Why the big fat Indian wedding has become fatter


Over the last three decades of attending weddings I can safely say that the big fat Indian wedding has become fatter. In an ideal world, I wish I had numbers to back this claim up. But I don’t and hence, I will have to go with what I have seen and felt.

The question is why do people spend so much on weddings? Why would anyone in their right minds, spend a substantial part of their savings accumulated over a lifetime of working, over the course of few days, that any Indian wedding lasts? I am asking this question more in the context of the Indian middle class than others.

The funny thing is that most people attending the wedding are still not happy about it. I see some of my relatives still analysing and criticising weddings that they had attended years ago. So what gives?

Indian weddings have gotten bigger and complicated over the decades. A basic reason for this perhaps lies in the fact that people are now making more money than perhaps their parents did. And hence, it is but natural for them to spend more.

But I guess there is more to it than just that. Robert H Frank has a very interesting example in a slightly different context in The Darwin Economy—Liberty, Competition and the Common Good, about how the size of the average of American home has grown bigger over the decades.

As he writes: “Top earners build mansions simply because they have more money. The middle class show little evidence of being offended by that…But the larger mansions of the rich shift the frame of reference that defines acceptable housing for the near-rich, who travel in the same social circles…So the near-rich build bigger, too, and that shifts the framework for others just below them, and so on, all the way down the income scale.”

Hence, the society as a whole end up with bigger homes, primarily because those at the top decide to build bigger homes. And this trend gets copied across the income scale.

The dynamic of the big fat Indian wedding has also worked along similar lines. As the weddings of the rich have become bigger and more opulent, over the years, the frame of reference for the near-rich changed. This meant that the weddings of the near-rich also became bigger. This shifted the frame of reference for the middle class and as a result the middle class weddings have also become bigger. And so the trickle-down effect of the big fat Indian wedding has worked its way through.

What has helped is the extensive coverage in the media of celebrity weddings. Further, big weddings have become an important part of Bollywood story-telling as well. Given this, is it isn’t surprising that what people wear at weddings these days, almost always appears to be as tacky as of what actors wear while attending weddings in a Karan Johar movie.

The trouble is that the weddings keep becoming bigger. As Frank writes in the context of homes: “Once mansions pass a certain size, the demand for additional space is driven almost exclusively by social forces having nothing to do with intrinsic utility of the extra space itself.”

So people build a bigger home because someone they know has built a big home.  A similar dynamic is at work in case of Indian weddings. Hence, it is safe to say that weddings keep getting bigger and fatter, because they keep getting bigger and fatter. The trouble is that bigger weddings, like bigger homes, come with their own share of challenges and they don’t necessarily add to any extra happiness.

To conclude, if the biggest homes or the biggest weddings were a little smaller, then everyone would end up being happier than before. But that, like many such things in life, is easier said than done.

(Vivek Kaul is the author of the Easy Money trilogy. He can be reached at [email protected])

The column originally appeared in the Bangalore Mirror on May 25, 2016

Why we believe in godmen

make in india

If you need to figure out how awful TV can get, you need to watch it post-midnight, when all the sponsored content is on play.

On some channels, there are beautiful women trying to tell you how to lose weight through sweating. On some other channels there are well-built men trying to tell you how to easily clean your car by buying a particular product.

If you keep flipping channels long enough, you will definitely come across some godmen addressing a hall full of people and trying to tell them how to go about improving their lives.

And that is where I ended sometime back at three in the morning. It was one of those nights when I just couldn’t sleep and thought that watching some mindless TV would help.

So let me describe what I saw. There was a big hall full of people. And there was a stage. On the stage a godman sat, on some sort of a throne. The people were asking questions and the godmen was answering them. Every answer was offered as a solution. It told people to do something so as to improve their current life or to ensure that a problem would go away.

So this middle-aged gentleman got up and asked the godman for his blessings. The godman then asked the gentlemen, if he had ever offered a bottle of liquor to god, using the Hindi words bhairav(a manifestation of Lord Shiva) and botal, as is tradition in parts of India.

The gentlemen said yes. Then the godman asked him, what brand had he offered? The gentleman named a particular brand. The godman then asked the businessman, what brand did he drink himself? The gentlemen said the same brand that he had offered.

The godman then told the gentlemen that he should offer a better more superior brand to god and not the same one that he drinks. And if he did so blessings would automatically come. The businessman got his answer, thanked the godman and sat down.

Honesty, I hadn’t seen something as bizarre as this, ever on TV. It led me to think that why do people believe in all kinds of godmen? What is it that godmen have that attracts people? After some thinking I have come the conclusion that godmen essentially offer simple solutions to everything. And this attracts people.

As Matt Ridley writes in The Evolution of Everything: “The literary critic George Steiner, in his book Nostalgia for the Absolute, argued that people are attracted by higher truths that simplify the world and can explain everything.”

The phrase to mark in the above paragraph is simplify the world. People want to be told that if they do this and this, their problems will go away. And this leads to godmen exploiting them. Let me give you another example here.

Sometime back, one my mother’s neighbours sort of forced her to go to a godman. The scene that my mother described to me was extremely bizarre. A disciple of the godman was sitting in front of the godman with a big jute bag open. In this jute bag people were putting in Rs 1000 notes.

There was a long line of people waiting to donate the money. Why would so many people essentially behaving like they were? Why were so many people being tricked all at the same time? The answer perhaps lies in the fact that they falsely believed that the Rs 1000 donation would make their problems go away.

As economist Robert H Frank writes in Success and Luck—Good Fortune and the Myth of Meritocracy: “Holding false beliefs makes people happier in the short run.” This false belief is something that godmen tend to exploit.

Further, as Frank puts it, what people forget is “that such beliefs may entail significant costs longer term.” But then, who is bothered about the longer term. As economist John Maynard Keynes once said, in a totally different context, “In the long run we are all dead”.

(Vive Kaul is the author of the Easy Money trilogy. He can be reached at [email protected])

The column originally appeared in the Bangalore Mirror on May 4, 2016

The Income of the Average Indian is Significantly Lower Than the Average Income of India


The speeches made by the Reserve Bank of India(RBI) governor, Raghuram Rajan, are always a pleasure to read. In his latest speech made on April 20, 2016, Rajan said: “India is the fastest growing large country in the world, though with manufacturing capacity utilization low at 70% and agricultural growth slow following two bad monsoons, our potential is undoubtedly higher. Growth, however, is just one measure of performance. The level of per capita GDP is also important. We are still one of the poorest large countries in the world on a per capita basis, and have a long way to go before we reasonably address the concerns of each one of our citizens.”

Rajan further said: “We are often compared with China. But the Chinese economy, which was smaller than ours in the 1960s, is now five times our size at market exchange rates. The average Chinese citizen is over four times richer than the average Indian. The sobering thought is we have a long way to go before we can claim we have arrived.”

The point that Rajan was trying to make was that: “As a central banker who has to be pragmatic, I cannot get euphoric if India is the fastest growing large economy…The central and state governments have been creating a platform for strong and sustainable growth, and I am confident the payoffs are on their way, but until we have stayed on this path for some time, I remain cautious.”

This was essentially a retort to politicians who keep tom-tomming India’s dodgy economic growth numbers. While Rajan did not say that he does not believe in the economic growth numbers, he did try and make it clear that if India needs to reach anywhere, it needs strong and sustainable economic growth in the years to come. And achieving that is easier said than done.

Further, Rajan also made a more important point in his speech about India’s low per capita income. What is per capita income? John Lanchester defines per capita income in his book How To Speak Money as: “The total Gross Domestic Product(GDP) of a country divided by the number of people in the country.

As he further writes: “It is a measure of how rich the country’s citizens are on average – though it is a very rough measure of that, since a country’s WEALTH is often very unevenly distributed.”

The phrase to mark in the above paragraph is on average. The question is does an average always represent the right scenario? As Robert H Frank writes in Success and Luck—Good Fortune and the Myth of Meritocracy: “It is of course possible for most people to have a trait the measures higher than the corresponding mean value for the population to which they belong. Since a small number of people have fewer than two legs and no one has more, for instance, the average number of legs in any population is slightly less than two. So most people actually do have “more legs than average”.”

How does the above paragraph apply in the context of the GDP? What it tells us is that the average income of India is not equal to the income of the average Indian. Now what does that actually mean?

Let me explain that through an example. Let’s say on a given day in the city of Mumbai, an Ambani, an Adnani, a Birla and a Tata, walk into a local Udupi restaurant in Matunga. The restaurant is known for its soft idlis and fabulous coffee. And this has attracted the four industrialists to this small place.

The moment these four walk into the restaurant, the average income of the people seated in the restaurant goes up by leaps and bounds. If I may rephrase the last sentence, the per capita income of the restaurant goes up leaps and bounds, when the four industrialists walk into the Udupi restaurant.

But this increase in per capita income of the restaurant will have no impact on the incomes of the other people seated in the restaurant. (This example is essentially an adaptation of an example Charles Wheelan uses in his book Naked Statistics).

As Charles Wheelan writes in Naked Statistics: “The mean, or average, turns out to have some problems in that regard, namely, that it is prone to distortion by “outliers”, which are observations farther from the center.”

So basically, the Ambanis, Adnanis, Birlas and Tatas, of the world, essentially India’s rich, push up the average income of India i.e. the per capita income. As Wheelan writes: “The average income…could be heavily skewed by the megarich.”

In this scenario, the average income does not give us a correct picture. Further, it is safe to say, that the income of the average Indian is lower than the average income of India.

At this point it is important to introduce another term i.e. the median. As Wheelan writes: “The median is the point that divides a distribution in half, meaning that half of the observation lie above the median and half lie below.

Hence, the median income is the income of the average Indian. Given this, the median income is the right representation of the income of the average Indian. This is because the rich outliers (the Ambanis, the Adnanis, the Tatas and the Birlas) are taken into account. Data from World Bank shows that the top 10% of India’s population makes 30% of the total income. And this pushes up the per capita income.

The trouble is that it is not so easy to find median income data in the Indian context. A survey carried out by Gallup in December 2013, put India’s median income at $616. Data from the World Bank shows that India’s per capita income during the same year was $1455.
Hence, the median income was around 58% lower than the average income or the per capita income. And that is not a good sign at all.

This shows the tremendous amount of inequality prevalent in the country. The difference in the income of the average Indian and the average income of India is thus huge. In fact, I had written about this inequality in the column published on April 19.

In 2015-2016, the average income of those not working in agriculture was 4.9 times those working in agriculture (using GDP at current prices). If we were to use GDP at constant prices (at 2011-2012 prices), the ratio comes to 5.5. Constant prices essentially adjust for inflation.

And this is really a big worry!

The column originally appeared on the Vivek Kaul’s Diary on April 25, 2016