Wednesday, August 24, 2011

THE "NEW" INDIAN MIDDLE CLASS


The Indian Middle Class has suddenly become a very talked about group in this anti corruption “drama” that has been unfolding across television channels over the last couple of months! As a person who belongs to this social category, I have been trying to reflect on what are our defining characteristics?  Who is this Indian middle class person? The  images  that come to my mind immediately are that of  Amol Palekar and Vidya Sinha on  a BEST bus- straight out of a Hrishkesh Mukherjee/ Basu Chaterjee film I guess…!

I then get a bit  confused wondering if that imagery isn’t dated by at least two decades? Now that brings me to another question- is the definition of middle class something that is dynamic- changing with time?  Sure, income levels change with time due to inflation but here it is not income that is the defining  factor …… or  is it?

I try to apply the middle class definition  to my own situation.  I come from a family that runs on two salaried incomes   ( mine and my husband’s). Both of us hold jobs that involve cerebral activity of some sort. We have one child who goes to an English Medium school. We own some of the commonly used consumer durables. We go out occasionally for movies or a meal over weekends and have annual holidays at some hill stations or the other. We have one car which my husband drives and I generally use  public transport ! We own some branded clothing and have some savings. Now does this make us  middle class? Yes…. and no..!!! For e.g if we owned two cars would that make us “upper class” or if we took “foreign holidays” would we be going beyond our middle income category? There are number of people who would be doing this and more and yet be classified as middle class!! So this class is  nowadays not as clearly defined as it used to be during the time when we were teenagers watching those Hrishikesh Mukherjee films!

I think one of the reasons has been the way the markets have been ruling our lives. Post nineties with economic  liberalization , there has been a transformation that has over run this country and the middle classes have been the ones who have benefited most from it.  There was a time when the middle classes were largely employed in the government and public sectors. Sure, there were self employed people but somehow the spirit of free enterprise was not as much exploited or appreciated as it is today.

The options in terms of employment were few and far in between with people preferring to migrate out of the country to chase their so called “dreams” of making it big. But today, fortunately or unfortunately these “dreams” have every possibility of becoming a reality within this  country itself. There are youngsters  working in sectors that pay over hundreds of thousands of rupees per month! Credit is  easily available and with that comes the desire for acquisitions!  The middle class today knows the cost of almost everything but the value of only a few things.

So, we have Amol Palekar today, transforming himself into a Saif Ali Khan or a Shahrukh Khan resulting in  “Raju ban gaya gentleman” .And though Raju lives in the US or the UK  he is  as “Indian” as possible dancing and singing with chiffon clad lasses having brown hair and light eyes celebrating “karva chauth”!  That is sufficient so far as middle class values go I guess!

Now let us come to the crux of the issue- why has corruption started bothering this  middle class group suddenly?  I mean corruption was not something that came up on us yesterday!  Corrupt politicians and corrupt government officers were very much part of the system even two decades ago..

I guess what is different now  is that the middle class no longer identifies itself with government or public sector which they  say is the seat of all corruption! Today, the government or the state plays a very marginal role as a source of power over their  lives unlike the 1970s and 80s. Small favours that used to require “Sifarish” or recommendation those days now need “Rishvat” or bribes. Both these are like exchange commodities helping us meet our ends. When we had no money, we used our influence – someone’s  uncle or cousin knew someone in some government department and that is how favours were curried. Today, with those uncles and cousins having retired and with the next generation being largely employed in the private sector that is thriving in our free economy, the exchange commodity is currency!

While this is change on one side, on the other we can also see the diminishing hold that the government or the state has as a source of power over the life of the average middle class citizen. Today we have the  money and so we can ignore the options that were at one time only offered by the state!  Money can buy everything from a seat in an engineering college to a beautiful bride or a foreign holiday. Big money as I said earlier is no longer a dream- 

Our lives now are shaped as much by popular public opinion that is driven by the corporate media as it is by our own analysis of any situation. We have less time to discuss issues and we therefore believe what the news channels tell us and thus builds a “ movement” around corruption. We are also so starved on role models that are appropriate to the confused value systems that govern our lives today that we jump at the first sight of someone who in some way comes close to it! No offence meant to Anna Hazare but I would like to know how many of these candle light marchers actually can locate Ralegaon Siddhi  on a map?

To conclude I can say that unless we do some inner reflection and sort out who we are and what our values are, we are likely to get more and more shallow in our approach to any issue.. Raju is  trying today to become more than a “gentleman”  he wants to be an “activist”- only he has no clue what activism is all about. It is more than a photo op or having a mike thrust under your chin in a crowd by a TV channel reporter!  Middle classes do not signify passivity as we seem to have come to believe (wrongly). Remember, it is not just Raju who became a gentleman, there was a Naseer as the middle class protagonist  in The Wednesday who almost become a terrorist!

11 comments:

Kameshwari said...

It is important to me, as a U.S. Citizen, to understand what other international citizens sense, feel and experience. You give your readers an excellent view of what is happening with Indian life.

I appreciate your explanation of money and the new middle class. Your views help me to shape an understanding of the new structure and transition that is coming to these fifty U.S. states.

With deep gratitude for your insightful blog and your great comprehension and delivery of the English language.

IRFANUDDIN said...

Even i don't understand that whether all those present there with banners n flags, shouting those patriotic slogans have changed their attitude towards all ill practices which they were doing till now or its simply a momentry emotional outburst of the so called middle class....
btw a wonderful narration and the way you put the whole scenario relating the happenings in the country is really nice....and personally i feel that let there be hundred of laws unless we change our attitude nothing is going to change.....NICE POST.

Rhapsody B. said...

Namaste....
Classism is problematic, it allows for pigeon holding, labeling and categorizing people by which then they are discrimminated against in terms of class. In fact all of the "isms" is problematic, racism, classism, ageism, sexism, anti-semitism etc, because it works to prevent us from seeing each others humanity.

In terms of jobs/migration for the "better life" endemic and the now influxs of more employment opportunities its all tied in together.

JOB RISE
The change you are experiencing there is related to the change happening here (the ying/yang affect)in the western world. Big Companies are outsourcing 75% if not all of the work to minimize their expeditures here in terms of pay equity and to avoid paying pensions, benefits and other entitlements to workers because to (put it nicely) its cheaper to outsource, so cheap labour is the tradeable commodity.

The joblessness here and in the US is rediculously high, there are many university educated people out of work or working at minimum wage jobs that can bearly pay the high rent/mortgage payments so many have 2 jobs (2 part-time in order to make ends meet.)

The truth is, there is no gain without loss. Many look to the western world as the land of paradise, milk over flowing with honeyed enrichment of living and while there are definite benefits to being here it is far from the land of milk and honey, there is more than a few tumble weeds, unyeilding earth, unforgiving soils and stone walls in the face trying to eek out a decent standard of living. Many scientists and engineers and others with stella degrees are driving taxi, working maintaineance where they are cleaning toilets, some selling hotdogs from road side stalls, it simply isn't as easy as migrate and pull money from trees and live like Oprah and Donald Trump.

My point in terms of migration, by all means do if that is your desire but do not come with flowers and merrigolds in your eyes thinking you wont have to work your ass off to live a half way decent life. Here you have to clean yoru own house you cannot afford to have someone come and clean unless you are making serious money (6 figures and up). Be realistic, the western world is like any other with its rich, poor, working class, working poor, and homeless.

Arooj said...

the picture of my favorite actor and director attracts me to this post...and later found quite a serious a well written account of transformation of power in society and dynamic role of middle class.

Meera Sundararajan said...

Thank you all for your insightful comments! @ Kameshwari welcome to my blog and glad that you found it informative. Arooj Amol is my fav too - afterall I am as middle class as the charchters he portrays! Rhapsody, migration is not the issue here though migration was an issue once upon a time for India. Today it is as you say taking the bad with the good- too much money and very confused values. Irfan I read your post on a similar theme and I am glad that we are on the same page on this issue!

Purba said...

It is the middle class who are honest tax payers, mostly law abiding yet we are always taken for granted by the government. It is as if we don't exist. Where are the badly needed reforms in higher education? Do we have enough good colleges for our children. If Delhi claims to be a world class city, why don't we feel safe, why is there a shortage of electricity and water?

Anna was just a vent for our simmering discontent,

Btw well articulated write up.

varsha said...

Meera a thought-provoking post on our confused tamasha-full times.
The middle class of today has the heart of Amol Palekar but his pockets are full of money and she has cars instead of two wheeler pillion rides.
"we jump at the first sight of someone who in some way comes close to any Ideal" because we don't have anyone worth believing in at the very Top.

Sunil Deepak said...

I think that to be middle class has also to do with its basic ideology of beliefs - I think that 2-3 decades ago, it used to - save for a rainy day, don't show off, behave what will people think or say, think of family, it is better not to be too ambitious .. Does your middle class today accept those kind of rules?

Meera Sundararajan said...

@ Sunil Deepak you are so right. These days what passes for middle class values is rather unbelievable! Varsha difficult to beleive Amol Palekar with pockets filled with cash :-) and Purba, yes I agree with you but you know why the govt does not attend to our needs? Because in terms of numbers we dont count in the vote bank!

Ashwini said...

So True. People say Revolutions don't take place over the night, But in this case, it's so true. And I'm sure, If not for the Media, over exaggerating the cause of ANna Hazare, Half the people wouldn't have even bothered about this.
I'm not insulting Anna Hazare. I support his cause, When I try to be practical,Lokpal is not all that practical.

Chintan said...

who cares what class we belong to as long as we are happy and loving what we do! we do not have a car, live in london now, were in bangalore earlier, some of our friends who have way more cash than us feel jealous just because of the lifestyle we adopt or simple joys of life we cherish!!

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