The following is simply a reflection of my own experience after living in India for a year and a half.
Every county has a range of shops and stores, from cheap to expensive and in between, covering everything from food and fashion. But if any country has the full range, it’s India.
Really rich Indians make Forest Hill people look like paupers, and they shop and live accordingly. The cheapest shops in India are very cheap. A local merchant, a vegetable wallah or whatever, can charge a white man like me way more than he’d charge an Indian, unable to believe his luck he can rip someone off so bad. But I’m used to Toronto prices, so I feel guilty I’m ripping him off. Both things are true at the same time.
If you want to spend a lot of money by Toronto standards in India, you can. There is a class of Indians who have fuck-you money, who never look at price tags. This exists, probably in larger number than Torontonians suspect, even if it’s barely a fraction of the Indian population. A quick Google search tells me that the average annual Indian income is $616 US. This is the figure, though another quick Google search says there are 236,000 Indian millionaires. The total population is roughly 1,300,000,000 (poor people do not immediately jump into the census when born) but some of these millionaires are actually billionaires, too, and I wonder what India’s average annual income would look like if you removed a handful of people at the very top. Millions of people make way, way less than $616 a year.
Before arriving, I was curious to see how evolved consumerism and ad culture was in India, or Delhi at least. The food scene is intriguing. Food delivery is very common: There is an enormous surplus of labour, and they jump on one of a million motorcycles in Delhi and deliver McDonald’s or whatever else. Smaller commercial restaurants may outsource their food delivery. There is always someone to do anything for a tiny amount of money.
Smaller local non-chain restaurants are a different story. They often don’t deliver. If the menu says a masala dosa costs 60 rupees ($1.20 Cdn), that’s what it costs. No tax. Somehow, this is just fine. Modi’s new HST tax means 18% is added, and this applies in fancier sit-down restaurants or North American chains. In smaller local places, the price is the price.
But being a white Torontonian yuppie scum meant I could toggle between economies when convenient. Obviously people with more money can buy what they want, this isn’t a revelation, but life has a very different quality when even luxuries are fundamentally affordable, when strangers assume of me, rightly, that I can pay for what they charge for a dentist, between $22-30 Cdn (one time they did some free orthodontistry work too) or medical, or whatever food. Maybe it’s wise to save, but there is no cost in life if I decide to buy some nice food or whatever.
Delhi is a dirty city. The air is poison. I should say, street sweepers and others do a great job of cleaning, everyday. Shockingly poor people scavenge for garbage. In Lajpat Nagar 1 where I lived, there was a dump near me and people just go around picking stuff up.
Without getting into deeper reasoning or socio-cultural explanations for the root of Indian garbage habits, in this dirtier city I decided to buy a fancy face wash. Exfoliating, with rose and honey and apricot. This luxury item, an Indian product, cost like $2 and some odd cents. French hygiene products, for wealthier Indians, cost more than they do in Toronto.
I could buy things from the economy where prices are calibrated for poorer Indians, or if I felt like it from the foreigner economy. If I want to buy a super cheap souvenir, I pay local prices. The Lajpat Nagar II main market sold bangles, I think it was $1 for a dozen. In Toronto, the other day I happened to be at a local so-called Found Objects store selling bangles, and laughed to see each individual bangle for $2. 100 rupees for a single bangle!
Haircuts in my neighbourhood cost $1-3, and a head massage, those blessed things, could be $1-7. (A head massage is actually the head, shoulders, back, arms, and they crack your knuckles, and also sometimes your neck.). One time I paid $2 for a haircut and a head massage.
But Delhi has Khan Market (read: Con Market), too. It is apparently among the world’s most expensive commercial real estate. When I got homesick, and yearned for the quintessential Toronto experience of being ripped off, I would come here.
About $20 Cdn here got me my beloved bagel lox and cream cheese, with fries and two double espressos. Indulging in India costs less than everyday Toronto.
Khan Market has lots of great yuppie crap, from the Body Shop (foreign soap) to $100 sushi meals with like only four rolls because the damn fish is flown in from god knows where and isn’t exactly overly fresh. The price of exotic items are, fittingly, not calibrated for normal Indians. If it isn’t produced in India, regular Indians probably don’t need it, because historically they never had it. (By “regular” I mean the non-professional types I worked with at the station.)
And again, “affordable” is a relative term. In India, unless it was for the people with Fuck-You money, about everything was affordable to me. Yet I made the legal minimum wage, the lowest salary a foreigner is allowed to receive by law (less, given my cheap ass company worth billions). But I never had to look at my bank account to decide if I could afford a nice lunch.
The truth is I made an obscene amount by Indian standards, and a pathetic amount by Toronto’s. A colleague nearly ten years older and with more than 15 years experience in Indian journalism, with a higher title and level of responsibility in the office than me, made less than half of what I did. Yet I worked there knowing I’d have to reckon with Canadian prices eventually, and that housing in Toronto increased by more than 20% in the time I was away, so that a detached house in Toronto costs well over one million dollars. (50 million Indian rupees). Rent soared, too.
So I knew I was simultaneously rich and not rich. The way in which I was not rich is actually decadent as hell. People making Canadian salaries can go to many countries in the world, and by simple virtue of having been paid Western wages, can live like kings. This does not work the same way in reverse.
I find the relative wealth of the West disturbing and impossible to justify. I’ve seen Indians who work at least 12 hour days 7 days a week, and they’ll make next to nothing. This is one telling symptom of both a national and international economy predicated on absolute bullshit.
I could have delivered to me a smoked salmon sandwich, on a fresh ciabatta bun with craime fraiche and grainy mustard, and two stupid little heart-shaped sugar cookies for about $8-9. Of course there are cheaper things to eat. Spending this much was beyond the possibility for many colleagues, but in Toronto this may get you an appetizer. North Americans who know nothing about India, understandably, may be surprised to learn continental fare is available.
In Lajpat Nagar 1, I occasionally ate chicken, rice and roti made by a woman on my street. It cost almost $2. Very spicy and good! My Indian colleagues were shocked I ate this, as it could be sketchy in fact. Meh.
Street food, oh man. Basic vada pavs, fried potato with nice spices and a fresh yummy bun, cost I think 30 rupees in places. 60 cents. This is not a small amount of money for many locals.
Again, that India is cheaper than Toronto is not a revelation. But the feeling of freely being able to switch between these economies brings some uncomfortable questions. Being able to parachute into a country and live like a king while millions there starve is weird. I’m not responsible for this, but nonetheless you can’t be there and not see and feel how wrong it is. It’s not exactly guilt, because I know I’m not the guilty one, but I’m certainly living a very fine life based on something that does not feel right.
I’d wonder, could an economist explain this in a way that makes sense? Is it just that North America has such valuable currency because the US military is present around the world ensuring that US business interests are looked after? I suspect it’s to do with the latter, but it’s a damn complicated world and this feels like an oversimplification too. But it does seem beyond coincidence that the US dollar is proportionately as high as their global military presence.
But to see people born there, living on the street…there are economic and geo-political lenses this can be seen through, but the situation urges you to see it through basic existential terms. They were just born there, I’m just born here, and whatever the other reasons are, as complicated and diverse as they are, they come second. Not first.
Hash is obscenely cheap, even if, as I understand it, the price has gone up markedly. It is currently $30 Cdn for a “tola”, or ten grams(!!!), of potent Himalayan charras. In Canada this money gets you 2 grams if you’re lucky.
Like I said, the average Indian annual income in 2013 was $616 US. I made $3,000 Cdn, monthly. This sounds like a brag in light of that fact, but remember, I could not have legally made less money. There are white people in India working illegally for charities and NGOs and things like that, and they make less. But it’s true that if you see a white person in India, they had enough money to buy the plane ticket to get there. That the legal minimum was such an obscene amount of money there speaks to how white people have everything work in their favour. Legally, and even culturally in practice, there is always a tailwind for white people.
Before coming to India I was paying Toronto rent and working as a private guitar teacher. No salary, no guaranteed income. I managed to sell some writing here, less reliable than teaching. I had a flatmate in Toronto, where my share of rent was about $1100 monthly. I lived alone in a nice apartment in a good area in South Delhi, and rent was $400 a month. I knew people who paid in rent $120-250ish Cdn.
One time I noticed The Gap was coming to India. Big news! Every Western brand has automatic prestige in India, because it is simply Western. Indians automatically accord respect and importance and high-status to anything Western, even if the thing itself is made in Bangladesh and is merely advertised by North American 20-somethings.
I saw signs, breathlessly praising the upcoming opening of The Gap. Then it opened, and I was curious to see what things cost. A t-shirt, $30 Cdn, same as here. That is insane, I thought, and aside from wealthy Indians who want to signal that they can afford North American prices, Indians won’t go for that. Indians know the price of things and do not waste a single rupee. Paisa vasool. “Finally, The Gap Is Here!” a sign read, or something like that. I thought and hoped Indians were too smart to be taken in by these prices. Next time I came, it read, “Gap Open! Up to 90% off!” Good! Fuckin parasites.
Indian Terrain is a chain store in malls and locations around Delhi and other Indian cities. If I buy a nice button down shirt it can cost about 2,000 Indian rupees, or $40 Cdn. The shirt will be much higher quality than H&M, but actually $10 more expensive, perhaps. But it compares in quality to Club Monaco, where shirts not on sale can range from $40-$120.
Yet In Old Manali, I bought a beautiful button down shirt hand-stitched by the fellas in the store for $10 Cdn, 500 rupees. I know there are people in India selling hand-made shirts with the same fabric for even less.
One thing I noticed, actually, is that poor people in Delhi and elsewhere in North India have clothes that fit well. I speculate on the reasons: most Indians are smaller. Malnourishment is a real problem. Not many people wear XXL. Clothes need to be made in fewer sizes. People in Toronto buy ill-fitting clothes maybe because there are more wrong sizes to buy. This is probably a very dumb gora observation, but I wonder if there’s anything to it.
A few weeks after landing in India, I wondered if I, standing at just over 5”8, was the largest man in the country. I towered over many people who are clearly poor and seem to have suffered from stunted growth. Several of the “office boys” and janitors at work, and people like them in the city. I find that phrase “office boy” demeaning and classist, but it’s a common phrase most Indians would never think to put quotation marks around.
But also, better fit may have to do with Indian merchants being more capable than their Canadian counterparts. People who sell the clothes commonly make them too. There is less division of labour. Shops make and sell, some just sell what’s been pre-made. But even in a commercial store like Levis, you just buy jeans according to waist size, not length—they measure the leg length and cut it there in the store while you wait. I wonder if poor Indians get custom clothes them because tailoring is so common there, so it’s just a part of buying clothes. Here, there’s a premium on “made to measure” or “bespoke” clothing, and the cost goes up by 1000%. I think the idea of having loads of pre-made shirts from factories to sell is relatively new in India, dating back to the early 90s when the economy “liberalized”, ie began its slow, slow opening to Western countries. (Ask a Western businessman if it’s easy to do business in India, and he will say “no” or laugh, no matter what Modiji tells you).
Alas, this is one of those things I could not learn, because it’s so rare for poor Indians to speak or understand English, and my Hindi is pathetic. Hindi meri bakwas hai. I wonder if middle, or upper-middle class Indians will think my speculation is ridiculous. Or maybe it’s accurate. Maybe some journalists I know could answer it, but for the most part, from what I could gather, most middle or upper class Indians have no desire to speak to poor Indians. They stopped seeing them a long time ago.
I would occasionally see Indians wearing clothes that clearly came from the West, through charities I guess. Oldschool Nike t-shirts! In Ajmer, Rajasthan, I saw a dude who had no shoes and a ragged lungi but wore a t-shirt that said “Bury me in my ones. Nike Air.” Think about that. This dude was not into basketball/hip hop culture. I’ve seen a few poor Indians wearing Wu Tang gear, guys who I suspect have not entered the proverbial 36 chambers.
Let’s chart the life cycle of that t-shirt: Probably originally made in Asia by a worker paid pennies hourly, bought by a North American for $25+, given back to charity maybe just to be nice or perhaps it went out of style or some other reason, back to Asia to a guy who has no clue what Air Force Ones are. The shirt never changes in substance, just its value is inflated like hell in North America because its worth is abstract. In India, it first represented an impossibly low wage, then was a symbol on a man, then fabric on a man. Both are reality, but North American reality is often psychological, existing mostly in the mind. (Of course the shirt has a tangible existence in both places, but it is not valued at $25+ because North Americans value cloth on their body more–signaling “Nike” is the value.)
Being back in Canada, where the value of products is largely abstract, making it susceptible to endless manipulation and inflation by obscenely wealthy and exploitative companies, life seems to be moored to something less real. Psychology understanding of a shirt’s brand is real, but this reality is decadent compared to the tangible desire to cover your body in cloth. My Indian friends and colleagues would kill me if they’re reading this, because I’m not talking about them and Indians hate to be thought of as poor. They have a chip on their shoulder, understandably. The British robbed them blind. At one time, India had 25% of the wealth on Earth.
So as a white guy walking into Delhi, working for an international news station, I immediately had top shelf connections. The world of Indian journalism is small. Like all over the world, only upper and middle class people become journalists. They are the ones who go to college for it, or can afford giving time to work in unpaid internships. Indian news stations don’t have dalits working there. Everyone has worked in every other office, they do the circuit. They all know each other, and the circle is small.
I had done nothing there but arrive, and the country felt insanely open to me. I could travel anywhere, buy anything I wanted in it (not a car or a house, maybe, the latter because there are rules regulating foreigners buying property, and anyway I didn’t have that much money).
On my second day in India I met the premier of Ontario. I has welcomed inside a bunch of embassies. I regularly went to the Press Club and the Foreign Correspondence Club. To be sure the latter two aren’t very exclusive, my then-editor in chief had a membership and we went there to eat cheap kebabs and drink cheap beer and whiskey. One of my hosts worked at the US embassy, and she met David Letterman while I was there. I went to a wedding at the home compound of the President of India. I had a press pass, and cars in Delhi have “press stickers” to say to police and everyone else, “don’t fuck with me or I’ll report you”. There was power. Especially as a white man. And I had done nothing there. I repeat, nothing.
More than access or stories, it’s the way people approached and perceived me that is shocking. I was a sensation. I was one of the only white people to work in my office building, and people treated me with more respect than I deserved. I’m just a guy! Poor and definitely wealthy Indians too enjoy being seen with a white man.
At work, I was able to push back in ways my Indian colleagues were not. It was understood that for all the talk of not having a traditional hierarchy in the office there was still a hierarchy, but I didn’t really give a fuck about that. I wasn’t an asshole, but I resisted being pushed around in ways my colleagues were not able to, I expected the company to live up to the contract it signed and I repeated my expectation to them until they sometimes kinda did, which is an utterly foreign concept in an Indian office. I never called my bosses “sir”.
My existence was enormously sheltered and privileged. Uber is there in Delhi and cheap as hell. Rides within the city are $1 to share, or $2 to ride alone. Plus in my first year, my company paid for every single Uber I took, work-related or not. I took the Metro occasionally, it was about 30 cents a trip. But saving a dollar or two to be crowded and sweaty and have to make up the last mile to and from the metro station with a rickshaw driver who understood no English made no sense.
I’d sometimes pay a rickshaw driver to take me to the metro (subway), or from the metro to where I needed to go. Since the company was paying for my Uber and the metro came from my pocket, it made no sense to take the longer, more expensive and more confusing way. Thus, again, living was easy and sheltered. I’d see people living, sleeping under a flyover from an air conditioned car. This is a trite, packaged image, but I literally did see it everyday.
Weeks after being back, I find I’m surrounded by wealth and abstract/brand cravings, so they people are unsatisfied despite possessing more wealth than most of the world could ever dream of. This sounds like a criticism of these individuals, but really it’s the influence of consumer society, ie mental poison. It drives the rich mad. It’s also something I knew before and everybody knows, and there’s nothing more trite than coming back from India and pointing out the gap between wealth and happiness. Look, India has spiritual people and spiritual frauds all over the place and Toronto has beautiful caring soulful people, poor and wealthy alike. But the hollowness here is palpable and everywhere, and I want to shrug it off but it is so fundamental to the world, the external world and people’s inner life, that I simply despise it.