The Mores of India’s Middle Class — III
Continued from “Mercenaries Par Excellence”
In the Mughal royal courts professional sycophants and courtiers blessed with the penchant for giving the advice that the royal ears yearned to hear, were conferred jagirs for services rendered. And these were hereditary, making thereby flattery and sycophancy much-prized vocations for luxurious living. The disappearance of the Mughal empire didn’t mean the end of this practice and its practitioners.
Having discovered the best in India’s past (while in Ahmednagar jail) Jawaharlal Nehru revived the admirable practice of rewarding the loyal retinue in the neo-Mughal court presided over by him. His successors continued this admirable practice with undaunted panache. In due course, astrologers, Yoga experts, soothsayers and charlatans of all types and hues were admitted in royal coterie. In an ever-expanding Delhi, acres and acres of prime land were allotted (literally for a song) to the loyal band of the court in the institutional area earmarked within each new colony. Even today, there must, I think, be at least a dozen institutions in Delhi, enjoying NGO patronage to keep alive the myth of non-alignment. What Arthur Koestler called the call girl circuit is ever ready to lend an intellectual aura to the State-sponsored conferences that these bodies organize on suitable occasions to keep themselves in the reckoning.
The representatives of the upper middle class have a firm belief that this society came into being only for the purpose of providing them opportunities for their enjoyment. On the southern periphery of Delhi, in and around Mehrauli, are farmhouses interspersed with posh restaurants constructed — need I add? — in brazen violation of government regulations and building laws. One of them, Qutub Colonnade, was in the news in 1999. In the early hours of the morning, walked in two brash liquor-thirsty young men and in a vulgar display of machismo, demanded a drink. The restaurant organized parties in which drinking and dancing continued till the crack of dawn. Of course, there was no need of a license to run the bar because the owner of the restaurant had the right political connections and sufficient clout with the police. On a drink being refused — the bar had already closed — a young man shot the bartender in the head. The victim turned out to be a fashion model who died while being rushed to the hospital.
There were endless discussions for days about the quality and security of life in the Capital. Delhi’s well-heeled socialites waxed eloquent about the insensitivity to life of our ambulance services which could not rush to the scene of shooting immediately after being called up from several cellular phones. This won’t happen in London or New York, they lamented. How backward, indeed, are our civic services compared to international standards! Is India a place to live in? No one, however, commented on the insensitivity of the middle class and its representatives who refuse to observe the laws of the land and choose to do whatever they deem fit to suit their convenience like building an all-night pub without permission, serve drinks without license and hardly ever pay any tax on their earnings. The case was soon hushed up because it involved Delhi’s celebrity circle — the creme de la creme of the city.
However, a few unsavory details about life in the Capital came to light: hundreds of joints sell liquor but only 77 are licensed; lakhs are paid to the law-enforcing agencies as “protection money” which includes posting of constables to lend an aura of legality. To bribe one’s way through has become a well-established practice. Will things change after the exposure? No, not at all. The knee-jerk reaction of the authorities is a well-rehearsed play-acting that has been performed several times before. My friends who have watched the doings of Delhi’s sub-elite tell me that this new species of the nouveau riches firmly believes that the laws of the land can always be bent to suit their convenience. Only the venue of the party may change from one colonnade to another: otherwise; it is business as usual.
The nouveaux riches of Delhi have collectively identifiable habits and customs which are unparalleled indeed. Take, for instance, their driving. At night, they must switch on the headlights of their vehicles in high beam to have a clear view of the road till the next intersection. If you dare drive on New Delhi’s roads after sunset, you must take special driving lessons in blindfolded driving. You dare not look at either the back view mirror or the side mirror. Both of them are flooded by the blinding high-beam lights of other vehicles. All you can do is to look straight ahead without daring to glance either to the left or to the right and go on driving in a straight-line while saying your prayers. If you reach home in one piece, organize a thanksgiving session.
The ostentatious lifestyle of the Indian middle class relishes to flaunt its overseas connection. It is this class which has very actively promoted the migration of its educated progeny to the greener pastures of Europe and North America. (All those who migrated to the Middle East weren’t professionals; a vast majority of them were skilled and semi-skilled workers from Kerala, Gujarat and other parts of India). It is a matter of pride on the part of upper middle class to have a son or a daughter settled in the US and they lose no opportunity to mention their overseas connections.
Last year, I received a New Year greeting card from a friend. He retired as a senior functionary of one of the Ordnance Factories in the country and always makes it a point to let all concerned know that, at the time of his retirement, he held a position equivalent to an Additional Secretary to the Government of India — one of the demigods of the Sarkar. As a matter of fact, I’m overawed even by someone holding the rank of Section Officer. (I always remember a SO in the Ministry of Industry telling me once: “Don’t forget, I’m the only officer in the Government of India, the rest of them are mere secretaries”). And if one is an Under Secretary or above, I’m just overwhelmed. However, I was awestruck by an entry in my friend’s card: From so and so — his name followed by his designation at the time of retirement; followed by his wife’s and daughter’s names, and then — hold your breath! — his second daughter’s “Sonia and Ajit (USA).” Aren't you impressed by the mention of the name of the country where they are settled?
Another important attribute of the Indian middle class is its fixation on the West and things Western. For it, the sun rises in the West and, of course, sets there. Years ago, VS Naipaul pointed out in An Area of Darkness how the nouveaux riches of India are inordinately fond of “things foreign”. Anything “foreign” is ipso facto superior to its possible counterpart made in India. A blanket, for example, made in Ludhiana, exported to England, and bought there and brought back home by our upper middle classes, is far better than anything this country can produce.
The fascination for “foreign” doesn’t begin and end with material goods — from undergarments to umbrellas or cheese to chocolates. Far from that. It extends even to names. Sonia and Monica are favorite names for girls in the middle class families. The craze for Sonia didn’t begin with Rajiv Gandhi’s choice as his wife. It started much earlier. Unfortunately, Edwina didn’t catch on despite Jawaharlal’s crush for Lady Mountbatten. Most semi-literate rich Indians found it too difficult to pronounce. But when it came to Sonia, even the rich peasants from Punjab fell for it. It reminded them of their desi “Sohni”. Monica would have caught up as the second favorite but for l’affaire Lewinsky. Rich middle class Indians will never forgive Bill Clinton for his inability to keep his sexual peccadilloes discreetly under wraps. (If issued ‘green cards’ on request, our successful businessmen would have gladly given the American President a lesson or two in cultivating undetectable extra-marital relations). Regrettably, familiar Western female names like Irene, Paula, Bridgette, Sandy et al, couldn’t catch on.
In any case, even country liquor tastes better if poured from a bottle that once had an IMFL label. When it came to Indian males, all Pals — Punjabis as well as Bengalis — corrected the spellings of their names under the impact of Western education. Ajit Pal of yesterday overnight became Ajit Paul. All Sat Pals changed to Satya Pauls — a true example indeed of Anglo-Indian hybrid culture i.e. one part Sanskritized and the other Anglicized. Only a few bhadraloks of West Bengal still cling to their familial Pal. Don’t exceptions prove the rule?
For those still bothered about their cultural roots, Maneka Gandhi has done yeoman’s service to launch them on the voyage of self-discovery. She has compiled a book of Hindu names to which half-educated middle class parents turn to for selecting a Sanskrit name for their darling son or daughter. Often their search lands them in unsolicited troubled waters. They select a name like Prakshit or Pranab which, unfortunately, Punjabis can’t pronounce for their life. It is almost impossible for a Punjabi, despite all his veneer of half-cultivated modernity, to pronounce two consecutive consonants without adding a vowel with either one or both of them. For example, Ma-ru-ti became Maroo-ti and Prakash become Par-kash. (How often have you heard of putt-ar for putra?).
Christians have their godfather’s name as their middle name. For example, George Kennan, the renowned American cold warrior carried his grand-uncle’s name as his middle name: George Frost Kennan. John Kennedy had Fitzgerald as his middle name. So, it is either JFK or John F Kennedy. This posed a problem for our middle class rich, but by no means insurmountable. Ingenious as they are, under the irresistible spell of Western imitation, Sushil Kumar Sethi simply changed to Sushil K Sethi (Semi-literate Punjabis went a step further by abbreviating Kumar into Kr). Who has the time to bother about the fact that Indian names have no Western-style middle name nor is there the practice of having a godfather and adding his name to yours. Kumar — whatever it means — is the most common component of Hindu names e.g. Ashok Kumar or Basant Kumar. Instantly, Kumar changes to K. In case of Guru’s Khalsa, Avtar Singh Dhillon was shortened into Avtar S Dhillon. His progeny turned out to be more catholic than the Pope. Even without living abroad, they try to inculcate American accent and, if semi-literate, spell colour as color. They must never say hello. Hey! — even if it is an undisguised cry of anguish in Hindi — is the way to greet each other. Doesn’t it sound better because it is American!
Fixation on English
Our middle class is also unique in the world for its excessive fondness for the language of its ex-rulers. In fact, it bends over backwards not only to cultivate it but also ensures that its progeny is educated in what are popularly referred to as the English-medium schools. It is with discernible pride that middle class parents tell each other as to which convent their children go to and which English nursery rhymes have they learnt. Their own language is normally meant for conversing with those who never had the benefit of an exposure to the English language, such as people like their domestic help and the low level of service cadres they come in contact with.
Back in the 1920s when he launched the Indian Independence movement, Gandhi was appalled at “the idea of parents writing to their children, or husbands writing to their wives, not in their own vernaculars but in English”. He decried the canker which had, in his day, “eaten into the society” so much so that knowledge of English was deemed as the only hallmark of education. Gandhi did not by any means decry the learning of the English language. He was worried about how our vernaculars were being “crushed and starved”. In his rejoinder to Tagore’s criticism of non-cooperation movement occurs that oft-quoted statement of his:
I do not want my house to be walled in on all sides and my windows to be stuffed. I want the cultures of all the lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible. But I refuse to be blown off my feet by any.
Today, the Indian middle class is doing exactly what Gandhi dreaded the most, i.e. to “live in other people’s houses as an interloper, a beggar or slave”. And worst of all, they deem it a privilege and a badge of honor.
The world over, male precedence (over the fair sex) survives linguistically (Let’s thank the gods that be for their small mercies). You write for instance, in the English language Mr and Mrs so and so and Lord and Lady ... or for that matter Sir John and Lady Russell. The name-plate outside a French house announces: M et Mme.... The Germans do the same and so do the Japanese i.e. to give man his due importance as the family’s protector and bread-winner. (No, I’m not a male chauvinist pig. I’m merely stating the facts of life). It is only the Punjabis of New Delhi who, for some very strange reason, chose to reverse the gender order. In all probability it must be an unlettered nouveau riche upstart who sent a wedding card saying “Mrs and Mr Chawla invite you to the wedding of their darling daughter, Sonia, the apple of their eyes”. And the trend snowballed. It is seldom that you get now an invitation from a couple in Delhi where the man’s name comes first (as old fogeys like me believe it should). I don’t really know if other towns in India have adopted the practice. It is, however, well-established in New Delhi’s so-called high society.