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Updated: June 8, 2010 10:33 IST

The making of the Indian middle class

Nalini Rajan
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This thought-provoking book is a compilation of readings on the making of the Indian middle class from the late 19th century to the early 21st century. There is both a challenge and an advantage in compiling such a volume. The challenge: what to include and how to order it. And the advantage: an enviable opportunity to make a critical appraisal of the essays. On both counts, Sanjay Joshi has performed admirably.

Microscopic minority

What or who constitute the Indian middle class? Since the secular and liberal Western middle class is taken as the norm, its Indian counterpart will often be seen as falling short of the ideal, so to speak. In 1888, according to the outgoing Viceroy, the Marquess of Dufferin and Ava, it was a “microscopic minority” that was incapable of representing the interests of the masses.

Even today, the middle class in India does not occupy a median position, and may, more properly, be dubbed an “elite, affluent class,” as Aurobindo Ghosh anticipated in his 1893 essay (“A Cheap Shoddy Import”) and D.D. Kosambi recalled, some 50 years on, in his review of Jawaharlal Nehru's Discovery of India. One of the earliest tributes paid to the Indian middle class is to be found in the 1961 essay by B.B. Misra, where he called it “a product of British benevolence.”

It is not as if such a class did not exist in pre-colonial times. The main change in its status came about in the form of its participation in the public sphere (which C.A. Bayly calls ‘ecumene'), resulting in a kind of universalisation of middle class norms. But this so-called universalisation was tainted owing to the colonial experience.

The post-colonial subject, from Jawaharlal Nehru to the Bollywood scriptwriter (as M. Madhava Prasad argues), was forced to indulge in a paradoxical nationalist discourse, hoping to reconcile the goals of objective Western rationality and subjective Indian antiquity. To this day, there have been an uneasy, troubled coexistence of liberalism and caste endogamous practices in virtually all parts of the country. Nevertheless, the Indian middle class is not a monolith, as suggested by the various ways in which the contributors describe it — the non-fixity of the Western middle class narrative within the Indian context (Dipesh Chakrabarty); the Bengali rentier component giving rise to complex gender politics (Tanika Sarkar); players of cricket in the extended Macaulayan education system (Boria Majumdar); the prudent white-collar Kanara Saraswat community in Bombay (Prashant Kidambi); the family-oriented merchant class (Claude Markovits); the new sharif Islamic class divorced from the nobility and the lower classes (Margrit Pernau); and the educated Tamil Brahmins, who embody a schizophrenic realm of Westernised public and Sanskritised private values (M.S.S. Pandian).

Not demarcated

In reality, the ‘public' and the ‘private' are not very clearly demarcated as the ‘Westernised material sphere' and the ‘native spiritual sphere' respectively, as Partha Chatterjee would have it. According to Chatterjee, there can be no such phenomenon as the Indian middle class in colonial times, simply because the natives were excluded from the public sphere of economics and politics. Since the natives were confined to the private sphere of the household, religious, caste and gender hierarchies flourished in the Indian community during the colonial phase. However, as Sanjay Joshi (‘Re-Publicising Religiosity') points out, the native private sphere did not remain private; it acquired an aggressive public face, as in the case of religious expression, in defiance of the British colonial embargo on native participation in politics.

In a lighter vein, A.R. Venkatachalapathy tells us that even a private pleasure like coffee drinking — initially viewed as a Western vice — acquired a public face in the form of Brahmin-run coffee houses, which before long gave rise to the ‘other', namely the working-class tea houses, all over Tamil Nadu.

The importance of a volume like this lies in that it throws light on the historical evolution of the values of the middle class that are naturalised and taken for granted in the present-day.

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