A FATHER to a nine-year-old child has a strange kind of dilemma. The child is asking him to purchase some toys that are not very expensive, but the problem is they don’t exist. They’re tokens in a video game against which you can make in-game purchases. This particular game, which involves large numbers of players, involves collecting little pet animals, many of which don’t exist in the natural world either. The child can either play the game and collect the tokens ‘organically’ over a long period of time, or pay money to buy the tokens and use them to buy exotic high-end ‘pets’ like unicorns with a golden horn, or penguins with neon bellies.
So far this father has resisted the pressure and said no in categorical terms, into eyes welling up with tears. But the cost is not that much and the toys may not be real in the sense we old-fashioned folks like to think — they are not tangible after all and have no educational value — but neither do rides at an amusement park. Why is a thing more real when you can touch, taste or feel it as opposed to something that is only experienced but never touched, felt or tasted?
This father’s dilemma is on my mind on Eid this year. Children are not what they used to be. We all know that. But neither is money. And neither are toys, it would seem. I’m not so old-fashioned that the idea of in-game purchases is alien to me, but I have so far resisted the urge to indulge in them myself. All games that I have played require them and don’t let you go beyond a certain level if you refuse to make them, but I have chosen to abandon the game rather than indulge.
It’s not as easy for children though, and I suspect this father’s dilemma is going to grow with time. So the approach of Eid is a good time to reflect, even if briefly, on the meaning of money and exchange for a child versus an adult.
The approach of Eid is a good time to reflect, even if briefly, on the meaning of money and exchange for a child versus an adult.
When I was little there was always a small group of older kids in our large and rambunctious gang of cousins who salivated at the prospect of getting Eidi with the approach of this blessed day. They wouldn’t do this when the grown-ups were around, only when it was all us kids hanging out together.
“What will you buy with your Eidi?” they would ask each other and discuss the responses with a relish that to me sounded like the wrong thing to be looking for on this blessed day. And every Eid the same ritual of disappointment would play itself out as the grown-ups would take the Eidi away from the kids shortly after it had been doled out.
It occurred to me that, since everybody had two or three kids, the net transfer of monetary benefit from one family to the other through this was effectively zero. One set of kids would get X amount of rupees from the parents of the other family, while the other family’s kids would get the same amount from ours. Once the funds were duly handed over to the parents, after the registration of protests by the kids, each family was left more or less in the same monetary position. What was this circulation of capital all for in that case, I would often wonder.
The grown-ups tried to tell us that Eid is not about money, but about the festivities, the food, the nice clothes, the spending of time together with the whole extended clan in attendance. In those days close to 30 or 40 people would be gathered under one roof for the occasion, with ages ranging from zero to 80 and everything in between. A sumptuous lunch, fine clothes, lots of outdoor play, plenty of conversation and laughter would mark the occasion.
I remember one occasion when the time came to give Eidi and as the crisp notes (usually five or 10 rupees, which was a lot of money in those days) were pulled out of handbags, one of the older cousins simply told the aunt handing him the Eidi “please give it to my mother directly, it’s going there anyway”.
Chuckles rippled through the room while his mother looked daggers at him. Later, as the cousins joked about the little stunt, being the goody two shoes of the group that I was, I had to pipe up “that was wrong, this is not what Eid is about”.
“So what is about then?” I was promptly asked. “The clothes, the food….” And even before I had finished the jokes began. “Ok chhotu” said one. “I’ll get you a light bulb for your birthday then, OK?” Everybody laughed and joined in. “Yes, I’ll get you a pen” and “I’ll get you keychain” and so forth. It wasn’t easy being a five-year-old good boy in a large gang of cousins aged eight to 15, many of whom had liberated themselves from the grown-ups’ idea of what good children should be like.
It was my first lesson in what we might call customary forms of exchange versus market exchanges. Years later, I learned about the distinction Karl Marx made between the exchange value of a commodity versus its use value. It was also my first realisation that the world of the grown-ups was theirs. We kids had our own.
So should children be allowed to keep their Eidi? And should they be allowed to make in-game purchases with the proceeds? Today, on Eid day I say let the children play. They’ve had a hard year. But let them also know scarcity, which is as much a part of the world of trade and exchange as an investment of time and money. Eid Mubarak to all my readers!
The writer is a business and economy journalist.
Published in Dawn, May 13th, 2021