Monday, March 28, 2005

The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie

The New York Times does it again! In a story printed on March 23, their correspondent did a piece on Karachi entitled "Pakistan is booming after 9/11 at least for the well-off". The last five or six words made me a little uncomfortable, but what the hell. I read on. The article begins with a reference to Limoncello, one of Karachi's new, smart restaurants. References are made to "Italian-inspired fine dining spot with lemon-colored walls and a kebab-free menu that features arugula and Norwegian salmon." Hey, this is becoming a journalistic rarity. A good piece on Karachi.
Too good to be true. A few lines later this emerges: "Dinner for four - not including wine, since alcohol is banned at public accommodations - came to $70, substantially more than a Karachi housemaid's monthly salary." Hang on. Has anyone told the writer that dinner at an upmarket Manhattan restaurant costs significantly more than a Puerto Rican maid's salary ? There then follows the usual trotting out of statistics, a visit to a slum, interviews with several extremely poor (and hard working) individuals. I have no problem with the article on that front. Yes, Karachi (like Manila, Washington DC, Berlin and Delhi) is a city with sharp divides between the rich and the poor. Undisputed. Having given a description of poverty and divides, there is no prescription at all for removing these. This is characteristic of the descriptive (as opposed to prescriptive) whinging and whining that adorns the op ed pages of any Pakistani paper. Don't take my word for it. Just read any and you'll get my drift.
But now to what's really bugging me about the NYT article. There is an implicit theme running through it - that restaurants such as Limoncello are an obscenity and should not exist in the face of such glaring poverty. Further, that the making of money is somehow wrong and should be discouraged. That, in some kind of utopian fantasy, there should be an immediate redistribution of wealth. Yes, capitalism of the kind practiced in Pakistan or most other countries will produce inequities. You don't need a ph.d to figure that out. Yes, we need to figure out ways and means of lessening such inequities. Its just that I don't see too many articles stating that Prada should be closed down because there are inner city problems in South Washington DC or homelessness in Detroit. The idea is to create guilt in the creation and spending of money in the lesser developed countries. At the same time, having scrubbed other options (the Marxist alternatives) the self same newspapers will support moves to increase foreign direct investment which buttresses the growth of capitalist enterprises. Confusing, huh ? Will someone tell me if its alright to make (and spend) money legitimately ?
On a more positive note, someone forgot to tell the NYT that Pakistanis rank among the most charitable/giving people on the planet. This is not a fiction, but the result of detailed research by the Pakistan Centre for Philanthrophy- an independent NGO. Yes, much charity is ill organised, but it does exist. So there is some consciousness of social inequality. In the meanwhile, can the rest of us get on with our lives ?
ps: the NYT article can be accessed on (site requires registration).


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