‘Bhaiya gave that to you to throw away! What are you doing?’
He didn’t look up, and continued to cut neat squares from the worn out pyjama while muttering, ‘these make the best dusters. Why waste, Didi?’
I smiled, and decided not to argue. One never argues with the house helper, especially when you understand the underlying code – Paisa Vasool. The man mostly frowns at this habit of ours – he takes out trash and we quickly take it all back in. The helper and I are a part of the dying nationwide nexus – the Undercover Paisa Vasool Agents (PVA). We like to call ourselves the recyclers with the changing times. It sounds more acceptable and a tad bit respectable. From the rickshaw puller who wrangles that extra rupee out of the rider because a bag full of potatoes took him extra effort, to the swanky car that pulls over on the signal to buy ten tissue paper boxes for the price of five – we are all linked. It is encoded in our genes to make the rupee bleed its last paisa. This particular gene is a great leveller – from the richest to the poorest – it gets activated the moment it sees an opportunity to make money walk an extra mile.
As a child, I saw my nana diligently use the last scrap of soap, my father flatten out the toothpaste tube perfectly for that last squirt of toothpaste, and mum add a bit of water to the shampoo bottle to lather up hair just once more. Nana was the king of savers. He wrote us postcards with the margins, and margins of the margins well used to write the last lines of the poems he regularly created for us. My kids on the other hand stand a poor chance of qualifying as PVA’s. They do not use the last scrap of crayon, do not practice maths on used office paper, or give the pen a violent jerk for that last bit of ink to flow in. They are quick to discard. Our parents knew the exact value of that last paisa, we grudgingly learnt it and our kids are oblivious to it, mostly because the world has come to rupaiya/dollar vasool – the paisa is lost. The last squirt of toothpaste is too much trouble because a new tube boasting of a new, tangier, long-lasting mint is already sitting on the shelf waiting to be opened.
And so to train them, I am toying with the idea of getting them to pay for their own expenses. That is exactly how I learnt the actual value of money, and the creativity that goes in increasing that value manifold by extracting the last paisa’s worth out of it. Give a child pocket money, get him to pick his own essentials and voilà! The gene gets activated! Next thing you know, he is trying to get that last drop of ink to write two sheets of homework. So this should work and the boys should be able to carry the tradition of making the rupee work more than its natural life permits.
It does seem to be an uphill task though. The garbage liners have replaced the bags that we carefully saved after they had been amply reused. The never-ending sliver of soap now is history thanks to the million shower gels that we get. For most of us the grocery and vegetable shopping is gradually shifting online. The fun of haggling is lost in the sites that scream of discounts and offers. The sheer satisfaction of having extracted more worth than due seems to be gradually fading.
The helper still manages to get extra chillies and a bunch of coriander for his kitchen. The look of triumph on his face, after having extracted last paisa’s worth from the crumpled fifty-rupee note he shelled out, is priceless. And gauging by the number of squabbles he has with the garbage collector, the press-wala, the milkman, and the gardener – he is saving up a storm. But it seems to be ending there. On most days, we calmly swipe the credit card to unblinkingly pay whatever obscene amount is thrown at us. The proper Indian shopping tradition demands that we plaster a smile and say, ‘discount?’ or throw our hands dramatically in the air before exclaiming, ‘that is expensive! Thoda kam karo, bhaiya!’ We should be conceding defeat at the hands of the figure looming in front of us, only after a proper fight, a stroke of pen to round the figure off, and sighing at the sky-high prices.
But every now and then, the phrase does spring up, making me smile. While walking out from a swank multiplex, a whisper sometimes rings out, ‘total paisa vasool movie!’ The younger one at times, during a buffet lunch in a swanky restaurant where faint notes of jazz are playing in the background, sighs, ‘paisa vasool!’ as he digs into the fifth bowl of dessert from the buffet table. And then there is the surprise discount on the air tickets or if one is even luckier, a discounted place to stay, that makes the trip worth it, and gets my mother-in-law to approvingly note, ‘paisa vasool trip!’ It is reassuring; the tradition is here to stay. The PVA’s are not going to be extinct. Some might wrinkle their nose at our miserliness, but we the shameless paisa-saving-scum live on.
As the house help lathers up the basin with an old forlorn sock, we give each other an understanding, proud glance. We just extracted more worth from the well-travelled sock that lost its pair tragically to the washing machine. We saved it from a premature death in the garbage bin. When everything is deathly quiet, it can be heard whispering, ‘Paisa vasool!’