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The good side of 'depression'

The author relives the depression of the 1930s and tells us why he feels it did more good than bad

The good side of 'depression'

There are recessions and there are depressions and even the know-all economists cannot tell one from the other. But I have a simple definition: when your next-door neighbour loses his job, it is recession; when you lose your job, it is depression.

We had one of our longest depressions - depression with capital D - in the 30s, just before the last world war, though we in India didn't know it.

Very few people lost their jobs because there were not that many jobs to lose anyway.

There were few industries - textiles mills, most of them in Bombay and Ahmedabad - a handful of sugar factories and of course, jute mills in Calcutta. Our real big industry, if you can tell it that, was farming but it was in such a bad shape, it was dying on its feet.

My family didn't suffer much because my father and his brothers had government jobs, bringing home between them a hundred rupees a month. In our village, a hundred rupees was a small fortune.

Everything was dirt-cheap. You sold three or four thousand coconuts - not an easy thing to do - and you had enough money to feed the family for the whole year. Rice - very good quality rice from Burma - was five rupees a maund and you could buy ten pounds of Java sugar for a rupee.

Everything was imported - potatoes from Italy, wheat from Germany, groundnuts from Africa and I remember buying olive oil from Portugal and vinegar from France. Most manufactured goods were 'Made in England' including woollens and bulbs and fountain pens. And they were all very cheap, although they came from thousands of miles away.

Our needs were negligible. In Bombay, people lived in tenements, ten or twenty families on a floor, all of them in single rooms, sharing a bathroom and we between them and many without electricity. I used to sit in the verandah just outside my uncle's room and do my lessons, reading about Oliver Cromwell and Shakespeare and of course, Charles I, and how he had his head chopped just outside the Parliament.

Jobs were so few that when a friend of ours got one as an office assistant - actually a peon - we celebrated his success in an Irani restaurant and for the first time, I had ice cream which cost two annas or one-eighth of a rupee. My friend was in a generous mood - his salary was 25 rupees a month - and we had small pancakes and soft drinks heavy with ginger, everything for a song. The bill for four of us, including the ice cream, came to just over a rupee and we felt we had attended a banquet.

Then came the war and things took a turn, not for the worse as we feared, but surprisingly for the better. Suddenly, there was a great deal of cash around and thousands of jobs in new government offices. Girls who had rarely ventured out of doors found ready jobs in the new offices and for the first time, we saw them in tea shops and God forbid, in cinemas, unescorted by brother or father. It was the beginning of a social revolution that still continues.

The war changed the face of India and the Indians. People became bolder and for the first time, they had money to spend. The tenements that used to be empty for years suddenly started filling up and I lost my place in the verandah! But for the first time, I could afford an occasional omelette for my breakfast and a bowl of ice cream once in a while.

We were all children of the depression, although we didn't know it. The war killed the depression and it also brought the British empire - and the descendants of Cromwell and Charles I - to its knees. Two years after the war, we were a free country. Who says depression is bad for you?