Urban India’s ugly reality: Bosses who pay peanuts but expect you to dress like the rich

Looking good is everything.
Looking good is everything.
Image: EPA/Jagadeesh NV
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In the summer of 2000, I joined a fashion magazine as the chief of the Hyderabad bureau. When a decomposing marriage brought me back to Mumbai, I transferred to the Mumbai office and was now working at a Hyderabad remuneration in a much more expensive city. My salary before taxes was Rs 10,000. The editor, then a monopolist in the trade, would induct me into her entourage while she did the rounds of major fashion designers’ stores. At Ritu Kumar’s at the Oberoi shopping centre, she would point to a small shelf in the corner and breezily suggest I pick out one from the discount section. Even with a 40 per cent discount, the Ritu Kumar pant suit—a fashionable orange and green outfit with a matching silk scarf was ill-suited to a 26-year-old mother with financial and marriage pressures and commuting by local train from Thane. An ensemble that cost Rs 4,000 was more than three quarters of my monthly salary.

In the days of Shopper’s Stop mix-and-match kurtas being the only upgrade you hit after Fashion Street, this was quite the monetary leap in terms of apparel. The conversation would quickly go from “it’s lovely, but it’s not for me” to “I can’t quite afford it” and landslide into “I’ll pay for it, you pay me when you have the money” behind forced plastic smiles. When your boss in your first or second job piles the pressure on like that, whether you have the money or not and whether your husband is yelling bloody murder or not about the finances, you go home, pull the Rs 4,000 out and fork it over. It happened twice by the time I began to search for another job, with other factors than needing to shop accelerating my need for better pay.

My next job gave me a 150 per cent hike in salary, bumping it up to Rs 25,000. But the damage had already been done. Several items I would never need again, from clothes and jewellery to expensive lunches, taken to fit in to a field where earning a salary seemed incidental to most thriving in it, were already on my credit card and had dented any potential savings. By this time, I had moved out on my own, which also meant taking a personal loan to put down a deposit, which meant an Equated Monthly Instalment (EMI) equal to rent, childcare, a new office in Andheri, which meant commute costs, sometimes exacerbated by the need to rush back home through Saki Naka traffic before the crèche closed, besides utility bills, and groceries. The rolled over credit card bills were denting me. I had no furniture but two mattresses on the ground, a small radio, and a few kitchen utensils that included a knife with which to flip dosas. My limited gold stash was long sold, but thank God, there were two Ritu Kumars in the suitcase I was living out of. As the minimum amount due mounted, and I scrimped on the oil and wheat, so did the farce of hope.

The episode left me with a healthy disrespect for insidious ways in which people in positions of power induct you consciously or thoughtlessly into their own financial agendas and spending patterns. It also taught me that what you assume to be just a matter of stretching your income to meet your ends—most young people who find themselves severely in debt will tell you they started out assuming it was “a phase” that would end once their income rose as it inevitably would—doesn’t quite even itself out as salaries rise. The more income rises, the higher the expenses to earn it become. A financial backlog, much like a few grams of chocolate that miraculously become kilograms of love handles, stretches itself out.

This Pocket Twist, a state of ensnarement, propagates through a number of factors. First, a lack of self-assertion is in itself a tangible cost. In a first job or two, new joinees are rarely able to say ‘no’ to expected behaviours without the fear of walking away unscathed. Everyone spends at their personal level of financial accountability, and the idea that there is a ‘collective’ standard for the outcome of that individual spending becomes problematic. The expectations of what contributes to your professional image within the bracket of your personal ambition are sown here.

Second, starter salaries do not dress you for the job you want, they dress you for the job you have. This is often the first job you’ve been offered and is sold to you on the idea that you are lucky enough to even be part of the work force, so take what comes. All vulnerabilities—social, financial, sexual—begin here, particularly financial, regardless of your industry of operation. Whether in the film industry or in a start-up, salary negotiation and the living wage are rarely considered. Getting a foot in is not priceless.

Third, living on one’s own brings a plethora of practical expenses that are difficult for anyone who hasn’t lived alone before to navigate. Unlike the US or Europe, there is no gap year, sabbatical or pre-set pattern of young people setting up that one follows. Every striking out is a lone journey. There is a real cost applicable to starting out with no assets, no family, or community backing.

Fourth, every rupee you miss on the dreaded credit card EMI is akin to stepping into a quicksand bar to cross a rapidly rising river; credit card use is not for those who do not understand how its interest application works. Few do. The push to a cashless economy without crucial education and financial literacy—which is much more than simply showing people where to sign or how to use an ATM work—is half an education.

And fifth, investing in self-pride to get past loneliness and social isolation is a cost society never quite factors in. These translate, quite simply, into palpable influencers: brand ‘I’, the living wage, the changing impact of migration, financial literacy, and social net worth.

Excerpted with permission from Bloomsbury Publishing India from Who Me, Poor? by Gayatri Jayaraman.