Too Busy to Breathe? Congratulations, You Are the New Elite

Social Commentary

Too Busy to Breathe? Congratulations, You Are the New Elite

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

My friend, when asked where he lives, always says Bandra. Just Bandra. When asked the natural Bombay question: East or West, he changes the topic. Because he lives in Bandra East. And saying that, is how a Tinder right swipe turns to a left.

Bandra West, like South Delhi, or New Alipore, or Banjara Hills, is not just an address: It’s a status symbol. A status symbol is a valuable asset. It announces your bank balance without revealing it. It’s a gentle reminder to others of your high social standing, and makes sure they know theirs.

Over the centuries, status symbols have come a long way – from a palace, a mistress, gold and jewels, to dining with gora sahibs, playing polo, owning a racehorse, to flying business class, owning a Gucci bag, or having single malt. Fluency in English remains, as far as I can remember, the most enduring of status symbols. The others have been transient.

In the ’90s, being woke meant being able to sing along to a Nirvana or a Pink Floyd song. Or being able to be quote from MIB or claiming to understand The Matrix. Times changed and the symbols have shrunk. Houses were things our parents owned and we only aspired to. Home decor as a status symbol would come later and soon give birth to dusting as a profession.

We no longer wanted things money could buy. We only wanted the “everything else” that was priceless.

This was in the noughties. Soon owning a BlackBerry was what separated the qwertys from the abcs who owned Nokia 3310s. While the latter merely messaged, the former chatted. For free. These golden people symbolised our hope for entry into this sleek world of tech. These were also the guys who first went and got a host of white and shiny Apple things – an iPod, then a MacBook Pro, a MacBook Air. Then along came EMIs and fucked it up for everyone.

Now, everyone owns a house in Bandra or a BMW and has a club membership. Today, our house helps have maids and interns carry MacBooks. When money-for-all came through the door, expensive status symbols went running out. We now needed new symbols so we turned to Mastercard for inspiration: We no longer wanted things money could buy. We only wanted the “everything else” that was priceless.  

So when money stopped being our criteria, obscurity found its place in the sun. It was even better. We didn’t go to Europe anymore, Kesari did that. We needed to spend an afternoon in a café on a non-descript street in Eastern Europe. Monastery-hopping in Ladakh was done, volunteering on an organic farm in Spiti became the thing. London became too mainstream, we needed to vacation in Tabriz.

Obscurity gave way to scarcity and with that I think we’ve arrived at the final status symbol, the one that beats Tabriz: The most-scarce commodity today, i.e. time.

Time is to us what gold is to Bappi Lahiri. We’re all straining to be part of the “frightfully busy, dead-on-our-feet, too-fucked-to-eat” movement. And if we’re not part of it yet, then we make a good job of projecting that we are. So we enter airplanes with a Styrofoam cup alternating glances between seat numbers and our phones, and we don’t return calls and skip lunch breaks in a passive-aggressive display of this currency that is hot today. But may not be tomorrow.  

I don’t know where we’re going from here. As far as my parents are concerned, we’ve pretty much hit rock bottom. But I suspect we have yet another few degrees to go.  

And the future is already creeping in through the door in the form of wildly edgy status symbols like depression, anxiety, OCD, and ADHD. People will claim it just to sound cool and important. Asking for leave at work because of a fever isn’t good enough; we need something deeper, more intense – we need depression. And to get over it, we need validation. For which we will need to feed the hungry in sub-Saharan Africa, which may yet emerge as another status symbol.

From being proof that you were doing well in life, the status symbol will have evolved to doing good in life. Good for the people, for the planet, for the environment. Doing good is the new doing well and everyone wants to be seen at this party.

As pathetic as that makes us sound, some good will come of it. In trying to make the saviour sexy, we may have arrived at a new low as far as motivations go. But I’m guessing someone will be saved.

Except Bandra East, of course. There’s no hope for that.