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A few minutes later she calls home again, the tone a little toned down this time. "Ma, I forgot we have some project work, so I won't be coming." The father picks up the phone and says,"ticket prices, haan? Don't worry, book the tickets, it is not too much." Asmi knows he is lying, "no dad it's not the tickets, and we can always see each other on Skype."
A hundred miles away, another mother can be seen, trying to put a sweater on his son. "ma, it's too big for me. I don't like it, it's not even mine."
"Yes, it's not yours, it's your elder brother's and it will fit you in no time if you drink milk and eat green vegetables. And don't forget your brother wore it, and he is now a doctor. Don't you also want to be a doctor?"
Yes, I want to become a doctor, the child says and gleefully wears a sweater long enough to make his trousers useless.
What is common between these two children? And it is not the story of just these two. What is it that connects them? What is it that brings them to a single platform? For an outsider the financial constraints these are subject to can be one such factor. But there is more to it than just lack of finances. There is a certain sense of understanding in the kids. Also there is some aspirational value, the struggle for a better tomorrow, and the trust that it will come, can be seen in these two stories.
These two, form a major part of modern day India, the India where everyone has big dreams, limited resources and idiosyncrasies that only they can understand. Welcome to the great Indian middle class.
Who is the middle class? What makes it so different than any other socio-economic class in any part of the world? In the book titled "Mother Pious Lady", Santosh desai describes the idea, the day to day life, and the characteristics that make the middle class what they are.
One thing that sets the middle class apart is the close sense of family that we have. I may be biased to say this but the sense of closeness, the sense of being in a closely knit family comes naturally to middle class. No matter where we are, we always are a part of our family. Be it the close bonding with the mother, the respectful yet loving relationship with the father, we are totally different from our western counterparts. My sister, who has been living in the U.S. since the last 3 years, calls up mom daily and that too on a fixed time. I am sure that half the revenue of internet telephony comes from the Indian middle class. When santosh desai talks about the times of the postcard, he somewhere strikes a chord with the reader. The postcard always started in the same way, assuring the letter reader of the writer's well being and enquiring the same about him. The postcard was much more than a simple communication medium for the middle class, it was the hope that a loved one had reached successfully, it was the news that he had also got a job somewhere and the most awaited message that he was coming back for a short leave.
It has been a decade or even more that I saw a letter being written in my family, but this should not be seen as the end of the postcard but rather the beginning of a new era, the era of the e mail, and the progressing Indian middle class. The ones who were once glued to the postcard now have an account on at least two e mail providers and at least one social networking.
One more aspect that bonds the Indian middle class is the food i.e. the home cooked food. Indians are known across the world for their love for the home cooked hot meals. No train journey is complete without poori-sabzi made by the mother. People carry food even in trains like rajdhani express where hot food is served at regular intervals. But how would you tell that to the mother whose biggest tension is whether her family will get proper food during the journey. What if the food is not fresh? What if the food is not "our types"? These questions always remain in her mind. So it is always better to carry some food with you. Many an Indian has been hassled or rather hassled the airline counter in his bid to carry home cooked food with him. And while we are discussing food, how can we forget the pickle that forms such an important part of our palate (or should I say life?). Whether he is moving abroad or going to study in a different state, you will always find a randomly packed pickle bottle in an Indian's luggage. So much so, that even in weddings, where there is a lot of variety of food, pickle is always kept near to plate and spoon, hinting that it is almost compulsory part of everybody's diet. What makes the pickle so special. Santosh Desai sums it up when he says that the aroma it gives when the bottle opens, the jealousy it invokes in fellow Indians is unmatched to anything in this world. The generation that grew up on pickles simply refuses to trade it for something snazzier like chips. For them it has always been and will always be a part of our lives.
India is a democracy, world's largest democracy to be more precise. However, the concept of equality doesn't go down well with us. These days, everybody seems to have found love for a big, multisyllabic word-hierarchy. Everybody has a fixed place, fixed role. Those who have even slightly higher role, flaunt it at the drop of a hat. Santosh desai catches the essence when he says that hierarchy exists not only in organizations, but in education as well. On top of everything, there is science, followed by commerce and then the lowly humanities or arts. In the Indian middle class, if somebody takes up humanities, then the only reason is that the person failed to get science or even commerce. There is so much riding on the young shoulders that nobody lets a student follow his heart. You have to take science if you want to do well or want to be taken seriously in life. This doesn't leave you even after school. There are always two options. The top notch status is reserved for doctors, followed closely by engineers. The middle class's love for these two professionals is so strong that it is driving the whole coaching industry.
Santosh desai rightly points out that in any other country; politicians make it a point to be treated equal to the common junta. One can't even imagine anything even remotely close to this in India. Our politicians' cavalcade will always pass through the road before anybody else. They will have the best parking space reserved for them and will pass through the toll roads free of cost. To see their name/ designation on the list of persons exempted from paying is such a big prestige issue. Another one is to pass freely without frisking at the airports, and how our media loves to report the incident of a minister who was frisked at the US/UK airport. And this is just one thing media likes to get its hands on. If we are peculiar, so is our fourth estate. Be it radio, TV, or even the respected newspaper, it totally reflect the society. In the chapter 21 inch India in the book mother pious lady, desai rightly points out that the India on the television is the 21 inch version. It is the India we want to see, and does not show what we don't want to see. In other words, the 21 inch India sometimes doesn't even look like India. Very subtly he touches upon the agenda setting by media. He speaks of the permanent, typical issues that are discussed every now and then. The television India is something close to "India of my dreams". What we don't like, doesn't fit into the 21 inches, and thus provides us an escape route, a mirage of the world we live in.
In the chapter "the media of effects" he points out that whatever we do, we love to sensationalize events. And somewhere our language supports us. Hindi news channels always find the heart wrenching, surprising piece of news much before anything else. He points out that language, a big part of media can often moderate even the content. And that is what Indian middle class loves. We love breaking news. We are always ready for big, heavy words in our news. No news channels can be successful if it fails to evoke emotions from the listener. If you think that this emotion, this drama is restricted only to news and serials, you couldn't be more wrong. Hindi commentary is so juicy and emotive that if one were listening to the Hindi and English commentary of the same match, nobody would believe that it is the same match. I clearly remember my grandfather listening to commentary on his transistor, even though there was a color TV at home. He often used to say that Hindi commentary is lively; it makes him feel that he is watching the match from his own eyes, rather than the having the second hand experience of listening to English commentary. And cricket matches were much more fun when watched with visitors or even neighbors. The boasting of kambli's average to praising dravid's patience and dedication, cricket matches made the drawing room a whole new place. Sometimes I feel it had more to with the people arriving rather than the match. Santosh desai also talks about the guest factor in middle class. Earlier, people used to visit each other just for the sake of it. They would come on the morning, eat with us, stay for a day and leave in the evening or next morning there was no attempt form both sides to make small talk, or to show that the guest was welcome, as it was implicit. Now as the times are changing, and the concept of closeness gone, there is no more genuineness in the guest culture. We make small talk, use best cutlery in front of them and secretly hope that they leave as soon as possible. Also, now we take permission from people before visiting them, sometimes fixing an appointment too. The element of the surprise is gone and so has the fun part of such visits.
The middle class has also been liberalized. The sins of yesterday have become everyday norms. Some years back, a guy could never confess to his parents that he has a girlfriend he later intends to marry. The case was much worse in case of girls who faced the immediate fear of house lock and then an early marriage. Though there is some extremism still present with regards to this, the Indian middle class has finally woken up to the concept of "one's own life." Another thing that was looked down upon till only a few years back is liquor. Alcohol had absolutely no place in our life. It was the sinful drink that was drink by social outcasts. Everybody who used to drink was not considered a part of our society. As santosh desai writes that the easiest way to depict the villain in movies was to make him drink on screen. The main complaint against alcohol was that it removed you from reality, that it took you to a delusional world, where you forget all your duties and responsibilities. Anybody who used to drink was seen as going towards his and his family's destruction. Now, things have changed. The dining areas of some houses even showcase the bottles. In others, alcohol is seen as a way to socialize, a way to unwind and relax. Surely the middle class has grown up and if everybody is happy, so is the king of good times.
Education can easily be termed as the reason for middle class's rise. However education in Indian middle class is as typical as the people themselves. We often hear about the scarcity of seats in good colleges, or even students with high marks not getting admission in good colleges. Santosh desai writes about this phenomenon and straightaway makes a connect with the reader. It is true that the education facilities have not followed the same rise as economy, but even this picture is skewed. The main point here to be understood is that who decides which is a good college is and which isn't? A student applying for computer science hons. In a top notch college doesn't know a thing about what it actually is? In most cases, it is the parents who have long been out of touch with education decide what the child will take up. It is almost like he is the parents' second chance to pursue what they couldn't at their time. Nobody cares to ask the child what he wants to study. This results in an imagined scarcity of good education. If you think that only higher education produces such hassles, you couldn't be more wrong. The paranoia has become so much that some even book their child's admission three four years in advance. So much for the poor kid to cope up with!
These days, even the toddlers are supposed to prove themselves in academics. It is not uncommon to see 6-7 year olds going for tuitions. If class 5 standard student gets bad marks in English, it is believed that he won't be able to make it big in corporate world. These days, parents are more worried about the child's education than the child himself. It is not uncommon to see long queues of parents waiting anxiously outside a board examination hall. Many a times, when the results are displayed, more number of parents than students are seen, rushing and jostling their way to the results notice board.
One peculiar thing about the Indian middle class that santosh desai points out is their love for English. Though we enjoy Hindi commentary and news channels than their English counterpoints, we do have a certain inclination for including the foreign language into our daily lives. And it's not just the craze for English medium schools and English speaking children we want to make English a part of our identities. When a balwinder goes to stay in the U.S, he becomes a "bally", it can be expected that the name was anglicized so that the natives could pronounce it. But the ones who make the case stranger are thousands of sandy, shanky, vishy who have anglicized their names for no real purpose. Is it the feeling of acceptance or is it the feeling of belonging to "elite" class? Proficiency in English is one big thing in the society and the fact there are only a handful who can claim to be proficient in the language, makes it even more "classy". One possible reason could be that India is a nation of many languages, and since there is no one common language, English just serves the purpose. But in case both the people in conversation know Hindi or any other Indian language, why is the language for conversation English. In schools, if we had to take permission for something, chances were better of we spoke to the authority in English. Also in places like hospitals, parking lots, stadiums, concerts or even with the traffic police, we often speak in English just to show that we belong to the elite class and have the right to entry. Speaking in English meant that I have some clout and am definitely several notches above you.
When we speak of adopting English to be seen as the elite, the desire of making it big in the global world can't be far behind. We have such a fixation for being accepted globally that sometimes it hinders every trace of common sense. As santosh desai points out that when orient express was refused to an Indian business conglomerate, the whole company took it as a personal result. The middle class understood this as a well planned conspiracy against Brand India. This brings up the debate to brand India? Does it really exist or is it just the imagination of a self reassuring mind? If there is really something like a brand India, then why does it seek approval from the west? The whole country's obsession with Oscars is well known. If we really make good movies for our people, why aren't we bothered about winning a film fare but an Oscar? A person's career is deemed successful if he has worked or visited the states. When Bobby jindal entered the political circles of the U.S, the whole country went into frenzy.
The middle class is surely evolving, and there are ample signs of the facts. The signs are not in the form of GDP growth or per capita income, it is the signs and symbols in our day to day life that support it. The aspirations are at an all time high, the dreams are bigger than ever before and for once we don't blame the world for our condition. The middle class has realized that it is they who will change the world. Now they don't crib about the past or cry about being victimized. They try to make tomorrow better than yesterday. In the chapter life as an arena, desai points out that the generation now does not see themselves as the ones things were done to, but the ones who will make things happen. The feel they have the ability to change their life the way they want. They steer it in the direction they want to. The middle class now doesn't do what it always has been doing, but what it wants to do now. The middle class now doesn't want just to live but to live to the fullest, the way they want to. If I were to rename the Indian middle class, Indian aspirational class would certainly make the list.