How the middle class failed us

Read this MINT LOUNGE article in the context of my Moneylife article "Middleclass at crossroads" available elsewhere on this Blog:

How the middle class failed us

Instead of leading this country to modernity, we have chosen to run away from our problems

Aakar Patel
The prime suspect on the crime scene that is India is the middle class. Exactly 95.83% of Indians know absolutely nothing about India and they never will. This is because they haven’t travelled abroad (India has 50 million passport holders). They have no experience of difference. They will imagine the rest of the world behaves like us.

The idea that corruption is an aberration in some societies, that traffic is not meant to be Hobbesian, that a single woman in public receives space, that physical work is not degrading and those who do it not menials, the idea that killing their daughters for falling in love is utterly alien to some cultures, that it is culture that keeps neighbourhoods clean and not the government.

The vast majority of Indians do not comprehend such things and have no tools to comprehend.

It is the English-speaking middle class that has seen civilized societies at work.

The Marxists thought a vanguard, a small group of people, would bring the revolution that the mass would then become part of.

Such a vanguard should have been the middle class of India, dragging their pathetic nation into modernity. We who knew, or should have known what is wrong and tried fixing it. At the least, we should have identified the problem as being resident in our culture.

But it is difficult to escape the conclusion that we have instead failed ourselves, and the 95.83%. Instead of knowing this—something that is blindingly obvious—the middle class has chosen to run away.

I will illustrate its cowardice and stupidity by addressing the middle-class’ mascot, R.K. Laxman. The cartoonist best represents their drawing-room certitude that the problem lies outside.

In this view, it is the politician who is vile and the system that is faulty. The corruption, the anarchy, all of that is inflicted on the middle class. They (“the common man”) are victims.

Laxman has sketched this cardboard caricature of India for six decades, with no penetration of reality.

Fourteen or so years ago, Laxman was interviewed by Bharatiya Janata Party leader L.K. Advani’s daughter Pratibha on television. The subject turned to caste. Laxman said he hadn’t noticed the caste of the person next to him at his Times of India office till the law on reservations was legislated. He had not bothered about caste, nor had it bothered him, till this time. It was the act of reservation that brought caste to his life, and therefore to his notice. A newspaper reporter asked him 16 years ago what he did when stuck in traffic. Laxman said he liked riding in his Ambassador because from it you looked down on the beggar. In low-slung modern saloons, he explained, the beggar looked down on you and that he found intimidating.

It is remarkable that someone so totally oblivious to India, so insulated from its reality, is honoured as its chronicler. Laxman knows nothing about India.

I said this one evening some years ago over a drink to film director and writer Kundan Shah. He disagreed with me. Shah said he remembered Laxman’s cartoon of an oil slick approaching Mumbai’s coast. Laxman showed a man from a petrol pump pulling his lead towards the incoming spill trying to pump it to his customers.

Actually, this funny visual illustrates what I mean. In this case, the villain adulterer cheats the unsuspecting public.

Writer Khushwant Singh said Laxman was worth three editors. I will dismiss this saying it is a reflection on his editors rather than on Laxman.

The greatness of Laxman is that his pedestrian offering is perfect for his audience. It helps keep them in their cocoon.

The signs of their inability to step outside it and come into the modern world are everywhere.

In Europe, the middle class has stopped going to church. Civilized society has no need of ritual. In India it is the opposite.

Ahmedabad’s sociology professor Gaurang Jani told me of a test he conducts every academic year. He asks his graduate class to put their right hands up.

More people each year, he said, wear sacred paraphernalia—threads and charms and things that protect them from evil—than did when he first began the exercise two decades ago.

This does not surprise me.

In my view, the faith is not idolatry, it is actually animism. The religion of one who worships nature because it is frighteningly unpredictable. He must pacify it through offerings and protect himself with magic threads and auspicious times divined by astrology. Understanding the universe through observation is not possible for such people, just as it was not possible for their ancestors a thousand years ago. The most primitive, anti-scientific view of the world possible may be found in our English-speaking middle class.

Not just Hindus, even South Asia’s Muslims are thus, not real monotheists, though they will take offence at this. They use their watches to tell time but are the only Muslims in the world who end Ramzan only when the moon shows itself physically. Animism in its purest form.

What can be said of a middle class that goes into rapture over idols slurping milk? Someone called it the milk frenzy. Frenzy is appropriate because the individual dissolves into the mob effortlessly in India.

I reported the milk lunacy from Bombay (as it was then called), our most civilized city, where M.J. Akbar, himself a Ganesh devotee, gave it the full front page of his newspaper.

There is no mental progress in the Indian and education has not touched him or civilized him. If you remove Facebook and Twitter, the trinkets of modernity, from this rabble, the snarl of its primitive character will come through.

The middle-class Indian thinks he’s civilized but he has no comprehension of the meaning of the word.

He is as filthy as the poor Indian. The difference is that he expects someone else to pick up the rubbish he strews about. He expects the missionary to build the schools he himself cannot (and then whines about paying donations).

His belief in mumbo-jumbo he will explain away as cultural. The outsider observing him in action, individually and collectively, would place him for certain with the rest of the non-middle class: the poor and the illiterate. The ones he thinks he is so superior to and the ones he is convinced are responsible for the state of things about him.

Aakar Patel is a writer and a columnist.

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First Published: Fri, Sep 14 2012. 09 03 PM IST


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