It has always been difficult for academicians and scholars to define the middle class because there isn't a very clear demarcation as to where the lower class ends and from where the middle class starts, or as to where the middle class ends and from where the upper class starts. This is further complicated by the sub division within these classes. Also a lot of spilling over takes place over this so called boundary between the classes. But to me, there's no doubt that there exists a typical 'middle class' which manifests itself in the day to day life.
When I went through Santosh Desai's 'Mother Pious Lady', I became utterly nostalgic at moments as I could closely relate to one or the other character, or the roles played by him/her, in the chapter/story. All I could do is to appreciate the insights of Santosh that has gone into the book. The way he elaborately speaks about the customs, cultures, festivals, entertainment, dressing, etc. of the middle class, one can understand that it's coming directly from a person who has spent his childhood in a middle class family.
Where to draw the line?
If you are wondering about how to classify people/families into lower, middle or upper class, I'll give you not one, but a whole lot of such characteristics which are displayed by a certain set of people in their day to day life. This includes their family income, occupation, education, lifestyle, way they groom their children, the way they celebrate their festivals, their entertainment sources, their housing style, and a whole lot of other things. But here we'll focus on identifying the typical characteristics of the middle class India. So let's begin with one of the many 'amazing' middle class concepts, i.e. the 'paisa vasool' concept.
When Santosh talks about the 'paisa vasool' concept, one realizes how typical it is to the middle class Indian families. Also one is forced to think that is it only the middle class that is engaged in 'paisa vasool'? Or is it like that even the lower and upper class believes in this concept, but this notion is attached only to the middle class? But on careful examination, one realizes that there is required a certain kind of grooming to intrinsically feel the worth and importance of getting the maximum out of anything. I so clearly remember my mother bargaining with vendors, and then moving to the next vendor in case of not getting a good deal. Wearing shirts two number larger than my size was so common, so that I could not complain of not having enough shirts for the next three years. Santosh also gives examples of the propensity of a certain class in society for recycling things - like the resoling of shoes and recollaring of shirts, using old tooth brushes for putting naadas in pyjamas, collecting and reselling raddi, the extensive and incessant bargaining done, sometimes just for a rupee, or may be for the free mirchi and dhania with grocery. Now the lower class doesn't have that kind of a buying capacity that the vendor would think of giving a good deal to them. The upper class simply doesn't need to bargain, nor do they care.
Any middle class Indian would love to recall his/her travelling experiences. I so clearly remember that in majority of cases, travelling used to happen for us only in the summer/winter breaks when we used to go to our native place to visit my grandmother. I would like to share here the most memorable of my childhood travelling memories. The day we had to leave for our native place, my father used to drop us to the railway station on his 'bajaj Priya' scooter. We used to start from home at 4:15 in the morning to catch the local train between Kota and Jaipur that used to leave at 5:30. In those times, almost 15years back, winters used to be much colder in December than what we have today. Now, in such cold, travelling on a scooter for 10 kilometres at 4:15 in the morning used to be travail. And it didn't end there; we always used to take the general compartment tickets because that was all what we could afford at that time. And then that train journey for another six hours used to be nothing but pain. Now this isn't just my story. I believe many of my friends would share the same story, a middle class kind of a story, because of the nearly same kind of lifestyles we shared in our childhood; studying in the same school, residing in the same colony and our parents at more or less the same economic stature in the society.
One important part of the above story is the Scooter that my father had. At that time, scooters used to be the most trendy conveyance mediums of all. My father could not even think of buying a new one. He had got this one from my grandfather, who himself had used it for somewhere around 15 years. But that wasn't a concern at all. Owning a scooter gave us a feeling of belonging in the society we lived in, because every other person there had a scooter, though a few exceptions had cycles, bikes and cars also. As Santosh puts it in his book - "Scooter is seen as a perfect metaphor for the middle class Indian family which is restrained, repressed, modest, and versatile. Bikes can be seen as an emerging class".
But travelling also used to be fun in one aspect. We used to carry a lot of food with us, partly due to the non-affordability of the expensive food that was served on train. It always used to be a lot similar to how Santosh Desai puts it- "Indians carry their whole cultures with them when they travel. From their luggage to the food they carry along, it gives a reflection of their culture". The postcard intimations to my father after we had reached, the good-bye bidding with genuflecting to deities while we used to come back from my grandmother's place after spending 10-15 joyful days, the 'teeka' that 'nani' used to put on our forehead and the nostalgia felt while travelling back home. All these things have changed dramatically with time, with the promotions my father got and with his increasing income of the family. But I still notice people with exactly the same lifestyle as we used to have 10-15 years back. When I see these people, I can just sense the stark difference between the middle class and the other classes in India.
Santosh talks about the 'love affair' between steel and the middle class in the pre-reformed India. In those times, we used to see our mother carrying back a steel utensil with her whenever she used to come back from a marriage, a large scale worship conducted by a friend, or any other auspicious function. Every item had a nicely carved name of the family and the date of the ceremony around the rim on the base. Even when we used to have a marriage in our family, we gave out something made in steel as a return gift. Thanks to this typical middle class custom that my mother never had to buy a complete set of steel plates, bowls or glasses for a very long time. We were quite content with the six steel glasses, all with different size and shape, that formed our glass set of six. The first new set of steel crockery was purchased only when my father's boss was to visit our place for dinner. Steel gave a feeling of transition and modernity as the middle class saw a move from brass and aluminium. In a way as Santosh describes the importance of steel in the middle class - "Steel gave glint of silver and strength of aluminium. Steel possession thus became an obsession for the middle class. As new signs of modernity for middle class, steel has moved out of kitchen to places of decoration."
The mode of communication has also changed in entirety from the old days. Letters were the only means of communication for the middle class Indians as phone connections were neither readily available nor were they affordable. I remember how we used to wait for the postcards and letters from our grandmothers and aunts, used to read them 'n' number of times and never used to throw them. Though it took 2 weeks for a letter to reach across, the feeling of receiving one used to compensate for it. With revolution in communications and advent of convenient means of communication, communication itself has lost the personal touch and intimacy it used to have. As Santosh puts it - "e-mails and sms does not reek of the sender as in the case of a handwritten letter".
We have seen fierce battles between brothers and other family members over property rights. This gives one a sense of surprise and shock because Indians are known for very close family ties. Not just this, we are talking about the times when the idea of individual ownership wasn't developed that well. We are talking about the times when space in homes was rarely marked personal, family members used to share rooms and even the mattresses, toilets were shared and food was prepared in one kitchen, children of one were groomed with affection by other family members, clothes and shoes, though seen as more personal, were also shared and even passed on from elders to the younger ones in the family. Neighbours graciously helped each other with sugar, tea and even with a piece or two of 'aloo/tamator'. 'Chitrahaar' was watched collectively not just with the family members, but also with those neighbours who didn't have TV sets at their homes. Now again, to a very great extent, this is true for the middle class Indians. The people belonging to the lower strata of the society never had enough to share, and those from the upper strata never had the need to share. Property fights were there in upper class families also, but in most cases, they used to have enough to satisfy all the parties. Desperation was usually seen in middle class as there was always a dearth of resources.
Santosh also talks about the changing roles and appearance on the middle class Indian mother. Today's mom is a friend, a fun playmate in whom one can confide. She's smart, both intellectually and in appearance, who one finds pleasant to introduce to others. She knows very well what to feed her child on so as to see to his/her proper development. She knows her rights and is holds a lot of power. She's so different from the mother of old times, who herself had faced discrimination from birth, and hence her own interaction with her daughter was different from that of with her son. She has been portrayed as a giant ball of affection, whose love knows no bounds when it comes to her son. She typically dressed up in saree and considered the household duty as her only and most important responsibility. She knew her husband in and out, and she could get any work done from him just by the means of her cooked food. Also it talks about the ever going battle with the daughter-in-law for her son. Her son is her prized possession and she knows how to keep him on her side. Now is would not at all be difficult for any middle class boy like me to relate to this. The transition Santosh is talking about is so true with respect to my mother and other women of her age who have been middle class wives all their life, but are now going through a transition phase. And this transition has been specifically fast in the past 6-7 years. I do notice a transition in the dressing style of my mother and my aunts, not in the sense that they have upgraded from saree to jeans, but in a way that the dressing has become a lot smarter with a tinge of sophistication in it. As my father tells me, my mom has known to cook great food from the time she got married at the age of 21. Now I cannot even expect my sisters or friends in the age group of 20-24 to be cooking anything more than maggi or may be some other snacks. Now that's not because today's middle class young girls are inept at cooking, but it's primarily because their priorities are different than what they used to be for my mother at that age.
Do you remember your father or mother walking back home and not taking a rickshaw to save some bucks? Or do you remember you mother making 'paneer ki sabzi' for dinner only for you and your siblings and your parents eating something that was left from the lunch? If you can remember something of that sort, then you surely have seen the heart of middle class India. Such kind of self denial is still prevalent in middle class families of India. As Santosh puts it, my parents are proud of the fact that their self denial of yesterday has lead to consumerism of today. And that's precisely the reason why they provide good education to their children; because when they get settled into a good job, and the son gets a starting salary more than his father's salary at retirement, it is seen as a sign of unprecedented well being.
Whether in case of trouser crease or parting of hair, lines have played a very important role in the life of middle class Indians. When I and my sister used to go to school, my mother used to adorn us in neatly ironed uniforms. Ironing was not fine till the shirts and trousers used to have steel hard creases. Similar was the case with hair; nicely oiled hair parted into two. In one section Santosh talks about this obsession of Indians with lines. According to him, middle class Indians draw a certain kind of sensation in joining to points to form a line and finding a path that can continue straight for ever without any obstacles. As he puts it - "Not ironing the clothes seems like surrendering to the chaos of nature and to its vagaries. 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." And the group he's referring to is not just the group of Indians, it's a group of middle class Indians to which these habits and customs are so pertinent.
At the time when there didn't use to be any TVs and stereo players in most middle class households, windows used to play a multi-purpose role. It wasn't just a source of sunlight and air ventilation, but it used to play a larger role of an information source. People used to spend time standing by the windows and talking to the neighbours and passersby. They would talk about anything and everything, right from politics to corruption, about their children's achievements to the exorbitant high school fees, about the upcoming elections to the marriage of a neighbour's son/daughter. The window used to be a source of entertainment and information from the outside world. With the advent of more sophisticated forms of entertainment like the TV, radio and tape recorders and the affordability increasing in the middle class, the windows have taken a sophisticated form. They have rather taken a more aesthetic form than a utilitarian one. As Santosh puts it - "from the stage of an open window, which was seen as a source of information and a way to view the outside world, it has changed to be a more sophisticated one which is now wire meshed and has curtains."
Now one very interesting discussion is to understand an average Indian middle class family with regards to their hospitality. Most middle class families are closefisted because of their limited resources of income. Generally it's the male of the family who's the chief wage earner (though this is changing now-a-days, but holds true even today in majority of the cases). Now when both the parents impose on themselves so much self-denial to ensure a good future for their children, how can they be expected to be all gentle and welcoming to guests who visit them? But that is the uniqueness we notice with these middle class people. They treat guests with utmost congeniality and respect. No matter if they have to do away with their material and physical space comforts, they always have space in their heart for anyone who visits them. In its true sense, they exemplify accommodating nature of Indians on a whole.
Ch12: the mother pious lady. Matrimonial ads.
Autos form an integral part of the middle class India, where a car is such a luxury which is affordable only to a few. Scooters are there, but it's generally the conveyance of 'papa or daddy' in the family. All other family members generally take refuge in public transport for their travel needs. That is why, public transport like intra city buses, local trains and 'tempo' forms the main conveyance mode of most middle class people. And that's when one sees the importance of an auto. Santosh calls auto an 'urban rat' because of their capability to efficiently manoeuvre on the typical Indian roads. And when do we hire an auto? It happens when we have to reach somewhere fast, when we want to reach comfortably, in luxury, without any hassles of getting wet in the rain or sweating in the scorching sun. Autos in India exemplify the saying - 'life is hard but there's always a way'. To quote from Mother Pious Lady - "The appeal of an auto comes from its ability to provide a real luxury; it offers us the power of individualized motorized transport. It gives us the power to rise above the collective status of the 'masses'".
Talking about the appliances, some are basic and some are not, some are necessity while others are luxury. I would say that appliances like radio, mixie and a sewing machine are the ones found in almost every middle class household, and hence would fall under the most basic appliances category; while appliances like a fridge, a black and white television, a tape recorder, a stereo and a scooter together would constitute a very well to do middle class family. You'll find a whole lot of such middle class families who would be saving small chunks from their monthly income and planning to buy either a stereo or a tape recorder or may be a new/bigger fridge. A lot of sanctity is attached to these appliances in these families. For e.g., a prestige pressure cooker still forms a part of gift/dowry in most middle class marriages. It doesn't matter if a car, a scooter and an AC are a part of the same collection of gifts/dowry, but the prestige pressure cooker has to be there. I don't know whether there's any logic in this act, because we are not talking about logic here, but of something (i.e. the prestige pressure cooker) that is a kind of metaphor for the Indian middle class family. Do you remember what it used to be like to purchase a television? It always used to be one of the most ultimate purchase made in the category of household appliances and used to evoke excitement not just among the family members, but also in the neighbours who would come to your home to watch their favourite programmes in case they weren't 'affluent' enough to own a TV set. That time television used to come in a wooden casing and its installation used to take quite a lot of time; not like today's 'no installation required' TVs. One could never think of operating a TV of fridge without a stabilizer because of the omnipresent power fluctuations in India. Refrigerator was pure sophistication; no wonder it forms the ultimate item of gift/dowry in our marriages. The transistor used to be a great possession as it revolutionized the idea of mobile entertainment. The whole idea of tale recorder and its capability to record voice awe-struck people. Even the imagination of owning a car was not possible for a middle class person, and it still isn't. They can only dream of it all their life and the lucky ones get one by the end of it. As Santosh puts it - "A car was for those who were from the stratosphere". To think of an air conditioner was a sin. Today the times have changed beyond ones' belief. Times have changed from that of portable radios to portable dvd players. Even the most basic models of cars have factory fitted AC in them. And also a lot has changed in terms of the buying capacity of the middle class on a whole.
One thing that has drastically changed from old days and is visible in the day to day life is the games we used to play in our childhood. When most children of the higher strata of society used to play basketball, tennis of table tennis, our favourite time-pass games used to be kho-kho and piththoo. Rummy and antakshri were the evergreen games played as a part of any family gathering, irrespective of the occasion. Most festivals were celebrated together by the neighbouring families. There was a kind of charm and enjoyment in eating the street food. All these activities not just brought us out of boredom, but also brought us closer as a family. Times have changes, and so have all these entertainment sources. Each strata of the society has moved a step upward. Now when its commonplace for any middle class child to play sports like TT, tennis or basketball, the upper class children have moved to more expensive and 'elite' entertainment sources like pool, billiards, golf and play stations. Thus, though we see a prominent change in the lifestyle of the middle class, the difference between them and the other class is still very visible. They still are a world within a world.
A lot remains to be said. The kind of entertainment we used to watch on television, from 'vividh bharti', aakashwani, jaimala, chitrahaar, Ramayana, Mahabharta, etc. to the new era serials like hum log, buniyaad and circus, has undergone a major transition. Now we have reality shows, game shows, live sports broadcast and what not. From the time when we were happy with our one and the only 'doordarshan', today more than 500 channels do not seem to satisfy us. The movies have changed drastically and the era has changed from black and white to 3D. Things are changing really fast, and the middle class is adapting fast to this frantically changing world.
How thick is this line?
From all that I have put forward in the above paragraphs, the number of ways in which the middle class India differentiates itself from the other classes that forms the Indian society, I get a feeling that I can go on incessantly spurting out more instances from my life which relates to this particular strata of the society we are talking about. As I had mentioned before, a lot of diffusion takes place through this line between the middle class and the other classes, but one thing that I can say for sure is that this line is visible, clearly visible in the everyday life. The world is moving fast, and so is the Indian economy. The recent economic growth and globalization has had the most severe implications on the middle class Indians. Also the westernization of our culture is having its brunt on the middle class. A lot has suddenly changed for them, specially their buying capacity and hence their lifestyle. But, from what I observe around me, the middle class is as visible today on the streets of India as it used to be at any point in time in the past 40 years. The middle class has been able to absorb a lot of change and still maintain its identity. Now the bigger point is that, this identity might undergo a transformation, but it would still remain. And in times to come, as the exodus from villages to cities continues in most parts of the country, the middle class would be on a boom with the share on a surge in the Indian socio-economic activities. The middle remains a world within a world.