With the passage of time and from within the many pleats of past, a new India has perceptibly emerged and to decipher its context and culture, a fresh new analysis and outlook is required which is free from the definitions and designations of the historical portrayals. Santosh Desai with his eloquent social commentary affectionately and amusingly explains the changing phenomena called 'the Indian middle class'. He throws light on our middle class behaviours and makes us laugh, comprehend and jolt us with the revelations but all of it in an exceedingly delightful manner.
Desai dissects the disorder and perplexity of everyday India taking past and present as its variables and interests us to see things plainly helping us to make sense of India in a lucid expression of the observations, as he writes this book as an insider. Desai explains the working dynamics of the Indian middle class as an almost homogeneous cluster because the compelling factors, what works and doesn't, what strikes a chord, mindsets, behaviour, etc all follow a distinctively identical pattern. He also observes that although the attitudes and outlooks are altering with time but the past has never quite left our lives. Desai does so in short masterful essays, written with great humour and sensitivity which only substantiate the fact that there is indeed something called the 'Indian middle class' residing and defining to a very large extend what 'Indianness' is all about.
If the Indian middle class could be put into a crisp definition then it can be called that great and vibrant strata of the society that does not fall into the category of 'the underprivileged (financially)' - and hence cannot attract sympathy and at the same time also does not fall into the category of the 'highly privileged (financially)' - and hence do not make any sense for the rest to target them. They make sense of living and earning to make enough of their basic needs and hardly have anything to cater to their desires. This class had not been bothered until the famous economic reform of early 90s came about which changed the personality of the Indian middle class forever.
Upon consideration and general examination it is obviously understood that the upper classes of the society always had everything and for the people belonging to the rest of the classes, they did not. Things have still not transformed much except probably for the requisite possession of the mobile phone. On in-depth inspection it can be noticed that the middle class has become more resourceful in this transition. They can now afford to buy houses, cars at a young age at the beginning of their careers, purchase clothes and shoes at whim instead of waiting for a wedding, festival or a family celebration to happen. For people who grew up in the 70s and 80s, this change has been emotionally incredibly as they have graduated from living under scarcity to living under abundance without any qualms. So much has been the impact of this change that to cope up with this contradictory order, they have to deal with accepting as well as embracing this new phase while they simultaneously deal with their roots which belong to a period in an altogether different dimension of age and time. Meanwhile this great Indian middle class is the new 'apple of the eye' for the marketers as they have now become the focus segment for countless number of products and services.
The book comprises of several random observations about Indian middle class. The writer narrates nostalgically about practices that we followed while growing up but find no significance and relevance today owing to their depleting prominence like postcards, B&W television set, a telephone connection, STD calls, etc. The growing up years essentially revolved around spending time with the extended family during summer vacations and playing innumerably interesting conventional outdoor games that kept us engaged and entertained. The OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) (common to every member belonging to this group called the Indian middle class) of need for value for money - paisa vasool - often led to the re-use of several items for multiple other purposes then its own. From those times to today, this slow process of transition has even catered to the evolution of our identity from being family based to now being profession based, from being a local based to being a regional/global based. . Anyone who has been a part of this middle class at any point in his/her life can relate and feel nostalgic about the narrations of the various dilemmas and situations. The book encompasses practically everything from personal life encounters to family events, social changes to economic prosperity, professional changes and other everyday mundane things that touch our lives. It is like a diary of the lives and times or more so like a passage to India in context of the great Indian middle class.
The book 'Mother pious Lady' is divided into three sections. The first, "Where Do We Come From", analyses our "Chitrahaar" era - the social medley of the black and white television years. The second, "New Adventures in Modernity", talks of untying the diktats of the past. The final section investigates the "Dilemmas of Change".
Each section presents individual chapters that contain some short essays on Indian behavioral idiosyncrasy and eccentricity as a means to demonstrating what drives and ticks for Indians. Where Do We Come From? focuses on our odd need to get value for money ("the Dhania factor"), relationships without the blatant need for an immediate gain ("in praise of the unannounced visit"), the want to save and let save face ("the meaning of the slap"), the Indian version of the meaning of time ("Indian traffic as metaphor") and inventiveness in problem-solving ("the power of the imperfect solution"). All this render the oddity and ingenuity of Indians.
The views expressed in the book are priceless as the observations are made up, close, and personally. A huge reallocation in the middle class has been documented- product-wise, cutting each variable with scientific and critical meticulousness like from stainless steel to the postcard, the neel (ultramarine) used to whiten clothes, the crease in the trouser, unexpected and unannounced guests, the Bajaj scooter, the thali, and even the pickle. "Money used to be hard to come by, but joy wasn't".
The middle class assumed its prominence with the introduction of scooter in the market. This was before the Maruti car replaced it and defined the new Indian middle class. The common practices and rituals of this class included sharing of clothes, letting out trouser hems only to be let in again later for the use of children. The grand purchase of stainless steel which was almost a syllogistic representation of this class, peeking and nosing out of the window was what television is today, summer vacations at hill stations with the entire big fat family only to send a telegraph back home to convey the message 'reached safely'. Sightseeing and appreciating the beauty of nature was not the primary agenda but eating chana bhaturas and getting photographed in silly hats and attires was. This reduced the hill station into an everyday Indian chaos.
As a little prosperity set in slowly, all the appliances and electronic items like the radio, TV, stereo, mixer, refrigerator, etc found a display in the drawing room and the whole neighbourhood swarmed in to watch Chitrahaar. Soon the occurrence of countless number of Hindi movies and serials came about that changed everything and everybody - except for Ma, the ageless Indian mother.
Santosh Desai also talks about his almost content analysis of matrimonial advertisement of about 30 years and describes the findings of the transfer from boasting about the family to search a handsome life partner, preferably fair to the new found meanings of status and compatibility parameters. The older ads communicated puzzling features like 'mother pious lady' or 'brother settled in US', clearly indicating that the alliance in making was a MoU (Memorandum of Understanding) between families as an aid for proper examination and calculation of the mutual gains from the marriage rather than the coming together of two people for the sharing of their lives as a couple. That has changed now.
The only identity and role of an Indian woman which she assumed and felt empowered playing it was that of being a MOTHER. This has changed significantly as now she plays multiple roles. The 'values' that the middle class prided itself upon have over the period of time and because of upward mobility lost their lustre and prominence. As stated by Desai, "(It) is now looking at the world through its senses - rather than the mind. The Indian middle class had always been uneasy about its senses because it had, over the centuries, been ruled by the mind". In the chapter 'Ritual reality and the Indian", it is rightly analysed and said that a ritual is almost endemic or pervasive to the Indian middle class - "The penchant for symbolic action finds its pinnacle when it comes to finding a method to punish inactionâ€¦ the institution of the suspension is an inspired oneâ€¦ Most suspensions are liftedâ€¦ and often with retrospective effectâ€¦ Overall, it seems to reflect a lack of belief in the ability of any person to materially alter the world through individual actionâ€¦ we place thinking on a higher pedestal over action, seeing the latter as a 'lower' order activity compared to the former".
Desai's analysis of the omnipresent middle class is hilarious, optimistic, bold and adventurous. For example, "The Revenge of the Speed-breaker" chapter describes the "rolling hill" speed breaker, and a disparity that is its "two-humped cousin, which lives up to its name, and erâ€¦ nails us twice. And finally, you have the most evil of them all, the Stutter Bump, against which slowing down is of no use. It is a punishment delivered for the temerity of travelling faster than we can walk and is like six of the best delivered on the seat of our pants". Mother pious lady can be called a piece of scholarship or a serious study with a feather touch as it contains no caustic criticism. The funny habits of the middle class and the peculiarities are exhibited by "heroes" on bikes with bubble helmets and boots, they chew paan on scooters and give signals with their feet. All in all the middle class is an incredible imperfect lot but the descriptions and views by Santosh Desai give it an aspirational touch.
It would seem that Bollywood and India are synonymous. The Indian male is taken as the subject of this case study. The yesteryears heroes cried if they were dumped. The begged the rich heroines to not go abroad rather than chasing them. The heroines rescue mission was brief and after that they would run back to their "Maa". The fact that 'Maa' (like a force) was with them ensured that they would win in the end. In contrast, the modern hero is different as he has muscles to flaunt, even cleavage with a shaven torso. But somehow Maa still hangs about in the background. India of Malgudi days is gone and the gearless scooty has now empowered girls with mobility. The TV tells you that without a fast sexy motorbike, washboard abs, a cool car and a coke you have not arrived.
"New Adventures in Modernity", talks about the changes that have gushed into this society. Some changes have been welcomed openly and easily while some are facing enormous resistance. The first chapter under this section talks about a very important change, "The Moral of Drinking", where it is illustrated how we have accommodated from the days of exhibiting wide-eyed horror of alcohol to offering drinks. Some more obscure instances are demonstrated in 'The Disappearing Pigtail' where the pigtail is hardly viewed as a repression of feminism, 'The Western Toilet as Sign' and Salman Khan and the more bolder 'The Rise of Male Cleavage'.
This section also addresses a wide range of themes such as the Indian view of the family as an entity ("terms of endearment"), the redefining of masculinity ("Salman Khan and the rise of male cleavage"), the emergence of the new Indian woman ("in gentle praise of the saas-bahu sagas" and "the woman, exteriorized"), the phenomenon of celebrity ("of genuine fakes and fake genuine"), the idea of Family as emotional headquarters ("the joint stock family"), continued hyper-competitiveness ("the paranoid parent") and the negotiation with the old ("retrieving space slyly").
The chapter "Dilemmas of Change" deals with how the alterations and transitions have affected not just the upwardly mobile urban Indian, but also a large portion of the society and not necessarily in a good way. "The Flyover as Metaphor", "The Power of Inflation" describes this argument vividly. "The Vanishing Village" is a poignant description which makes you question yourself as to whether we have been blind in discounting the obvious. The megalomania contiguous to India's forthcoming arrival on the world scene demands celebration, or you join foreigners pinning India to the past of snake-charmers and slums.
Put simply Mother Pious lady wants to do nothing more than remind us of the way things were and the way they are. India has always been in a flux. The middle class is fighting the polarity pulls between upper class and lower class repeatedly crushed under pressure of identity crisis. It speedily adapts to the dynamic external world and rejects many a socio-cultural rituals. React to the thought "'Holidays are in some way, no longer a break but an intensified search for experiences not normally encountered in everyday life' or to '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' and the book has enough of these nuggets.
Desai answers no social science imponderables, but hundreds of little questions. This documented text is a journal-of people-and like a diary written over thirty years, grows into something it never started out to be. All in all, Mother Pious Lady, is a brilliant collection that describes the turbulence Indian society has gone through over the last few decades. The chapters are varied and written on multiple themes which talk about all the mainstays of Indian society, be it caste, religion, politics, cricket, Bollywood or music. The book brings out the changes in these arenas, in abbreviated form, and this is what hits the reader really hard, as contemplation of these changes are not something most of us do on a daily basis. He avoids the pompous jargon of a "serious" sociologist but this book has depth, and penetrating perception. It is written with an elegance of style and unmistakable verve. His empathy with the class he lampoons so well turns this manuscript into a bold exercise in introspection.
The book principally deals with the varying middle class, and Santosh takes the three words that he uses for his title from common usage in classified matrimonial ads which describe the prospective bride as blah-blah-blah, the father as being in whatever profession he is in and the mother, well, as a 'pious lady'. It suggests that Santosh sees things in everyday situations (which of us has not seen the three words in classified ads - and which of us could connect that to the changing middle class?) which we do not. He elucidates why we are obsessed with our stomachs, why a slap is the ultimate insult, and why consumers still expect dhaniya (green coriander) and mirchi (chillies) free with their vegetables. At one level the middle-class struggle is heartbreaking, and at another it is brave and dignified.
The exact characterization of Indianness is the Indian middle class as demonstrated by Santosh Desai in this book. Infact it can also be said that this is what it means to be an Indian. We may belong to different parts of the country, different mother tongues, cultural backgrounds, religions, ethnic strains, family backgrounds, even perhaps age-groups - all the things that might conceivably divide us - yet, reading this book brings about the similarities in our experiences, it is at several points like reading our own stories uniting us by this concept we have dwelled in and also still find it internalized into our systems which is 'the middle class'. The book, and the typically Indian human insights it's filled with, make it the closest thing to come across to a definitive statement of Indian-ness.
Mother Pious Lady is a delightful collection of short, hugely enjoyable essays about the quirks and foibles of Indian life. But on another, deeper, level, it's an encyclopaedia of typically Indian insights which make you nostalgic as well as gleam out of joy that - yes I have been a part of it or yes I too have experienced it or just say that "Yes we are like this only."
To conclude, one can say that the existence of the Indian middle class is one of the most significant social, economic, cultural and linguistic drivers of our country. The habits and behaviours are conveniently accepted and unapologetically flaunted as well as practiced by the breed which makes for a very interesting study of idiosyncrasy with its quirks and foibles. At the same time it has laudable virtues making them an endearing lot. This tale of modern India with the mention of its roots in the yesterday India. This new metaphors of India only validates that the Indian middle class exists with all its baggage and bundles of peculiarities which have been narrated in this book which may seems only normal to one who has been a part of it but when put under the light of microscopic and analytical study only helps make sense of everyday India.
The Indian Middle class thrives and manifests in everyday India and we not only experience it but also participate in making of this order and trend providing it with variables and parameters for the occurrences of events that has led to an interesting and engaging study made in the Mother Pious Lady.