Passing the bucks

Omair Ahmad | Updated on November 30, 2018 Published on November 30, 2018

Not just mine: In Islam, the institution of zakat specifies giving at least 2.5 per cent of our earnings to those in need   -  ISTOCK.COM

Can the Wodehousian “butler burglar” set things right in our world?

During my summer and winter holidays spent in the towns of Gorakhpur and Banda in UP, one of the loveliest pastimes was to raid the libraries of my uncles and great-uncles for books. One of them, my mother’s youngest uncle in Banda, had a perfectly preserved collection of books by PG Wodehouse. He was a particular man, and we were terrified of earning his displeasure. It was not that he scolded us but his presence was intimidating enough. We would swear that the creases on his trousers were so sharp they could split atoms as he sat reading the newspaper in the courtyard.

There was a strict protocol in borrowing his books — which was often negotiated with his indulgent and far more approachable wife. You borrowed one. You took it out of its place in the library and replaced it in exactly the same sequence, with not a scratch, not a bent page, or — heaven forfend — a stain on the pages. Despite the danger of invoking his wrath, the books were too delightful to resist, and I burrowed myself into the world of a penurious British aristocracy and their mad idiosyncrasies — many of which I did not really understand.

I was reminded of one of my favourites — Do Butlers Burgle Banks? — recently. In this case, a young man inherits the fortunes of his uncle, a former banker, and finds that the uncle has been such a glad-handed philanthropist that he has driven the bank to the edge of bankruptcy. The solution is to have the bank burgled before the auditors find out the truth, to which he turns to the butler he has recently hired, who — in a typically Wodehouseian twist — is an American gangster trying to lie low in the English countryside. Slowly, further ridiculousness ensues from this ridiculous premise.

The reason I was reminded of this book was because of a funding request with the financing of a film on an important issue — the racism that many Africans living and studying in India face. It is an issue that troubles me, and I presume many of us. Unfortunately I just did not have the money. Over the last year, I have spent far beyond my means, and when the time came to pay my taxes, I had to ask my wife for a loan. And it did not seem right to ask her for another loan without repaying the existing one.

Of course that is not the only solution. I can easily cut down on other expenses. Wodehouse was not a revolutionary, and in his books things continued. In ours this is not the case. I need to spend less on myself, on food, drink and travel, on pretty things I don’t need, but that won’t be enough either.

So how much of what I earn is really mine?

One answer is tradition, since this is not a new problem. As a Muslim I can look to the institution of zakat, which specifies giving at least 2.5 per cent of our earnings to those in need. I was intrigued to find out that the word originated from the idea of ‘purifying’: that wealth couldn’t be ‘pure’ unless the wealthy took steps to ameliorate, to at least a minimal degree, the conditions of distress of those closest to them. This would have been an attractive idea in the trading culture of 7th-century Arabia, where one sandstorm could reduce a prosperous person to penury in a tribal society where everybody was dependent on everyone else.

I do not know how this translates to us in the modern world. In our hyper-connected age everyone is close to us. The melting of the Arctic affects the monsoon and thereby poor farmers. It also displaces impoverished communities living in coastal regions across South Asia. The Syrian civil war creates refugees that flee to Europe, and set off politics of resentment and nativism. What is our tribe? And what really can we do?

Floods and droughts have also affected agriculture in India and farmer suicides have spiked. Aren’t they our neighbours too? Isn’t there something we can do to provide for them? As farmers march to Delhi this week, a few people and organisations are helping them with food and blankets. But this is not a problem that will go away with one march or citizen initiatives.

I recently met an Australian-American woman, a former banker, working on philanthropy and impact investment. Maybe she is the type of “butler burglar” I have been looking for. Wodehouse’s stories turned out well, I desperately hope ours do too.


Omair Ahmad   -  BUSINESS LINE




Omair Ahmad is the South Asia Editor for The Third Pole, reporting on water issues in the Himalayas;


Published on November 30, 2018
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