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The Indian middle class is not just a section of society that has grown out of an economic separation as we believe it to be, it is more than that. Economics is a small section of what has made the Indian middle class but it has grown out of bits and pieces of practices & behavioral nuances that went on to become the norm of the society and ingrained into the mentality of a particular section of society. There probably is not one Indian who has not experienced the Indian middle class in some way or the other; right from the upper class business tycoon who holds is reigns in the corporate world to the typical Indian village man who gets a visit from a shehari babu from Indian town.
So what is the Indian middle class?
One cannot really define a middle class in a sentence in a line, a paragraph or even an entire essay would fall short of doing justice to defining this section of society. However an attempt to do so lead us to examining these nuances from personal experiences as Santosh Desai has done in his book "mother pious lady"
One word which we all listen to in everyday life but we are so used to it that we don't even pay attention to is the word WE. The typical middle class family since ages has lived together. All the so called chachas, tayas, buas, mamas have all lived together. Till a few years ago nobody knew the meaning of personal space in a house. You were always surrounded by your nephews, nieces, all the bhaiyas, didis asking you personal questions, following you wherever you went. Even the concept of marriage in an Indian setting has always been that of union of two families rather than two individuals coming together. Earlier TV viewing was more of an activity which the whole family used to do together, wait for the serials like buniyaad, chitrahaar to start, wait for that Friday movie when only one of the families in the village used to have the television and that person's house would turn into a cinema theatre with the whole of village flooding that house; but nowadays that concept is changing. TV viewing has become more of an individual centric activity wherein hundreds of channels are there to cater to every individual's choice. The whole concept of joint-ness is fast dissolving.
Actually this concept is fast dissolving with the advent of the 20th century and the corresponding technology and other associated innovations that it has brought. Indians are shying away from being together; it is quite visible in any urban Indian middle class home. Everyone has their own separate rooms, their own personal world, but somehow deep down there, no matter how much the technology brings about the changes, we all will be connected to each other like the old Middle class joint family.
Sandese aate hainâ€¦
There are so many idiosyncrasies (generally used for individuals) which can be attributes to the 80's and 90's. Bell bottom pants, long thick side burns, those polka dot garments in fashion; redi ka khana, the wait for the postman to arrive with the letters instead of e-mail. That wait, the anticipation, that connectedness was all prevalent during those times. When you would get to know that there has been an addition to your family, your cousin has topped the IAS exam, then the wait for the reply to the letter which you would have sent. Then along came the telephone, one of the greatest inventions of the twentieth century. The distances were reduced to just a call away, although the wait was still there initially when you would book you trunk call and wait for the operator to revert back to you, but it wasn't much as compared to the old letter days. Then gradually the inventions paved way for the technology. Arrived on scenes the mobile phones which revolutionized the way we connected with each other. We started carrying our friends in our pockets that were just a call away. The wait has almost disappeared from the scene altogether, whatever the lapse is there in answering the call is because of the personal reasons of the person on the other end.
Paisaâ€¦ nahi koi tere jaisa
All of us know what reactions a beggar would give if we give him 50 paisa coin today. Most of them would refuse to take it, and some may even retort back that "paisa nahi hia sahib kya, humse le lo". This shows how much we value money in today's world. Everyone from our generation would remember what a 50 paisa coin meant in the 90's. 4 candy toffees, a chewing gum, a pen, u name it and you would get it for that price. A pen costing Rs 10 would garner comments from the family members that "paisa ped pe ugta hai kya" & "paise ki factory hai kya ghar pe". And if we go back in time a bit more, say 70's & 80's, one rupee would be the pocket money of the school going kids for the whole month. The salary which our grandfathers used to pick up from the government offices used to be like 50 rupees a month in which the whole family of 10 (yes 10, it used to be the average size of the families in 50's) would survive the whole month with the frequent & regular in-pour of all the so called relatives.
What the managers all over the world are learning today about the resource management of the scarce resources, we middle class Indian families have always been doing that. One family using that single quilt to sleep in, clothes being passed on to all the chotus of the family from all your bade bhaiyas. We knew the efficient use of the products too. The mother in the house would teach how to get the last drop of the toothpaste out of the tube by cutting open it, how to use the soap to wash hair when the shampoo used to get over. These things you will only find in a typical Indian middle class family which we so lovingly call the typical Indian class mentality.
Shaadi.. ek sir dardi
The marriage in an Indian setting is more than a union of two souls rather it is a union of two families coming together. Before marrying you need to take the approval of the all your near and not-so-near relatives. Love marriage used to be a big NO in the Indian culture. And marrying your daughter would be a herculean task, more of a bojh on the bride's father. The concept of dahej, although not prevalent in the urban india today, would make or break your proposal. But it doesn't end here, if the girl's father is not that rich, the girl should be blessed with the fairy looks, should be an expert at cooking and doing all the other basic house chores. And then the biggest factors which would decide your communion: religion and caste. Even today the matrimony ads would read like "wanted a Punjabi, Brahmin girl, fair, between 20-24, basic qualifications" reiterating the fact that Indian middle class is still not free of the so called customs of finding a match.
Even after finalizing the match the real headache starts, all the relatives come together at a place and the whole house turns into circus, huge expenditure on the hospitality of the guests. After the marriage the family goes bankrupt, the father spending all his life's savings on that.
Television: the sticky medium
It all started out in early 80's when the TV hit the Indian markets. Soon followed shows like buniyaad and nukkad which showed and emphasized on typical middle class values. Whereas the shows which are shown on TV are more saas-bahu jhagda oriented. The focus is shifting from the family as unit to individual's needs. Even the emotion (love) which used to be a taboo of sorts is now being showed in a good light and a in-thing on TV nowadays. Then one show which changed the focus from K-serials and changed the way the whole medium was viewed. The show was KBC - hosted by one of the biggest icons in Indian cinema: Amitabh Bachhan. The moment the clock used to strike, the whole nation would come to a standstill.
And another big thing on Indian Television is Cricket. It is the religion of all the Indians, followed ardently by the 120 crore Indians. Every Indian, no matter what his religion he follows, be rest assured that he would be an ardent follower of cricket. And for that matter, Sachin Tendulkar has been the god of Indians since the time god made his debut in 1989. Till date when this little master comes on crease, the whole country comes to a standstill. No matter how educated a person is, to which area he belongs, what religion he follows, you can always have a conversation on the favourite topic of every Indian. The channel which gets the rights to telecast the cricket matches, garner the highest TRP's.
Khan-dan.. the bollywood as an industry
The middle class Indian has always been fascinated and amused by the silver screen. The relation has been there since the pre-independence era which was initially dominated by magicians like guru dutt & nargis, later on by the likes bachchans and dharamendra. Whatever they did, whatever they wore became a style statement for Indian youth. In recent times in which I grew, it was always the Khans: the trio of Shahrukh, Salman and Aamir. No other actor was as big a star as these three were. The names of these three khans were synonymous with the bollywood industry. They changed the way how youth loved in India. It was because of the movies set in foreign locales and the magnanimity of the sets which captivated the Indian youth. They were not shy of showing and admitting their love now. It became a fashion statement to be in a relationship. As it always happens that what the children want parents have to adhere to that, so it did. Love marriages are now more common than arranged marriages.
After cricket movie is the other area where you can have conversation with anyone in India. People revere their stars, they are their Gods. Amitabh Bachchan and Rajnikanth are the two big superheroes of India, the latter being the bigger one in terms of the follower's craze for him. Temples have been built for them, where the people from the middle class society go and worship them. Offerings are thrown on screens when rajni's movies are being screened. Our middle class people (from the small section of South India) go hysterical. They cry, they laugh, and they smile with the star on screen. It is because unlike west where the protagonist is generally someone with an awesome physique, Indian actors are generally who are more emotionally stable (this is just to connect to the average Indian youth). They may not possess superhuman powers, but they would have an intellect, a heart which would solve any issue pertaining to his day to day problems. This is the reason why Indian youth go several times to watch the same movie again and again.
Everything else about our middle class
Indians like you or me assign some emotion/memory with the objects. They are not just the means of satisfying the material needs. You would have seen your fathers and grandfathers keeping their old chetak, your mothers going sentimental over the first sewing machine they had bought or even youth like us in the early twenties cherishing their old collection of tattoos, playing cards and showing off to their friends even today. It is because of the emotions which have been instilled in us by our forefathers to value things, to respect money and not to waste things.
This again leads to another idiosyncrasy of the Indians. Showing off or flaunting is what they like to do. They would compete with their neighbors, their friends and even their siblings and they would feel proud to possess things which are better than the people described. Initially for an example people used to take pride in owning radios, then came the black colour televisions, after which arrived on scene the plasma TVs. Similar thing happened in the area of mode of transportation. People used to take pride in their Hero cycles, then they went on to taking pride in going by the autos, then came the time when the yezdi or rajdoot was the most prized possession of the whole family, then came maruti 800 termed as people's car and now the baby of the whole family would be a Honda City or Safari. This is so innate to us, the pride which we take in showing to the world that we are the best, second to none.
Also there are several other things which you would associate with us Indians (read middle class Indians) only. As Santosh Desai precisely describes in his book Mother pious Lady
"When we crease our clothes or comb our hair partitioned exactly in a straight line, we reaffirm that we belong to a group and abide by the rules. This does not always happen, but as long as we believe, hope lives."
The things like mother instead of buying a new pair of socks would put rubber band to protect them from falling down, clothes passed from one generation to other, old undergarments used as dusters to clean the whole house, mothers, aunts, neighbors sitting together and making a sweater for one member or the other, instead of buying a pickle from the store or a mart, the whole family helping the elder females of the family to put one. All this you find only in the middle class and I am re-emphasizing that it is not only the people who earn less but even the business men with pots of money showing the same tendencies (difference would be that they would have servants to help the ladies)
To quote again from the same book, Santosh Desai points out,
"it is interesting to note that our sense of being "Indian" is at its peak when we are in celebration mode. We need the emotional high of festivities to allow us to step outside our narrower regional identities and immerse ourselves in a more inclusive national one."
People tend to mingle with each other; they forget about the caste, the religion, the region etc. when they want to share their happiness with others. Even if there have been some differences with some relatives and all, wait for a festival or a marriage to come and all the differences would vanish as if there were none ever. People cry with you in your sad times and they get happy with your happiness even if you are not related by blood; this is what India is for you.
Another aspect which I think is very important according to me is the education system in India. You can see young children carrying school bags with the weight of books more than their own weight. Metaphorically this weight of books is the weight of the expectation which the Indian parents have from their kids. Every parent in India wants his/her child to be a top class doctor, an engineer and nowadays a top class MBA. All of them have this herd mentality which at times is good but mostly they don't realize the potential of their child. Even if a child is good at music or art, he won't be allowed to pursue the career of his choice. At max he would enjoy it as a hobby but not a career. The parents in India so desperately want their kids to become one of the above professionals that they would go to any extent to get them registered in a good college. This phenomenon according to me is because of two reasons - one being that this profession gets the maximum money and izzat and the other being the point which I described above: showing off to the world that. I so say so because as contrary to what happens in the western world, here parents usually pay for the children education till post graduation, so it is a kind of returns which they expect/get and which they want to show to the world that their decision was wise. They would pay bribes to get their children the backdoor entry to these colleges, which bring us to the topic of corruption.
On the verge of sounding negative, I would say that this corruption - to get things done by paying bribe (gifts in some cases) is also innate to Indians. We learn it from our parents because everyone is either involved in the process of taking bribe or giving bribes. Bribes ranging from a beedi ka packet to the hostel chaukidar to paying lakhs to get your child admitted in a prestigious college. And we are not even ashamed of it because it has been ingrained in us from centuries. But tell me where it doesn't exist in the world? So I would let it go.
The middle class is aware of their limitations, but never shy away from dreaming, this is the eternal positivity in them. They dream big, they dream of brighter pastures abroad. All these characteristics stated are not only pertaining to the Indian middle class citizen, these are evident in people belonging to higher classes as well. This is because the middle class stage of the family generation is one that everyone goes through and even if not experienced directly, it is visible everywhere around them. The middle class culture is an integral part of the Indian culture and one which will adapt to any change in the society and yet maintain some of the core values that have been handed down from generation to generation.