Two score years ago as a young man attending a bank job interview, I found it extremely difficult to answer the question the board chairman put to me. What is inflation? His piercing eyes drilled me deeply, keeping me mum. Could he not just give me a simple clue? In my mind the currency of my country floated, goods floated as they then used to, all around, and in my stomach butterflies kept flying like you could really see them fluttering in our home gardens. ‘Too much money chasing too few goods’ I blurted. The chairman’s lips snapped back ‘What goods?’
Forty years have gone by, as I sit at home sipping my retirement, my grandson comes in running ‘Grandpa, father says there’s never ending inflation. Everyone’s talking about it... Even Amma is talking about it. Grandpa, is inflation round, like Cassata ice cream?’ Yes, my little one, I rub my chin. You are right… inflation is everywhere.
I get to dreaming again, going back to a time when plastic rice and genetically grown tomatoes were unheard of. Home verandahs then filled with real green grass of variant flowering that waved at you as you left for work. Take, for example, the forest lane by our home that purpled with brinjals on either side. And the different types of spinach and nutrient leaves that sprawled wild all about the wet muddy street and you just had to go out and pluck them to cook them for a meal. Fat cucumbers lay like idling snakes in the sun all over the village roofs. Rains came on time. Mangoes flowered only in their flowering season. Pure milk came to our doorsteps early every morning in cold bottles fresh from the nearby milk co-operative. We planted rice, tapioca, and yam in our backyard. So did our neighbors. Ripening mangoes filled our mango trees that we gave away in goodwill. Bright red tomatoes grew among the wild red and yellow hibiscus that the maid plucked and cooked for the afternoon meal. So many chikoos ripe, fell, that even the birds were tired of rolling all that nectar on their tongues. So then, what was inflation?
I ran my fingers over my grandson’s head. ‘My little one, when I was your age, strawberry fields were forever. Instead of these towering iron and stone grids that we call ‘paradise apartments’, spiraling and rambling all over village, town, and country, there were flowering rice fields all over the place. Miles and miles of waving green. Sunny rivulets watered them. In the rivulets that you crossed on your way back home, there swam small fish you could even catch and take home for some curry. People took pride in going out to the beckoning fields, to tender the plantain or pineapple fields that they reared with the same love and affection that they gave their own children. Nature looked young and twenty and flowed with bounty. I used to park my green cycle by the purple sugar cane reeds after tuition class and wade deep into the fields all around, that loomed like an Enid Blyton mystery come true. I would breathe in sugar flowers in the breeze. There was breeze real breeze, not the air conditioning leaking drops on your pillow, but tender breeze born of garden leaves blowing without a sound and rejuvenating the lungs... Every morning, the men used to go to the fields and sow or reap... but now, where have all those men gone? Oh, to Dubai and the Far East to become electricians, plumbers, and sweepers; to reap for strangers, and bring home tons of money. There is no one anymore at home to sow or reap, laugh or even weep for a dear departed! Simple grandson, time was when we respected the adage, ‘As you sow, so shall you reap’. Now we do not sow, there is nothing to reap any longer!
And now, inflation is so simple to define, my dear. It only means that money can buy you nothing. I am worried, that when you grow up, you’ll have so much money, because there’s nothing you can do with it, for you cannot eat plastic rice, toxic meat, China made eggs, or keep drinking from cancer rearing bottles, everyday, and they seem to be the only things your money these days can buy.
My little one, have you ever seen a one paisa coin? Do you know what a Naya Paisa looks like? The brown copper one? The one that shone like a legend? When I was your age, my father used to give me one paisa as pocket money every Sunday. I used to buy coconut sweets with them. Imagine, ten sweets for one paisa! A hundred for ten paise! Well, we don’t mint that kind of paise anymore! But even though the paise is a breed extinct, a rupee son, will always be a hundred paise. Some things never change. Paise, love. But are they now really there?
Why is inflation now so simple? I remember, as a child, crying to my mother enough! Enough! when she fed me a bowl of rice. Now the bowls have gotten so small, the rice in them can hardly be seen, and, you say you want more, you want more, and your mother says it is enough, it is enough, as you eat the last leftover rice grain on your plate and you keep asking for more. That’s inflation, my little one. Our rice fields and vegetable gardens have all turned shutter stock, the fruit trees on the wayside have all been cut down, and the birds that used to chirp there are all dead.
Those days water was free (it was a sin to even think of buying water) and dishes steamed with real good pieces of okra, tomato, cauliflower, potatoes, onions- dal was jumping dolphin on a big round shining thali. All of it was real dal! Remember, this afternoon at the hotel, you got three bowls of differently colored water along with rice, one meant for sambar, another for rasam, and the third for spinach? You drowned your fingers in them that itched and came up with not so much as a burnt mustard seed! And then the rupees three hundred bill? And, in the restaurant last week, our biryani together? No egg on top, nothing beneath, as I watched your hand go piece hunting? In our days son, biryani meant loads and loads of crunchy cushy vegetables or soft mutton playing hide and seek among soft Kashmiri rice, with cashew and raisins steaming on top, inlaid with onions, mint, saffron, cloves, and parsley. There were onions, tender shallots soaked in pearl white curd close by and all around. If you asked for onions the waiter did not look at you as though he thought it was the time you got up and left. There was fruit salad aplenty and biryani –tea, shaken, but not stirred. Ever heard of biriyani tea? Will you ever get to see such things, my dear? Will you ever? Perhaps we, then inflation ignorant, were the last lucky ones. Perhaps. Well, to think that at your tender age you even know the name of the Reserve Bank governor, the single man out there, trying hard to fight out all our inflation, set against the towering stones, sans crops, sans rice fields, sans trees, ravaged by flood and drought, torpedoed with a market flooding poison and cancer foods to eat that you have to shell out tons of money to buy? In our time, the Reserve Bank governor was a happy man singing as he kept signing those old big, big, ten and hundred rupee notes with sail ships and idyllic dams printed on them. He was a silent captain, and his grand ship sailed by like the new Titanic smooth upon the glittering waters of calm before the great ice berg lay in wait. Inflation is not just an ice cream little one. It is the iceberg we ourselves built irresponsibly over time, thinking it'll give us ice cream in the end. And what you and I have seen is just the tip.
And how, my little one, how I wish, now, that to define inflation would be the hardest thing on earth to do!