Indefinable middle class
Market researchers attempt to ‘crack’ this inscrutable constituency of an India whose consumption potential can redefine the economic world order
By Rita Kothari
Posted On Thursday, July 29, 2010 at 02:36:20 AM
Those of us who have grown up in the India of the seventies and eighties would know what it is to suddenly find your metaphors fade and associations severed. Our children of the post-1990s liberalised India find us quaint and remind us how, as Santosh Desai remarks, “Yesterday’s modernity is today’s tradition.” Bewildered as we are by way more years dividing us from the ‘new’ India than arithmetic can enumerate, we grope for a common language and references.
When I say ‘we’ I refer, as does Desai, to India’s middle class. Central to many books on India in recent times, the middle class remains vaguely familiar. Market researchers attempt to ‘crack’ this inscrutable constituency of an India whose consumption potential can redefine the economic world order. They are busy trying to figure out why this class took to noodles, but not cornflakes (the latter didn’t have the Maggi tastemaker, you see), accepts some forms of newness, but zealously guards its traditions in other respects. Sociologists engage in questions of whether this class can be said to have formed owing to the educational policies of the 19th century, or rise of the mercantile classes. Cultural ethnography concerns itself with the ritualistic moorings of this middle class, and whether they are being redefined through technology. Perhaps not. For instance, “a fair Brahmin girl” remains the most sought-after commodity in the matrimonial classifieds of a print newspaper or a matrimonial website.
Rama Bijapurkar’s persuasive book We are Like That Only showed how value-conscious the middle class was, but formed as it were, by different layers that multinationals needed to acknowledge and work upon. Pavan Varma’s The Great Indian Middle Class assumed this class existed as a stable entity; it merely needed his judgement of the lack of moral and ethical discernment. Gurcharan Das sees it as a class unbound by the baggage of socialism and control, raring to break old definitions and set the stage for a global India.
In the midst of this plenitude about India and India-flavoured books, it is difficult to know if a new book about India has anything new to say. Mother Pious Lady: Making Sense of Everyday India by Santosh Desai does. To start with, it does not have the arrogance of a single view, and to that extent, comes closest to the idea of India. Desai uses the lens of everydayness and looks at the India of small and mundane experiences. More importantly, he does so with the charm of Sai Paranjpe or Hrishikesh Mukherjee through the cinematic media, or RK Laxman through cartoons.
He excavates images from our sepia past, and reminds me for instance, of how my uncle, owner of a utensils store in Ajmer, would know from distance whether a customer would buy stainless steel or brass. The first was the sign of modernity, clean and solid; the second, tradition, now recuperated as an object of art in homes of the elite.
He reminds us of the cracking new clothes we wore on festivals, never mind if they made all siblings look exactly alike, or how our mothers (or even us, come on) would squeeze the last ounce of dhania from a subziwallah to feel we have got our ‘money’s worth’, or the annual holidays we took to visit cousins, and how we played games that didn’t cost an arm and a limb. “Holidays,” says Desai, “were not a break, but a joint.” Just how much we managed out of scarcity — a postcard, an unexpected song in Aapki Farmaish, an unannounced visitor, a window that allowed us to gaze outside and watch life go by before it was replaced by television sets and so on. Desai chronicles our lives, ones that are not chronologically ancient, but appear to have been consigned to another place, another time.