February 28, 2002

greed breeds at the auction

ever observed people watching a game of table tennis? their eyes focussed on the ball and the hand of the players as they tackle the opponent’s reflexes with their own, smashing the ping-pong ball against the table, neatly spinning it with a backhand or forehand, or dodging a losing point…as the indoor sport echoes with a distinctive tock-tock-tock of the flying white dot.

yesterday, praveen and i went to watch a similar game. no, we even participated in it for a while. only here, there were many many players, and the jumping white dot was replaced by a monetary figure that kept increasing in its value, feverishly. the points were decided by a black-suited umpire who handled the players as smoothly as the gel that held back his hair. when the number reached its highest value, he brought down a hammer, and yelled “SOLD”.

this served as an indication to the more men in black suits standing on either side of the umpire. armed with long notepads, and a pen that seemed to have a life of its own – scribbling every number spoken in those fractions of a second. one of them then rushed to the player who had raised his hand to the highest number. that hand would then sign a cheque, and willingly part with a bank balance that was probably earned over an entire lifetime of hard work.

yes, it was an auction.

nothing short of a game that is amazingly well synchronised, like a pattern…
the reward here is a house. the auctioneer (our gel-haired umpire) lures the players with information about the house, throws in a number and every person according to his or her capacity makes a bid for that number. the value of the number increases to match the profit margin that the men in black suits have to make, and sure enough, the bidders respond. when the bidders respond, the number again goes up. once again, the bidders respond. there comes a point when the number now borders on a fine line between a visibly increased profit margin, and a shadow of greed and impracticality, mischief dancing in the auctioneer’s eyes.

“come on, make that a round figure, surely you can spare that little extra”

the bidder, blind to everything but the house, raises his hand again reluctantly. another voice in the audience, a new one, challenges the number, with a higher amount. the first bidder cannot back out having come so far, and promises a bigger number. the duel continues; adrenalin racing, hands come up even faster. finally, the gavel strikes the board. the first bidder gets the house, now for a price too ridiculous to even be discussed anymore.

what was it about the auction that to us didn’t seem to fit? what was it about the houses here, that prompted old hands that had worked hard to rise to just any number thrown at them? is it all about “winning”?

seven such houses were already sold, each with the same intensity or more. there were five more houses to go. but now, thoroughly intrigued, and amused by the game, praveen and i decided we had had enough. raising our hands to the auctioneer, we waved goodbye, and walked out, grateful to have our sanity (read, bank balance) intact.

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