The Jakarta Post
Some people have to always feel powerful because they think if they have power (and its common denominators such as wealth, position and connection to the powerful). (Shutterstock/File)
“Careful of rich people,” my late grandmother used to warn me. “Once they get tired of collecting stuff, they’d start collecting people.”
She said this to me when our neighbors — “the posh party animals” — started inviting me to their parties a long, long time ago.
Of course my late grandma’s wisdom contains an inaccurate stereotype. Not all of them are like that, and I also tend to be careful about labeling people easily.
Stereotypes, however, often contain a kernel of truth. At the domestic gate of Bali’s Ngurah Rai International Airport, while waiting for my flight back to Jakarta, it was revealed to me — as I randomly picked a book to read and ended up going for Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night — that my late grandmother’s warning was actually based on something real.
I picked up the novel feeling a bit skeptical. Will it match the marvelous drama of The Great Gatsby? Forty-six pages into the novel, however, I relate instantly to the characters and, more than that, I sense a strong urgency to write this essay.
The Divers are a rich couple who established the French Riviera, a place where elite members of society, the rich, famous and powerful, gather. Their glamorous life attracts the fancy of a young, naive girl named Rosemary.
Parallels can be drawn between Rosemary and me. We are both impressed by our glamorous acquaintances and how they are always able to invite the crème de la crème to their parties, discussing highly intelligent issues such as current affairs and literary works. They have high taste and in particular, a penchant for the high, avant-garde arts. I remember how my neighbors would always play classical music in their house as their guests talked endlessly about the environment and radicalism — all the while being sheltered in their gated communities and air-conditioned houses. How ironic.
It is fascinating how Rosemary was highly impressed by the charming Divers upon meeting them for the first time. Until things did not become so charming anymore. I became aware that my neighbors, no different from the Divers, like to “collect people” — not for the sake of forming truly deep connections but only to demonstrate the power that comes with their wealth, and to seek approval by making others beg for theirs.
Dick Diver seems to have this sadistic pleasure in embarrassing other people at his parties. He shouts at his wife, as she is swimming on the beach, through a megaphone: “I want to give a really bad party. I mean it. I want to give a party where there is a brawl and seductions and people going home with their feelings hurt and women passed out in the cabinet de toilette. You wait and see.”
My neighbors used to do this. They liked to invite certain losers to their parties to further affirm their position on the social food chain.
Still, I was so astonished by their charming life that I did not stop coming to their house, despite all the unpleasant rat-racing and social-climbing going on there, until one day I did something so disgusting, this couple threw me out of their house. I was too greedy with their delicious food, adding too much sambal dabu-dabu (Manadonese chili paste mixed with onions and lime) I got sick with a stomach-ache. I ran to their toilet and stayed there for 15 minutes.
One day, they complained to my family members about my improprieties.
“Rich people don’t like strangers defecating down their toilets!” a friend of mine told me when I disclosed this embarrassing incident to him years later. Simply put, I stopped accepting their invitations afterward.
Like me, Rosemary starts to get disillusioned by the Divers once she recognizes the superficiality of their social functions, how they would simply hop from one person to another quickly. Rest assured there will not be any connections there. In addition to that, how can you form connections with people who always have to portray themselves as perfect individuals, while making sure that not a single hint of their personal vulnerabilities make themselves known in the public eye?
Some people have to always feel powerful because they think if they have power (and its common denominators such as wealth, position and connection to the powerful) they will be protected from humiliation; the humiliation of having to earn money by working hard and getting shouted at in the office, the humiliation of not having money to pay for their bills, the humiliation of being abandoned for being society’s nobody.
But eventually, as we will see and as the novel goes on, everybody — socially powerful or less so, rich or modest — gets humiliated by life’s challenges. Life is life is life. Its ups and downs are available to us all. As I am writing this, I remember Sera Dubash, one of the main protagonists in Thrity Umrigar’s 2006 novel The Space Between Us.
Wealthy and privileged, Dubash wants to show the world that her life is perfect. She does not have to suffer the so-called humiliations that most average individuals have to go through in life: commuting on crowded trains, slaving day in and day out in our offices. And as if these are not enough, we always have to face the office guard dogs who bark at us all day long.
Dubash’s provides for the entire family. Dubash’s life might seem enviable, but at a certain turn of the novel, she misses all the humiliations she endured when she was still a career woman because she recalled back then, despite the everyday hardships, her mind was stimulated by her activities and she actually had freedom to do anything she wanted, without being shackled by an abusive husband who beats her and isolates her.
Power and associations with powerful people can be seductive. But as is the case with all mirages we see in the desert, it is merely an illusion. Most of my neighbors’ friends have abandoned them for one reason or other. Dubash is suffering in silence as a consequence for her attraction to her powerful husband. In the end, power — in its lowest common denominator — cannot protect people from humiliation.
Umrigar in his 2018 novel, The Secrets Between Us (her sequel to Space), offers an alternative to this superficial conception of power. Personal dignity. India’s industrial society shows no mercy to the humble servant Bhima and vegetable seller Parvati. They get humiliated constantly. But through love, eventually they both find refuge. Maya, Bhima’s granddaughter, the first in her family to attend university, becomes the story’s beacon of hope.
I love how in the end, Maya, unlike the naive Rosemary Hoyt and myself, is able to find a social crowd who truly cares for her. The lesbian couple in Secrets, Sunita and Chitra, are privileged people all right, but unlike the Divers or my unfortunate neighbors, their suffering of being discriminated against for their sexual orientation has made them compassionate. They opt for a different kind of power: the power to make the young and brilliant Maya’s life better by introducing her to important people who could advance her career and thereby help her entire family attain social mobility.
Similar to Sunita and Chitra, I also try to make my life meaningful that way. I for one have always attempted to help certain causes, whether the arts or social activism, by gaining public attention through my work as a journalist and by empowering others to reach their highest potentials
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