The other day my cook came to me with an anxious, please-say-yes look in his eyes. I know that look only too well. It's usually followed by a request for an advance, the reasons for which range from needing money for a sister's wedding, a mother's illness, building a house, a child's much-awaited mundan and similar pressing exigencies that spring up about twice a year. I asked him what it was this time. He smiled, fiddled distractedly with his thumb, looked over my shoulder and sheepishly said, "I want to buy a smartphone". "What?" I exclaimed. This was a new one and had, quite frankly, caught me off guard. A sad story I was all prepared for, but one that would bring some cheer into his life? Nope, that was new. He saw my puzzled expression and hastily decided to give me the clincher. "I saw one on TV which was being sold on an offer, it's very cheap."
"Now I want to buy something for myself. A nice phone will make me happy."
I was dumbfounded, but only temporarily. After I regained my composure, I launched, quite instinctively, into a lecture about how he needed to think about his family and save money because that is what he'd come to the city for (I thought it was my duty to nip such useless extravagance in the bud). He heard me patiently and then replied with an emotive speech of his own. He said that he'd been working in the city for fifteen years and had never once splurged on himself, always thinking of his family first. "Now I want to buy something for myself. A nice phone will make me happy" he said, quite candidly. He then proceeded further explain his need. "I also want to play Candy Crush and Temple Run on it. What's wrong with that?" he asked.
Nothing I could think of. And it made me wonder. We the affluent are ever ready, sitting on our well-padded mantles, to tell the lesser fortunate how they should spend their money. Given half a chance, we delight in taking to the pulpit to preach the merits of austerity, though we may not practice those in our own lives. I remember talking to an old aunt once who would always refer to her domestic help as "maharani" because she was a picky eater and liked to dress well. This was the same aunt who was horrified at the thought of my help sitting on the couch with my daughter. I wondered what she would've thought of my cook wanting a smartphone. She would've probably chided me for "encouraging such behaviour".
"He seemed visibly chuffed at the idea that he'd spent one tenth the amount I had on the phone and pretty much got the same result"
Anyway, as these thoughts filled my head I contemplated a reply. However, I could not think of a fitting argument to counter what he'd said. What could I say? That I can have an iPhone that costs more than his half year's pay but he can't have one that costs less than my dinner with friends, that I can play Candy-Crush to the exclusion of the world around me because I have the right to unwind but he does not have that liberty, that I can spend more on a pizza than he spends on his son's monthly tuition fee because I am born on the right side of the social order, that I am allowed my little distractions, but he? No, he does not have that luxury because he comes from an impoverished little village in Bihar that gets electricity once in two days, where his father must travel for a day to get to the nearest ATM or hospital, and that he must eschew the attractions around him and bury his head in work because that's really his lot in life.
"What's the offer?" I found myself asking him, my tone now more affable than patronising. My question was received in the most positive light, since he took it as an indication of approval of his little request. "They are giving a Rs.1000 coupon with it!" he exclaimed with the alacrity of an insurance-agent. There was, of course, no going back now. Asking about the details was as good as having given my consent. And he knew very well that his honesty had done the job. I told him I'd give him the money because he had earned it with his hard work and deserved to spend it on himself once in a while. He accepted my praise with perceptible humility and then, afraid that I'd change my mind, proceeded to give me the details of the phone, which, I then realised, I had to order on my card since no one would do a COD (cash on delivery) for him. I'd walked into that one and before I knew it, the phone had been ordered and he went whistling out of the room.
Soon the delightful package arrived and he showed it to me like he'd brought pictures of his first-born. It was a swanky, white touch-screen phone that looked suitably snazzy to show his friends. He took excessive pleasure in showing me all the features, and with each swipe of the finger, he'd say "this is the same as your iPhone". He seemed visibly chuffed at the idea that he'd spent one tenth the amount I had on the phone and pretty much got the same result (in his view that is, and even though I was a little annoyed at the analogy, I didn't contest it).
I asked him if everything about his new phone was like the iPhone. He was almost at the door when he looked back and said "there's one big difference" I smiled and thought that he'd finally realised the absurdness of the comparison. He said "this battery lasts much longer!" and walked out the door, before I could fling something at him. He'd touched a raw nerve.