Why Rich South Indians Are Austere

Almost all famous comedians, when they appear in public, look very serious. There can be several ordinary reasons for this. For instance, the default human face is grave. In fact, the face of joy itself is not a smile but an impassive face. Also, only bores and people with personality disorder try to be funny all the time; professional actors and comedians are funny only when they need to be. There is a more important reason though. Their seriousness is also a deliberate projection. Comedians do try to appear serious because they don’t want to be trivialised as clowns. 

This mechanism is also behind why companies that are constantly criticised for being unethical, even when they are not particularly so, are inclined to project themselves through hypermorality. Mining and oil-and-gas companies show excessive and not entirely dishonest concern for nature the way the Apple Inc does not. And people who are unkind to their own family or their lovers are the ones who are woke. Most good people are just those who are afraid of being seen as bad. Which brings us to why some Indian billionaires fly economy.


For the first time in my life I ask, “Are you a billionaire?”

The wealthy Malayalee chuckles. It is probably the first time in his life that he is asked the question. He has many concerns but most of his revenues come from “gold loans” or pawn broking — from interests on small loans made to the poor. (I won’t name him because I don’t have his permission. You will find several pieces here that quote members of a gold loan family.)

In his vaults are over 53 tonnes of gold, or about sixth of the gold reserves of the United Kingdom, and he pumps out over Rs 100 crore every working day into the economy.

His personal wealth is not widely known beyond the fact that he is, like many wealthy Malayalees and contrary to wealthy Punjabis, far richer than he portrays. 

Sitting in his dimly lit office in Thiruvananthapuram, he tries to wriggle out of the question through a practised answer: “I am just a custodian of people’s wealth.”

Seasoned journalists may maintain a respectful silence to ensure that he does not get off the hook, but it would be a futile exercise. He will wait you out. Or ask a general-knowledge question about some debt criss, and peer into your eyes as though to ascertain whether you are about to bullshit. 

He does not look like a billionaire but that is because no one in the world really looks like a billionaire. He does look affluent. In Kerala, men look as though they are wearing someone else’s trousers and shirts. But this man is a rare Malayalee whose clothes appear to belong to him. Afraid of mortality, even though he is a good Christian, he walks every day round and round on the astro-turf of the Police Ground of Thiruvanthampuram. He is not athletics-grade but still he is a passionate evangelist of physical fitness. Once he told a woman in his office that she had put on weight. Some well-wishers later told him he should not say such things to women for that is simply the way of the world.

One morning I found myself in a queue right behind him towards a flight from Thiruvananthapuram to Mumbai. When we entered the plane we saw in the sparse business section the familiar sight of male faces gaping with a mixture of pride and embarrassment as a file of passengers walked towards the lesser seats. The gold-loan billionaire, too, surprisingly, walked past the business class. When he was about to sink into the cramped economy seat he was thrilled to be recognised by some people. He was thrilled not because of being identified but because he was found sitting in the economy class. “When people leave their gold in our vaults and when they pay interest on their own gold, they are also paying for our business expenses. When I know this I cannot travel business,” he tells me. Also, when others know this fact it is not wise for him to travel business.


By the standards of furniture, the business class seat is an ugly and low-tech chair, and a mediocre bed, yet it has come to symbolise so much about capitalism, extravagance and inequality. As a result its renunciation by a person, especially one who can afford the seat, becomes an overrated virtue. For instance, almost as famous as the co-founder of Infosys, Narayana Murthy, is the myth and the occasional reality that he travels economy. But this chair, which I like very much by the way and consider it the most meaningful thing money can buy, reveals the impossibility of economic and social equality, and the simple hypocrisies of many activists who claim to fight for just that. 

The former finance minister of Greece, Yanis Varoufakis, who is a Marxist and also appears to know what that means, and is an economist who has become hugely popular by deploring the rich, said in a lecture that he delivered in 2013:

“My personal nadir came at an airport. Some moneyed outfit had invited me to give a keynote speech on the European crisis and had forked out the ludicrous sum necessary to buy me a first-class ticket. On my way back home, tired and with several flights under my belt, I was making my way past the long queue of economy passengers, to get to my gate. Suddenly I noticed, with horror, how easy it was for my mind to be infected with the sense that I was entitled to bypass the hoi polloi. I realised how readily I could forget that which my leftwing mind had always known: that nothing succeeds in reproducing itself better than a false sense of entitlement. Forging alliances with reactionary forces, as I think we should do to stabilise Europe today, brings us up against the risk of becoming co-opted, of shedding our radicalism through the warm glow of having ‘arrived’ in the corridors of power.”

Yet, knowing all this, Varoufakis did not perform a very simple task: exchange his ticket with any of the unfortunate passengers in the “long queue”. He had to just tell the airline that he wished to switch places with one of the unfortunate people he was entitled “to bypass”. It is unclear why he even accepted the expensive first class ticket in the first place from “the moneyed outfit”. Surely, he did not need to go to the airport to know that a first class ticket has been issued to him, and that a first class ticket, which is usually priced five times the economy fare and its comforts are unambiguously at the expense of people who cannot afford it, is the very opposite of equality. Surely, this was not the first time he was travelling first class.

Articulation of the conscience is a beautiful invention of the intellectual class. This expression is not charlatan; there is something deeply honest about it. Yet its primary function is to let words and confessions and good thoughts compensate for hard sacrifice. Being moral, so often, is a way of speaking.

But for our Malayalee billionaire such an articulation of conscience is largely pointless. Instead, there are great material advantages in demonstrating. Demonstrating to the public, his employees and his children, that even though he is a wealthy man he tries to keep his expenses low. That there is some meaning in that. 

One of the problems he faces when he tries to hire CEOs or other top executives is his company policy that no one can travel business, even on long international flights. He though makes an an exception for himself on long flights — that is if he gets a good deal from from his travel agency, which he incidentally also owns. He takes circuitous routes and long lay overs to save money. When he goes to the First World, a senior executive told me, one of the parameters he uses to choose a cafe is free Wi-Fi.


One of his top executives, whose mandate it is to encourage the poor to buy gold from his company, and not just to pawn ornaments, is a Marwadi. He says there are unsettling similarities between the Christian Malayalees of central Kerala and Marwadis, who are Jains who had settled in some districts of Rajasthan and Haryana. “It’s as though a mother had a pair of twins and they got lost and one went to a region in Rajasthan and another went to a region in Kerala, and the twins started two different lines of descendants.” The filmy analogy ends here and does not portray one of the twins as evil and the other as the virtuous. 

The most striking similarity between Marwadis and the Christians of central Kerala is the congenital need for financial prudence that borders on miserliness, and respect for social order and austerity. There is one difference though — the Marwadis do splurge on their weddings. Christian Malayalee weddings are much simpler affairs, especially if you know the wealth of the groom and the bride. 

Austerity, it appears, is not merely a tradition, but also a habit. We have been influenced by the sleights of language to believe that tradition is on a grander and higher plane than habit, but habit is a vastly under appreciated force. Tradition is something in the air, habit is in the body. Tradition that does not become habit is useless, and often a farce. Like the claim that Indians treat their guests like gods, and that Kerala is “a matriarchal” society. Often what truly unites a society is a handful of habits. Some days when I see intellectuals struggle to explain “what unites India” and provide spurious causes like “Bollywood”, “English”, “Hinduism” and “democracy” (but not “potholes” and “open defamation”), I am more sure than ever that what unites India is very simply the habit of being Indian and a group of other habits.

So, did the habit of austerity in an affluent denomination of the Syrian Christian community of Kerala transform the average Malayalee’s contempt for debt and lending? That would seem far-fetched. In fact, Indians in general are habituated to associate austerity with financial discipline and financial discipline with the powerful upper classes. 


EVERY billionaire has a yacht. Some yachts do not look like yachts at all — they may look like a cricket team, a wedding, war against malaria or even a newspaper. But, within the reasonable contours of what constitute a yacht, which is a luxury that actually pinches, our Malayalee billionaire does not have a yacht. He does own tastefully done homes and comfortable cars and goes on foreign vacations but these are unremarkable luxuries that even an upper middle-class Indian enjoys today.

Yet, as his sister-in-law says, “We are those Indians who will find the sealed water bottles on the cruise too expensive. You will find us in the queue to the tap to fill water bottles”. 


Austerity is not abstract. It is not even subjective. Nor is austerity a definite absence of affluence. Austerity is a measure of a person’s economic behaviour relative to the spending habits of his or her economic peers. But why are the austere austere? What advantage did the austere have, historically? Does austerity contribute to the morality of their profession? Are people in unpopular professions more likely to project austerity? Historically, across the world and especially in India, did the austerity of lending communities, like the Jews, Marwadis of Rajasthan and the Syrian Christians of Kerala, save them from revolutions?

Also, how is it that whole communities demonstrate this puzzling human behaviour — to deny themselves what their money can easily buy?

Andrew Carnegie, one of the richest man who ever lived, said in his famous capitalist pamphlet, ‘The Gospel of Wealth’, “This, then, is held to be the duty of the man of Wealth: First, to set an example of modest, unostentatious living, shunning display or extravagance.”

This should make considerable sense to the rich, especially the rich in a poor country. There is something honest about extravagance as an expression, but it creates considerable ill-will. The common public opinion in India that Vijay Mallya should be extradited by the United Kingdom to face charges here for defaulting on loans is largely a contribution of his extravagance. He is, in actuality, a more substantial man than what he portrayed, but people found him repulsive for living in luxury when he could not pay his staff their full dues. Mallya has become the mascot of an opinion that at the highest levels of third-world capitalism debt is a big immoral scam. Our Malayalee billionaire is the anti-matter of the Mallyas. He tries very hard to show he is frugal. 

But austerity is not a trick. The austere are not playing a game. They want to be this way, they cannot be any other way. Culturally, religiously, psychological they are compelled not to be extravagant. Very simply, they believe in austerity. And through this belief they inadvertently make their wealthiness a bit palatable for the poor.


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