Assessing The Indian Middle Class Cultural Studies Essay

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Just like any other country, India too can be divided into an upper class, middle class and lower class based on the financial standards. Out of these the topmost class is the upper class which comprises of the riches, it remains untouched no matter what the economy is going through, these rich men and women remain rich unless a huge amount of financial swindling is involved which renders them bankrupt. The lowermost class is the lower class which comprises of the poor and less fortunate population. Since, no matter what the changes in economy are, this class remains the same they have been left to their own fate of being the same forever. Last of them all is the Middle class, or the economy drivers. They are not rich, but you can't call them poor either. They have the amenities but not the frivolities. They are always too busy maintaining standards, improving standard of living, and also maintaining as far as possible the basic standard of character, for this they spend in hordes n the prices shoot sky high. These people want to leave the middle class behind. These are the people who want to live well but cannot afford to. It is this insignificant section of the society which should have been the backbone of the society. This is the service class which is laden with the burden of payments of honest taxes, which the upper class somehow manages to get around and the lower class not eligible to pay. They earn through honesty, but honest earning is less. Their aspirations to be the white collared men becomes so expensive that for a majority of the people in this class living the blue collared life seems to be the end of the eternity.

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On looking at another perspective this is the only class which is at least trying to carry forward our fast deteriorating Indian cultural value system, in the havoc that the tempest of westernization is creating. It is this class that still maintains some of the morals and values of the Indian society, and still seem to be religious minded. They do not celebrate their festivals with ostentatious show of wealth they don't have but with love and warmth and by following what our ancestors and the holy books told them. It is the upper middle class that has no such interest in religion, for them the extent of religiousness lasts till the construction of temples does and till the time the masses get to know who built the temple. So it is the middle class which maintains some order of decency and values in this chaos and two-faced world. But if no importance is given to this section any time sooner it will get more and more fragmented and one day crumble. Festivals were earlier symbolic of traditions and celebration with near and dear ones. But this new middle class does not care much about celebrating as much as it does about pomp and show. This new middle class wants to display their wealth too, but unlike the upper class their wealth is not inherited, but it is built on savings and loans. The rituals of festivals are fast diminishing and more of the focus is on the gifts to be given and the clothes to be worn so as to show how well off they are in terms of monetary success.

The Indian consumers have been set up on a journey of fundamental change by India's rapid growth. The energy through which millions of impoverished people have been uplifted is helping create a colossal middle class centred in the cities. This Indian middle class has an innate inclination towards extinction. The middle class of yesterday is already on the verge of extinction as slowly the distinctive lines between the middle class and upper class are diminishing, and will in the coming years be so fine that one would hardly be able to tell the difference. Thanks to globalization, the Indian middle class is becoming more aware and trying to ape the western modern world. This has led to a mixture of results some good, some bad and some mildly amusing.

In the first chapter of Santosh Desai's Mother Pious Lady, he talks about the fact that the middle class people are always looking for maximum value of money because spending is controlled very tightly. It is only during the festivals that the stringent control over money is relaxed a little and the people get to experience some monetary freedom. The middle class believes in consumption of every item purchased to its end. They love things obtained for free and prize them like valued items. Even plastic bags and free cutlery obtained during air or rail travel are covertly taken by these people and hidden away for some unexpected future use. You can always find spare plastic bags under the paper of the wardrobe or the mattresses. Throwing away things for them is still a crime as it was in the older middle class' times. Pick any middle class house and you can actually attribute it to being a collection of old artefacts from things like broken gramophone records to round dial telephones and postcards, they save it all, as memories or something deeper no one knows, the only thing known is that they are too precious for them to be thrown off in the garbage dump they create right next to their houses. Same is the case when they buy something new. The packaging complete with the thermocol and plastic wrapping and pins are safely stored away in some hidden corner of the house or if the boxes are big enough they are often covered with table cloth and serve the purpose of storage boxes and table tops. They even refuse to remove the plastic wrapping from the seat of their shining new hatchback car, their symbol of pride, probably this is done so that the feeling of new lasts a bit longer.

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Earlier every utensil purchased was a symbol of pride. The utensils for the family consumption were brass, but the esteemed guests were honoured with aluminium utensils. And not to forget the engravings on the utensils which reminded who brought them. It was a tradition to gift aluminium utensils to the bride when she went off to live her new life; these bore the names of the newlywed husband and wife. The material success of the family was measured in terms of the utensils they had. They seemed to have an immense faith in the stainless steel as no matter what it remained the same unlike the watery milk or the expensive shrunk clothes. But with the changing times stainless steel has somewhat lost its symbolic material value, now people prefer more sophisticated kitchenware like melamine dishes and crystal and glass plates.

Growing up in scarce times meant that we stretched everything, and clothes were by no means an exception. Turning collars so that they looked new, wearing socks with holes and with rubber bands to hold them up till one day they crumbled and disappeared are two of the many devices we used to make a little resource go a long way. But the need for ultramarine, points to another kind of need altogether. The whiteness of clothes was a sign - of a belief in things- simple and pure, of an inner resolve to stand apart from the corrupting power of time. The desire for white was a sign of our desire to turn back the inevitable decomposition that nature brings to all things it touches. Ultramarine never really made clothes white, but it showed that one cared enough to continue to try. Probably this is the reason why so many detergents use the colouring enhancement ability as a tool to sell themselves. Growing up in the discreet constraints of middle class India, one learnt to make do without a lot of things. One or two 'good' shirts for special occasions, loads of handsome-downs from assorted cousins, clothes that were always engineered for some unforeseen time in the future when one will grow to be 6'4", learning not to ask for second helpings (if there is enough, you will be served, otherwise make do) and finding ways to enjoy leftovers from yesterday's meal. In the midst of all this 'making do', it is curious that the one thing that we did not compromise on was in wearing well-ironed clothes. In a similar sense, when we crease our shirts and comb our hair, we impose on ourselves a discipline; we reaffirm that we belong to a group and that we abide by its rules. By doing so, we hope that the system will in turn abide by us. Probably this is the reason why so many advertisements take up this theme, like the ironing free shirts which do not crease, ujala and vanish which keep the clothes white and looking like new.

For a society obsessed with fair skin (Just look at the number of skin lightening products in India starting from Fair & Lovely by Unilever), it is not surprising to see that showing up in ads.  "Fair complexion, beautiful and homely, non Mangalik, 5'3", father high govt official, mother pious lady, brother MBA with handsome salary seeks respectable marriage" is a complex code that can be understood only by a middle class Indian. The mention of the mother being a pious lady inspires some food for thought. Does this imply that the middle class is really superstitious and staunch in their religious beliefs, or were they trying to emphasise that they would become good daughter-in-laws because they lived their life surrounded by the spiritual and holy aura of their mother's prayers. Mothers wanted NRI son-in-laws and shy, beautiful, and talented daughter-in-laws. Their preferences in today's middle class world have somewhat changed, now they either want an NRI or soon to become an NRI for their daughters, government job holding men have lost their charm unless they are at some really high position. They want to gradually shift to the richer side of the society, so called as, the upper class. They believe that by marrying their children in a well off family they are securing their financial future, but, emotional and psychological future not really. Even though the preferences are somewhat different, the customs pertaining to the marriage still remain the same. From the parading of the girl in front of possible suitors to her displaying her musical and culinary skills, these all mannerisms will probably be carried forward for a few more decades before they finally diminish to nothingness and become things of the past, things of the yester middle class. Because then middle class would not exist it would only be lower and upper class, because middle class is trying hard to diminish the lines of difference between them and the middle class.

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Talking about the mother, that she is today, she is the effervescent, dynamic cheerleader who is constantly urging her children to do better by motivating them and feeding them with healthy food. She makes sure that the children look prim and proper all the time, not forgetting how she looks at the same time. Unlike the sari clad mother of yesterday with rosary beads in the hand she is the modern westernized mother with gadgets in her hands helping her move efficiently, she is no longer at home all time, but is working at par with her man and struggling to take their family to the boundary which separates them from the upper class so that one day they can break through. She is the mother you can take to school, and confide in, she is a friend, an aggressively alert monitor, a fun playmate and an ambitious cheerleader, all rolled in to one. And while this is a fantasized depiction of mothers, it does point to what is expected of mothers today. Earlier, the woman may be differentiated against from birth, treated as an onerous responsibility in her youth, be treated unfairly and badly by ther husband, actively harassed by her in-laws, but somehow when it came to her role as a mother, particularly of a male child, her power and influence knew no bounds. To the daughter, the mother was a more ambivalent figure, sending conflicting messages of love and indifference. The mother knew that she could never own her daughter, that she was a responsibility who would never be able to give anything back in return. The daughter received loving with the knowledge that comes early to women in India. The mother's role was to turn her little girl into a knowing woman as soon as possible and to keep her son a little boy for the rest of his life. This is now changing to the girl child also being treated equally as now they have proven their worth and continue to support their parents even after marriage. Gone past are the days when the main objective of the parents was to wed their daughters, now they want them to succeed in life and make their life for themselves.

Earlier, drinking was either something the cheap addict on the street did or what that upper-class called "social drinking". Alcohol was not the drink of choice for any kind of social gathering for the typical Indian class. Even bollywood showed liquor belonging to the realms of failed lovers and successful criminals. Both ways, alcohol showed the negative results of moving away from standard social norms. Today, this has changed into somewhat of a complete turnabout - Drinking is seen as a social activity, alcohol being perceived as a sign of social integration. Alcohol allows a free flow of thought and action and allows us to relax and be comfortable in any setting. Even with such a drastic change in norms, we still fear the power of alcohol and try to keep a check on it. 'The Moral of Drinking', is the perfect illustration of this change, as it describes how we have gone from the wide-eyed horror of alcohol to asking guests if they would like a drink.

The author writes about the meaning of thali in one of the write-ups, by drawing analogies between thali and the pluralism which exists in our society, and how it contrasts with the western society. How thali is able to accommodate all in one go. The radiation of eating from a single plate symbolised unity and love in the family. No matter how many guests in the family the huge thali served all. Though seemingly unorganized it was their way to gain pleasure out of something as ordinary as eating food. According to him thali tells the story about the Indian ability to create harmony out of discordance and find pleasure in chaos. When one talks about the home cooked meals, earlier the middle class had the norm of eating the food in the kitchen itself. The male members would sit on the floor of the kitchen while the women of the family would serve them freshly cooked hot food and discussions would be carried out on the daily news. But with time this also changed, now even middle class people sit on dining tables to eat and, watching TV while having dinner is becoming must. The over-the-table discussions are becoming fewer and fewer, instead of enjoying food by the hand, they now like the riches, eat with cutlery. The old middle class culture of enjoying the food is now fast dissolving into a farce. Now middle class just wants to be like the riches and want to follow their eating styles too.

The street food played a major role in their lives, no matter how unhealthy or filthy it was, they would still have it after being reassured that the plate was cleaned by the seller by a piece of dish rag and water, what they choose to ignore is that both these items were equally dirty. And the best thing about street food was that it was the best thing one could get to eat. Now a days the street food still looks appealing but very few mothers would let their child go anywhere near the un-hygienically prepared food. Now the street food has entered the big markets and is sold by the hands of gloved people who serve the food without touching it. But then it does not taste the same does it. Soon even the street food will become the thing of the past just like the Indian middle class which is already too diluted. Street food would be a memory to be remembered by the present generation and to be forgotten by the next.

India understands time.  It understands the unstable, dynamic nature of all things, including solutions.  It understands that there is no final way out to problems; at best there is a temporary balance that must eventually get destabilized and give way to a new equilibrium. The desire for lasting solutions is nothing but a desire to stop time and keep it forever the same way. Just the same way is the Indian middle class that gave way to today's middle class, which is soon breaking into varied fragments, many of which will join the upper middle class. And give rise to yet newer middle class, and this would go on and on till there is nothing left in the middle but a silent gaping hole being covered away with time. And then there would come a time where India would be less divided in terms of classes, but much more divided in terms of the difference between these two classes; the upper class and the middle class. And would then take many more years or time infinite to recover the poor to the upper class section and establishing an India with equals and no classes.