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The inheritance of loss
There is a curious pandemic that is infecting India's rich - 'affluenza'. Ennui, desperation and alienation are the symptoms, and all the money in the world cannot cure it.
The young girl had just finished her tuition when the doorbell rang. Her teacher casually requested her to open the door, but the girl looked at her in horror and said, "What? I'm not a servant!" The 14-year-old was not being arrogant. She was merely reflecting her background - a hyper-affluent home crawling with domestic helpers, where her mother scarcely lifted a finger except perhaps to have a manicure and her father lived mostly on an airplane. Not surprisingly, a few years later, she had joined one of her parents in an ugly legal battle against the other parent.
Dysfunctional families and imbalanced relationships are as old as the human condition. But today, in a society where money is honey and people are no longer coy to say "yeh dil maange more", Indians appear to be suffering from a curious pandemic which most people wouldn't even know to diagnose: affluenza.
Affluenza is the effect of money or wealth on an individual's subconscious, which manifests itself in imbalanced relationships - with oneself, with others and with money itself. The idea was developed by a UK-based psychologist, Ronit Lami, who counsels families on how to get around it.
Increasingly, newspapers across India are filled with gory stories about greed - suddenly the deadliest of all sins - that would make even a Ram Gopal Verma horror film appear mild. A man beheads a friend so he can take over his BMW or flat;parents look the other way while their daughter is exploited by a rich politician who plies them with endless gifts;children kidnap other children just to generate more mall money. It's as if the surround-sound consumerism has unhinged people who are desperate to somehow make it to that penthouse with the plunge pool.
Anthropologist Shiv Viswanathan says that Indians are seeing the kind of wealth they wouldn't have imagined and that has led to unusual behaviour patterns. "I don't see it as conspicous consumption, I see it as conspicuous misbehavior. If you want to see affluence misbehave, just look around you. A lot of wealthy people do not believe they are accountable to the police, or to their school headmaster, or to the road outside, " he says, referring to the number of people he sees rolling down the windows of their expensive cars and blithely spitting on the road.
Viswanathan says that he sees a society suffering from collective "affluence anxiety". It's not just about having wealth. "Suddenly, just having money won't help. Once you have the money, you want to know how to spend it. " He refers to the round-the-clock hyper-aspiration that follows the hyper-wealth. If you overhear conversations while waiting in an airport, people will be talking about going for a meeting to a five star hotel. Or, they might be discussing some new expensive gadget, or which European city they visited for their summer vacation. There is a need to be one-up constantly. It puts a lot of pressure on the women, especially, who are expected to run homes that reflect some magazine spread.
While the external life appears to be comfortable and well-furnished, the internal self is going through its own turmoil. The individual may be racked with low self-worth, guilt about having too much, feelings of failure and fear of loss. People who grow up with wealth may also be unable to identify their real needs and longings. The 'stay hungry' part of Steve Jobs' advice on how to do well no longer finds room among the young who are weighed down by their selfinflicted decadence.
Dr Azhar Hakim, a psychotherapist, says he returned to India recently after a ten-year gap to find an anxiety-addled society. The immediate outcome is high levels of drug and alcohol abuse as well as strained family relationships. "With all this new opportunity around, there is a constant sense that 'I am failing'. So there is a sense both of 'I need to achieve', and also 'I need to show it' - 'I have to have the right car, live in the right place, dress the right way, I need to holiday in the right places, I need to party at the right places'. " He adds that it plays out differently for men and women. The way middle-aged males deal with it is through substances, so you see drug and alcohol levels going up.
As for affluent women, who may be well-educated but have decided not to pursue a career, they get very invested in raising the perfect kids, competing with other school moms, dealing with husbands who are never available. "There is a sense that if the kids are not doing well, then I am failing in a fundamental sense, " says Dr Hakim. "A lot of women feel a deep sense of unfulfilment. Then that leads to affairs.
There's quite a bit unraveling of what was considered traditional. " Simultaneously, there is a lot of pressure on kids. You're seeing a greater number of kids acting out as well as wanting to experiment and get high at younger and younger ages. "So all around there is a great sense of pressure, stress, anxiety and exhaustion, " he says. Psychologists have suggested various ways to get around the psychologically damaging effects of money. This could involve things ranging from the transfer of wealth, to getting involved in philanthropic work as a method to enhance self-esteem and increase productivity. But those solutions do not appear to be anywhere on the horizon of India's new rich. Author and social commentator Santosh Desai says, "There is a new breed of unapologetic rich people who are untainted by any sense of guilt of being very wealthy in a very poor country. They have an ability to not associate with the reality they see around them and very little sense of responsibility."
Wealth has a way of allowing people to distance emotion. It's like the wealthy wives who prefer to be with their kitty party friends or with members of their religious cult, than with their husbands. These myriad affluenza clubs have created happy little bubbles which work fine - that is, until they burst.
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