Saturday, March 11, 2006

Let Them Eat Birkins

Some years ago your Blogger found himself visiting Moscow and St. Petersburg. Like any other visitor to these Russian cites, he soon found himself confronted by the stupendous riches and splendour of the Romanoff dynasty of Tsars. The displayed might and wealth of the Russian royals, as visible in the Kremlin and the Winter Palace (and its adjoining Hermitage), if simply taken at face value would easily demote the British royal house of Windsor – despite its acquired imperial accoutrements, such as the Kohinoor diamond - to the rank of some minor European nobility in comparison.

History clearly tells us, that while the Russian tsar luxuriated in mindboggling wealth, tens of millions of his peasant subjects – the serfs – lived in wretchedly impoverished conditions. Standing outside the fabulous Winter Palace, your Blogger could easily comprehend the grim reality that lay behind the 1917 Russian revolution. It dawned upon him that had he been a famished Russian serf, he would have been just as keen to put the Tsar to death.

Such an immense disparity in wealth, to a modern liberal mind, represents economic criminality at its wickedest.

Sad to say that 21st Century Pakistan, while not quite Tsarist Russia, is showing the same shameful signs of great economic disparity. While millions of Pakistanis remain below the absolute poverty line, some members of the wealthy elite have begun to flaunt their wealth with gratuitous vulgarity.

To bring to light this blameworthy behaviour, I’ll restrict myself to giving just one example.

There is a restaurant in Karachi apparently well-known for the high quality of its cuisine. Many people go there for the excellence of its food, but not all. There is a growing set of jaded Seth housewives who visit this eating establishment merely to display their handbags.

Sounds weird doesn’t it? But I kid you not.

These ladies , I am told, live a life engrossed in reading vacuous magazines (such as ‘Hello!’ and ‘Tattler’), watching mindless US Television shows (‘Sex in the City’ and ‘Desperate Housewives’), and are obsessed with the latest diet fads so they can look their glamorous best for the next high profile ball. Even if they lack dress sense, clothes have to be bought in Bond Street or Knightsbridge, shoes from Italian fashion houses and, yes - the ultimate – a handbag or two from Hermes.

The Parisian fashion house of Hermes is known, among other ridiculously expensive things, for its much hyped bag, the ‘Birkin’ – named after the 1960s French icon, the UK model, actor and singer Jane Birkin.
Fashion legend has it that in 1984 Jane Birkin was spotted by the chairman of Hermes struggling with an overfilled bag on a Concorde flight. Recognising her, he offered to improve upon the bag’s design. This led to the launch of ‘Birkin’ bag. The basic model of the bag costs USD 6,ooo and its fancier crocodile-skin versions, according to UK’s The Observer, fetch USD $80,000.

Now back to Karachi, Pakistan. As Ayesha Haq reported in the Herald magazine a few months ago, we have a bunch of housewives married to rich Sethia husbands, who try and one-up each other by exhibiting their Birkin bags during lunch. They are said to line their bags on the table for display, so even passing female diners can take note of these costly accessories.

Outside this restaurant one usually comes across poor beggar children trying to palm off small bouquet of flowers for Rs. 20. Less than half-mile from the restaurant lies Neelum Colony where some of the impoverished classes live. For these people the cheapest ‘Birkin’ bag (costing around Rs. 400,000) could feed and clothe a small family for ten years.

To my mind, each time some privileged and rather brainless woman flashes a ‘Birkin’ bag in Pakistan, it is tantamount to relegating her less fortunate countrymen to a class of sub-humanity – they and their basic requirements don’t apparently matter to her.

While on this topic of disparity of wealth, mention ought to be made of Musharraf and
his penchant for Armani suits. An average Armani suit is worth about USD 2,500 (Rs. 150,000). Watching our Head Chowkidar’s displays of sartorial splendour on television I imagine he owns, at the very minimum, ten of these suits. That would come to Rs. 1.5 million worth of these suits. I wonder how many kids could be educated for this sum of money?

At the time of the French Revolution the sans-culottes would have said, ‘Off with their heads’.

What should we say?

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