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Financial Express Review

Making perfect sense
Renuka Bisht
Posted online: Mar 07, 2010 at 2305 hrs

Are you middle class? Yes, if you remember getting your shoes resoled or trooping across to neighbours to watch Chitrahaar on their TV set, if the purchase of a pressure cooker or a Sumeet mixie was once an event of some note for you or if going to a restaurant used to once demand some degree of daring. Yes, if you still hoard plastic bags or bits of paper under your mattress, recycle old clothes or ice-cream jars and sometimes haggle with the subjiwallahs, partiwallahs et al. So says Santosh Desai in Mother Pious Lady, a personalised recording of changes in the everyday life of middle-class India.

As definitions go, Desai’s is as credible as any. It has the added merit of being more cool and charming than most. Encomiums to the Indian middle class have become plentiful, but an unfortunate majority end up sounding like a set of clichés. But Desai’s annotations are in the best tradition of cultural studies-he has an eye for rich details, the smarts to get beyond the obvious and a heart more inclined to empathy than scorn.

Take the title of his book. Derived from a matrimonial ad, it speaks in the genre’s typical cryptic code. Desai wonders if it’s meant to connote a mother-in-law more interested in burning incense sticks than daughters-in-law. He wonders why this ad thrives alongside the rise of individualism. Because, and this is an uncomfortable hypothesis, the underlying mental model of marriage as a relationship between stations in life rather than individuals also thrives. Because, and this is the twist in the tale, the great attitude change towards sex is happening within marriage. “Sex, in India, for the moment, is like a child sliding down a banister-someone full of exhilaration at having discovered pleasure that is always at hand. The complications of sexual politics will perhaps follow, but for the moment it is time to, well, disco.”

Even SRK usually does it within marriage. But he appears, according to Desai, free of the past—a far cry from the Bachchan heroes crushed by the weight of failed fathers. It’s the mother figure, however, who has seen the bigger transformation. She was just a giant ball of selfless affection. She never said, “I love you”, but she would never let go of the son. So, “mere paas ma hai” was sort of tautological. She would say she liked the taste of leftovers. She stood at the heart of the middle class value system that evolved to give dignity to dealing with scarcity. As such scarcity retreats in cultural memory, the mother’s pallu can afford more slack.

The broader gender revolution mapped by Desai we can call “from scooter to scooterette”. Amol Palekar, on his way to a ration shop, was the scooter’s poster boy. And he didn’t have anything in common with John Abraham. Another solemn symbol of coping with scarcity with dignity, which would give pillion rides to entire families, “Hamara Bajaj” is being phased out, even as it the people’s car it inspired is revving up production. The scooterette plays a different ball game altogether. It has been claimed by the small town girl. It is express evidence of her growing power: she doesn’t depend on a man to reach her destination, she is less fearful of the unfamiliar and her comfort zone is becoming less discontinuous. “In some curious way, today the girl in small town India is arguably freer than her metro counterpart. The big city contains its women by its combination of distance and danger.” That the future could well belong to the small town girl, this is one of the most interesting of Desai’s theses.

As tempers in Karnataka get frayed by yet another cultural storm (this time, it’s the footage of a swami hanging out with an actress that has set things off), it’s also interesting to take note of Desai’s take on such storms. That political leaders abuse cultural issues for winning support that can be won without actually doing any work is transparently clear. But doesn’t this kind of dismissiveness also suffer from orthodoxy? Isn’t the real question about the populist push for renaming Bangalore Bengaluru, why did this move enjoy popularity? “Demands like these abound, but gain momentum usually when there are rounds for a large section to feel powerless and insignificant.” Whatever mainstream representations may suggest, the city is more than cosmopolitan isle populated by people who drink in pubs and design software. It’s an easy thing to condemn populist movements, and much harder to actually address the widespread, simmering disquiet that they suggest.

It’s an easy thing to do when the romance of growing faster than the rest of the world is totally internalised. Result: skewed priorities, skewed perspectives. “It is we who are speaking in the language of conquest; we want to shake off our colonial past by becoming our erstwhile rulers.”

Desai doesn’t have all the answers. He asks lots of great questions though. What on earth do baliye, mahiye, shava and soniye mean? Karan Johar, answer please.