Gayatri Jayaraman's Who Me, Poor? is the story of urban migration in India

Intended to be a short history of struggle of youngsters in post liberalised India, it's a guide to learning to live the authentic life.

 |  Rough Cut  |   Long-form |   16-07-2017
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In India, social anthropology tends to restrict itself to weighty issues like caste, gender and communalism. Popular social anthropology is a genre that is hugely underdeveloped. But that is not the only reason to welcome Gayatri Jayaraman's work of non-fiction, Who Me, Poor?

Intended to be a short history of struggle of youngsters in post liberalised India, it's more of a guide to learning to live the authentic life. Through a combination of deeply researched case studies and data from credible sources, Jayaraman, a former colleague at India Today, builds a comprehensive argument — you will find success when you are truest to yourself.

She gives us enough examples of those who don't. And suffered for it.

There's the BITS Pilani graduate who survived for two months on Parle G biscuits so he could fit into the office culture of after-work drinks. There's the NIFT graduate who ended up spending on clothes to camouflage her small-town origins rather than food and ended up emaciated. There's the publishing publicist from Kerala who lived in a shabby room in INA in Delhi on one meal a day, so he could keep the image required for his job — dapper suits and up-to-date accessories.

There's the Cognizant team manager from Odisha who broke up with his girlfriend because it was too expensive for him. And the engineer who maxed out his credit card playing poker.

This is pretty much the story of urban migration today which leaves many young people too fancy for their village and too rustic for the big city. And it chronicles their desperation well.

As someone says in the book: ''The world believes millennials can change the world. Because I’m 26, I’m expected to know. If I don’t come up with ideas often, there are people younger than me — 20-year-olds are tech savvy and knowledgeable and their learning is rapid — and those older than me, whose expectations I must meet. This dual competitiveness requires it.''

And as she points out, the workplace is exploitative, giving one nothing except the basic salary and expecting you to fork out money for smartphones that enable the peculiar Indian phenomenon of a 24X7 workplace where there are no boundaries between office and home.

With precision and empathy, Jayaraman tells the story of these millennials, estimated to be 28 per cent of the Indian population, and their ability and susceptibility to be enticed to spend. Intensely brand conscious, they are the ones spending on Ubers, on eating out, on fast fashion.

As one of them says:"In your first job, if you want to grow, you have to show up looking half decent, there are times you have to show up on time, or go to a meal at a place which you ordinarily on your own wouldn’t enter. If I have to make friends in a new city, I have to buy the kind of dresses and shoes that are suitable for clubs and restaurants. If I do not, what is the point of coming here and earning and finding a new life? Why not have some fun, find some friends, possibly love, while doing it? It’s not a choice; it’s an investment in fitting in.''

book_071617103751.jpgWho Me, Poor?, by Gayatri Jayaraman; Bloomsbury India; Rs 399.

A lot of it has to do with easy credit. And what Jayaraman calls the phenomenon of "the more income rises, the higher the expenses to earn it become".

She ascribes it to the lack of self-assertion; low starter salaries that do not dress you for the job you want, they dress you for the job you have; practical expenses required for living one's own; lack of financial literacy; and the need to invest in self-pride. The result of not being able to live within one’s income is personally crippling and professionally stunting, she points out.

She also gives us glimpses into struggles of some well-known people who arrived in Mumbai with nothing but their dreams. Their homelessness, their travelling around in an "inappropriate" car, their going hungry because they have to drink a Rs 200 cup of coffee to be seen at the right places; or not being able to afford proper clothes.

For filmmaker Anurag Kashyap, it was finding a place to stay that bothered him the most. As she writes: "Influenced by Vittorio di Sica’s film Bicycle Thieves, Kashyap, who was then with the Jana Natya Manch theatre group, decided he had to make it to Mumbai in order to make it in life. He relocated with Rs 5,000 in his pocket. Arriving in the city with very little idea of what the actual cost of living and finding work here involved, he soon found himself sleeping on the streets, in the terraces of buildings, and on the beaches of Mumbai. A friend found accommodation in the St Xavier’s College boys’ hostel, which meant sneaking in through a window and three illegal entrants sleeping on the floor of the hostel room at night."

For actor Kalki Koechlin, it was going to auditions, riding "the train in these ridiculous outfits, the short, glittery dresses and make-up required for some role. People stare at you. I have always been a little bit willing for that to happen than borrow the money that I don’t have. I do know that pressures exist. I still don’t have a PR person, people keep telling me to get a stylist.''

For artist Sudarshan Shetty, it was the days of lack, of everything. She writes: ''When Shetty, curator of the Kochi Muziris Biennale for 2016, was opening his first ever solo exhibition, it was to be the culmination of many months of work at his residency at the Kanoria Centre for the Arts in Ahmedabad. At the opening, there among the most fashionably dressed champagne-flute toting collectors and hors d’oeuvres being served on silver trays, patron Urmila Kanoria noticed a rip in Shetty’s simple cotton chequered shirt. In the middle of the rip, Shetty had inserted a safety pin to hold it together. At first, Kanoria was annoyed, thinking he was just being shabby, the typical artist lost in his work who, head in the clouds, hadn’t thought to show up neatly dressed for his own opening. Then, his diffidence hit her — Shetty had no money for a new shirt even for his own opening. That night, even as Shetty was the toast of the town, he was ‘discovered’, a new talent born, Kanoria sent out for some new clothes. Shetty reluctantly accepted them. For Kanoria, it was a lesson, she says, in how crucial it was to support artists who were immensely talented but lacked resources to work in peace and take their visions forward. It became a mission. Today, Shetty, always vocal about his days of struggle, is a world-renowned artist and one of India’s highest selling. But he is still a product of his days of lack.''

There's the dark side to it — the voluntary prostitution by some, the depression caused by unpaid student debts in others, and the inability to fit in with a smart start-up crowd with others.

But she doesn't leave you without solutions. Her's is a wise five-point plan that works for everyone of any age:

1. Lift the curtain of silence

The first ask of financial literacy is to put it out there, she says. ''Confess. Put it down in black and white where it is visible. Not in the public domain — you don’t owe random strangers your truth, unless you feel that that will hold you accountable and you want to do that voluntarily — not in spaces that will make you vulnerable, but perhaps with a trusted friend, a relative, parents, anyone who loves you and whose withering eye will be tough to take, but necessary for your future growth.''

2. Know your priorities. Your priorities are not others’ priorities

The second thing to do is to see how you want to fix it, she notes. ''Do you want to increase your income to cover the Rs 8? Or reduce your expense? The answer may seem simple enough to many, but it isn’t so for those living it. You cannot arrive at this answer until you pin down what is important to you. A good idea is to make yourself a personal balance sheet of where you want to be, in terms of personal and professional roles, in the next five years. Then list the things you spend on (not their cost) in the debit and the credit sections. What’s keeping you from your goals, and what’s getting you there? Then you’ll know what you can eliminate.''

She gives her own example: ''For me, it’s simple. My son will leave home after his 12th standard so I want him to have as good a time in the now— books, clothes, travel and experiences of life. I have plenty of time to save later. So I spend more than I should possibly afford on the things that seem frivolous to many. To me, however, the investment is in my son’s future understanding of life — that I leave him with in terms of exposure to the world, taste, and aesthetics. I compromise on everything else. For instance, I still do not have kitchen cabinets four years after moving into my own home, and so I do not call friends over for dinners or lunches, because my house looks half-done and shabby. Could I achieve that in a couple of months if I saved up? Quite possibly. However, that’s a pay-off I’m willing to make. And besides, how would I know which friends and colleagues are willing to just accept my half-built home? I also use my inadequacies to measure others and what I mean to them, as much as I use them to know what they mean to me.''

3. Pick one: reduce expense or increase income

The previous understanding is what will lead you to the third step. ''Understand that it is imperative for your own progress to pick one of the two. Go up, or go down. Once you know what is non-negotiable for you, you will know what that final figure is that you need to make up between income and expense — what is your personal Rs 8? The first question this begets is: is your job paying you what you are worth?

richbd_071617104332.jpgThe more income rises, the higher the expenses to earn it become.

"The answer comes as much from a sense of self-worth as from the fact of your material needs being met. If the answer is ‘no’, then ask yourself why you are still in it. It could be that the job pays really badly, but you remain out of a sense of loyalty. Perhaps the job fulfils your social needs. Perhaps you are gaining valuable work experience on it that compensates for the lack of income because it will propel you into a different league afterwards.

"Should you decide to increase your income, there are two ways to do it. One is to plan for and find a job that pays you better. If you are stuck in an industry where market forces keep the pay low, see if there is a part-time job you can do that helps you increase your income.'' Good advice.

4. Understand want vs need

To rise in a career framework is possibly a need, to network, is a want, she notes. ''The need is the non-negotiable, the want is often just one way — often the most popular or obvious way — to achieve it. It is, however, not the only way. Nail down your needs, and question your wants, hold them accountable to you and your goals.''

And most important:

5. Be yourself

''In the end, the clichés all come true. The things they beat you over the head with, when you join a new job or start out in your social circuit, become your virtues as you grow with experience. Anyone with a few years of experience in any field knows this. That stubbornness turns to ‘tenacity’. That inability to control your emotions becomes ‘highly passionate’. That inability to stick to a job turns to ‘wide ranging experience in...’ And the woman who kept taking days off to go tend to stray cats (‘so unprofessional!’) has now become a highly paid animal behaviourist who works out of home. The one who had so little money to dress up for the parties that she actually hand stitched her own glitter and appliqué patches with needle and thread is today a stylist who works with designer Sabyasachi. You become, professionally and personally, the sum of your experience of life. At the point where the two merge, your lack and your plenty combine to create a unique fusion of who you are and what you are capable of. The lack builds into you there, where the plenty may fit. This is your groove. Enjoy your music, or change it."

If that isn't an inspiring call to claim your life, I don't know what else is.

Also read: How literature should translate into films


Kaveree Bamzai Kaveree Bamzai @kavereeb

Editor-at-Large, India Today Group

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