Urban Poverty Unmasked

I love observing people around me, people are always an interesting set of people to read, we have so many layers, like a well-made croissant, flaky and mysterious but once cut, its all the same.

Like the guy sitting opposite to me, clearly, he is hungry yet nitpicking the food while his companion had no such qualms, she is chugging away drinks on drinks while his glass of wine remains untouched. She is enjoying and all he is calculating is, can he afford to pay the bill tonight, poor guy will have to live on bread for a week after this date. She won’t even know.

Look at that girl outside Starbucks, black Zara dress, Fancy shoes, Fancy work bag, Macbook, iPhone ! the whole works ready to give her interview or meet her client. She is ready to buy that 200Rs coffee, she just got off the bus right now, saved the uber fare for it. She is there to impress, 200Rs coffee is impressive.

That guy is checking out Fabindia with his friends, seems like they are urging him to buy something, all he can see is the price tag but yet so afraid to say its too expensive, we all know it is but we buy it! God forbid we buy something cheap, that’s so not classy, so not successful.

In the world of Instagram stories and Facebook check-ins, they tell us all, how you need to eat, look, and dress to be successful. Where you need to vacay, what you need to smell like, what car you should probably drive. But they don’t tell you how to earn for any of it.

The expenses that rack up are notionally non-negotiable: the clothes and the grooming, the bar nights and office dinners, the Olas and Ubers you have to take because you’re networking until 1 am, the Starbucks coffee you have to buy because that’s where your job interview is. The heels and the dresses.

I see entrepreneurs struggle to keep up the appearances, MacBooks, iPhones, expensive cafe’s to boost the show of success, but are we really successful. I won’t say that I am not one of them here, there were times where I survived on bare minimum food, just so that I can spend the weekend at an expensive cafe/bar trying to impress fellow entrepreneurs.

These are the urban poor. Objectively and relative to a vast majority of Indians, they aren’t “poor” at all. But they’re certainly hungry and broke a lot. These are the metro-dwelling twentysomethings who’ve internalised the pressures surrounding them and spend a majority of their salaries on keeping up the lifestyles and appearances that they believe are essential to earning those salaries.

Their influences are not difficult to spot. Their startup economy’s success stories are of entrepreneurs who spent VC money to create their own wealth, who spent every paisa immediately to multiply each into a rupee. The stories they hear are of Mukesh Ambani, who inherited an empire and built a very expensive home, instead of Dhirubhai, who lived in a very small home and built a very big empire. They read about Katrina Kaif’s hair costing ₹50 lakh to dye correctly. They internalise the lesson that to earn any money, you’ve got to spend a lot of it.

For admission to good colleges, we spend uninhibitedly on tuitions. For job placements, we throw savings at GMATs and MBAs. For promotions, we spend on suits and drinks.

What we’re left with is a flood of twentysomethings running hard to leave behind roti-sabzi for a perception of burger-coke. From there, they sprint with equal abandon toward the cheese-champagne.

When I first lived on my own after college, my earning was ₹30,000. My rent was ₹14,000, my phone bill was ₹2,000, and I spent insanely on Starbucks for meetings, on my commute in Uber and so on. I used my credit card for all of those things. And, because I was 22 sometimes you need a beer, an evening out or a movie, or to be able to laugh at life which would also go to the credit card. By 15th of the month, my bank would have just enough to spend on basic food, at times i have lived on bread and green tea. By the time next month came, I had a maxed-out credit card to pay off. I had spent all the money I was about to earn.

I quickly learned that with each pay hike, the price of earning it goes up. While in my first gigs I’d gotten away with basic mobile phone, but soon that changed as well. I was asked to “grow up”. Then sponsor lunch here, a happy hour there, a meeting at a high-end coffee shop became a thing of the day.

People who survive this stuff get called “strong” all the time. Strong is just a quiet hunger and a stifled sob. Most days, I think I’ve put that time behind me.

The hunger has touched different people differently – briefly or permanently, lightly or severely, maybe once or maybe over and over again. But once you’ve felt it, it’s indelible, marking you forever as a member of a tribe that understands what’s going on when you see someone order the cheapest thing on the menu, or nurses a beer for the whole night. If you’ve felt that hunger, even briefly, even a long time ago, you see it everywhere you look.