What, Me Worry?

September 26, 2011 7:56 am by

One of the benefits of getting on Twitter has been that I am now somewhat aware—as

In Mumbai, the party continues.

much as one can be on the basis of 140 characters—of what happens on the economic front, courtesy the helpful tweets of Firstpost.com. Consequently, the moment the rupee “registered its biggest weekly fall in more than 15 years”, I knew of it and for once, something related to the economy and numbers made sense to me. I was all set for my New York holiday and now my poor rupees would count for less in that foreign land. Sniff.

There was other news that didn’t make as much sense. On Thursday, September 22, the US stock market plunged because there were fears of a second recession coming America’s way. In response, stock exchanges around the world fell, including the Indian Nifty and BSE Sensex. So far, somewhat comprehensible. That evening, I was having dinner with some people. Most of them work in the financial sector or are entrepreneurs. I was expecting a mood of doom and gloom, given the day’s news. Someone suggested going to Koh for dinner but it seems they’ve been there “sooo often” that they needed a change. Someone else said that Wagamama was coming to Mumbai and it was going to be “Like, epic! Huge!” For a country whose economy was apparently facing a slump, this was some serious optimism and also a rather bizarre compulsion to splurge.

I couldn’t help but remember New York after the meltdown of 2008. Most of my friends were tense and anxious about holding on to their jobs and paying their bills. There were “For Rent” signs that popped up all over city. Eateries that everyone had thought were permanent fixtures shut down. Fine-dining restaurants were worst hit: their most faithful clientele, the investment banks, didn’t want to spend $50,000 on a fancy lunch. Apparently, a little more than 4,000 restaurants shut down in America between April 1, 2008 and March 31, 2009.

The BSE Sensex may have crashed by 704 points this past Thursday, but you wouldn’t guess anything was amiss from the chatter and buzz in Mumbai’s social scene. The shops are full of people. There are Bentleys and Rolls Royces cooling their wheels next to autos in Bandra’s Pali Naka. The Salman Khan-starrer Bodyguard made Rs20 crore on its first day. As my last landlady, Enid Nazareth, used to say, “It’s all hunky dory.”

Technically, however, it isn’t. Every economic indicator suggests there may be some hard times ahead for the world in general and India isn’t likely to be spared. Raised interest rates, dip in car sales, slowdown in home-buying, galloping inflation, rising cost of oil—it’s all happening here. Yet all the tables at Hakkasan, where a meal sets you back by what is many Mumbaikars’ monthly salary, are booked. The little black (and other coloured) dresses of luxury brands are selling regularly. Accessories like humble hair bands are priced at Rs600 (at stores such as Besos and Accessorize) and buyers are undeterred. Our eagerness to consume and our willingness to dream big seem to be almost entirely unaffected by the anxiety that is gripping the stock markets at home and in the rest of the world.

My husband Anuvab, who is much more knowledgeable in these economic matters than I am, is of the firm belief that it is this optimism that we see around us in Mumbai that will see India through. We’re unfazed by reality and trends. For a staggeringly large number of Indians, things don’t change: many of those struggling continue to struggle and those dreaming big will concoct and pitch their multi-million dollar schemes that will miraculously get funded, regardless of what happens in the stock market or anywhere else in the world.

According to Anuvab, someone famous said: “Anything interesting done in this world is done by a madman on a mission.” (I have a feeling he made it up. He is a playwright and it sounds like something one of his characters—Arun Gupta from 1888-Dial-India—would say.) India is filled with such madmen, particularly in Mumbai. Their mission is to be successful, to make money, to rule a little bit of the world. Macroeconomics doesn’t seem to affect them. Our madmen dreamers read what’s happening in the rest of the world and dismiss it, refusing to given any cognisance to the gloom descending upon the world’s economies. “That’s what will make sure we don’t sink into a recession,” Anuvab prophesied with as much of philosophical gravitas as he could muster while devouring a very large piece of chicken. “This is our gilded age.”

Deepanjana Pal is a journalist and the author of The Painter: A Life of Ravi Varma. She is currently a consulting copy editor at Elle magazine.