Victorian Ladies and Financial Ninjitsu

Samtaben’s post has led to a massive comment discssion about financial independence for women. Oddly enough, I had recently been reflecting on financial independence and financial awareness among the women characters of late 1700s to early 1900s literature (English, that is). They are personal finance ninjas!

These women couldn’t inherit much property, and they couldn’t work either. This lack of financial independence led to acute financial awareness. They know how much their net worth is (and also how much the net worth of an eligible bachelor is). In Pride and Prejudice, we’re told Bingley’s annual income a mere fourteen paragraphs into the book. By contrast, The Diary of Bridget Jones doesn’t mention income or net worth at all in hard figures – it’s only alluded to in descriptions of where Bridget’s parents live, Mark Darcy’s job, and so forth. And then the rest of Pride and Prejudice goes on to talk about various quirks of inheritance, the income of various men, and so on and so forth. (And yes, there will be a blogpost or column at some point about how the book is about Goldman Sachs). In Vanity Fair, Becky Sharp knows exactly how indebted she is and how long she can keep her creditors at bay.And so on up to Saki in the early twentieth century, where there are so many female characters who talk about the interest rates on various bonds.

Then the Edwardian era starts, and we get PG Wodehouse and people start marrying for love instead of money. Money problems are now resolved by unleashing entrepreneurship – health farms, onion soup bars, buying rubber estates in Malaya – with the seed capital arranged through stealing diamond necklaces, holding pigs to ransom or simple blackmail. But there’s a sudden crashing of financial awareness – none of the characters is bothered about how much something yields. There’s a blissful unconcern for the mechanics of finance. Then again, there’s blissful unconcern for pretty much everything in Wodehouse, so perhaps I should go and reread Somerset Maugham and make sure this is the case throughout the era.

The Gift of the Magi (to be fair, it’s American) is written in 1906 and is a sort of turning point of financial awareness. Della knows that she’s broke, but has no idea of how much her hair is worth until she goes to get it appraised. On the other hand, she’s sort of financially independent – she doesn’t work, but she does run the household accounts herself. (Incidentally, I can’t read that story without rolling my eyes at that couple and the poor communication in their relationship. Here is xkcd’s much funnier take on the story.)

The odd thing is that while the women in Victorian literature is hyper-aware of what investments yield, my own relatives are not quite as keyed in. My (alive) grandma is paranoid about her cashflow and how she handles her accounts, but is clueless about investments. My aunts are better off in that they know about investments, but stick to fixed deposits and (sigh!) property. Actually, I now recall that this is not strictly true. In my childhood, my bua would not give me presents for my birthday as she didn’t know what I wanted, and she didn’t give me cash as she was afraid I would blow it all on riotous living. So she gave me US-64 units, and the Unit Trust of India blew it all on riotous living. But that is a separate matter. She was aware of mutual funds, is the point. However, she was the exception – my mum and other aunts usually stay away from financial securities, and park their money in the nearest available fixed deposit. Any shares were bought by the menfolk on behalf of the ladies, with the ladies usually not even aware of what they owned or what they were getting.

I was discussing this with Nilanjana Roy back when I was in Delhi last month, and she said that the financial ninjitsu was pretty common in Real Life India as well, because women would come into a marriage with nothing but their dowry. (I was a couple of beers down at this point, and they were the first beers of 2010, so I may not be repeating her words with great accuracy.) So this is weird. Is my family atypical in not having women who monitor their net worth madly, or is this an artifact of being Arya Samajis and so not putting dowry?

Beloved readers, put fundaes in the comments! What is your experience of financial awareness, and that of the women around you? Does it match Samtaben’s worries that women without financial independence have no financial awareness either? Does it match the Bronte sister’s characterisation of financially dependent women being acutely financially aware? Or are you in the happy position of being a financially aware and independent lady?

Neo-Edwardian Calling Cards

The Art of Manliness blog recently (well, actually, a couple of years ago) had a post on how the Victorian custom of calling cards had died out, and lamented the fact:

During the heyday of calling cards, using a business card for a social purpose was considered bad manners. Today, while business cards are great for making business contacts, they still aren’t really suited for social situations. They probably have your work number and work email, and not much else on them. Think of all the times you meet someone you’d like to see again. Handing them a business card is too stiff and formal.

While this is true, a Victorian-style calling card will not fit all the situations we are confronted with in our modern world. This is a common failing of the Victorian aesthetic, which emphasised form over functionality. To achieve form and functionality, we must turn to Edwardianism. And since this is the twenty-first century – Saivite neo-Edwardianism.

What does this involve? Among other things – taking advantage of technology. To abandon Victorian straight-lacedness and adopt the more genial and creative values of the Edwardian era. To respond to problems with appropriate solutions and not with an arbitrary code of etiquette. Just as King Edward himself changed fashions to suit his waistline rather than change his waistline to suit his fashions, so too we must change calling cards to reflect the situations in which we will use them. And in this era of desktop publishing and printing on demand, that means a visiting card or calling card for every situation.

I can think of cards for at least six different situations. These are:

  1. The visiting card your employer gives you, if you are working as a salaried professional (or even a professional working on commission, come to that). You have no control over this. The email on it is your work email. The phone number on it is your company phone. And unless it’s your own company and you decide the logo and card design and suchlike, there is not much you can do to customise this. All one can do with this sort of card is to accept it and move along. Back when I was a salaried yuppie, I tried for three months to get cards printed in which my designation was ‘Corporate Ho’ but my boss refused to approve anything except ‘Associate Purchase Manager’. Then I moved to Bombay, where I was in the Corporate Head Office on a project. It finally looked like I could get away with a business card that said ‘Corporate H.O. – Special Projects’. Alas, because it was a special project I was working on secondment in a business unit that was not actually my cost centre, and nobody could decide who would pay for my new business cards. Before things could be sorted out I had quit. Such is life.
  2. The visiting card you make for yourself if you do freelance work and meet people to pitch to them. So if you’re a consultant or writer or photographer looking for clients, you have a website that shows your portfolio or lists your past work and satisfied clients, and your visiting card includes that, your dedicated email for freelance work, your LinkedIn profile, and a dedicated mobile number for this. A dedicated mobile number may seem a little extreme, but it’s three thousand rupees extra at most. Or you could put a dual SIM phone. What is there?
    The card then reads:

    Aadisht Khanna
    Quizmaster
    www.aadisht.net/quizzes

    or

    Aadisht Khanna
    Writer at Large
    www.aadisht.net/portfolio
    99808 26537

    I met Shefaly last year. She’s a freelance consultant, and she got her business cards printed by Moo. They were plain back with only her website address in white text. Very cool.

  3. A visiting card to give to shops and restaurants and sales agents and suchlike. It’s useful to get marketing offers and freebies, but not at the risk of subjecting yourself to spam. The solution is simple – create a dedicated email address for all your consumer transactions, and use that whenever you have to fill in a feedback form or purchase order form. If you want to be really ninja about this, you could get a dedicated mobile number for this as well, and use a cheap-ass Maxx Mobile that you’d switch off when you didn’t want to be disturbed with assorted personal loan offers. And then you can put the dedicated shopping email and mobile number on a visiting card, and drop it in the bowl whenever a shop or restaurant invited you to do so to get special offers. If you wanted to kick it up a notch, the card could include your monthly free cash flow, so the shop would know when not to bother sending you offers on things you couldn’t possibly afford.
  4. If you’re single, a visiting card to give to interesting members of the suitable sex. This card would have your name, personal phone number and email, and perhaps a link to your facebook page. To make it more effective, it could include a short testimonial from your best friend, or a description of your attractive qualities. Like “Consumer Banker of Repute”. Or “I drive a VW Polo”. Or “Skilled kisser. References available.” You get the idea.
  5. A card which you attach to presents or cash envelopes. This sort of card is actually wildly popular in Delhi. Actually, we take it for granted so much that I was astonished when Namy Roy and Muggesh asked if it was a Dalhi thing. This is a Dalhi innovation that works, and which the rest of the country should adopt. This card usually contains your family name (or the names of everyone in the family), the house address, and nothing else.
  6. And of course, a personal visiting card; with your personal phone number, personal email id, links to your blog or twitter id or facebook page, and so on. Your address, if you’re comfortable giving that away. If not, you could leave enough white space to write it down for the people you did want to give it to.

Visiting cards are only the beginning. To really unleash the neo-Edwardian aesthetic, we would abandon Facebook walls for personal email and even handwritten notes when possible. Handwritten notes in turn would call for personalised stationery, which too should be customised to purpose as much as the visiting cards described above. A world in which we send letters on high-GSM cream-coloured paper, with custom embossing depending on who you were writing to and why, is a much better world than the one we have today. We should do our utmost to create this world.

Women are biggest hurdles to women’s progress; more so in India

Two of my Indian friends are expecting a baby – both of them are women who have “chosen” not to work after marrying men who are better qualified then them – what shocked me was the blatant way in which both of them said they want a baby boy (they have not used any tests to determine the gender of the baby). I asked one of them why she wouldn’t want a baby girl; she pondered and then said “I don’t mind having a second child as a girl so that I have something to decorate” – I was aghast at hearing this, was she talking about a human being or a Christmas tree (sorry about the bad joke while I am trying to write a serious piece, but well, you get the point). I really wanted to ask these women if they feel so inferior/ worthless about being women that they don’t want to be responsible for bringing a girl child into the world – but there are some boundaries one doesn’t cross while dealing with not-so-close-friends! If these women would have a baby girl, they would surely try again for a boy. This incident took me back to the conversation I had with my domestic help who never had the privilege to go to school and had 5 children (all girls) in her quest to have a baby boy to please her husband – I was explaining to her to not have any more children and send her girls to school – what is the difference between this domestic help and these friends of mine who want a baby boy! Doesn’t it prove that the education that these friends of mine underwent was a waste if they think in such a manner, which is regressive according to me?

We are no longer living in an age when we need to hunt to feed ourselves – in which case it still makes some sense that men being physically stronger would go out and hunt while the women stayed at home to take care of other chores. In today’s world, the weapon is education and it is gender neutral! Let me exemplify what I am saying. I have another friend who married her boyfriend right after graduation – her then boyfriend and now husband is a qualified chartered accountant. He is an ambitious guy and moved geographies to progress in his career. My friend found it difficult to get a job outside India so she requested her husband to move back to India and this is what her husband had to say “If you can find a job in India that will pay you as much as I make here and I will gladly move back and also become a house husband”. He said this knowing very well that this would not be possible at all. I would have given this guy one tight slap and walked out of the marriage. But my friend didn’t have the “weapon”, i.e. professional education to be able to stand on her feet confidently and has given up on all her aspirations, dreams and hopes or as the MCPs would like to put it; made her husband’s dream her dream!

The biggest challenge we are facing today (not only in India, globally) is the lack of equal number of women in higher/ professional/ specialised education. In India, it’s a bigger problem with the girl child not treated at par with her brothers! If I visit someone and they make their daughter get water, make tea, help in the kitchen while the son gets to sit around playing computer games; I never like to revisit them – as this says a lot about their thinking and most of them are quite open about it; the women of the household will say they are “grooming” the girl for marriage and sending the son for education abroad. In some cases I have also seen that they encourage the girl to study so that she gets an even better qualified husband, in this case the educational qualification of the girl being of greater importance on her marital CV. The easiest way to control women is to not allow them any financial/ economic freedom; i.e. not allow them to earn money. To ensure that not too many women go out and hunt, i.e. earn money, our society does a fantastic job of not giving them the required weapons, i.e. education. Of course it would be wrong to paint all Indian families with the same brush, but unfortunately majority do fall into the stereotype I mentioned above. I admire and respect families where they don’t differentiate among siblings on basis on gender. I came across an interesting article recently written by a Canadian journalist who lives in Delhi (http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/home/sunday-toi/special-report/Free-societies-like-respect-free-women/articleshow/5908488.cms) she has described how “Critics say the family has gone haywire in the western world because of the feminist revolution. Women’s rights and their increasing economic power has seen divorce rates shoot up drastically”. This is very true as most of the times I come across women at work who are divorcees; being financially independent helped them to step out of a bad marriage unlike some others I know who suffer silently as they are completely dependent on their husbands. Walking out of the marriage to them would mean going to their aging parents and they think it’s not right to stress their parents at this age with their marital woes! Often my guy friends have told me “it’s different for you, you are a girl; tomorrow you can just choose to stay at home” – this is where the problem lies, working should not be a choice. Women should work; whatever work they like to do and be financially independent ALL their lives. On a separate note, I would be very interested in carrying out a survey of batches of 1988-1992 from the top b-schools in India and check how many of the women from the prestigious b-schools of our country have given up their career for the larger good of the family – as this is another problem, but at least these women have the education and can work again if they want to. Just think of how many atrocities against women would decrease if more and more women would pursue higher education and work thereafter. In some cases, I have friends who were threatened by their parents that they would commit suicide if she doesn’t marry. This comes from a stupid belief of some Indian parents, more so mothers, that if one is getting a “good match” then one should not let go of it even if it means that the guy’s family expects the girl to discontinue her education and not work.

A lot of the women in the lower classes of society in India actually work; but the work they do is not white-collar work. Most women in the upper classes are business women or high flying socialites; in any case they are a very small number when compared to the overall population of India. So when I say women are creating hurdles to progress of other women, I largely mean the great Indian middle class. Amidst all the IPL controversy recently, a journalist wrote that “we should not forget we live in the times of sunanda pushkar and sania mirza” – while these 2 women are strong headed, rebellious and hence the target of gossip columnists, what we should really not forget is that we live in the country of Rani Laksmibai and Indira Gandhi! So while we talk of women’s reservation in the parliament and in the IIMs, we should walk the talk as women, as mothers, by not differentiating between genders!

In the meantime; I pray that the two friends of mine whom I mentioned at the beginning do NOT have baby girls – not for their sake, but for the sake of the girl child!

From Shanghai to the world!

Yesterday the Japanese retailer Uniqlo opened its flagship store (39,000 sq. ft.) on West Nanjing Road in Shanghai which will be its largest store in the world – the tagline thus appropriately; From Shanghai to the world. The opening was to coincide with the world expo that kicked off in Shanghai this month.

Shanghai has been undergoing a facelift in the last few months – for the green expo. From new metro lines (which have now made the Shanghai Metro the longest in the world) to a new airport terminal to trees replete with lights that have sprouted overnight to viewing galleries in shanghai’s business district to the newly done up bund on the pudong side to new expo taxis with English speaking drivers; shanghai has had more than a lift and a tuck to look like a glittering diamond. Imagine driving to work on a Monday morning to find the road you take everyday suddenly looking completely different with trees on both sides (literally overnight) or taking a taxi one day and not having to explain the address/ give directions in Chinese! It’s almost surreal – but if anyone can do it; it’s the Chinese! In fact; even in normal taxis  (the expo taxis are bigger and better); a sticker has been put with a number to call on in case of problems communicating with the driver – Shanghai has gone all out to make it convenient for the visitor; though how many will visit only because of the expo remains to be seen. But one has to see it to believe it! Most Indians who visit Shanghai for the first time are completely in awe of what the city has to offer in terms of infrastructure and then admit rather sheepishly that they never thought China would be like this!

Let’s take a look at some of the statistics:

  • Size of expo site – 5.28 sq. km. (20 times bigger than the last world expo in Spain)
  • No of visitors expected over 6 months of expo – 70 million (most of them Chinese)
  • Participating countries and organizations – >240
  • Expense to host the event – USD 4.2 billion
  • Amount spent on infrastructure overhaul – USD 45 billion
  • Number of new taxis – 4,000 (in addition to 50,000 existing ones)

The government has spent more on the shanghai expo than they did on Beijing Olympics. A look at the fantastic pavilions put up by various countries today and one is convinced that no country wants to say no to China today! In fact; they want to go all out to use this opportunity to strengthen their ties with China. World leaders were present for the opening ceremony. This is China’s way of asserting its place in the world today by showcasing how no one can do it bigger and better than them. This is also a way for China to tell its own people about its position in the world today. Most importantly, this is the first time the world expo is being hosted by a developing country! If the Beijing Olympics made the world sit up and notice China, then there is no doubt that the Shanghai expo will go all out to make a big statement about China’s position in the world today!

Of course, all this has not been without its share of controversies; people have been relocated to make space for the expo site and the new metro lines; there have been protests which have been curtailed. The PLA (People’s Liberation Army) has been brought in to beef up security.

Everyone who has been living in Shanghai for last 6 months; has been given a free ticket to the expo; 33 million tickets have already been sold and along with the free tickets 40 million visitors are confirmed – and the expo has just begun. Keeping aside the issue of relocating the locals or causing inconvenience to some of them; one has to agree that what Shanghai has been able to do is spectacular – I have not seen so much infrastructure development in last 15 years in Bombay as I have seen in Shanghai in last 2 years. In that sense; it does live up to the “better city, better life” theme. All this infrastructure development is very futuristic and will benefit Shanghai for a long time to come. The critics say that there will be the problem of overcapacity but with the kind of growth China is seeing; most don’t see that as a big issue. Convenience and ease is top priority as Shanghai has managed to now link both the airports by metro (old airport in Hongqiao and the new one at Pudong). They have also connected Shanghai to cities like Nanjing by high speed trains and plan to do the same for Shanghai and Beijing. In addition; a 165 metre expo thermometer has been put up in the expo park in Puxi along the Huang Pu river to give real time weather information – this is the highest meteorological signal tower in the world! From low carbon consumption to odorless toilets, the expo has it all.

Mr. Vilasrao Deshmukh – you said in 2005 that you want to make Mumbai like Shanghai; its 2010 and Shanghai seems to have gone ahead by light years whereas Mumbai is nowhere close to where Shanghai was in 2005 – in fact the only infrastructure development that Mumbai is proud of; the Bandra-Worli sea link (which took ten years to complete; the same time it took Shanghai to turn whole of Pudong from grasslands to a world class business district complete with a new airport and metro lines) also needed Chinese help (one of the contractors for the sea link was a Chinese infrastructure company)! So while we Indians pride ourselves on our software; when it comes to hardware we really need to keep our egos aside and take some serious help from China as they really know their stuff as showcased by the expo! Being a realist; though I am a proud Indian I would say that Mumbai cannot dream of hosting such an event at a similar scale for the next 100 years! Sigh!

Where is all the Rubber Going?

In the past year, the price of natural rubber has more than doubled. This, in what is supposedly a great recession. This is being blamed mostly on demand from China.

What the hell are the Chinese doing with all the rubber they’re buying? Auto sales are down globally, so making tires is pointless. So is mine output, so making conveyor belts is ruled out. Condoms just don’t use that much rubber. Neither do gasket rings and suchlike.

It’s possible that Chinese companies have decided in the face of all logic to build up stocks in the face of falling demand. But I’m worried that they’re putting the rubber to far more nefarious uses. Specifically, that they’re building giant armoured robots to more successfully persuade the United States to hand over the Pacific states when they default on their sovereign debt.

Be afraid. Be very afraid.

A Much Delayed Important Announcement

I am now a columnist for Yahoo! India. My brief is to be a humour columnist, so I will try hard to be funny. The column will appear on alternate Saturdays. The first column is here, and the next one will be out tomorrow morning.

Points to note:

  • So far, I am a failure as a columnist. Almost all the other columnists in the spectacular lineup have been getting hate mail/ hate comments. I have got nothing despite being a humour columnist. I must be doing something wrong.
  • I am not going to link every column from the blog. The columns have their own RSS feed. Also, Yahoo! apparently is also working on a spiffier website with an easy to remember address for the India columnists.
  • You can’t comment on the column page itself, but there’s a link between the headline and the main text to the Yahoo Buzz discussion, where you can leave comments. I may respond to comments over there – my Yahoo! display id is double a.
  • You can send me email about the column to the stereotypist@wokay.in id mentioned in my bioline.
  • The first few columns will probably be very different stylistically, until I figure out what works best. But I’m hoping to bring back a character I created when I first started writing on the internet.
  • The Year in Preview posts will stay on this blog. Yahoo doesn’t get those.
  • I get paid for doing this! I am now officially a little bit hippie.