Money Matters

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Money certainly matters as much here as anywhere in the human domain, yet naturally The (local) Tamils have a different relationship with monetary value, one that I cannot fathom; so allow me to skim blithely across the surface as usual:

While not having a clue as to how any economy works, it never fails to astonish me how well this one does work far beyond my expectations. Everyone here is more or less alright despite inconveniences, discomforts and inadequacies and on the surface they all seem much happier than can be expected under those circumstances!

This beautiful man is an archetypical example: he always seems happy.
This beautiful man is an archetypical example: he always seems happy.
This excellent tailor cheerfully works in a cramped, hot, leaky tiny tin shed.
This excellent tailor cheerfully works in a cramped, hot, leaky tiny tin shed.
Here is the humble abode of an artist who paints beautiful boards for businesses, ashrams and NGOs.
Here is the humble abode of an artist who paints beautiful boards for businesses, ashrams and NGOs.

Visitors learn second-hand that families are seething with tensions and dramas, traumas, rivalries, suppressions, repressions, addictions, jealousies, vendettas, dominations, insubordinations . . . beyond imagination, all surviving nevertheless in astonishingly cramped quarters within the savagery of social coercion. However nobody will ever reveal that there is anything wrong unless they’re nuts or beggars, and all bright smiles appear in the flash of a twinkle.

Is today a Special Day? I asked Mohana - seeing the oil lamps, designs, flowers and stuff in her doorway and then this magnificent welcome in her shrine room.  Yes, she said, it's Friday.
Is today a Special Day? I asked Mohana – seeing the oil lamps, designs, flowers and stuff in her doorway and then this magnificent welcome in her shrine room. Yes, she said, it’s Friday.

Celebration is a way of life here. Money doesn’t seem to be much of an an object. Almost every single family burns a considerable amount of money on fireworks on regular occasions and oil lamps for daily worship. Otherwise-vegetarian families can afford to feast on the dead bodies of animals for Special. New clothes on almost everyone is now a twice-a-year spectacle of glittering array beyond the previous scope of Maharajas – tinsel is momentarily satisfying and that’s what’s important. Washing machines also seem to be important.

This washing machine takes pride of place in a relation's home . . . .
This washing machine takes pride of place in a relation’s home . . . .
. . . After that photo, my adopted daughter's nephew asked me to take another - this time naked - photo.  So here it is.
. . . After that photo, my adopted daughter’s nephew asked me to take another – this time naked – photo. So here it is.

In a context where one can expect an equation between time and money, anyone can get caught up in a convoluted discussion involving almost everyone who seems to work in a shop while other customers listen-in patiently, staring with their mouths open or occupying themselves otherwise while waiting for attention to shine on them while nobody claims the authority to break it up. Time doesn’t seem to be so much noosed by money: since this isn’t a directed-thinking culture, the good vibes of most conversations are glued to what a nice time we are having having them, rather what what they are about or whether they are slotted into an appropriate niche.

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But how can this be? This community – whatever else it is, is relatively impoverished!

This man exchanges broken plastic and unwanted metal, wooden and other stuff for onions and tomatoes, I've been cheered by his smiles for twenty years. . . .
This man exchanges broken plastic and unwanted metal, wooden and other stuff for onions and tomatoes, I’ve been cheered by his smiles for twenty years. . . .
. . .  Look at his cache today!
. . . Look at his cache today!

Take the bazaar for instance – the chaotic commercial hub: since Indians greatly value mornings, nothing much happens in town before ten o’clock except ladies sweeping piles of garbage, although by that time CowCorners are established chewing cuds already. But things pick up momentum quickly and by eleven the chaos is roaring with contented shopkeepers either patiently serving customers or staring convivially out into the street in a ubiquitous bland but optimistic sort of way and all streets and main roads soon start accumulating far, far too many vehicles of vast variety parked on the shoulders of the roads with potholes but no footpaths, and very soon the police start fiddling with heavy yellow traffic blockades according to some imperceptible and impractical logic, which causes further excruciating confusion . . . it continues unabated right through until around eight at night although some places remain open all night – especially mechanical-workshops and other places where blokes fix stuff; tiffin shops near bus-stands remain forlornly open also while cows wander contentedly about banana skins, discarded garlands and plastic bags. Lunch time is always greatly respected with organisation skills unsurpassed almost anywhere else on earth and social interaction takes place in a relaxed atmosphere around anything commercial; there’s no evident compulsion to stick to the business at hand anywhere – time is conspicuously un-pressing wherever you go, often irritatingly so until Tea-Time when the sugar kicks in.

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It’s different if you hold down a nine-to-five job perhaps – like in an office, but if you own your own trading business what’s clear is that you spend a lot of time at it and your business throbs with social networking – person-to-person is what works here, and a bargaining culture contains a convivially grounding dimension that seems to escape us foreigners. Commerce here is transparently fun. Competition doesn’t seem to be an issue, you frequently notice new enterprises are initiated right next to or across the road from identical kinds of enterprises with no sign of apprehension on either side, as if business always works here, and it does seem to. They seem to be on to a good thing, whatever it is. Over-population? Low expectations? Gross national happiness?

Here is a dignified middle-class LivingRoom shelf.
Here is a dignified middle-class LivingRoom shelf.

One of the most bizarre spotlights on Money matters here is Banks! There seem to be two main categories of bank: sophisticated (for progressives) and unsophisticated (for locals); I wasn’t permitted to take photos in sophisticated banks (you didn’t miss much) but my favourite bank was cool about that and I am delighted to have the opportunity to hint at its human qualities in a few photos – you will recognise them immediately.

The Mango branches here are a celebratory gesture of affection for SarasvatiPuja day, honouring the goddess of learning and culture.
The Mango branches here are a celebratory gesture of affection for SarasvatiPuja day, honouring the goddess of learning and culture.
More Mango branches to be distributed to uplift us all.
More Mango branches to be distributed to uplift us all.
Some kids must have been jumping on it, surely.
Some kids must have been jumping on it, surely.

The sophisticated banks on the other hand are expensive: they have uniformed armed guards at the doors and elsewhere, security cameras galore, men wearing shoes, sometimes socks, (one in particular has ladies very seldom if ever visible), AC, slick advertisements of themselves everywhere, promises galore, special NRI deals, irritating email promotions, dandified Personal Officers and infrequent cups of tea. As far as my experience goes, the sophisticated banks are equally if not more inefficient than the local ones and certainly demand more of customers by regulations and Security Measures than the Unsophisticated banks. They are modelled on Foreign, you see.

Sophisticated banks don’t go for gods on their walls but if they did perhaps they’d find this one particularly suitable:

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The WhiteMen factor here introduces bizarre highlights and undercurrents to the value-for-money platform, bringing in foreign elements such as Gifts without the protective scope either of obligatory contributions at family functions, fruit and flowers for gods and gurus, or outright bribery. It’s a bit like the question of how you speak to a woman not-a-family-member: there is no precedent for behaviour in relation to gifts other than the challenge of going-one-better-back, which naturally comes with a dampening imposition often entirely misunderstood by the WhiteMan or Woman concerned.

Although the nutrition level of local food is abysmal, the taste factor is glorious and except for unfortunates on the floor there appears to be no stinting money-wise on the provisions of spices or the preparations of banquet proportions quite often – any excuse will do. The family living below my room frequently waft exotic smells after eleven in the evening; since children don’t seem to go to bed early with regularity these spicy smells almost always accompany squeals, shrieks and thumps. Food is more important than money.

Especially in arenas where food is served, cross-cultural clashes also present themselves rampant; eating carries loads of protocol, varying tremendously according to the historical plenitude or paucity of availability between cultures. Consequently unspoken questions about who pays can become stifled in pregnant silences and intended contributions towards a meal shared by invitation can cause embarrassment on both sides. On the paucity side offerings are always attributed with inadequacy for the giver and excess for the receiver. There’s no avoiding imbalance, it is an historical contingency between Tamil Folk and Western cultures.

KaliYuga is on us so be prepared.

(The featured image is on the way, waiting for Sh@nti’s money-machine return from repair.)

4 thoughts on “Money Matters

    1. Vannakam Richard,
      Hey. Please put another image up rather than that bank bench, because I greatly admire that bank . . . I was considering taking that image down actually because although I might find it endearing, they probably wouldn’t. Thanks. Thank you enormously for putting the link to your blog. I need to get some housekeeping work like that done also. Very much appreciated.

      Like

  1. As someone who has traveled to India for over 30 years, I can testify that Apeetha’s empathy with this ancient and complex culture is no small accomplishment. It is obvious from her stories and photos that the locals open up to her in a way few casual visitors would experience. This no doubt proceeds from her lifetime of social and environmental dedication to the area. I hope anyone intending to visit Tamil Nadu reads this blog to better appreciate the forces at work within communities as they attempt to integrate modernity with traditional values. The strain of this challenge is evident all over India. While results on the ground are not always pleasing to our eyes, the keen observer will detect the indomitability of the Indian spirit just beneath the surface. May the trials of the journey ultimately point you in that direction.

    Liked by 1 person

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