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The quintessential Indian middle-class It is in each one of us, it is a part of who we are, what we do, what we wear, how we live.. Me? I am a twenty-something year old who has grown up in the early 90 s, lived in a joint family, shared a room with five cousins, two of whom I barely know, eaten secretly from the aluminium plates that were only kept for Special occasions viz. guests, most of whom would come announced and stay for a longer duration than we would have cared to wish upon them. I have been, am and probably always shall be a middle-class Indian.
There really isn t one single factor that can define a person as a middle-class Indian; probably because it isn t just about a person or his behavioural traits that makes him middle-class. It s a way of life a set of characteristic said and unsaid rules that makes him/her middle-class. It is also these traits that defines what we call Indian-ness and hence when we talk about Indian characteristics or stereotypes, more often than not, it is the Indian middle-class we are talking about. This class comprises of people who are neither rich nor poor. They are comfortably settled with all amenities but, they cannot squander money on frivolities. This class stays busy in maintaining a standard as they are the white collared gentry of the society.
Money money money, what s so funny?
Let us start at the very beginning (more like the very basics) of this society called middle-class Money; or as Santosh Desai puts it, Paisa Vasool. We love to save. Haggling at the vegetable markets as many of us may have seen our mothers do, or probably have done ourselves will know the not-so-subtle art of bargaining. Going shamelessly from Rs.100 to Rs.10 we arrive at a harmonic mean of Rs.65 where both the vendor and mother are satisfied. Sharing was never an issue. Even with ten members of the family crowding the dinner table (and the floor; and the other plastic chairs around the house) and few other relatives or friends randomly turning up to stay for a fortnight, food would magically be adjusted to suitably satiate each member. Scarcity was shared and so was abundance. Mail was integral to keeping such a large network of relatives and friends connected, and no, it wasn t email, purely what we today call the snail mail the humble postcard. From a simple hello to some urgent news, the postcard and its brethren the inland letter and the telegraph were the centre of the connected world. And then, along came the telephone. Today s world is better connected, we reach out to numerous contacts with a single click of the mouse, but there s just something about a handwritten postcard a personal touch, the feeling of being truly connected with another person that can never be replicated by them.
The Middle-class connection:
The one thing the Indian child felt more connected to than any other was his mother. Maa She is the protector, the provider and the pamperer. To the son, his mother was the centre of the universe while growing up. The Indian society however biased against women it may be in its norms and traditions right from a girl child to an adult woman, in her role as a mother, the Indian woman is supreme. Mother always had a solution, however grave the problem may seem. Her mere presence was an assurance that all was right with the world. To the mother, her son would always remain that chhota bachha who needs to be rocked to sleep. For the daughter though, since she would eventually be married away, the mother felt no permanent possessive feelings towards her and hence exuded feelings of love mixed with slight indifference. For the child, the mother was the one source of complete and utter dependence, one where the world was right with a touch and bliss was just a laddoo away.
The middle-class is wrought with practices that root themselves in a world of savings. Aaya naya ujaala, chaar boondon wala simply puts that into an immemorable advertisement jingle, but the crux of the matter is what we call middle-class values we had all that we truly needed, but none of what we desired. Hand- em-downs were common. Anyone who have had at least one elder sibling will have worn some or the other hand-me-down. We would wash and rewash old clothes to make them look new. There was something about white clothes that gave the feeling of being upper class and hence we d use ultramarine to whiten the dulled whites.
An insight that Santosh Desai provides is 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.
School socks whose elastics were long worn out would be held up with rubber bands. We would buy clothes that were two sizes too large so that eventually we d grow into them, and once we grew out of them, they would be put to other innovative uses Mother s old sarees would be patched into a colourful quilt, old vests would be tied to the end of a stick and used as a duster, trousers whose legs had torn or worn out would be cut at the knees and worn again as shorts the list goes on. Even the very activity of buying new clothes was reserved for festive occasions. The most festive of occasions is, undoubtedly, marriage. The middle class man will save and save and save some more and be at his miserliest best all his life. But come his son/daughter of marriageable age, money would flow like pots of honey! Lavish spendings on marriages would even leave the father in debt, but the wedding had to be a splendid one! After all, izzat ka sawaal hai! Matrimonials are the benchmark for how involved the entire family is in the marriage. It tells us, as the author puts it, marriage in India has historically been a social transaction between families, consummated through the almost incidental device of the boy and girl. It has introduced lingo that goes on par with our SMS lingo, legible only to the knowledgeable insider looking for a match. Before marriage, all affairs and interactions between the husband and wife-to-be are a big hush hush. The honeymoon is the escape from all the norms and bondages of society where the newlywed couple can indulge in all they wanted to. It is effectively an extension of the first night the couple spend together. The traditional Indian wedding involves the suhaagraat or the first night the couple spend on the same bed. It is closely linked with sex for the first time. In a society that shies away from anything that so openly breaches sexual expressiveness, a custom that celebrates that very concept is at first somewhat confusing. Arranged marriages being the norm of the middle-class society, the honeymoon gives the couple to explore each other, physically and mentally in a setting that is completely different from their usual reality, thus giving them a sense of freedom and liberation to do beyond the norms that bound them till date.
Travel for the middle class is a train-ed affair quite literally so. Trains formed the main source of long distance travel, and even as the middle class gets more affluent these days, the training from the train days remains ingrained. Packing up all that you can in those immense suitcases and moving as one single pack on a hunting mission, it is easy to spot an Indian middle-class family even at a crowded airport. But for the local travel, the autorickshaw is the lifesaver! Weaving almost carelessly yet effortlessly between traffic, getting too close for comfort to other vehicles, it is a regular affair for the daily passenger and an experience like no other for the visitor.
Bachpan toh gaya
Growing up, most games that we played needed little or no equipment. Nights spent on the roof playing carrom and Antakshari is something we all have done, loved, enjoyed, remembered. Cards being the staple post-dinner game of families with the likes of Rummy and Teen Patti ruled the roost for the adults while the kids played hopscotch, oonch neech and Piththoo. Games bound families together, as did food. Street food, no matter what it is, no matter how unhygienic the conditions they may be prepared in, are a must; and by Gosh! They taste better than anything in those large stores. Talking of food, an army marches on its stomach or so the saying goes. We take good care of our stomachs and treat it almost as a separate entity. We go to no extent to make sure it remains satisfied. Now how does that relate to us middle-class people? In quite a few ways apparently from the way we spare no detail in elucidating our bowel movements or making vocal that quintessential post-food burp to those silent yet deadly emissions that result from extremely spicy food with too much garlic. Oh, and pickle! How can we forget the ever-tasty achaar that our mothers used to serve with roti and rice! The thali we eat in also has specific significance. It is one unified space where all our food is gathered as one and our palate reaps the benefits off all of them at once, when we please, as we please. It celebrates our pride in eating a natural and inherently messy way that ends up being more satisfactory than biting into each morsel with a knife and fork. In the thali lies the ability to create order in disorder and to find pleasure in chaos.
Entertainment before television belonged to the world of radio. Vividh Bharti filled our days with its programmes, evolving later into AIR, called Akashvani. Moving to movies, the Middle Class Family Entertainers (MCFE) were the biggest hits. It was a genre of its time, yet manages to retain a peculiar charm even today. These are the movies that have the typical Feel good factor in them. They are light, do not have complex storylines, are family oriented and exhibit many of the stereotypes that we associate with the middle-class values, allowing us to relate to them at a very basic level. As mentioned, Golmaal, Chupke chupke, Hum Aapke Hain Kaun?, Bawarchi etc. are some of those golden oldies as well as some recent ones that are synonymous with MCFEs. These movies tell us happiness is independent of money. With them, they carry the nostalgia of the simplicity of yesteryears when the way to happiness was just a cup of coffee and a family outing away singing ABCDEFGHI, JKLM, NOPQRSTUVWX, YZ .
A lot of our everyday behavious is suspiciously ritualistic and routine, yet they are symbolic of our mentality. We take a bath everyday and clean the house and even sprinkle Gangajal (Which today is nowhere near pure as from the peaks of Kailsha itself ) around the house, yet have no qualms dumping our garbage right outside the house boundary wall. It is symbolic of the separation of our home and the world outside as two separate worlds altogether. Even the simple act of eating a plate of paani puri has symbolic connotations to it. The vendor wipes the surface with a dirty rag, dips it in murky water and we assume it to be clean. Not that it really is, and we know it, but the gesture itself acts as a reassurance. Something as simple as an itch also develops different mannerisms(or processes/techniques/ways) to satisfy that urge to scratch; which according to psychologists is a sign that Indian men retain the sense of being the centre of the universe that a childhood of being pampered brings upon. It also points to the larger level of comfort we have with our bodies and the ease with which we relieve our bodies of any discomfort.
On the flip side, this is the same class that is hit by the onslaught of Westernization, especially in the past decade. Society in India has been built upon a strong rooted system based on restraint and self-regulation. Hence the idea of bringing about a change needed to be made acceptable gradually. Even with such thoughts in place, the change has been surprisingly fast. Let us take example of alcohol. 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 (read: Devdas) and successful criminals(the likes of Don). 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 integrated-ness. 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 word Punjabi has, for long been associated with the clean muscular raw manly power and the open, almost booming-with-life demeanour of the sardar. The Punjabi was someone who lived life fully and made sure that his word was heard. The rest of India knew little about Punjabi save the occasional Balle balle and a puttar here and there. Today s Punjabi moves away from the hairy robustness into a made-over, downsized modern version of him. Punjabi as a culture, as a language is probably one of the fastest cultures capturing the aam aadmi . As a mode of expression, the common man is ever familiar to naan-roti-dal-chicken combination as well as the popular Bhangra beats and the arm pumping heart thumping balle-balle dances. To the common man, the Punjabi belief in the power of the individual in shaping his own destiny is quite attractive. The uninhibited expressiveness that the restricted and regulated middle class seeks is ingrained into the Punjabi ethos and hence we find ourselves drawn towards it. It also translates into the trends in Hindi cinema with songs shifting from the poetic Urdu flairs to the raw energy of Bhangra jalwa.
Dance For the common man, as it is for everyone else too, it is the a means of letting go. Dance sheds the tight control we have to maintain over our movements in keeping with social norms and allows our body to move freely and without inhibition. Dance in Indian society is a group activity. Take the Gujarati dandiya raas during Navratri festival for example. It started off with a few Gujaratis coming together and engaging into stickplay. This has today evolved into a festival of immense proportions that showcase a splendid and gorgeous extravagance of colours and glamour. Falguni Pathak s voice is invariably heard from every available source of music and everybody is dressed up in traditional outfits. For the middle-class Indian, our lives are marked by occasions and we live to celebrate each one of them. As expected though, each occasion is marked by a set of rituals which are performed religiously before the celebrations begin. Festivals give us license to have fun, not just with a particular group of people close to us, but as a society, as a nation, as a whole. As 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. All celebrations then begin to take on a similar hue be it winning at cricket or a wedding or a regional festival, if we can look festive, eat our hearts out and find some avenue to dance, we are all one.
India is a land of wealth and a land of want. There is an increasing divide between the rich and the poor, and however differently we may describe it, the middle-class does, truly remain stuck in the middle. Certainly there are a lot more at the bottom and fewer ones at the top, but then this is a pyramid we re looking at it s always thinner at the top. In the last two decades, the Indian middle class has been struggling for sustenance. Prices have been shooting sky high, forcing the middle class to split into sections within it. It is this category of Indian class that is seen struggling for maintenance as they are born and brought up to live well, but they cannot afford to do so in light of the rising prices. A section of them who can leave behind tenets of character join the rich class. The ones who do not are those that are seen struggling behind. It is this part of society that is seen fighting daily bouts of competition every day in every sphere of life. Typically, it involves the service class, the one with a salaried job and moderate purchasing power. It is also the class that is burdened with honest tax payment, which most other classes conveniently manage to avoid. Their image and self-concept is white collared. The Indian middle class is not just struggling to maintain its financial standing. It is also the class that is most hit by westernization and fighting to maintain at least a faint semblance of Indian culture. They try to uphold, as much as is possible by them, to uphold the morals and values we have discussed earlier. Together with morals comes religious outlook. The rich may appear to have a religious bent of mind but it is the middle class that truly leads the way of the prayer.
India is quite the paradox and in the epicentre lays the Indian middle-class. Change is most prominent there and so is constancy. It is a curious amalgamation of modernity coupled with the behavioural stereotypes. With questions about India s success as a nation rising every now and then, it is the middle-class that forms the basis of any solution that the nation has to provide. Exhibiting everything that is typically Indian, it can definitely be said that India does have a middle-class, most prominently so, and for the nation to look at the progress it is aiming for, it is imperative to consider this class as the crux and the pivot of the change.