The power in the purse strings


Leher Kala writes: The fuss over Moitra’s expensive accessory is emblematic of a larger question that perplexes large swathes of humanity: what about women and their obsession with handbags? at obscene prices?

Mahua Moitra, Congressman for Trinamool. (File photo)

Scholarly and stylish Congresswoman for Trinamool, Mahua Moitra, responded with biting sarcasm to the sarcastic comments questioning her ownership of a Louis Vuitton bag. “Modiji sent me part of the proceeds after he auctioned off his suit for Rs 10 lakh. I bought a handbag,” Moitra retorted on Twitter when asked about the source of her funds. For the uninitiated, a short video of Moitra pushing her LV bag out of sight has gone viral; The Twitterati watcher gleefully jumped on the irony that at the time, TMC’s Kakoli Ghosh Dastidar was lamenting calamitous commodity prices in Parliament. Moitra, a former investment banker, remained coldly unfazed by oblique criticism from passers-by online; she retaliated by posting many more images of herself with the same designer bag.

The uproar around Moitra’s expensive accessory is emblematic of a larger question that perplexes large swaths of humanity: what about women and their obsession with obscenely priced handbags? ? It’s worth digging deeper because Indians tend to be unbearably fair about how other people spend their money. Ah, the pleasant indignation of mocking the aspirants who derive joy from the leather embossed with the massive initials L and V! You don’t have to be a sociologist to see these banal judgments stem from a history of miserable scarcity; lest we forget, three million Indians died of starvation in the Bengal famine of 1943. When the lockdown began, we witnessed horrific scenes of migrant laborers marching to their villages, enduring untold hardship in road course. With so many inequalities staring us in the face every day, a confusing mix of envy and contempt clouds our perspective when we think of self-indulgent extravagances.

Undoubtedly, the women who join the waiting list for the It-bag of the season are rarely savvy aesthetes motivated by avant-garde design — they more often conform to the ideals of success dictated by society. Is this wrong? It is perhaps all too human that we need tokens of respect from the world to feel good about ourselves. High status, as experienced by elite athletes or Nobel laureates, is a rarity; for the majority of us, our social position rests precariously on what we achieve, which is then sneakily revealed by what we own. This is what economists call signaling, and whether we consciously do it or not, our jobs, our degrees and our way of life convey our meaning and our ambitions. A few years ago, I profiled an enterprising entrepreneur who started a designer bag rental business with her personal collection of 24 bags. One of her young clients chose a trendy Chanel clutch to rent for a date with a future husband: a clear, non-verbal message setting the standards she was used to.

Let’s face it, no one buys a Rolex at Rs 20 lakh to tell the time or a Mercedes at Rs 70 lakh to drive 50 km/h on the roads of Delhi. In his seminal investigation of class consciousness, Status Anxiety, modern philosopher Alain de Botton argues that the predominant impulse behind the desire for expensive acquisitions stems from a precarious state of lovelessness. “We are all stuck with a congenital uncertainty about our own worth,” de Botton writes compassionately, insinuating that spending sprees are always a desperate attempt to get the world’s attention. In millennial jargon, this translates to FOMO, Fear of Missing Out. Alas, the tormenting suspicion that there is a rarefied parallel universe where sophistication and taste reside – only for a select few – is what keeps constant discontent and luxury brands alive.

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The rich have an unfairly bad reputation for their conspicuous consumption. But making frugality a virtue as a morally superior way of life is just as irritating. If brand awareness didn’t exist, we’d all be driving Tata Nanos. We’re not because we don’t want to be seen in the cheapest car in the world. Ratan Tata himself lamented the publicity error that doomed the Nano, which failed to recognize that consumers are deeply ambitious. At all levels, complex assertions of status shape our Darwinian universe; Chanel, Dior and LV are just handy punching bags.

Writer is director, Hutkay Films

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First published on: 07-08-2022 at 04:15:28

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