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India has the world's worst middle class

Palash Krishna Mehrotra | Updated on: 1 June 2017, 15:54 IST
(Wikimedia Commons)

One might make the case that the Indian middle class is not a single but plural entity. Still, I feel, it’s possible to talk about a broad urban conglomeration called the desi middle class.

While this middle class regularly expresses its ‘outrage’ on social media, it’s an extremely inward-looking, insular class of people whose engagement with society doesn’t go beyond prime time news.

Act global, think local

If you’re English-speaking, your ambition doesn’t go beyond going to America. Every other middle class family in India has at least one member, if not more, dwelling there. It’s a status thing. When you have, in your head, reached your outer limit of success in this society, your offspring, to prove that it has done better than the previous generation, will settle in America.

Most Indians who settle in America have no economic need to do so. They do it primarily for status. Trump is right in blocking them. The middle class, which is part of the Indian problem, also wants to distance itself from India. Perhaps no other middle class in the world has as much self-hatred as ours. Its self-image is marred by an unconscious, badly articulated sense of inferiority.

Most Indians who settle in America have no economic need to do so. They do it primarily for status.

Ours is not a reflective middle class. It is punctual, always at work on time, but its intellectual capacities are severely limited. Every working day it goes mechanically from email to email, phone call to phone call, outrage to outrage, one partisan meme to another. It blames the police, the judiciary, politics and each other, but it rarely places the blame on itself.

All the world’s a stage and we are actors. We take this literally. We act all the time. We can only pretend that we are leading our lives. What we really think—our inner lives, remains a mystery. We merely go through the motions of living.

We ban books and films. Then, sometimes, we unban them. We ban pornography. We overturn the ban. Underlying the ban on pornography is the patriarchal belief that only men watch porn—because women only have sex, within marriage, to procreate sons. Statistics paint a different picture. A survey published by Paromita Vohra’s Agents of Ishq website on women’s masturbation shows women often use visual aids, including pornography.

We watch shows on Netflix and Amazon, constantly looking over our shoulder, worried that even these relatively tame shows with sex, nudity or drugs will be banned or censored soon.

Winds of change sweep the world, but it doesn’t make our middle class wonder. Taiwan legalised homosexuality this week. We decriminalised it, then criminalised it back again. There was no outrage. Outside the families and friends of homosexuals, the rest of the middle class just isn’t interested.

The middle class is not bothered. It’s too busy taking stock photos on its foreign summer trip.

Ireland, when it legalised gay marriage, saw all-night street parties in Dublin. Soon, it might have a half-Indian, pro-abortion, homosexual doctor as its prime minister. We, on the other hand, attack heterosexual couples sitting in parks and coffee shops, slap them, punish them. No real outrage. The conservative middle class doesn’t believe in romance. Romance is for the silver screen. We support abortion for pragmatic/tribal not philosophical/ethical(a woman’s right over her body) reasons: it’s better to kill a child conceived out of wedlock than lose face in society.

Canada is well on the road to legalising pot, right across the country. In America, eight states have legalised or decriminalised production, sale, and possession of cannabis. India, on the other hand, is witnessing a rise in the support for alcohol prohibition, with states trying to outdo each other in imposing restrictions. There is no public debate about legalising cannabis indica in the country where it grows wild and from which it derives its scientific name.

While the world voluntarily moves towards vegetarianism based on principles of cruelty, animal rights and the environment, we are killing human beings, read poor Muslims, for transporting cattle. We are re-imposing ancient dietary proscriptions with renewed vigour. The middle class is not bothered. It’s too busy taking stock photos on its foreign summer trip.

Stuck in the mud

This is a middle class with no real ambition. It is untouched by liberal currents that touch others elsewhere in the world. Its core unit is a tribal one—the family and its self-interest, tight-knotted by four fundamental values: money, female chastity, caste sanctity, and dietary taboo. Each family unit is convinced of its superiority. Those who don’t toe the family line are hunted down and killed. Inside these families, there is violence, infanticide, incest, dowry deaths, marital rape and court battles.

It’s a churlish mean-spirited middle class that has no considered view on things but flip flops endlessly on matters. We take one step forwards, and three backwards.

It’s a middle class wholly and spiritually immersed in day-to-day transactions. It doesn’t want to look in the mirror; it doesn’t want to scrutinise what it sees.

It’s a middle class wholly and spiritually immersed in day-to-day transactions.

It’s a middle class that quells intelligence and ambition, and hates talent with a vengeance. It is casually racist and bigoted. We stare, gawk, slot and judge all the time. I haven’t seen anyone more judgemental than a fellow middle class Indian. The Indian is always trying to gauge who you are, where you come from, how much money you have—and usually he/she spectacularly fails in doing even this. We invent fictions about each other and believe it to be the truth.

To survive in this middle class, one needs the skin of a buffalo. No wonder we worship the buffalo. What we have gifted ourselves is a middle class, desperate and smug at the same time, which greets all individual achievement with snarky negativity.

The Anglicised middle class, desperate to catch up with its other English-speaking colleagues elsewhere in the world, either shuts India out completely or re-exoticises the country and sells it back to itself. Mentally, it lives in a mythical ‘there’. Physically, it lives in the hills of Uttarakhand or the beaches of Goa and does rainwater harvesting. A person belonging to this class, living in splendid misanthropic isolation, consoles herself with the thought: India doesn’t get me.

The non-anglicised class is happy with Bollywood, TV serials, the big fat wedding, a son being born, and gold biscuits. They don’t form a market for culture, only for Kurkure and other assorted FMCG. The most important word in its vocabulary is ‘timepass’; life, in this pessimistic worldview, is one long dreary timepass.

India hasn’t changed because its middle class doesn’t want to change. It moves with the times only superficially. Blue jeans are banned in many women’s colleges, forget about knee-length skirts. The Pinjra Tod movement against hostel restrictions can go only so far because middle class parents don’t want their daughters on the streets after six PM. In fact, couples go to beaches and parks because they cannot meet each other in their parents’ homes, their hostels or their PG accommodation.

We don’t change in meaningful ways. The only thing we change on a regular basis are our mobile phones

The middle classes in the rest of the world tend to change with the times and as society progresses, the judiciary and politics changes along with them.

We don’t change in meaningful ways. The only thing we change on a regular basis are our mobile phone handsets.

Being progressive does not require money. It requires a clear, unbiased head and an open heart, both of which we lack. So we cling to morality, secure selfish interest, and unsee the reality which hasn’t changed for decades: the piles of garbage on the streets, new mosquito-borne diseases, the highest rate of road accidents in the world, bad roads, erratic electricity and internet, shitty toilets, insidious corruption and ramshackle buses and trains. But all this doesn’t bother us anymore. A poor country fools itself into thinking that is can afford the self-indulgence of ideology.

As one more national controversy subsides and a playback singer tweets: ‘A friend with weed is a friend indeed, but a friend who tweets is better’, we might as well look to a Julius Caesar guidebook for guidance (this being the ICSE prescribed text for middle class Indians): ‘The fault is not in our superstars, but ourselves that we are underlings.’

(The writer is the editor of the anthology House Spirit: Drinking in India, published by Speaking Tiger)

First published: 29 May 2017, 18:47 IST