13 May 2012
The Indian Middle Class & The Road Less Travelled
This post was lying around in a partially written form since more than a year and a half. So in context of time, the word 'recently' refers to sometime in October 2010.
Due to some incomprehensible reason, I have always found myself more moved by Robert Frost's following lines than Tagore's "Ekla Chalo Re" (which is undoubtedly beautiful in its own way).
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
I recently watched Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s ‘Namark Haraam’. And I must say that it’s one of the few mainstream Bollywood movies which have moved me. It’s not the class conflicts or the way they have been portrayed which impacted me. It was the realization of timelessness of such conflicts. You can very well transport the entire context from early seventies (when the movie was made) – a time when hope associated with independence had already turned sour and there was disenchantment all around – to today’s post liberalization India. Just change a couple of characters here and there and the essence still remains the same. That factory and its workers in the movie are not far removed Maruti Suzuki factory in Gurgaon and its workers striking last year for better working conditions (One ‘market-friendly’ newspaper actually made the comparison). It makes one wonder how much has still not changed and probably will never change. These issues are probably independent of time and space. As in one of the most poignant moments of the movie, Khanna tells his friend (Bachchan) that the fight was never between the two of them, the fight was always between the two classes.
The worker who is always worried about his next meal, the sheer insecurity of living on daily/weekly wages, the fact that not everyone has the stomach to ‘strike work’ but then what is the option when you are pushed to the wall and of course, the capitalist (no, he’s not a blood sucking bastard), who is just interested more in his own profits than in workers’ welfare – these have been the elements of innumerable stories and dramas right from the days of Victor Hugo to Nehruvian, socialist India. Then, there are the invisible forces driven by cold logic of economics and markets – for example, a labour’s bargaining power is inversely proportional to his dispensability. In other words, as long as the supply-demand equation is skewed in favour of employers, employees’ rights will be taken for granted. If one refuses to work, there are ten others standing outside the gate to do the same job under much more ‘flexible’ terms and conditions.
A very good aspect which Hrishida highlighted in the movie was the conscience of middle class. The middle-class, which itself is an outcome of last one and half century’s history, has a conscience which keeps on biting it on its every exposure to deprivation. This is more so when he himself is a direct or indirect beneficiary. As Amitabh’s dad warns him in the movie, that though his friend may be fulfilling his agenda by trying to get close to the workers, at the end of the day he, being the member of middle class, will have scruples with his conscience. The rich and upper class don’t have such scruples simply because their worldview is completely different.
(In a similar context, I had once written a post to understand what drove so many best and brightest of my father's generation, in the Calcutta of late 60s and early 70s, to chuck-out promising careers and fall for a nebulous ideology supported by violence.)
I guess this conscience is what has driven hundreds, if not thousands of young, middle-class Indians from Medha Patkar to Dunu Roy to Aruna Roy, to chuck out security and assurance of a comfortable, urban lifestyle to dedicate their lives or best parts of their lives in working with and fighting for the dispossessed – this and that utopian dream of a truly egalitarian world where every human being is equal, in every sense of the word. I have often wondered what made an IITian to go, work and live – often on the verge of poverty – with the Bhils of Central India. What drove the one-time District Collector of Bastar to quit the IAS (probably without pension and hence, without any financial security) and plunge in the topsy-turvy of grassroots activism? These men and women are undoubtedly made of stuff different from rest of us. It takes a certain degree of doggedness and stubbornness to continue when you know that you are fighting losing battle, where every institution is skewed so-much against you and where the dominant narrative is so deeply entrenched in the collective psyche of people that an alternate model is beyond their comprehension.
Then, there are the Verrier Elwins of the country, who came in touch with a different culture, a world so-different from the one in which they grew up, a life where you don’t head towards ‘nature’ for a ‘break’ from your fast-paced, stressful urban lifestyle; fell in love with it and stayed back. For them, the forests, the rivers, the wildlife all are a part of a heritage of which they are only trustees, custodians and have no other right, whatsoever. Well, all this was before the India of 1991.
In past two decades, while media has been parroting about ‘India Shining’ the poorer have simply become poorer. A quick glance at India’s Gini Quotient will confirm this. Our Prime Minister’s (and India’s most celebrated Finance Minister’s) so-called trickle-down theory of reforms has had mixed results, at best or fell flat on face, at worst. The cracks in this utopia promising development model are so obvious now that even the mainstream media is talking about ‘sustainable development’ and some organizations have created fancy positions like Chief Sustainability Officer.
While today’s middle class is running this mad rat race, I wonder how many of our generation will tread these ‘unconventional’ paths – even when they have the financial security to lead a decent lifestyle. The middle class India has probably become so insular to the deprivation, poverty all around that everyone goes about their work without even batting an eyelid. Their standard, simplistic response goes along these lines. Oh, poverty, poor people – it is a curse, it is the worst form of violence, it is a pity, these fatcat politicians, corruption is the root cause of such deprivation, get all the black money from Swiss Banks and distribute them among the poor, poverty is a given, what difference can I make, India needs a benevolent dictator, yada, yada. The conscience of today’s middle class is still there but it is an impotent entity which can only bark because it has lost its bite. Call it saturation or insensitivity, whatever you may. While people ignored the cracks & fissures in their beloved edifice called ‘The idea of India’ during the earlier days, today the sedatives of a materialistic life are so effective that, they don’t even want to see the wholesale crumbling of this edifice. The denials and illusions of “All is well” would have shamed even the proverbial Ostrich.
So, the children of early or mid sixties would probably have been the last ones to undertake journey on a road less traveled. But I still want to end this post on an optimistic note because as long as Harsh Manders of this country are lighting a candle instead of cursing the darkness, something deep inside me tells me “Woh Subah Kabhie to Aayegi”.