Deccan Chronicle Review

Santosh Desai is a social commentator and writer of the newspaper column. He heads Future Brands and was formerly president of the advertising agency McCann Erickson. In this, his first book, Mother Pious Lady, Desai discusses how the Indian middle class is emerging from the folds of its past, thereby requiring fresh analysis. This transition, begun in 1997, is still ongoing, and Desai feels that the middle class will become a stronger social force five years from now, with a more nuanced worldview — though he does state elsewhere in an interview that “it would not become a significant political force as it is still too consumed with itself”.

The book, grown out of the various bits of writing Desai has done, especially his weekly column, is divided into three sections. The first, “Where Do We Come From”, analyses our “Chitrahaar selves” — the social mosaic of the black and white television years. The second, “New Adventures in Modernity”, talks of loosening the codes of the past. The final section probes the “Dilemmas of Change”.

Desai’s views are invaluable for he has observed the middle class up close, and Mother Pious Lady is written as an insider. Having been in advertising and marketing, he documents the huge shift the middle class has seen — product by product, dissecting each with surgical precision: from stainless steel to the postcard, the blue used to whiten our clothes, the all-important crease in the trouser, unannounced (now unthinkable) visitors, the Bajaj scooter, the thali, even the pickle. “Money used to be hard to come by, but joy wasn’t”.

The Indian woman — who used to be fulfilled and empowered only as a mother — has changed significantly. And the “values” the middle class prided itself upon have through the years lost their lustre thanks to its upward mobility. “(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”.

Desai analyses “ritual reality” (in what is probably his best piece, titled the same), a term endemic to the Indian middle class — “The penchant for symbolic action finds its pinnacle when it comes to finding a method to punish inaction… the institution of the suspension is an inspired one… Most suspensions are lifted… and often with retrospective effect… Overall, it seems to reflect a lack of belief in the ability of any person to materially alter the world through individual action… we place thinking on a higher pedestal over action, seeing the latter as a ‘lower’ order activity compared to the former”.

While Pawan K. Varma in his The Great Indian Middle Class presented a harsh and somewhat patronising critique of the omnipresent middle class, Desai’s analysis is bold, funny and adventurous. Take for instance “The Revenge of the Speed-breaker” chapter. It describes the “rolling hill” speed-breaker, the humped whale and a variation that is its “two-humped cousin, which lives up to its name, and er… 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 is a piece of scholarship without airs. A serious study with a feather touch, the book contains no clichés and certainly no acerbic criticism. Desai is perceptive, warm, nostalgic, optimistic, often hilarious. Lines like these will keep the reader smiling: “‘Heroes’ on bikes wear bubble helmets and boots, on scooters they chew paan and give signals with their feet”; “You can always trust it (the autorickshaw) to take you there. Sort of”.

While Varma saw the middle class as insensitive, selfish, and materialistic, Desai sees it as imperfect but aspirational. Mother Pious Lady throws up questions that are important and relevant, without a sense of indictment. All the pieces may not be consistently thought-provoking, but Desai manages to put his points across — and keep us smiling.

In Mother Pious Lady, Desai avoids the pompous jargon of a “serious” sociologist but his book has depth, and penetrating perception. It is written with an elegance of style and unmistakable verve. Desai has the readiness to ask questions which we should have asked ourselves, combining frankness with some scholarship. His empathy with the class he lampoons so well turns the book into a bold exercise in introspection.

Shobha Sengupta is the owner of bookshop-cum-art gallery in Gurgaon