The millennial gold rush
8 February 2016
Generation Y’s befuddled relation with the yellow metal
Millennials will always be confused. You can’t blame them either; the defining characteristic of the generation is that of being undecided. By a Google-informed approximation, anyone born after 1981 (but not after 2002) tends to exhibit similar behavioral patterns. These tendencies have much to do with questioning prior obsessions and habits, all the while expressing themselves almost exclusively, and indefatigably, on the internet. As India’s urban millennials stretch their arms to embrace global identities, they are still holding unto cultural and religious traditions. And the arena where this is showcased to the hilt is the theatre of marriage, and India’s fondness for ostentatious weddings.
India has a reputation for sybaritic weddings. And at the core of this is the fixation on gold. As a Bangalorean I have watched the city’s tipsy balance between modern conveniences and ritualistic excesses. Indeed, the south of India is an intriguing geographical space to deconstruct India’s obsession with gold in a digitally informed world. The ‘south’ is, of course, too vague a term to comprehensively include the subtleties of culture, class, and family quirks to reveal any answers with authority. This is why personal stories build a more authentic narrative of patterns and paradigms. The women I talked to were ready to share their stories, with stunning insights, about their tryst with this alluring metal. We could finally talk about the elephant in the room.
The word around town is this: the minimum amount of gold required for the average south Indian wedding is 100 grams. Now if you’re not really educated (like me) about gold prices, you will probably not know how much that really is. The average price per gram of gold is INR 2500 (USD 37.5 per gram); now multiply that with 100, and presto, INR 2.5 lakh (USD 3750) is spent only on gold.
If you are born a girl in India, your family is likely to have thought about gold and the many manifestations it will take in your life before you’re out of diapers
While India is far from having a middle-class majority, its sheer strength in numbers and hold on the economy and culture creates a large middle-class milieu. Don’t let the modest cotton saris and jeans fool you; there are lakhs and lakhs worth of gold that lie in ubiquitous bank lockers, taken out only to be worn almost exclusively at weddings – heavy gold, after all, has no place in everyday attire. The neckalces, bangles, and rings lie in boxes and in banks, their lifetime will not see many sunrises (or sunsets) but when they are out, boy do they get their fifteen minutes in the spotlight.
If you are born a girl in India, your family is likely to have thought about gold and the many manifestations it will take in your life before you’re out of diapers. As a baby, you might have your first gold ornament pressed into tender ear lobes and as you grow your parents will start stockpiling gold for your ‘inevitable’ marriage. If the girl comes from a khandani family, she will already have a stock pile of ancestral gold waiting to be inherited from her grandparents.
Deconstructing the emotion and economy around gold remains a puzzle that forces millennials to balance their search for identity while precariously balancing tradition. However, this challenge is laid squarely on the shoulders of the woman: how does she define gold’s role in ‘new’ India? Is it a form of security for women? Does it support and account for her right to live, prepare for hard times and have the option of living independently if the marriage comes crumbling down? Or does the system highlight the fact that a girl-child and her capabilities are not taken seriously enough. She will always have to be worth an amount, she will always have to give her husband and in-laws the security of her parents’ wealth. This convergence of a bride’s value and gold before marriage is not given the shameful name of ‘dowry’; it is disguised by more digestible names: security, tradition and wealth.
The process of accumulating gold is often a long one and families have to make sacrifices for it, a sacrifice many families make willingly. Dhanya Balakrishnan, who has her roots in Kerala, tells me that while growing up in the 1980s and 1990s, she saw how money was put aside for her, as dowry; societal pressures forced their family to conform. “In virtually every family, expenditure was deferred on so many fronts (especially travel or eating out) in order to ‘save up for gold’. Seen this way, it seemed an irrational obsession that contributes to an unhealthy and unhappy society.” She adds that it is not only an indulgence for the business class or landed gentry, but something that even the salaried and working class pursues, much to the detriment of their own quality of life.
The middle class is the entry point to luxuries, where families can attempt to buy what they want and not merely what they need – including nicer houses, decorations, holidays, smoothie blenders, garlic presses and other such consumer treats. But this was precisely what the Indian middle class did not spend on before the 1990s. Even in the 1990s, when I was growing up and with the Indian economy still opening up to global economic onslaught, people who had more money didn’t seem like they did at first glance. Their clothes were simpler, foreign holidays rarer; houses though bigger wouldn’t have components of design or ‘cool’ furniture. For many middle class families the extra money was locked up in the form of gold, and it would remain an important validity of wealth and security to be passed on to their children.
Now, cities like Bangalore, where I live, have seen tremendous economic changes. Corporates are slowly tweaking the mind of yuppies, as they obsess over things that symbolise a good life: cars, exotic holidays, and a down payment on a house. Premium extra-circular activities and electronic gadgets are base-line expectations for their children. Keeping up with this new life, while also not letting go of the gold, or the need for it, is at the centre of millennial’s confusion.
Rohini Malur comes from a Kannadiga Brahmin family. She works, and can be found writing in-depth opinions on social media about gender, marriage, and sexuality. She’s supported by her family for her independence and beliefs, although it doesn’t quite remove the lure of gold from her life. She talked to me about the time her parents and grandmother decided to buy her gold bangles. They exclaimed, “‘A doctor’s daughter without gold of her own!’ Like it was a big tragedy. The store we went to was trying to give gold jewellery a modern touch, so they gave everyone who walked in wearing denim a discount. You know, the ‘you can wear gold even if you’re a modern woman, please buy our stuff’ approach. And of course, I walked in wearing a long skirt instead of denim – we went back home so that I could change. And then when I finally picked my (overly shiny) set about forty-five minutes later, they were all like, “Are you sure? Are you SURE?” as code for “We like this other set better, pick that!”
After marriage, all this gold, which goes to the girl, is monitored with hawk-eyes by both sets of family. Take for instance Lakshmi Surya’s experience with her wedding, “I had to move to the US after marriage. So, my in-laws and my husband were worried about bringing all the jewellery to the US. The other thing they did not want was for me to keep it in my parents’ home in India. They wanted me to open a locker in a bank and keep it safe and secure, without my parents’ knowledge – so that they couldn’t meddle with my gift! It did create some trust issues and doubts.”
This story begs the questions: Who is the gold for? Is it truly just a part of the celebration? A reminder of a social class? Is it for the security of the bride? Or does it just play an active role in making both in-laws and parents feel like they fulfilled some set expectation?
So how does a woman battle the awareness of an obsession that many could argue is unhealthy? How does one deconstruct the micro-cultures of the south and choose certain practices while disregarding others, especially when there is a lot of emphasis about the girl’s side giving gold in different forms to the son-in-law and his family during different rituals? Chaithali Pisupathi had a fascinating story to tell. According to some obscure Telugu Brahmin custom, when a son-in-law performs funeral rites of any of his parents, he needs to be given a gold ring by his wife’s parents. During the funeral rites, a ring shaped contraption made of a grass called darba is put on his ring finger. When this temporary darba ring is taken off after the final rites a gold ring has to put instead; this supposedly reduces his grief (how absolutely shallow must the grief then be!).
At best, gold will always be a measure of status; it will measure a woman’s worth and her future based on an obsession to buy, give, solicit, monitor and hoard this metal
“When my father-in-law expired and my husband was performing his funeral rites, my mom was asking his ring size and I firmly refused to honour this custom. I couldn’t get my head around it at all. I would rather have their presence to help with the grief.” In fact, when she asked about the significance and origins of this gold-inducing ritual no one could give a definite answer.
The fact that the history or nuance of most rituals aren’t clear to even members of the previous generation illustrate how rituals endure because people invest them with emotional credence without any regard as to why they do them. When we mouth vague references to certain customs and make it obligatory to follow, experimenting with these tried and tested methods are looked at with fear and disapproval.
Older aunties and relatives standing by the bride during the wedding and inspecting jewellery (while she is still wearing it) to predict the weight and cost of the gold are not atypical. Here is where the argument about gold empowering woman loses its credibility. At best, gold will always be a measure of status; it will measure a woman’s worth and her future based on an obsession to buy, give, solicit, monitor and hoard this metal.
Even when the bride’s mother has washed her hands off this entire gold business, she cannot escape from the scrutiny of the groom’s family. Arya Satya tells me the story of her daughter marrying into a traditional Tamil Brahmin family. The matriarch of the groom’s family summoned her for a ‘wedding talk’. The mother of the groom was gob smacked when Arya told her that she hadn’t really made ornaments for her daughter in anticipation of this grand day.
“What! Surely you must have had some idea about how you would get her married!” the groom’s mother exclaimed.
Arya doesn’t think that this reaction illustrates a particular character flaw; rather it reflects the expectations and norms culture breeds. Ironically, her daughter finds it too stressful to manage the gold she has, so she lets her mother-in-law keep it for her.
Today’s city-bred traditional South Indian bride has many choices and traditions to navigate; a marathon to run straddled with other peoples’ expectations and her own sense of identity. We also find a few (brave) women who will plan their own weddings while trying their best to please everybody else. Take Rohini Sen’s case, a Bengali woman who married a Tamilian man. She organised her entire wedding and didn’t let gold play a major part. For her buying wedding gold was a colossal waste of money, so she decided to wear her grandmother’s wedding jewellery. She believes that nothing in the market could match the beauty of those pieces.
The unanimous verdict? Gold will remain an idiosyncratic testimony to our core values. It will hold families together; it will split skins and create wounds of resentment. It will birth wild stories which some families will bury in the lockers along with the gold. The metal will continue to be the most durable and popular investment for families in this region. Though the lingo might change, it will always carry the potential of liberation and the burden of expectation. Those who see no reason to fight it will mostly go unhurt, but the ones who question its role or our addiction for it will be torn and have to eliminate its role in phases. Gold, folks, is here to stay.
Yet challenges to its tyranny are refreshing and encouraging. We must readjust to its hold over us when it ends up sacrificing the identity of people. In order to appreciate good music we don’t need to crank the radio all the way up. So why when it comes to a wedding must we be unabashed in validating ourselves by buying excessive gold.
In a locker near you lie some old gold, a handful of stories, and the memory of an old jeweller’s craft. This tantalising metal has brought us together, has made us flap our tongues, and measure wealth in just one glance. Perhaps stripped to the bones, our culture’s obsession of gold may be embraced as another quirky trait from a country as inscrutable as India.
~ Rheea Mukherjee is a Bangalore based writer. Her work has been published in Scroll.in, Cleaver Magazine, The Bombay Literary Magazine, Bengal Lights and Out Of Print Magazine. Her book, a collection of short stories, Transit For Beginners, is forthcoming from Kitaab International in March 2016. She co-founded Bangalore Writers Workshop and presently co-runs Write Leela Write, a Design and Content Laboratory in Bangalore. You can find out more at www.rheeamukherjee.com