The itch to spend

F. S. Aijazuddin

An American student once enquired of an art historian why, when India is such a large country, do Indians make small miniature paintings?  She would have received her answer in the recent Ambani wedding. It was spectacularly Indian in scale — large and princely, enough to deter all habitual bridegrooms (including Prime Minister Imran Khan) from ever contemplating another marriage.

One would have thought that no one in the world, leave alone India, had that sort of loose change — rumoured to be $200 million — to spend on the marriage of a daughter, however beloved. The Ambani family must have suffered lockjaw, smile as it did interminably, for the 1.20 lakh photographs. These need 30 TB of hard disk to store, and will need a lifetime to watch. Such munificence confirms one’s suspicion that a Lakshmi Yuga has overtaken what we were told should be a Kali Yuga.

There are some who see the Ambani wedding as an affirmation of the adage omnia vincit amor (love conquers all), with the perverted twist that money conquers everyone — posturing VIP politicians,  photo-sensitive filmstars, and a footloose US former First Lady.

It would be a simple-minded critic who would cavil or whine at such extravagance in a country which has more people below the poverty line than the entire population of most countries. Some wonder whether true happiness is, in fact, the sum of bills receivable from couturiers, jewellers, event managers, not to mention choreographers.

Weddings are designed to loosen purse strings. Look at history. Turn the pages of Shah Jahan’s illustrated Padshahnama of 1656-57 to see the extravagant nuptials of the Mughals. The French monarchy paid for their weddings with their heads. The Romanovs did not survive to see their diamond-studded nuptial crown being auctioned by the cash-strapped Bolsheviks. Today’s commercial aristocracy does not need lineage or pedigree. It can purchase its history bespoke.

Will our generation ever witness another Ambani-style wedding? Conceivably yes, unless the hosts neglect to invite the taxman. Meanwhile, the public can only marvel at the impunity with which our leaders — political and commercial — amass wealth and the immunity they seem to enjoy from fear of forfeiture. Ayub Khan’s son Gohar Ayub left the army as a captain to become a captain of the automotive industry in Pakistan, rather as Sanjay Gandhi alternated between being an Indian Kennedy and a Marutian Ford. Asif Zardari is Pakistan’s Feroze Gandhi who has outlived his wife to enjoy her political legacy and estate. And Mian Nawaz Sharif struggles to prove that the gift PM Narendra Modi gave to him in December 2015 was just an innocuous pink wedding turban, not the red rag that agitated his khaki opponents.

PM Imran Khan remains determined to hold his predecessors, especially Asif Zardari and Nawaz Sharif, accountable for commissions and omissions. Four months have gone by though without result. Who will tire first — the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) bloodhounds or their prey? Had the investigators in NAB not kept their noses so close to the ground, they would have realised by now that the corrupt are adept at making money disappear with the  slight of the hand, to reappear in some offshore haven, beyond the claws of retrieval. Magic is an art that beguiles the audience, money laundering the science that challenges the dogma of ethical economics.

Today, the world is in turmoil: France is in flames, Germany in a leadership limbo, the Great Britain apprehensive about its relationship with the European Union, Donald Trump’s presidency is in tatters, and PM Modi has begun to lose state elections. There could not be a better time to squander your spare $200 million.