When do upper middle-class urban youngsters start thinking of themselves as poor?

What happens when young professionals cannot afford the lifestyle they desire.

“I traded sex till I bought my iPhone”

— Shruti Sharma, 24, Mumbai

“Yes, I have used sex to buy myself an iPhone. We live in an age of Tinder so I really don’t think anyone is in a position to judge me. Single people, married people, straight people who are overtly gay, all kinds of people are having clandestine affairs and one night stands, so puhleez, spare me the moral judgement.

I live in Versova in Mumbai and I work in IT in an MNC in Andheri East which hires a lot of young people like me for coding, web design and content. Almost the entire office is in the same age group so there is a lot of partying and hanging out we do together. Which means there are drinks flowing, and with all the taxes, even a split bill for drinks is a minimum of Rs 3,000. So yes, my starter salary in my first job is Rs 35,000 but I cannot actually live off it if I have to live at all.

I am from West Bengal, and most of my friends here live with their families. I have rent and commuting costs because I am not used to these trains so I tend to take a cab or rickshaw from Versova to Andheri East whenever possible. So, obviously, what I can spend on is less than what I can afford. We have a canteen so that covers my food costs reasonably. I have never starved, but I cannot afford the costs of a good phone.

One way we try to save money on drinking costs is attending house parties, sometimes of a friend of a friend and so on, so it’s not always people we know directly. I was at a party once and someone asked if I’d sleep with him. People are quite upfront about these things these days and we were also a bit high. So I said ‘Yes, will you pay me?’ kind of jokingly, but he asked ‘how much?’. I didn’t really know how much to ask because it was my first time exchanging money, so I just asked for Rs 5,000. I got it on the spot in cash out of his wallet.”

He put me on to a couple of his friends and I know you’ll get judgey and all but these are all my kind of guys, the kind of men I would date if I met them randomly on a dating app, without really knowing them, so what’s the big deal?

Some of the men I’ve been with are still part of my extended social circuit. I see women putting out in return for a fancy dinner at a posh restaurant all the time, so I really don’t catch the hypocrisy. And we used protection and everything. I bought my iPhone by the end of the month. Maybe it was the thrill of it. I don’t do it for money now, but I do occasionally sleep with a guy if I like him in return for him paying for drinks and meals. I think it’s empowering for me to own my sexuality but I also think it’s important to know when to stop.

What won’t you sell to survive?

It is unfair of me to ask several to share their stories of being severely depleted without sharing my own. We’ve all been there, or almost, or have been pulled back from the brink. The domino effect of being broke at the start of your career and the loans piling up year on year is such that the savings never quite catch up.

Payment milestones do. At first, it’s a donation to a school, a term fee, one hospitalisation, or unexpected medical bill, one phone that died and had to be replaced out of turn, one unscheduled flight, and every accumulated rupee that you thought symbolised your recovery from insolvency and bad financial management has the potential to be wiped out. Then you’re back to square one.

And then you haven’t had a vacation in over a year though you’re working as hard as you ever have and have that mythical designation for seniority, which is clearly a sham in salary terms. I replaced my first credit card four years after I had given it up after my divorce. My mother was taking a bus to our home town, Kodaikanal, because the flight tickets were too expensive and my six-year-old son was travelling with her. It would have been a 19-hour journey sitting up, an impossible ask for both. The card returned, as did old ways I soon took out a car loan. It all quickly piled up.

Gayatri Jayaraman
Gayatri Jayaraman

A year later, one of the most humiliating phone calls I ever made in my life was to the Hiranandani hospital, Powai.

I had already sold my gold earrings, two bangles and the Philips DVD player to pay for lawyer’s bills, holidays, credit card payments, and furniture, moving costs, school fees and clothes. This was before the age of cellphones when every time you upgraded you’d have another one lying around the house to dispose of for some sort of cashback. I had been meticulous about selling all my raddi, saving milk packets and old bottles to add to the pile. I was already living on subsidised rent in a flat owned by a friend and not had to put down a deposit or the brokerage.

I had already lost all the friends I had borrowed from the last time and was ashamed of constantly having to ask my family for money. I was tired of the friends I had left constantly offering to pay for my share of dinners and drink with no real end to my status in sight. I’d do anything not to have to ask someone for money again. At my last visit to the gynaecologist, the doctor had, in the way that matronly old OB-GYNs do, commented that I was immensely fertile and it was such a waste that I was single. I was ovulating and was in perfect health and could have had a baby if I was married.

So, I dialled the number that Google threw up and asked if I could get paid for donating my eggs.

The receptionist took down my number, my name, my age, ascertained that I was a post graduate, below 30, and not insane, best she could on the phone, and then put me on hold while she called a doctor. The doctor, an older male voice who sounded mildly astonished at my brazenness, chided me. “You will have to have painful hormone injections every week”, he warned. I was willing to risk it, I insisted.

He spoke to me about implications on my health, my body, my psyche in a coaxing voice. Asked my motives. I told him I wanted the experience of motherhood without the responsibility. He spent over twenty minutes on the phone talking me down off the ledge. “Do you even realise the implications of giving your DNA?” he finally shouted down the receiver. Nervous, and running out of excuses, I cut the line. That was the closest I’d ever gotten to selling my body for cash.

But it is also why I don’t sit in judgement on those who do I just got lucky because someone more responsible, a complete stranger, stepped in and took responsibility for my self-harm. If he hadn’t, I’d be in several stages of regret today. Based entirely on my own experience of it, and gleaning from what several who’ve shared their very personal case studies tell me, what is that point at which you give up and veer towards the wrong decision? Pride.

You can skip meals in private for days on end, or walk home for half an hour because you couldn’t even afford a bus ride, as long as no one knows about it. At the precise point when the lack hits your pride and there is no solution in sight, does the debt become the trap, and you begin to feel hunted.

Inasmuch as this book is a confession by many of that sense of wounded pride, it’s also, in their candidness and insistence on using their real names (some names have been changed on request) and details of their intimate financial dealings and fall from grace, a breaking of the pattern.

The refusal to live this lie, sit with a false sense of social achievement that in many ways society forces them to live up to. The fear of being unable to pay for drinks, dress a certain way, be seen at certain places, and be subsequently rewarded by the system for that behaviour. The insistence on being told and being seen is a lifting of the curtain of silence that surrounds it. This generation isn’t as broke or bereft of courage and integrity as it looks.

Excerpted with permission from Who me, Poor? How India’s Youth is Living in Urban Poverty to Make it Big, Gayatri Jayaraman, Bloomsbury.

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