Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Greed and Contentment

What is the value of 10,000 for someone who earns 5,000 a month, vs the value of 500,000 for someone who earns 500,000 a month?

I learnt the answer to this from my maid last week. Her name is Meenu. She worked for me for 10 years. She used to earn 5,000 a month and left last year to get married. I gave her money and other household things as wedding gifts, but she also borrowed 10,000 rupees from me which she said she would return after about six months when she came back from the village. I happily gave her this loan.

There was no news from her or her husband for many months. I called on the number I had, and learnt she was back in town but unwell and could not talk to me or come see me. At first this did not bother me, but as time moved on I realized that perhaps she was not coming to see me because then she would have to pay the ten thousand back. She did not want to pay that and therefore did not want to see me, simple. I reconciled to this thinking she deserved to keep the money and I should let it go.

Last week I heard this story from a friend who mentioned that a senior director in their company left them a few months ago. I don’t know his name, let’s call him Manish. He earned a salary of 500,000 per month. He had taken an advance of 500,000 from the company which he refused to return under one pretext or another. To date he has not given it back, and has told them clearly that he does not intend to. He threatened legal action if they pushed him too hard. Even though the money was rightfully theirs, they decided not to waste time in legal battles and reconciled to this.

And then my maid turned up last week to see me. She had genuinely been unwell and came to see me as soon as the doctor allowed her to. And she brought the 10,000 back! I could not believe it. I gave 5,000 to her husband right away as a gift since I met him for the first time.

Once Meenu left I wondered, how do we decide how much is enough? Where does greed stop and contentment start? How is the value system of a maid different from that of a director in a company? We may have coined words such as the bottom of the pyramid (BoP) and so on based on economic parameters, but in my view Meenu is at the top of the pyramid (ToP) when it comes to morality and a value system and Manish at the bottom.

What do you think?

Friday, October 8, 2010

What Matters Most...

My younger son Akhil works for Facebook for the last four years. All these years he has tried hard to make me sign up and use Facebook more. All these years I have struggled to understand why millions are doing something I am finding difficult to do.

Well, the understanding dawned on me yesterday. And the person who helped me see this was our driver Manoj. Here is what happened...

My driver comes to work for me from 9am to 7pm. He lives in Rajiv Nagar in Gurgaon in a one room place with his wife who does part time work in nearby houses. Their room is in a building which has several such rooms on the ground and first floor, all occupied by migrant workers from Bihar and Bengal. They share a common bathroom; have a common place to wash their utensils and clothes. If they use an iron or a cooler in their room they pay extra for electricity. The rent is 1200 rupees per month. The road in front of the building is broken up, water logged during rains, and electricity comes for barely 6-7 hours a day. The area they live in has many such buildings.

I have offered for Manoj to move into our servants’ quarter with his wife. This is a room twice the size of his current room, free, with water electricity and other comforts round the clock.

Guess what, he declined and prefers to stay where he is. This is despite all the issues re basic amenities and having to pay a substantial portion of their earnings as rent. I spent an hour talking to him about this yesterday to understand why. There is one simple but powerful reason for which he is willing to trade off living in comparative comfort at our place...his need for a community. In his current place they live a community life, sharing their happiness and sorrows with similar other people, speak Bengali and eat similar food. They have the freedom to do what they want after they return from their daily jobs. Compared to that, at our place, they speak in Hindi, eat the food we eat, and live a relatively isolated life...meeting friends and relatives on holidays only.

Community living is what is driving Manoj’s decisions. These are driving decisions for many of our friends who have chosen to live in condominiums and give up their independent houses. This same need is driving millions of others to live in/on Facebook. Whether we do this in a real world or fulfill this need virtually...this is what matters most.

I finally get it...