Call it the enigma of the middle or in the middle of the enigma, but the ubiquitous middle class has remained inscrutable for long. Its components, its contours, its ideology, nothing has been cast in stone. Oft criticised for celebration of materialism, it is a class which defies easy definition. Hailed in some quarters for being instrumental in bringing about a change of guard at the Centre, it is, ironically, regarded as the section most resistant to change. It is the class where, it seems, social sanction is paramount, sovereignty being vested in the collective. Paradoxically, the same section suffers from an exaggerated air of self worth.
Within the so-called one class, there has been marked segmentation with sociologists throwing in terms like upper middle class, middle-middle and lower middle class, each term pointing to a level of aspiration and a state of achievement. In the centuries gone by, it was easier to recognise the middle segment: the Vaisyas, the trading community, provided the bulwark. In many ways they still do, except the caste hierarchy of yesteryears has been replaced by a class hierarchy. Hence we find Brahmins, Kshatriyas and in many cases Sudras too being part of the great Indian middle class. Of course, there are Syed and Ansari Muslims too, just like people from other religions. The driving mantra being the economic condition of the people; what is important for this class is not where you come from, but where you are headed.
The otherwise indefinable class is now beginning to be heard. And seen. Of course, much before our media announced the arrival of the middle class, Pavan Varma, never short of a word, seldom short of an opinion, had sought to unravel the phenomenon. His book then “The Great Indian Middle Class” was a runaway hit; such was the width of Varma’s canvas that almost everybody who read it, went back to it again. His words, even if oft disconcerting, held the readers spellbound.
Now he has come up for another look with “The New Indian Middle Class”. The first book was penned when the middle class was emerging from the shadows of Nehruvian socialism and getting comfortable, quite comfortable with Manmohanomics and a free market economy. Penned in the late 1990s, it portrayed a class that was happy with consumerism, no longer looked down about the need – dare I say, greed – to make money. This time, for the discerning, Varma says it all with a single couplet at the beginning of the book. Mirza Ghalib’s words express all about the contents of the book, the middle class, energetic and confused as ever. “Chalta hun thodi der hare ek tez rau ke saath/Pehchanta nahin hun abhi rahbar ko main” (I walk a little while with every fast-moving swirl/I do not as yet recognize my true mentor and guide).
A little later, Varma takes the lid off the class’s inscrutability. Pointing to its sponge-like qualities, he says, “All of the middle class is caught in the thrall of a consumerist surge that values material success far more than the preservation of caste purities. People want to buy an apartment irrespective of who lives next door; they are willing to work to earn more whatever the caste of the employer; they manufacture what sells, and buy what the market has on offer without a thought about hitherto sacrosanct caste taboos. The middle class…is now part of an upward mobility curve that…has far less time for old rituals that stand in the way.”
Middle class is now a homogenous identity and not just a collation of castes. Not that caste wears thin. It is like when people are in Delhi or a metropolis, they wear pants and shirt, when they go back home to small towns, the lungis, the tehmats, the mundus, the dhotis come back. This dichotomy appears neither uncomfortable nor odd to the constituents.
Yet the middle class, often self-obsessed, wants to play a bigger role on the national canvas. That is where the class will have to shed its tendency of living in a vacuum. Like the Brahmins of the past, the middle class of the present, will have to try and take others along. And it has to be aware of the agenda of the nation, the realities of the larger society. Because after all, middle class is by far the largest constituent of the Indian society: top two per cent are way above the rest, the bottom 30 per cent struggle for two meals a day. Everybody in between is the middle class. Cries of social justice may not rant the air today, they need not be discarded like last year’s garments.
Like Varma says at the conclusion, “A five-thousand-year old civilization and a young republic are today at a crossroads. The middle class can play a decisive role in making the right choices for the nation. It should not fail its tryst with destiny.”
As a middle class man, all I can say is, Pavan Varma’s book is a delight in ways unexpected.
The author is a seasoned literary critic.