Times of India, Mumbai Edition, Consumer Edge (Delving Deeper) on 26 November 2005
During the Savitri vrata, married Hindu women go around the Banyan tree. For centuries, the Banyan tree has been the symbol of permanence. It was there when you were born and it will be there even when you die, barely changing its form during your lifetime. It provides shade all year round, in spring, in summer, during the monsoons, in autumn and in winter. By going around the Banyan tree, the housewife is ritually expressing her intense desire for stability, permanence, security in her household. “May my life be as stable and predictable as this Vata-vriksha,” she says through her actions. Rituals and symbols are essentially expressions of intense desire. In a society where the husband is the only source of the family’s income, his life is the household’s lifeline. His survival and his health are essential if the household has to enjoy a stable source of income. How does his wife, his primary dependent, secure this? Besides taking care of him practically, she has to vent her fear and frustrations through ritual means. The Savitri vrata offers her this opportunity. The ritual is without doubt rooted in patriarchy. The husband, who also depends on his wife in emotional if not material terms, was never asked to pray for his wife’s health. But that’s not the point here. The point is to observe how rituals and symbols have played an important role in coping with fears and insecurities that make us human. The need for stability and permanence is universal. It is an implicit acknowledgement of life’s uncertainties. Nothing in the world is permanent. Not even the life of the person on whom you depend for your material and emotional well being. Life insurance companies feed on this human anxiety. Perhaps it is more appropriate to say that their business model is built on the human desire for certainty. They give assurance. They give certainty. They guarantee. They insure. Today, the market is flooded with companies offering you a wonderful and magical product called a “secure future”. In the frontline are the insurance companies. Insurance companies have to tread a fine line. They can, on the negative side, frighten you into buying an insurance policy. “What will happen if your husband died? What will happen if he met with an accident? How will you pay for your children’s education or marriage?” Or they can be positive about it, “You have been independent all your life. We will ensure you stay that way in the future.” Or they can make purchasing their policy an exercise in philanthropy, as ICICI is currently doing, “Give a shoulder to your loved ones.” They are always two ways of saying the same thing. A nice way and a nasty way. All this reminds me of Birbal’s story where he strongly advised the astrologer to tell Akbar, “You will longer than your relatives” rather than, “Your relatives will die before you.” It is fascinating to observe ancient symbols of security still being used by to communicate the message of security in 21st century advertising. One ad shows does it rather blatantly. It tells the story of a widow. She is dressed in white. No ornaments. No cosmetics. She is not smiling but she is not miserable either. Why? Her husband, whose huge photograph hangs on the wall with a garland round it, has ensured she lives a rich life. The house is rich. Her daughter, who is getting married, is laden with jewellery. Thanks to his timely investment in insurance policies she could, even in his absence, get her daughter educated and married. In case of ICICI prudential, the message is more subtle and more powerful. There is no widow. But widowhood is implied by showing the sindoor traced in the parting of a woman’s hair by her husband during a Hindu wedding. This red vermilion mark makes a woman a Sumangali or a Sowbhagyavati which means ‘one who is lucky and auspicious.’ This ad speaks to the Indian woman’s soul. She is lucky and auspicious so long as her husband is alive because through him she has material prosperity and emotional stability. The ad then informs us that the woman’s husband is a soldier. And he is going on a journey. Probably to fight a war? Will he come back alive? Will she always wear the sindoor? The woman is anxious. Insurance is being sold. Another image used is that of a lamp. A lamp in India has always been used to represent prosperity and long life. Lamps are therefore lit during Diwali, to welcome Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth and fortune. Blowing out of a lamp is equaled with death, bad luck and all things inauspicious. One of the reasons that many traditionalist oppose the modern practice of blowing out candles on a birthday cake. The symbol of LIC is a pair of hands ensuring the lamp does not blow out. This is assurance. This is insurance. Significantly, it implies that insurance is not about re-lighting a blown out lamp, it is about not letting the one currently lit being blown away. In other words, to buy insurance policies is more about securing the future (preventive) and not about surviving an unwarranted calamity (curative). Perhaps the greatest threat to life insurance companies are the great gurus of India who keep saying things like “Uncertainty is the truth, don’t fight it,” or “Have faith that the Lord will provide,” or “Don’t let your mind be a slave of impermanent material things.” If this fear of future material loss did not exist in our minds, we would not have savings banks or fixed deposits, let alone life insurance policies. Imagine what would happen if all of us internalized this message. I mean, think about it. Would a Buddha pay insurance premium?