Against all odds...

Against all odds...

With the value of the rupee plunging to a record low, the Indian middle class is trying every trick under the Sun to take the rupee that extra mile. Lakshmi Palecanda offers a glimpse of middle-class homes where every penny is squeezed till it squeals.

‘May you live in interesting times’ is a Chinese curse. And we, who do live in these times, can attest to both the fact that we are living in interesting times, and that it is a curse. Don’t agree? Just go shopping for grocery.

About ten or twenty years ago, we used to go shopping and return with a heavy bag and a light heart. However, now we go shopping and return with a light bag and a heavy heart. With inflation putting a heavy squeeze on us, we are all re-evaluating our economic worth. We are left to wonder where we lie in the cross-section of Indian economy.

Like it or not, worth and status of individuals are determined by how much money they have. Based on this criterion, economists divide people into socio-economic segments such as below poverty line, poor, lower middle class, middle class, upper middle class and the affluent or the rich.

But this is a sliding scale, and the people who slide back and forth the most are those in the middle class categories, that are currently poised at around 13 per cent of the total Indian population. Most of us fall into this category, and, let’s face it, in today’s inflationary atmosphere, we are fast sliding backwards into near-poverty. Any blip on economy’s radar translates into large waves that threaten to sink or speed our ships.

Status-wise, while it is pitiful to be poor, and desirable to be rich, many people think it infra dig to be considered middle class. However, when you think about it, ours is the class which has the most potential. With no overwhelming fear of starvation, reasonable means to education, and burning ambition, people in this class have the ability to lead challenging and rewarding lives. We also have the ability to think ourselves into the other socio-economic segments, based on our own attitudes and state of mind. When you are happy with your life, you are, philosophically speaking, rich, while someone who constantly feels insecure financially, can be called poor. Speaking of state of mind, if you find a hundred rupee note, you feel rich for that instant, while if your pocket gets picked, you feel poor.

And today, your average Middle Class Madhav/Mubarak/Mathew and Mridula/Maggie/Mubeena, basically you and I, are definitely feeling poor. Inflation is threatening the way we live our lives, and the dreams we have of ensuring a better future for our children. So we are hitching up our pants, drawing in our guts, taking a deep breath, and tightening our belts figuratively. In effect, we are running faster to stay in place.

But, economising is not new to the middle class. In fact, it is the hallmark, the very raison d’etre of our existence. It pervades every sphere of our lives, making every saved rupee a personal triumph, and every wasted paisa a lesson for the future. How do we accomplish it?

Let us start in the bowels of our middle class home — the bathroom. No middle class household’s (MCH) bathroom is complete without a completely flattened toothpaste tube. Think the toothpaste tube has run out? Think again. Use enough force on the hapless tube, and it may live to whiten your teeth, kill germs and prevent tooth decay for another day. It used to be easier when they had metal-based tubes. Those things could be cajoled, flattened, even bulldozed into yielding every last bit of paste.

Shampoo is another thing that can be drawn out. A good MCH knows that if you twist off the cap of that can, pour a little water, and give it a good shake, you can get two more hair washes out of it. As for hand soap, dilute before pouring it in is the mantra. Others are: unwrap soap and keep it exposed for a few hours before use, it will last longer. And put the empty soap wrapper among clothes — a cheap way to perfume them. And when branded cosmetic products are priced sky-high, use generics.

Speaking of clothes, the younger siblings in MCHs are usually doomed. This knowledge comes from painful personal experiences. We invariably had hand-me-downs thrust on us, thus eliminating the need to buy new clothes for us... at least until we grew bigger and taller than our older brothers or sisters. Trading across families is also rampant, and yields more value for the money spent, until a child of a family can be identified by the clothes it is wearing.

Getting the last drop...

The next most important place in a home is the kitchen. And this is one place where MCH economising finds ample scope. For example, you want to extract up to the last ‘e’ in filter coffee. For this, MCHs make three to four extracts of the same coffee grounds with hot water. If you blend all the extracts carefully, the same amount of coffee powder will stretch for one more cup. As for getting all the milk and cream out of milk packets, you rinse off the packets with a bit of hot water. If you don’t want to dilute the milk, you let the packets sit for a while to let the milk settle and you pour it out again. This way, you can get a whole 0.0045 litre (4.5 ml) more, which, at today’s milk price, is not something to be sneezed at! And don’t forget the used milk packets, either. These can be sold to recyclers and yield a little something to the household kitty.

There are many more household tips to save resources. One is to use medium-sized plates to serve food — the quantity appears more. Use small serving spoons and serve small amounts — nobody is going to ask for fifths. When making ghee rice, you don’t have to use too much ghee; if you add a spoonful at the very end, which gives it a great flavour, you can reduce the quantity by half. Use potatoes to swell a dish, and rice flour to thicken sambhars. If, at dinner time, there is not enough of both the rasam and the sambhar, marry the two to create a larger volume. The list goes on.

It has to be noted that the kitchen is where inflation has hit the hardest. In the old days, cooks would use a lot of dhal and tamarind to add taste to dishes. Onions were used as filler veggies along with tomatoes, so that, in a peas curry, you would find more onions and tomatoes than peas, since peas were expensive. Now that the veggies despised as cheap fillers are expensive themselves, your average householder is scrambling to find alternatives. Earlier, if your hostess served you lemon rice with tomato-dhal-coriander rasam, you would feel slighted; these days, this menu should make you feel honoured.But don’t anticipate invitations. From time immemorial, Indian MCHs have always been known for their hospitality. Their attitude used to be: ‘Don’t bother about advance notice, just come over for dinner’. Over the past ten years, it has morphed to ‘Call, then come over.’ Now it has become ‘Just call, don’t bother coming over.’

Moving on to other parts of the home, furniture in MCHs is basically utilitarian and convertible. ‘I chose my wife, as she chose her wedding gown, not for a fine glossy surface, but such qualities as would wear well,’ says the vicar of Wakefield, and that is how the furniture is chosen. A few of them may match, but don’t look for complete sets, you’ll be disappointed. And nothing in an MCH is used for one purpose only. Sofa-cum-beds, coffee-cum-dining-cum-homework tables and chair-cum-washed clothes-depository are the done things. And you have one household TV. Of wars over the remote, there may be many, but there will only be one television, and that will usually occupy the pride of place. These are homes of hardworking, basically decent people who can’t afford fancy stuff, and to whom ‘Good Housekeeping’ means keeping the house neat and clean.

The famed 3 R’s

Recycling within the house is also an MCH thing. Old cotton saris make for soft, light bed sheets in summer, used clothing, especially torn banians, are great as dusting cloths, old ribbons can be used to tie curtains, old sari petticoats convert to solid floor mats outside bathrooms — these are common. Why, old saris, especially old silk saris, are even used as dress materials, especially for kids’ clothing.

MCHs may enjoy reading, but usually avoid buying books and magazines. Instead, we seek lending libraries, which satisfy both our reading and our economical habits. We, however, cannot live without our favourite newspapers, which end up serving as a source of income at the end of the month. The friendly neighbourhood kabadiwala gets the used papers and the household gets a shot of cash to help tide over those rocky days before the next paycheck hits the bank.

Speaking of reading periodicals, it is the MCHs that are the target audience for household tips that appear in every newspaper and magazine. Whether it is making vases out of used bottles, revitalising kitchen sponges, or stain-removing using easily available materials, it is the MCH that derives the maximum benefit out of it. It is so with recipe columns also. Want to make something delicious in a cheaper manner? Of course, we do!

Eating out is very special in an MCH. Children cavort in the luxury of eating any food that is not wholesome and homemade, but the true-blue MCH woman feels guilty, at least momentarily, when she shells out Rs 20 for 10 ml of indifferent coffee, or Rs 40 for an ordinary roti. ‘I could have made this so much better at home, and for almost nothing,’ she is bound to think. One-by-two, be it soup or coffee or curry, is the watchword of MCHs, who can make anything stretch. And the vegetarian MCH has a huge problem with all-you-can-eat buffets at restaurants. ‘We don’t eat the meat dishes, but end up paying for them too,’ is the usual grouse. Some of us make up for it by gorging on desserts. How else can you get your money’s worth?

Stepping out the MCH way is on bikes or the lower-end cars. These are lovingly treated and cared for, as they are the tickets to independence from town buses, which are invariably erratic, slow and overcrowded. Doubles, triples, and on occasion, quadruples, are the ways in which our families move. And calculating the amount of fuel you get at the gas station becomes an art — it has to be sufficient as to get from point A to point B, but not too much as to strain the wallet.

Brand consciousness

Brands are the in-thing today, but they are very expensive. We, middle class people, love brands too, but we know that we have to be careful with our money. For example, we want to be seen wearing Calvin Klein. If we buy a pair of Calvin Klein jeans, it is sure to fit well, look good and last a long time. But it costs a lot, and there is every chance that we will not stay the same size. So, how do we get to keep our cake and eat it too? Simple! We go to the nearest Wall Mart outlet and buy Kelvin Cleen jeans! No, there is no typo here. The Wall Mart is the roadside stall where they hang the merchandise on the cardboard walls, and Kelvin Cleen is a brand knock-off. We haven’t spent too much on a pair of jeans, and, come on, like anyone is going to make a big deal of it!

And how about that Gucci bag we want but can’t afford? Well, we just get a Cucci bag! The pleasure of owning a Cucci is far more than the satisfaction of having a Gucci, for we got it for far less, and at a distance, it looks quite authentic. Anyway, the crowd we hang out with are all wearing Barmanis and Prabas; they understand.

This way we can step out in style wearing Roobok shorts, Adibas shoes, Bolo shirt, and a Rolox watch. Branded life made accessible, Guru! Middle-class chic! Just try it, no!Luckily, no one tries to knock-off literature. Otherwise, we might find ourselves reading ‘Julio and Romiet’ by Chakesfear, or ‘The Tale of Two Pattis’ by Darles Chickens.

Of course, no commentary on MCHs can ever be complete without the mention of the four-letter word that we worship: Sale! Never get between a middle-class woman and a sale. Never mind if the prices were jacked up first, but to get something for less than the quoted price is the dream of every middle-class person. Another irresistible lure is the ‘two for one’ deal. Sometimes, we even buy something because we want the item that comes free with it.

Wanting to live life king-size is everybody’s dream. The Middle Class Household has to realise its dream on a tight budget, so it contrives, adjusts, manoeuvres and manages in ingenuous ways. For that, every penny has to be squeezed till it squeals. We, the middle class, have to work at enjoying life, and therefore get to appreciate more fully what life has to offer. Meanwhile, we also hold on to its traditions, customs and values. It is not a stretch to say that the middle class is the backbone of a nation. It determines the character of the culture. Traditional, hospitable, upbeat, thrifty, fun-loving — these traits of our middle class characterises our country to the world.

The middle class home is a happy, connected, happening place, full of affection, friendship, relationships, conversation, and laughter. Everything is shared, joy and sorrow, laughter and tears, teleserial and cricket match. Living through the hard times and facing challenges brings people together and forges bonds that last a lifetime.The Middle Class Household is where real, normal Indian life happens.

One last note: if you should see a woman at a sale wearing Adibas sandals and carrying a Cucci handbag, please stop and say ‘hi’. Maybe we can share a ‘by-two’ coffee!

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