done an outstanding job of bringing out this “urban poor” condition that most of us are unaware of. The crux of this book is about how working men and women, who earn well are still out of pocket in the big cities because their salaries are unable to fulfil the new “basic” needs – a latest smartphone, a happening address, being seen at the happening pubs/restaurants and fashionable clothes.

As I read every interview, I started comparing my upbringing and my appreciation for my father went up several notches from an already high score. He never gave me everything that I asked for – and I am an only child. His answer was no for most things except anything related to education and travel. He taught me to be independent from a very young age and to manage with very little. When Krishnan and I went bankrupt, one of the lowest point was when we had to live with just Rs. 150 for two days in Mumbai and we managed to. Today if we are able to leave our jobs and live within our savings, its because of our upbringing. Learning to manage with limited resources is an important lesson that has to be taught by parents and schools !

I want to share some of the excerpts from the book that bring out this dangerous situation …. dangerous because these young adults are vulnerable to exploitation and many don’t have the mental toughness to deal with failures :(.

“…Khargar not being cool enough, it was socially isolating from the industry that I hoped to build a career in. The commute to town was also too long for me. So, I moved to Bandra where many of my classmates were living. We four girls rented a one one-bedroom apartment and paid rents of Rs 25,000 each. My salary was Rs 35,000 and the rest would go in electricity and mobile bills and commuting. Also, working in an industry like fashion you have to turn up well-groomed.” Rs. 25000/- for a one-bedroom apartment shared between four girls when your salary is Rs. 35000/- ! I wish this young lady all success but she also needs a lesson in financial planning ….

“…It’s always less,” said Manoj Sharma, a 25-year-old marketing executive in a tech firm, waiting in the lobby of the Taj Lands’ End. Sharma is waiting to meet a client who had kindly offered to introduce him to another businessman who was newly setting up shop, and therefore, offered him the opportunity to make a large sale. He hadn’t eaten at all that day, as he was saving the space on his card for any cost that would accrue from the meeting.” Why would the company not pay for the coffee or lunch at Taj ? If companies are not picking up the tab, that reflects very poorly on them. They are also part of this problem. 

“…As George Orwell puts it in Down and Out in Paris and London: “Why are beggars despised?— for they are despised, universally. I believe it is for the simple reason that they fail to earn a decent living. In practice nobody cares whether work is useful or useless, productive or parasitic; the sole thing demanded is that it shall be profitable. In all the modern talk about energy, efficiency, social service and the rest of it, what meaning is there except ‘Get money, get it legally, and get a lot of it’? Money has become the grand test of virtue. By this test beggars fail, and for this they are despised. If one could earn even ten pounds a week at begging, it would become a respectable profession immediately. A beggar, looked at realistically, is simply a businessman, getting his living, like other businessmen, in the way that comes to hand. He has not, more than most modern people, sold his honour;”…. no one said it better !

“…Earlier in 2016, the IITs raised their tuition fee for undergraduate education to Rs 2 lakh per annum. IIM Ahmedabad now costs you Rs 19.5 lakh annually. These are the educational institutes at the pinnacle of higher education in India, and these are government-regulated fee structures. Government medical colleges like AIIMS come heavily subsidised and range between Rs 50,000 and a lakh. Private college fees range between Rs 10 lakh to 25 lakh per annum, with the cost of a full course ranging between Rs 50 lakh to Rs 80 lakh. The vocational or the alternative skills are devalued currency in today’s educational systems. The scene is not much easier for those who obtain grants and fellowships either. For many students, especially at the post-graduate level, says Professor Pushpa Trivedi at the IIT Bombay campus, problems kick in when their fellowship grants are delayed. “As it is these often only cover a tuition fee, and not living fees. Especially if one is from a disadvantaged section of society, you are forced to take personal loans or student loans. Many students begin life with debts in this way.”… This is something we deal with more closely through ShikshaDaan and I will write about this separately. The Government does need to intervene in the education business especially the cost aspect of it. And parents need to let go of the craze for Engineering and Medical. Not everyone can be an Engineer or a Doctor !

“….We don’t quite fully understand the ways in which technology amplifies visibility and yet impacts communications. People are as lonely as they are connected. Are we more social or less now? Who knows for sure? But it’s on an entire younger generation to find out and bear the brunt of it.” … ???? We can ask these questions only if the young lift their head up from the phone and look us in the eye.

The last and most significant excerpt – “….understanding of what makes us happy, what makes us successful, and what makes us productive and useful, we would be very different people. We would need a whole lot less. And we’d be just fine. What is success to you? Define that first, before you get yourself into debt over chasing the illusion of it.” ….So true but who is teaching this to the young ?

My suggestion is to make this book a part of the curriculum in every school, college and MBA schools. Every parent must read this and help their children get the right perspective in life. Every teacher needs to read this to know how to prepare her students for a better future.

Thanks to Gayatri Jayaraman for documenting this issue and bringing it to the surface. Its a “must read” book.

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