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Saturday, September 11, 2010

Govinda and the Heartbreak of the Bentley

One of the singular joys of living in greater metro Adelaide is its multicultural mix. There are something like 143 discrete ethnic groups speaking something like 152 different languages and dialects. In the course of my week, I happen to meet a lot of people newly immigrated from the Indian subcontinent. This is because I no longer own or use a car of my very own.

My wife Susan and I share one, and as she has the longer commute, she generally drives. I like to walk, bike, and take the bus. Occasionally, when pressed by weather or time, I take a cab. The cab industry in Adelaide is staffed almost exclusively by young men from that region, all of them here to work and study in an environment that one must assume is preferable to where they came from. They are quiet, courteous almost to the point of courtliness, efficient and pleasant in their provision of rides for people fortunate enough to be able to grab a cab once in a while.

Often we get to talking. Since I've been teaching tertiary, I ask them about what they're studying and where, and what they hope to achieve. We generally need to get past some slight disbelief on their part that I'm actually interested.

Govinda was a very quiet cabby, but then it may have been one of those days when I didn't feel much like talking. At one point, he shifted his mobile phone from his pocket to the hands-free caddy on the dash. His mobile phone screen-saver/wallpaper thingy was this:

If you've googled your way to this page searching for this shiny logo, you are a jerk, and part of the problem.
It is of course the Bentley logo, sign of the world's priciest hand-built car, and symbol not just of wealth but of aristocracy itself. A Bentley is beyond the avaricious dreams of even the most comfortably-off.

I remember feeling something like a sharp, tender shock that this was his self-selected emblem, his talisman. Not his home, not family, friends, wife, kids, himself even--this brand was his aim. Govinda, remember, is an immigrant cab-driver in Adelaide. It's good to aim for high goals, of course, but the odds that Govinda might ever achieve a Bentley (or anything remotely like it) in this social milieu, are nothing less than astronomical.

Living the branded life is not a new phenomenon. Identifying ourselves with where we shop, what we consume, is one of the well-documented ways in what hegemonic corporate power colonises our minds and identities through the production of ideal stories (ideologies) about what is normal, natural, and right. For example, I am "brand loyal" to LL Bean, a US sportswear and outdoor gear retailer. It's based in Maine and its whole ethos screams white-bread, Normal Rockwell, "Our Town", conservative Northeastern republican elites. Doctors, lawyers, accountants who salmon fish or duck hunt, have cabins on lakes in Maine, who invest wisely.
This is a powerful Yankee mythology.
Most of the clothing and gear now, be it duck-shooting gumboots or fly rods, button-down Oxford cloth shirts or good, honest chinos, are made in "developing countries" whose labour laws and salary expectations are, shall we say, not quite what we would be willing to work for . Which is precisely what makes this "lifestyle" affordable to a mug like me, who was (and always will be, I guess) a working-class Catholic boy from Baltimore city. The stuff is as cheap as K-mart, but you can still feel that lifetime guarantee quality.) Having LL Bean gear allows me the cache of Harvard or Yale, without the trouble and expense of having gone there.

There's no such thing as a Malaysian-built Bentley, however. The walls to owning a Bentley are high precisely to keep the majority out. It's not affordable on purpose, and there will be no outsourcing of the manufacture of Bentleys without them losing their brand identity, which is the very thing that makes them desirable to Govinda.

Plus which, just in terms of resources, if everybody drove a Bentley, the world would have to be depleted.

Of course, I blame Top Gear for this. The world's most watched show is, in effect, car porn for the aspirational classes. Each and every episode features high-end examples of automotive engineering as far out of the reach of those watching it as Jenna Jameson is to the average middle-aged man who "boxes the Jesuit" to her tantalizingly splayed image. And like its fleshy equivalent, car porn can be addictive, especially when you tootle around each week in the company Commodore or Falcon.

Yes, it is ALL this guy's fault.
What makes Top Gear particularly teeth-grindingly painful, is that it hosted by a meat-faced bully, climate-change denier, and all-around laddy oik, one Jeremy Clarkson. Come to think of it, he's just vain enough to Google himself on a regular basis, so there's every chance there's a lawyer's letter in the post for that last crack. This is made more likely by the fact that the show has made him richer than a drug lord, so much so that he now owns something like half the Isle of Wight.

Whether its drugs or porn of the flesh or car varieties, there's always someone willing to shill to the unsuspecting, take their cut, and say they're just "giving people what they want".

And in every addiction brokered by the Clarksons of the world, the addict loses his sense of reality. Govinda might as well have a picture of the space shuttle to aim for. Certainly the guy's allowed to dream, but this carrot he hangs before him as he drives the car-less around this small city, tells of a colonial enslavement to values of Western elites, of a consciousness not just false, but intentionally deluded by a system that wants him to aspire to such luxury items, the better to keep him producing.

It's a bit like our insanely bi-focal attitude toward drugs. Drugs that keep you producing? Hell, you can have as many of them as you want--Zoloft, Xanax, Prozec, Efexor, you name it, we'll write you a prescription and even figure out a way to discount them. But the other drugs, the drugs that make you want to stay in bed until 12 and learn to play the sitar, HELL NO, boy. Not only are they illegal, but in some countries, you can do hard time for a nickel bag of grass. And once that happens, you're basically screwed for life.

From the viewpoint of utilitarian economics, it's good that Govinda drives every day with the pleasant impossible dream of the Bentley before him, even if all he ever drives is a Toyota. A productive man is good for society. But you can't help think (well I can't) that there is something more than a little sad in beavering away your whole life for something you won't get. And that somewhere inside him, Govinda must be aware that he's setting himself up for heartbreak, self-loathing, and a sense of failure in the dream of the Bentley.

Why grieve for what's not possible?

This is an idealised portrait. Govinda the starving ascetic would not have looked so flash.
But there's a deeper irony at play here, ironic enough to think the Gods may be mocking us. "Govinda" is the best friend of Prince Siddhartha Gautama (later The Buddha). Like Siddhartha, Govinda undertakes the quest for enlightenment by first practising asceticism, the renouncing of all material comfort, as a means of purification. This Govinda probably hasn't read the story (or maybe he has!). This Govinda is on a different path.

I, of course, the privileged, white, western, educated man, who up until recently had amassed not inconsiderable material wealth, am the one who is radically "down-sizing" in an attempt to focus on the genuine use and purpose of what's left of my life, by entering a kind of exclusive priesthood. I, of course, have read the story, and taught it many times.

A big house in the country and rare, expensive cars, and LL Bean clothing won't avail if you're spiritually empty and morally bankrupt
So of course, I see the Bentley as an emblem of everything that's sending the world spinning into chaos, having already reached a state of being materially sated, and felt sick. Govinda, the struggling immigrant, sees all the luxury around him, knows only his hunger, and wants to take a big bite.Certainly, he has a right to want what he wants, but I wish I hadn't just paid him (plus an extra large tip) and let him go. I wish I had said to him, "Mate I've been there, and if you're dead inside, no car in the world will make you feel better."

The world is moving toward a weird kind of justice. In the west, in the wake of the GFC, urban man is trying to "go green", down-size, make do with less, seek quality over quantity, live lightly on the planet, while the thronging billions in China and India and everywhere else, having endured such want for so long, want their big homes, and air-conditioning and Mercs now, thank you very much.

We're passing each other on the material ladder, and not speaking to each other with travellers' advice about where each other is headed.

I know, I know. Such advice is easy for me to say now. And white guilt and late repentance are the mark of the privileged. But I'm more interested in a story of a young Indian man, dazzled with the druggy lure of western luxury, driving a cab, to pay for study, to get a job. to buy a Bentley. The energy, psychic and physical he will waste in its vain pursuit, and the heartbreak when he realises he cannot, will not, will NEVER have it.

An old ad in the states, in promoting a college fund charity, said "A mind is a terrible thing to waste". I'm reminded of that now.

And not one mind: billions. I just find that unutterably sad.


  1. Why the hell is this post consistently the most visited? The stats page says this is true far and away, and yet---no comments, no clue as to what it is that brings more readers from around the world than any other. 6 thousand and counting...

    Are people googling the hell out of the word or images for "Bentley". If so, you sad, sad people. Is it that people are googling the hell out of a figure from Hindu mythology? If so, cool!

    Or is it *gasp* Clarkson?! If so, we're all doomed.

  2. No it was not the Bentley or Govinda, it was the first few words..."the joys of multicultural mix"....there are many white people are afraid of the multicultural thing and do not experience it as a joy, others are not afraid and want to know why you see it as a joy. Multiculturalism is a hot button issue......Alan