Our weekly explainer on economics using lessons from popular culture. In Installment 11, Amitabh Bachchan explains why variety is the spice of life — and the sauce of economics.
‘Mere anganey mein, tumhaaraa kya kaam hai?
Mere anganey mein, tumhaaraa kya kaam hai?
(In my backyard, what business do you have?
In my backyard, what business do you have?)
Jiski Biwi lambi, uskaa bhi badaa naam hai.
Kothey se lagaa lo, seedi ka kyaa kaam hai.
(He, whose wife is tall, is well known indeed.
Climb her to the terrace. Ladder? No need!)
Jiski Biwi mottee, uskaa bhi badaa naam hai,
Bistar pe litaa do, gaddey ka kyaa kaam hai.
(He, whose wife is fat, is well known indeed.
Drape her on the bed. A mattress? No need!)
Jiski Biwi kaali, uskaa bhi badaa naam hai,
Aankhon mein basaa lo, surmey ka kyaa kaam hai.
(He, whose wife is dark, is well known indeed.
Keep her in your eyes. Mascara? No need!)
Jiski Biwi goree, uska bhi badaa naam hai,
Kamrey mein bithaa do, bijli ka kyaa kaam hai.
(He, whose wife is fair, is well-known indeed.
Install her in a room. Light bulb? No need!)
— Amitabh Bachchan in Laawaaris.
I had to blink twice to confirm that it was Big B singing that song. In 1981, when Laawaris served up the hit song ‘Mere Anganey Mein’, Amitabh Bachchan was a beefy guy in the all-whites that were then in fashion. His dance moves were rudimentary, and the sparse production values of the scene wouldn’t pass muster in a C grade Bhojpuri film today. But the film rocked, and the lyrics were so ridiculous that I remember them verbatim.
Today, they would be politically incorrect, in spades.
Just try saying Jiski Biwi Moti on Twitter, and you would be attacked instantly.
“Fat shaming is not cool, Dude.” “She has her own identity, you sexist pig. Are you saying she was a nobody before she became someone’s wife?”
So let’s get this clear – I’m not defending the lyrics.
Ironically, though, the first lines about wifely characteristics could have been written for me – though they were probably inspired by Bachchan, who’s almost as tall as I am. “Jiski Biwi lambi, uskaa bhi badaa naam hai.” (“He, whose wife is tall, is well known indeed.”) If I had a tall wife, I don’t think I would ask her to do what the song suggested — use her instead of a ladder to the terrace. But ignoring the corny lyrics, the fact is that a woman who would be dauntingly tall for most would have made for a great physical match for me.
Now consider shirts. Imagine your aunt gives you a horrible pink shirt with white polka dots. If you’re reasonably tolerant, you’d ascribe zero value to it. I’d be offended (negative value) every time I saw it in my closet. But, odds are that someone, somewhere, would happily pay top dollar for such a shirt. Right now, he’s probably roaming the streets of Jhumri Talaiyya wondering why no garment store in all of Jharkand stocks such a shirt. If you happened to meet this guy, and got to talking about shirts, you’d part company, both happier than before you met — he with a fresh pink shirt on his back, and you with some fresh notes in the pocket of your jeans.
Differences in value perception don’t have be as radical as hate and deep longing to generate surplus.
Even when most people ascribe positive value to the same good, trade creates surplus for both parties involved. Say someone, manufacturer or trader, owns a thousand ladders. Giving one up does not reduce his happiness – or economic welfare – by much. But for someone with neither tall wife nor ladder, owning one would be extremely useful. He will happily pay the ladder owner more for that that one ladder than the loss of happiness (economic welfare) that the seller experiences from notching down his stock. The price of this trade will settle at a level where both buyer and seller feel happy making it. In a free market, this is the only condition under which it would happen. Both gain; their trade creates a surplus – in economic terms, but more importantly, in welfare terms.
What’s true for consumption goods is equally true for investment goods. I sell shares in company Polka Dot because I think the fad is over. The guy from Jhumri Talaiyya buys my shares because he believes his taste in shirts is in the vanguard of fashion, and the company’s best days are still to come. At the time of the trade, I‘m glad to be rid of a lemon, and he is starry eyed about the grand wedding he’s going to give his daughter with the dividends from his shares.
For economies to develop, their markets have to develop too, in scale and in diversity. Department stores in China went from selling Mao jackets of every shade of blue to becoming the best stocked boutiques of Louis Vuitton bags, Prada dresses, and Rolex watches. And in the last decade, with the maturing of online stores, physical constraints were largely removed from the shopping experience. Whereas the largest brick-and-mortar stores couldn’t stock more than 10,000 items, an Ali Baba can list millions. The guy from Jhumri Tallaiya doesn’t have to wait till he bumps into me in a Ranchi coffee shop — he can find the precise shade of pink he wants on his Xiaomi cell phone.
Viva la difference!
As early as 1981, Amitabh Bachchan knew the value of variety. And even if I wouldn’t care to use the metaphor of a dark wife, every colour of mascara will find a happy user, from Abidjan Obsidian to Funky Fuschia.