x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

All that glitters is gold, and in India, it helps to glitter a lot

Indians are not alone in their obsession with gold. But they do take it to new heights.

Gold continues to glow in the Indian psyche, even during lean times when the appetite for it dwindles in other communities. Razan Alzayani / The National
Gold continues to glow in the Indian psyche, even during lean times when the appetite for it dwindles in other communities. Razan Alzayani / The National

It was a golden moment for a man who became a global media sensation. Datta Phuge, 32, of Pune, India, went public in February about why he had spent $250,000 (Dh918,250) on a shirt made of gold, and why he adorned himself with heaps of gold chains and oversized gold bracelets and rings.

Simply put: he wanted to attract female attention.

Mr Phuge's conduct might be incomprehensible for a majority of people from other communities, but this is a kind of dream that many secretly nurture in India, where, even more than elsewhere, the yellow metal is a status symbol.

Mr Phuge made that clear as he spoke his mind to the BBC: "When I was at college, people would say you were from a rich family if you had gold. So from the age of 20, I started wearing gold."

His demeanour may be exceptional, but his mental make-up isn't. The yellow metal has been embedded in India's culture and tradition for centuries. Examples of fondness for it are found everywhere, from ancient temples to Bollywood glitz.

I was not fully aware of the enormous significance gold carries in my community until I went home on my first holiday since relocating to the UAE, more than a decade ago. My wife quickly became a subject of scrutiny from some of her friends and acquaintances.

As soon as she met them, they looked for gold ornaments she might be wearing. (The Gulf region, and Dubai in particular, is associated with gold in the Indian imagination).

Not finding enough such adornments on her, they started guessing about her husband's income, and made this evident in the queries that followed.

Surprising? Not really. There is nothing unusual about this when viewed in the context of Indian culture, where flaunting wealth is a common practice, especially at festivals and on other special occasions such as weddings.

A bedecked person - man or woman - can cast a hypnotic spell on others who eagerly offer preferential treatment, be it at an airport or a mall, thanks to a society where outward appearance is crucial and the wealthy are held in high esteem.

This explains why the yellow metal continues to glow in the Indian psyche, even during lean times when the appetite for it dwindles in other communities. It also explains the reason for the recent gold rush as prices fell from June 2011 peak of $1,888 per troy ounce to hit bottom at $1,380 last month. Indians poured into jewellery stores across the Emirates brushing aside warnings from financial experts. Gold's persistent shine keeps the stream flowing.

Indians are not alone in our obsession with gold. But we do take it to new heights.

When we think of a daughter's marriage we think not first of eternal happiness, but of gold - as in, how much might we need for her dowry to ensure her conjugal happiness.

When we prepare to welcome a newborn into the family, we buy heaps of gold - bangles and chains and anklets - for style as well as luck and health.

When a wealthy Indian commits a crime or an immoral act, he or she will often offer gold at a temple in a bid to absolve their sins.

Even family feuds can be settled with a healthy investment in the metal, seen as an auspicious and conciliatory gesture.

Dr Reena Thomas, a clinical psychologist at Aster Medical Centre in Dubai, says this focus on gold is culture-specific. But she adds this passion often stems from individuals' low self-esteem: "The general tendency is to possess something that others easily can't. That reflects a person's state of mind."

Dr Thomas adds, however, that the instinct to flaunt is universal. "Why, for example, do people in some communities love to drive flashy expensive cars when they have cheaper and better options? The cause is the same. The manifestation is different," she explains.

But gold is gold. It's not surprising that the Indian community includes someone like Mr Phuge, seeking to use the metal as a magnet to attract women, or simply show off wealth.

Gold may not buy you love, happiness or peace of mind, but that might not matter much to a man with a heavy shirt. But let me just say, there's no way I'm buying one to impress my wife.