Middletown dreams

the crossover
Last Updated 28 November 2015, 18:33 IST

Her name, in English, means “golden”. I last saw her in a WhatsApp image of a young woman posing outside a building in Dubai, wearing the classic LBD (Little Black Dress). As I scrutinised her professionally made-up face, candy pink lipstick, blow-dried hair, and slightly plump figure sheathed in a skimpy black sleeveless cocktail dress, I couldn’t help recalling the first time I had laid eyes on her, eight years ago.

She was a skinny 20-year-old in a salwar kameez who had travelled all alone from a halli in Dakshina Kannada to find work in Bangalore so she could send money back home to her mother. She could barely speak a word or two of English. All she had were a ‘high school pass’ certificate, a cheap mobile phone (on which she could receive but not make calls), and a torn bag stuffed with her meagre belongings. Now, at long last, the golden girl had reached her El Dorado.

Hers is a remarkable story. There was a fragility about her that made one fear for her. She was trusting and forthright, qualities that could easily have plunged her into the murky side of the city, but her inherent, native shrewdness saved her from pitfalls. Besides, there was an invisible network that she clung to, for finding jobs and cheap shared accommodation. Much like the old boys club of the elite, this was the ‘old village society’, so to speak, which consisted of other young rural migrants. “He’s from my village,” she would say confidently whenever I was suspicious of a source who had tipped her off.

Her ambition and persistence were incredible. She got her first job through a placement agency, as the caregiver of an elderly woman in a home for the aged. When the woman died, she found work in a private hospital. However, she had her heart set on being a beauty parlour assistant. The family of the resident, which had grown quite fond of her, sponsored her beautician’s course which she completed while working nights in the hospital.

Meanwhile, supported by her sponsor-family, she went to Spoken English classes and also tried (unsuccessfully) to acquire an under-graduate Commerce degree as an external candidate. She swiftly found employment in a series of beauty parlours, ending up in a salon that was part of a well-known chain. But she wanted more. She nursed a burning desire to go to ‘the Gulf’. Since she was as Internet-savvy as any other youngster of her generation, with a bit of intelligent browsing, she secured a job in Qatar, but it wasn’t long before she hopped across to Dubai which offered greater freedom and more lucrative prospects. By then she had found a middle class boyfriend working for an Indian branch of an international company in Bengaluru. The last I heard, she was trying to fix up a job for him in Dubai. The transformation from rural working class to aspiring urban middle class is complete.

The Old Middle Class

If I were a politician or an economist, I might call her a representative of the New Middle Class (NMC) — by definition, one who earns upwards of 10 USD per day. But for a writer like me, the term “middle class” carries rich associations with a whole way of life — the distinctive attitudes and patterns of behaviour that characterise what I would today call the Old Middle Class (OMC). I could paint you a picture of the typical small-town OMC Indian family of the 1960s. Breadwinner father, housewife mother, the father a doctor, lawyer or engineer — three of the most commonly practised professions.

Teaching was more than a profession; it was a “noble” vocation. Women, if they worked, had deskbound, nine-to-five jobs in schools, banks etc. Small-town OMC families never ate out. There were lowly eating joints mainly frequented by the working class, and perhaps an exclusive club or posh restaurant where the well-off would occasionally dine. It was far cheaper to eat at home; our staple diet was mother’s home cooking, and every last morsel had to be consumed since wasting food was a crime. Beggars could be seen and heard every day, rattling our gates, crying for money or food. Since the poor were visible, and their hunger palpable, we were constantly reminded of how precious food was.

If you were OMC, the one word that symbolised you was ‘security’. Stability and routine were the bedrock of your life. Job-hopping was practically unheard of, and switching professions would have been viewed as sheer lunacy. You aimed for a pensionable job in ‘government service’ where you couldn’t be suspended or dismissed unless you were seriously at fault. Even in the relatively insecure private sector, it would be many decades before words like downsizing and retrenching entered the vocabulary. Thrifty and financially cautious, you thought twice before taking a loan, for you believed in living within your means.

You kept a detailed account of your monthly expenses in a ledger or notebook, and saved, bit by painful bit, until you had a nest egg for your son’s education, daughter’s marriage, and perhaps (your most prized goal) a site on which you could build a house of your own. The OMC faithfully imbibed notions of class from our former colonial rulers; when combined with our inherent feudalism and notions of caste, they formed a toxic mixture.

‘Servants’ (‘domestic employee’ was many decades into the future) never used the main entrance of the house but entered through the back door that led directly to the kitchen, which is where they ate their meals, squatting on the bare floor, using cheap, inferior plates and tumblers earmarked for them. Whether adults or minors, they worked all day for no perks or benefits, and were expected to remain servile and grateful. It was not uncommon for them to be scolded, slapped or thrashed for perfidious behaviour.

The gracious master or mistress might occasionally part with old clothes for them or their children. Allowing them to fill their bellies with freshly cooked food instead of rationing out their meals or giving them leftovers was considered a sign of great generosity. One of the perceived disadvantages of OMC women’s going out to work was that their children would be left in the care of servants, whose disgraceful ‘low class’ habits they might pick up.

A word I often heard while growing up was ‘status’. Critics of the OMC derided its yearning for “car, fridge, phone, TV”, a frequently cited list of status symbols that sound positively quaint in the modern Indian context. Telephones were rare; I grew up without one; houses that had them usually belonged to rich businessmen. Like other OMC children, I went to a ‘convent school’ because speaking ‘proper English’ was a mark of your status, although you might suffer the loss of your mother tongue in the process.

Members of the OMC were acutely conscious of hierarchy: never mingling with those from other social strata, they chose the ‘middle’ in all areas of their lives. Since only the rich could afford foreign travel, many in the OMC had never ever stepped into an aeroplane. In trains they travelled Second Class because First Class was for the rich, and Third Class, for the poor. In cinemas they usually occupied the Middle Stall and sometimes the pricier Balcony, but never the Front Stall where they would have to rub shoulders with the working class.

Education was a key factor of middle class identity; the OMC valued it more than wealth, and socialised only with those who were similarly academically qualified. Marrying into the working class was nothing short of scandalous. Marriages were arranged, of course, within the same caste and class. Parents of a girl in her late teens or early twenties had but one aim: to hook a groom whose family would not make too many ‘demands’. There were unofficially fixed dowry rates for doctor, engineer and IAS officer bridegrooms. Divorce was rare, and spoken of in hushed voices as if it were a terminal illness. The OMC was the self-professed caretaker of social and sexual norms and values, and would brook no challenge to the status quo.

Lavish lifestyle on credit

Enter: The 1990s. It heralded an era of wasteful conspicuous consumption, spurred by a liberalised economy and the Dotcom boom. Middle class attitudes and behaviour were transformed almost unrecognisably, and coalesced into what we now call the New Middle Class. Cell phones, credit cards, designer brands, global retail chains, and imported foods and products flooded the country and were eagerly lapped up by the NMC.

The NMC can be viewed from above and below, as a platform where two layers meet: a lower class generation that lifted itself up, and a generation comprising children of the OMC. At first glance, this creamy layer of the NMC is the polar opposite of its OMC forebears. It is entirely a product of the globalised economy that encourages spending and creditworthiness rather than saving. Government service has lost its allure; the NMC works primarily in the private sector, earning high salaries in a highly stressful, competitive environment. “Steady jobs” have vanished: the golden handshake was followed by employment on contract where one could be summarily dismissed. NMC workers constantly switch jobs for better prospects and blithely live on credit. Fond of buzzwords such as “goal”, “dream” and “challenge”, they take risks, often giving up cushy jobs to become entrepreneurs.

Advances in communication technology have impacted NMC lifestyles. They are global citizens, tuned into the latest global events, networked to the nth degree. They click to buy, click to donate, and click to protest. The OMC loathed activism in any form and wouldn’t be seen dead in a demonstration; slogan-shouting was strictly for the working class. But a large section of the NMC has taken to online activism. They espouse various causes from the comfort of their office cabins. Only when an issue impinges on their own lives do they raise their voices. Great believers in meritocracy, they are against subsidies for the disadvantaged. Many of the self-obsessed NMC prefer to isolate themselves in gated communities.

A great deal has been made of the “westernised” values and attitudes of the NMC. They are more open about their sexuality and less uptight than the previous generation, and this is a healthy change. But when it comes to marriage, they tend to choose the safe, traditional path. Most marriages are arranged, with word-of-mouth being replaced by online searches. Specialised matrimonial websites cater to different castes and communities. The old social order is no danger of being disrupted. But since the NMC are global citizens, they do talk the language of human rights and gender equality, and by and large they appear to treat their domestic employees with greater respect than the OMC used to.

Perspiration, aspiration

And what of the lower layer, the sons and daughters of working class parents who aspire to middle class status? Urban working class citizens sweat blood just to give their children “a better life”. The tailor, the pushcart vendor, the autorickshaw driver — those who are unlettered or school dropouts, who earn daily wages or run small businesses — have only one wish for their children: a white-collar job.

The man who irons the clothes of apartment dwellers lives in a slum. His daily wages put his children through school, and with the financial support of his clients, he actually managed to get them into college. His daughter is now a Commerce graduate who works in an office and earns enough to officially qualify as a member of the NMC. His son has studied beyond high school and hopes to graduate some day.

A chauffeur’s son has a job in a software company and is posted in the UK. He treated his parents to a holiday in the UK recently. And what of the sons of the cobbler who rents a wayside kiosk? With their high school education they flit from one temporary job to the next, as pizza delivery workers and office assistants. They live with their father, squandering their Rs 20,000 monthly salary on branded shoes and mobile phones, while he is resigned to mending bags and shoes for the rest of his life.

The NMC has a precarious future that is susceptible to the vagaries of the global market. The aspiring section is particularly vulnerable. But they live as if there were no tomorrow. The state of the planet does not seem to concern most of them, and the lower layer is busy imitating the spending habits of the upper. This waste of resources can end only if the better-off, better-educated members of the NMC live more responsibly. The aspiring class is sure to follow in their footsteps. And together they would be able to reduce the size of their carbon footprint and — I’m dreaming here — perhaps give Mother Earth a second chance.

(Published 28 November 2015, 14:03 IST)

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