The Golden Nano and Other Wonderful Tales
As with film stars, so with cheap cars. It’s no secret that Indians like taking hero worship to ludicrous extents. We perform long religious rituals to ensure the success of our cricket team, and build temples to our favorite actresses. Some of our heroes, like a certain recent Nobel Laureate, might have enough humility to protest this unthinking adulation for another human being. But for the most part, we don’t even blink when party workers mutilate themselves to celebrate the birthdays of politicians. So should I really be surprised at the news that India’s favorite car is going to be made in gold?
Ten days ago, the jewellery retailer Tata Goldplus announced that it would create a Goldplus Nano – an actual gold car – to “celebrate 5000 years of Indian jewellery.” Three in-house designers have created three designs, and the nation has been urged to vote for their favorite one. I dismissed the whole thing as a flash in the pan PR exercise, until I received an email from one of my acquaintances, soliciting my vote for one of the designs.
Goldplus Nano 2
Goldplus Nano 3
I’m sure the designers have their rationales for the peacock head on Goldplus Nano 1, and the enameled national anthem on Goldplus Nano 3. There are also obvious references in the designs to traditional jewellery techniques such as repoussé work, filigree and minakari (enameling). But what might be charming in a tiny trinket may not work as well on a 1.5 meter high car. To my eye all the three options are criminally ugly. But I’m hardly the target audience of this precious pastime.
Goldplus is the second jewellery retail chain owned by the Tatas. The first, Tanishq, is a premium brand of jewellery, with whom I worked on several projects between 2006 and 2008. The sophisticated designers there have their sights firmly set on the upper middle class customers in large cities. Goldplus, on the other hand, was created to sell jewellery to their more traditional country cousins – the nouveau riche of the semi-urban and rural areas, for whom buying gold jewellery in obscene quantities is both financially sensible and religiously auspicious. The particular cultural significance of replicating a car in gold will not be lost on this audience.
Around the year 1012, in the state of Tamil Nadu (where, coincidentally, Goldplus has the largest number of showrooms,) the legendary South Indian king Raja Raja Chola I celebrated a long and prosperous reign by inviting his son to rule with him as the heir-apparent. On this occasion, the king conducted a tulabharam – a ritual in which he was weighed in gold, and the gold distributed among the masses. This is probably the first written record of this ritual, etched in the extensive copper-plate inscriptions of the Chola kings. But the tradition continued. Even 600 years later, the Mughal emperor Jahangir was inaugurating each year by weighing his son Khurram in gold, and then giving that gold away.
The ritual has three main features: the presence of the heir to the throne, the symbolic replication of the royal personage in gold, and the distribution of that gold. This last is an assertion of the king’s magnanimity, but it also implies his ability to give. The end goal is not so much charity, as spectacle – the king thumping his chest about his own wealth.
The Nano is the rising star on the Tata horizon, their darling baby that will bring fame and fortune to the business house. Other branches of the Tata empire might bring in more money, but the Nano is the game changer, and as such, is the international symbol of the Tatas. The nation has until December 12to vote for their chosen Goldplus Nano design, and Tata Goldplus will give away Rs. 4,000,000 in prizes to the people who vote. Behind all this talk of celebrating the history of Indian jewellery, Tata Goldplus is pretty much sticking to the old formula of the tulabharam ritual. (Except that the Nano weighs 1,332 pounds, so at today’s gold prices they would have to actually shell out Rs. 1,428,707,995. That would probably bankrupt them.)
Ostentatious displays have become matter-of-course for India’s big business houses. Last month, Mukesh Ambani finally moved into Antilla, his $1 billion, 27-story palace in Mumbai. Some were amazed, others were disgusted, but everyone wanted to know how a family of five would find use for nine elevators, a six-floor parking space and a helipad. The Ambanis have a reputation for being money pinching businessmen, but the Tatas have always taken the moral high ground. The Nano was touted as a symbol of India’s progress, an affordable everyman’s car that democratized the auto industry. A gold Nano should be a complete contradiction, yet here we are. And we are being asked to participate in this hypocrisy. At least Mukesh Ambani didn’t ask us to choose the color of his walls.
When Julius Caesar took over the reins of the Roman republic, and became its first dictator and emperor, sumptuary laws were among the many laws he enacted. These laws regulated the display of wealth – certain rare foods were not permitted to be served at private parties; nobles and officials were forbidden from wearing highly embellished clothing; elaborate hairstyles for women were frowned upon. Caesar’s dictatorship was based on the fiction that he was still ruling for the people, and he did all he could to maintain that appearance. He understood one thing that we have forgotten. Moderation has not much to do with socialism. Gandhi freely accepted donations from wealthy capitalists, even as he exhorted those same businessmen to wear khadi. Even in a free market economy, moderation is valuable as a visible sign of a healthy civil society. It defuses at least one cause of civil unrest.
I can’t resist sharing just one more wonderful tale about the tulabharam ritual – this one not from history, but from Hindu mythology. One of Lord Krishna’s wives, the arrogant Satyabhama, decided to donate his weight in gold. Krishna was seated in one pan of a gigantic weighing scale, but no matter how much gold Satyabhama piled into the other pan, the scale wouldn’t balance. The smiling god asked his other wife, the gentle Rukmini, to remedy the situation. Rukmini lovingly placed a single holy tulsi leaf in the pan, and the scale balanced immediately.
As much as we might acknowledge the anti-materialist moral of this tale, Indians are rarely satisfied with the single leaf. We are ostentatious people, in love with color and sparkle. Gaudiness is our middle name. But there is a line between being honestly celebratory, and being meaninglessly showy. The Goldplus Nano crosses that line by a few thousand miles. We don’t need a gold car to celebrate the history of Indian jewellery, we do that at every wedding. A golden Nano would only serve to corrupt what has emerged as a symbol of a resurgent India. Do we really need such an expensive way to further cheapen the world’s cheapest car?