“If you’re down too long, people root for you. But if you’re ever unfortunate enough to be up too long, you better get a helmet.” The amazing Oprah Winfrey read out this excerpt from Will Smith’s new memoir, Will, while interviewing him on her talk show earlier this month. “Amen to that! Don’t we know that?!” she exclaimed after reading the passage, offering the actor a high five.
Winfrey is one of the great modern icons of resilience and joy-centred living, someone who beat tremendous odds to create a life of meaning and abundance – both of which she has visibly been generous with. If she gets envied for being successful, and criticised as a result of that envy, who can go unscathed?
Some of such pettiness was on display when Falguni Nayar, founder of e-commerce giant Nykaa, made the company publicly-traded this month, becoming a billionaire in the process. As only the sixth Indian woman to achieve this status, and just the third who fulfils the criteria of being “self made” (prosperous without generational wealth), Nayar’s achievement is a rarity.
But how tongues wagged. There isn’t critique now as much as there is criticism. (Here’s valid critique: it’s been long-rumoured that Nykaa has an exploitative workplace environment). The criticism now is about privilege. Nayar founded Nykaa after having worked in the finance sector for decades; her spouse Sanjay Nayar is also successful in that field. USD 2 million of the couple’s savings went into establishing Nykaa in 2012. It’s a lot of money, sure, but they did earn it. The part no one wants to admit is this: if most of us were simply given USD 2 million, we wouldn’t be able to multiply it to a billion. (Maybe we wouldn’t want to? Different conversation.) That takes work ethic and business acumen that even the privileges of education, networks or high income cannot buy. Appreciating that Nayar had and utilised both, even while critiquing labour practices and capitalism, is just giving credit where it’s due.
Most people cannot do the things that the people they criticise do. They kind of know it, too (cue: extra vitriol). But much of the time, they don’t even make the attempt. Forget bank accounts: do they put their hearts on the line?
Fear keeps us small. Frustration with ourselves for not pursuing our desires masks itself as high standards, performative principles or just being too-cool-to-care. I had a friend who wanted to create, but wouldn’t. She happened to have known Arundhati Roy in school. Once, after relating some personal gossip about Roy, she sniffed and said, “I expected better from her.” Literarily speaking, that is. I wasn’t sure what “better” than writing a contemporary masterpiece was. Eventually, pouncing at a low moment, she tried to coax me to “grow up” and quit writing. I lost touch with her then. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear if she’s scrunching her nose up about me now and again too. But I’d rather hear that she’s finally creating the work she always longed to, instead of wasting her precious time side-eyeing others as they flounder or fly (but always, either way, try).
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on November 19th 2021. “The Venus Flytrap” appears in Chennai’s City Express supplement.