Five years ago, the headlines hailed Azim Premji, head of Wipro. He had been declared the world's second-richest man, second only to an obscure software dude called Gates. Today, similar headlines worship Lakshmi Mittal, steel magnate, this time for being the world's third-richest man.
Why the hoopla, apart from the sheer magnitude of Mittal's wealth? Easy: it is the curious thought that an Indian -- an Indian! -- is so rich. Aside from princes that once dotted this country, we are still not used to wealth on that scale. (Though I'd be willing to bet that at least a few of our politicians have treasure chests weightier than Mittal's, if gathered in unsavoury ways. But that story, another time). It evokes a sense of wonder: is this man flesh and blood, like the rest of us? The reports try hard to reassure us that he is: my Sunday Times carries an entire feature about Mittal, devoted to his "humble beginnings" in Calcutta. (Took the tram, young Mittal did).
So savour with me the faintly unreal quality of the notion of Indian multi-billionaires, and especially self-made ones. Not unlike when Indians find out it isn't a law of the universe that international flights must take off and land at absurd night hours, this takes some getting used to. We grew up with the idea that great wealth is the capitalist dream found only in the capitalist West. No longer. We also grew up believing that wealth like that is something to be mildly ashamed of. It is refreshing, then, that men like Mittal and Premji make no apologies about where they are, and just as refreshing that the news about them is as unapologetic.
Still, I wonder: If the world's third-richest man is Indian, I feel pretty sure the world's third-poorest man is as well. And the second- and the poorest are probably his neighbours. In fact, I am also pretty sure I saw this third-poorest man yesterday, a sad figure in loose pants and nothing else who, for no clear reason, runs up and down the street near where I live.
I wonder, because what is the difference between these two: Mittal and the running man? Why does one, but not the other, get headlines? Why not a story on the running man, including his "humble beginnings"? (Or who knows, his not-so-humble beginnings). Logically, why should a list of the richest men be celebrated (or made at all), but a list of the poorest men not?
Nobody need grudge the Mittals and Premjis their riches. But while we applaud them, while we luxuriate in knowing that there may finally be a climate in India where acumen and entrepreneurship get their due, we might spare a thought for the running men around us, for the poverty that is still so evident in this country. Just as we need not grudge riches, just as it makes no sense to be ashamed of wealth, we need hardly feel ashamed of that poverty. It's a truth, that's all. Looking at it that way, we will address it better. For shame only promotes the pretence too many of us allow ourselves, that less fortunate Indians are in some unmentionable sense less than human, can be treated that way, can be ignored.
Which is why the most encouraging thing I learned about the Indian rich remains what I once read about Infosys's NR Narayana Murthy, himself a very rich man.
This news: his chauffeur, Kannan, is a millionaire. Over the years, Infosys has rewarded him -- and plumbers, peons, electricians as well as other drivers in the company -- with Infosys stock. At the time, Kannan's portfolio was worth 20 million rupees. Sixty-seven others like him were among the nearly 2000 Infosys millionaires.
How many other companies in India have been similarly generous with their drivers?
And that, even more than their enormous worth, is the reason for pride in the stories of men like these. And their drivers.