When it comes to materialism and consumer idiocies, I tend to get pretty grumpy. Constantly consuming products you don’t need purchased with money you don’t really have strikes me as a form of psychological slavery. Designer clothes, custom-crafted closets and the biggest TV Best Buy offers mean almost nothing to me. But I am one of the lucky ones, born in the developed world where even the poor live better than medieval kings. I can afford to look down on consumerism and materialism because I have been blessed with a surplus.
Not so for Santosh Chowdhury, a tailor in the small Indian village of Rameshwarpur. His house, one of about 40 in the village where 200 people live, has a hole in the roof, and his wife Sushoma cooks their meals over an open fire. Every day, she has to cook a fresh meal because they have no way of storing leftovers, which means she has to buy food every day as well.
For 10 years, Santosh and his wife have harbored a dream. They have longed for a refrigerator. In the developed world where I live, 99 percent of homes have them. For the world as a whole, though, the figure is 76 percent. In the Asia, just 65 percent do. In Rameshwarpur, the Chowdhurys are the first to have one. “Ours is the first generation to own a fridge in my family,” says Santosh. “No one in my father’s and grandfather’s time had ever seen one.”
Even though we know the facts, that there are people on this planet who live on $2 a day or less, it is hard to understand just what that means until you see a story like the Chowdhurys’. Santosh told the BBC, “I don’t have a regular job as such. Sometimes I also work part-time in a factory. I make about three to four dollars a day.”
So he did what my parents’ generation did. He saved a little here and a little there for a decade. Then, he went to the store at the end of the winter sales to make a deal. There, he did what my children’s generation does — he arranged to pay on credit after putting half the money down (OK, I exaggerate, my kids’ contemporaries wouldn’t put more than a few dollars down and put the rest on plastic).
“No one pays cash any more like they used to,” store manager Pintoo Mazumdar told the BBC. “Everyone can get a loan from the bank or the store — all you need is a bank statement and ID. That’s why so many lower income people can afford to buy a fridge these days.” And that, my friends, is the best reason I can think of for credit to exist at all.
“It was quite confusing,” Chowdhury said. “It was my first time you know. I couldn’t figure out which one to get. My wife wanted a red one. I wanted one that will consume the least power. We need to keep our bills down.”
In the end, the red fridge arrived. The Chowdhurys gave it a pride of place next to the sewing machine and their other miraculous possession, the TV. This being India, a small religious blessing followed. Sushoma “applies a dab of vermillion to the fridge, to keep away evil spirits, and then blows on a conch shell to seek divine blessings and welcome the fridge into their home.”
The entire village came to see the appliance. “Imagine, they won’t have to shop for fresh vegetables every day,” says one woman. “I’m thinking of getting one too,” another man says.
“I can focus on finding more work and not worry about buying food for the family,” Santosh stated. “My wife will get more free time and perhaps she can give me a hand as well.”
“We’ve dreamt of this moment for so long,” Sushoma told the media. “Some of our neighbours have already asked us if they, too, can store some food in our fridge. And I can’t wait to drink cold water in the summer.” Not a skinny, double-shot iced caramel macchiato, just cold water.
And what went into the fridge that first day? Tomatoes, eggs, an eggplant and milk.
Sometimes, a little materialism is good for you.
Jeff Myhre is a contributing journalist for TheBlot Magazine.