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”.


Suvro Chatterjee said...

I shall try not to ramble, Rajarshi.

1) Conscience needs cultivation and nurturing, like many other things. The present generation middle class (meaning mine) and their fathers have concentrated maniacally on an ideal of self-improvement, not to say -aggrandizement, in isolation from the common weal. Whether such a nationwide pursuit can be long sustained remains to be seen. After all, the PM himself has gone on record saying the Maoists are now the biggest threat to India's integrity and security, and they did not fall from the sky!

2) We no longer have conscience keepers of a sort that existed, say, when Gandhi and Tagore were alive. I mean, compare Harsh Mander or Bunker Roy's mass appeal with that of say Shah Rukh and Dhoni, and nobody admires those celebrities for humble living and devotion to the public purpose!

3) Maybe you have read P. Sainath's 'Everybody loves a good drought' and Pawan Varma's 'The Great Indian Middle Class'? If you haven't, please do.

4)As someone with formal training in economics, I can assure you that given the kind of policies we have been following for the last 20 odd years, the Gini coefficient will get more skewed before it gets better (if it ever does). After all, Singhonomics wants to focus singlemindedly on increasing the size of the pie rather than on the way it is shared out, and it is being held back from going the whole hog only by Madam's concern about the aam admi, based more on electoral compulsions than anything else, of course. Maybe they'll soon do away with this irritating roadblock called the vote?

Finally, I am not the poetic/revolutionary sort who dream of the millennium dawning suddenly someday; indeed, I don't even believe in that sort of pie in the sky. But things can certainly be made better or worse by human intervention, and right now, for at least 5-600 million Indians, things are certainly not getting better. But then at least 100 million think they are, and it is their voices which count!

Rajarshi said...

Dear Sir,

Thank you very much for the comments.

In spite of your observation about your generation of middle class, I feel that it is/was better than my generation. The generation born from late-70s onwards is not only oblivious to problems around them but also the problems with their chose lifestyle & careers.

I have read P.Sainath's 'Everybody Loves a Good Drought' but am yet to read Pawan Varma.

Suvro Chatterjee said...

Sorry for writing in again, Rajarshi. I had been waiting to see if some more comments come in, but it seems both of us must plough our lonely furrows...

I have been a teacher virtually all my life, and so I have had a lot of youngsters pass through my hands, and I have watched them grow up too. I am closely in touch with many young people in the age group of 16-35, and although I often criticize them harshly enough as their teacher and mentor, I cannot help feeling a lot of sympathy for them, for they are often helpless (and even unconscious-) victims of their hothouse upbringings. What better can you expect from people who have been cossetted and prevented from encountering the real world even through books all through their childhood and teenage? When they are finally exposed to that world, they try hard to cope with all its troubles, snares, woes and disillusionments as best as they can, and they are so pathetically ill-equipped: how can you really blame them for living badly and messing their lives up, along with their immediate environments, physical and social? And whom does the lion's share of the blame lie with, if not with us, their parents? (I know a girl in class 9, a Bengali, daughter of two doctors, who never goes anywhere except by car, and hasn't even heard of 'Sonar Kella', leave alone read or watched it. Yet this girl is going to be a doctor, because her dad is sure to buy her a seat in a private college if she fails to get in anywhere else. What kind of adult/doctor/parent/neighbour/citizen do you expect her to become?)