Friday, 1 April 2016

Belonging to the Middle Class



I don’t know what being a part of the middle class in a statistical sense means. I think it has got something to do with economics, sociology, demography, perhaps history with government policies, subsidies and electoral speeches thrown in. I leave the division of the pie chart to those who know their numbers. I don’t. 

What I do know, totally personally, is what belonging to the middle class is all about. And that is the pie I’d like to talk about!

In the days of Chitrahaar and Krishi Darshan on Doordarshan (let’s say late 1980s, give or take a few ‘rukawat key liye kheyd hai’) we all seemed to be living very similar lives, where class as a label or a designer handbag was never important enough to be acknowledged. We didn’t even know what class was! It was only when a handful of oldies got together at the chowk to discuss the latest budget would we kids hear ‘where will us middle class folks go?’ Of course, the moment we over-indulged by buying a Chocobar instead of an icy Cola Bar we would be frowned upon by prying aunties - ‘Look how our middle class youngsters indulge these days!’  That didn’t really help to explain middle class to us imps, except hinting to us that none of the 23 rusty trunks in the house, with at least one turned into a settee, carried gold bricks. Money was precious. Chocobars could wait for occasions. Clothes could be handed down and Casio casseroles, cycles and curtains never gave up on a few generations. 

But who cared! We all seemed to belong to one, big, happy class. Except the heroines cast opposite actors, who drove open cars, wore big shades, with perms on foreheads and Pomeranians in their laps. They must be upper class! Us? No. No. Every man in every household drove a Bajaj Chetak or an LML, of the "Ley Matt Leyna" variety with one long scooter seat, instead of two with a safety handle in between. One helmet and many heads rode it, together, and the wife compulsorily had to hold on to her husband to stay aloft. Romantic! The cars on the road were Fiat Padminis, and Maruti 800s the rare show-stoppers. Especially the red ones, remember?

A sepia film of sameness of class seemed to cover complete townships in our child eyes, prominent tell-tale signs of which were present in every house we visited in my small town at least – languidly carrying freshly made idli-sambhar or for urgently exchanging coloured chalk for WWF trump cards.

What were those signs, tucked below mattresses like old gift wraps waiting for a new gift or filled up in trunks like 4 extra razais, with bleached white covers? Every morsel left after a meal found home in the single door Kelvinator, which served more humans successfully than the number of katoris stacked in pillars inside it. Two ladles of leftover besan mix or one half of a boiled potato could be turned into a snack for friends after the evening’s hopscotch, served in solid steel plates. Just like left over threads of gota-zari or sari borders, in a separate packet marked ‘needlework’ could convert an old suit into a new fancy dress for the little girl, puff sleeves included. Just about anything – from ink pens to brass show pieces to Tobu cycles to rectangular school bags with metallic clips which pinched fingers – anything could be handed down and received with love.  

Trunks as the best bet for storage were trusted like god himself, who resided in every kitchen in a small and sober temple in the corner farthest from the sink. Old utensils with broken handles were as important as LICs and debts, never forgotten, and old toothbrushes which could scrub just about anything (especially white PT shoes) never thrown. Umbrellas could always be mended, just like gaping shoe toes, lacy TV covers with piping and even relationships. A watch simply told the time, a car transported us, a ladies bag carried floral hankies and Relaxo rubber slippers could travel everywhere without cringing, after their boxes became robots for playing with! Telephones, those black beauties (maybe beige) made for good neighbours and loud trunk calls. 

When middle class became a puckered up ‘so middle class!’ as a term for looking down upon another’s status, I know not. But I regret it. Because the moment it did, those valuable characteristics which defined a middle class household and showed through these spots and signs got ignored as irrelevant. And worse, useless. 

Those days, one of the most precious things in our lives, enough to be kept in the locker of the dark grey steel almirah, were our school mark sheets and character certificates; given a better plastic folder than even our passports!  I look back today and find this symbolic… 

Hard work was worship, merit was god. Only then came well-deserved vacations, mostly needing no passport. Over a typical day, all members of middle class homes were following routines which seemed to aim at one thing – to contribute to the house as an organic whole; to keep it together. In a happy way. Because all parts of it were equally important and present and needing care and attention. We ate together, often on the beds spread with newspapers. We watched the same soaps, same prime time. We shared rooms without fussing and slices of water melon with kaala namak without a dreg of regret. We were never alone. We almost never wanted to be.  

Our families were like that big polythene bag behind the kitchen door, forever open to welcoming more into its fold. We wanted to keep it together no matter what it took, because it’s what mattered. 

That meant being thrifty and minimizing wastage, and which then took preservation and storage of things (and values!) to huge heights of importance. We were assured of a shelter from the rains for our little paper boats made of newspapers but there was also a continuous effort to ensure that shelter for the future too. Yes, some hand-knit sweaters for men were preserved beyond their threaded destiny, but then things became objects of desire precisely because granny made them or both father and son used them; objects became a sentiment, like my first block-printed table mats, dear and dearer by use till only their memory could outlive them.  

And we of the middle class variety were happy, once. Perhaps, a touch of humility came from acknowledging that in the social ladder this is what we are with what we have, a black and white TV with a family photo on top and a springy sofa with hand-embroidered covers sitting on mosaic-grey floors. There was always enough of the things that we needed. There were better jobs than our fathers’ to work towards and marriages and kids to dream about. Obviously! But there was also this plain and simple Contentment to aspire for, and that pretty little feeling was actually reached every rainy Sunday evening, 5pm, when bread rolls and chai tickled the noses of the neighborhood kids, and adults, to make them walk into our verandah chiming with a watering mouth - ‘What lovely weather. Feels like heaven!’ 

Yes. Heaven seemed within reach. 

It’s different now, perhaps because I’m writing this through an adult’s spectacles and viewing all those years with pigtails on my head. 

A lot of us seem to be constantly climbing into the next higher levels of ‘class’, class being something we are acutely aware of, making our kids aware of; something which has replaced the wish for a lovely rainy evening on cane chairs with wine-n-dine parties overlooking a rain-soaked valley from an air-conditioned room on the ninth floor. Through the glass windows. The hands never wet. The wind never felt. The property prime. The soaring ambition in place. One wonders if there is a definite ‘middle’ anymore (or was there ever?). If there is, why does it appear like the girth of a prosperous man wearing a Gucci belt, increasing, living in a home with much lesser space for old things, and even less space for extended families? 

Even as my son plays with a clown his father grew up playing with, I have stowed away some of his toys for my brother’s kids. Who is yet to get married! I’m thinking aloud as I catch those signs. Wondering, if in our bid to leave behind ‘where we come from’ we aren’t really shedding the life-jacket we rode the mobility wave in. And just maybe those very middle class values still flow in our systems, secretly, struggling to keep us grounded. Beneath the comfort of plenitude and beyond the layers of fineries. 

Because after all to them we once belonged. Without even realizing it!  


35 comments:

  1. ...and i thought i was the only one who indulged in reminiscing good old days :) Sakshi, we are lucky (!i would like to believe) to have a common past, perhaps our entire generation will have a similar backdrop if we flashback to 80s and 90s. We perhaps are the connecting link between earlier and future generations as far as social evolution is considered.

    The lack of common base for today's kids frightens me. I find each kid growing in a unique environment and the fast changing social structure adding layers upon layers as if cocooning them. The real connect between people getting lost to superficial social media interaction. While we haplessly hold onto the shreds of past, the world seems more alien - more complex now. The old world I had known no longer exists. Then I wonder is it time to let go...for it is the natural course of things that is unfolding in front of us.
    ...excuse me for using this space for my rant. I felt a strong connect in this article :D

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    1. Yes, we could be the connecting link between the previous generation and the next. But then, probably every generation wants to believe so, sitting happy and proud in their nest of memories, endowing themselves with important (even if imagined) evolutionary roles? From where I sit and see it, I would, like you, want to believe our generation was the BEST! :D

      This cocooning frightens me too. Where once we trusted others with our kids' well-being, the circle of such belief is growing narrower and narrower. Which not just makes us parents bordering on paranoid, but also limits interaction which our kids in a freer environment would have. It is certainly more complex, getting more and more complex.

      I look forward to your comments, Bushra, specially now that I know we rant about the same things and rave about similar things too! Lots of love.

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  2. In case of earthquake, my mom used to teach us to save the mark sheets and certificates first ... those laminated shining certificates, safely locked in a box. Reading your post was like looking at an old childhood album. Priorities were pretty simple. Indeed our lives were so similar ... same old Hamara Bajaj, the sunday special Maggi and samosa ... with your words you brought a flood of memories ... I still hold on to them, for life was so carefree and easy to sort out. I will always be the same middle class girl who believes in simple living and high thinking :)

    Destiny's Child
    Twinkle Eyed Traveller

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    1. Laminated shining certificates! :D Yes!
      Love how this felt like looking through an album to you. I miss those 'easy to sort' days too.
      And thanks for the DM you sent. I am so glad I wrote this post.

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  3. It made me remind of the days when my dad used to take my mother, my sister and me on a scooter for a weekly dinner. And when we used to make paper boats on a rainy day, and how speaking in English as a child was totally used to be show, and how Jeans and Top used to be called a modern thing for my mother to don, even a salvar kameez for that matter.. And Shaktiman.. every child's favorite.. There are umpteen things that one can go on and on and on about those golden old days..
    And this post exactly did that to me.. Thanks for writing one Sakshi.. You've described it immaculately..
    Those times really taught us to be simple and humanity was the thing that we focused on!

    Thanks for writing this one :)

    Cheers
    Geets

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    1. We had a Bajaj Chetak and while my kid brother sat between my parents, I would kneel in front of my dad with the knees digging into the black basket below the scooter handle. Then I would flaunt the pinches like war wounds! :D
      Jeans and Top. You mean Jean-Pant?
      'Immaculate' makes me happy. Thanks, Geets!

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  4. I am feeling nostalgia hitting me so hard after reading this. I somehow want to go back to that kind of simple living, to enjoy small but important joys of life. But I also know, it's far from possible, from where we are right now. :/

    Loved the post!

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    1. Nostalgia hitting hard can be rather painful. I swallowed many times while writing this. It'll never be the same old, but we can make sure it's a good type new we embrace. Of course, only till the point the next generation starts seeing us as dinosaurs!
      Thanks a bunch for reading!

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  5. Oh, you churned so many good old memories, Sakshi!I found myself nodding and smiling while reading this! So well said about the days of Chitrahaar and Doordarshan.

    Thanks for writing this post!

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    1. Thanks for all the love, here and on Twitter, Tarang.
      Keep reading me!

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  6. You took me back to my childhood when our parents taught "simple living and high thinking" as the ideal ways of living life. Yes, times have changed, but the foundation is still the same, as my elder sisters gave me so many toys and clothes of their now grown up kids, when I became a mom! I was touched by their efforts and thoughtfulness.

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    1. Oh, I'm saving up on those toys too. Not just because of who gave them to me but also because who I want to give them too. Now hoping my brother thinks of getting married soon. :P
      Thanks for reading, Shaivi, despite a busy busy schedule as a new mum!

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  7. Sakshi - what a piece! Marvelous! And as I can see we are all able to relate to it. Carrying ice cold water in big Milton Camphors for vacations cos who drinks the platform water days. Buying Bata's pointed black shoes and not the local one used to be aspiration for the new session in school. The pilot pen stole the show over the nib pens and how my Mum used to tell us that you cannot write beautifully with a pilot pen. The lead pencil was a thing of pride and that no dust eraser was so good. Barbie was not for me and hot wheels cars that my brother wanted to have many. Oh those lovely days!

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    1. Milton Camphors for picnics and Pilot pens (I still use those) the heroes! Yes! Write about them. Come on!

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  8. Memories I remember standing in front on the scooter.. my dad would take us to his best friends house..

    Or they would come to ours on their bajaj Chetak.

    It is true those were the best days of my life.. watching chitrahaar on Wednesday and Fridays. . And the hindi movie on a Sunday.

    Those lovely days..
    It use to be the godrej almari ☺...and no no lml was not that bad.. my first scooter it was ..


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    1. You even remember the days Chitrahaar was aired? (Or is it because it is STILL aired and you STILL watch it? The former seems quite likely!)

      Ley Matt Leyna! :D Thanks for reading, B!

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  10. Blog-hopping after eons. Can't say how happy I am to start with yours.

    Beautiful post. I could see myself everywhere. Chitrahaar, doordarshan, Surabhi... those carefree days. Being frugal is ingrained in my psyche, even now I eat fully before going to watch a movie at a multiplex, because somehow I hate paying 200 rupees for a small regular size popcorn. The whole vein of this post makes me think of bygone days with a pinch of sadness. These days splurging comes naturally, and everyone does it without thinking. I'll always be middle class at heart I guess :-)

    Thank you for writing it so beautifully !

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    1. Can't say how happy I am to read your first line. Thank you.

      Ha ha! Your 'I eat fully' made me laugh. I don't do that but I do crib, pretty much always, how a box of popcorn can cost as much as a mini-scooter! :P Of course there is sadness, eN. But this is how we learn to live with it!

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  11. You took me down a memory lane. Yes, yes, yes. Cleaning the PT shoes with an old brush and report cards in a plastic folder in the steel almirah. My mum refused to part with her steel almirah when she moved to Gurgaon. To her mind, nothing else is safe enough. And the truth about old vessels without handles.....
    Aways a pleasure to read you Sakshi. Always.

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    1. How cute that your mum refused to part with her steel almirah. To be honest I have two too! ;)
      So good to read your comments.

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  12. Ah! Nostalgia. Loved this post Sakshi

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  13. I, also, love this post. So many references allude to my childhood experiences in a small mining village in Wales. Yes, we move on but the path named Nostalgia will always be signposted. The paper planes will guide us, though they need not head nose down, according to pie chart statistics. Thank you, Sakshi.

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    1. Eiry, what beauty to see how a mining village in Wales 'met' a valley in the Himalayan foothills. We should let those paper planes fly more often. It's almost cathartic!
      Wonderful to connect!

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  14. Beautifully expressed...contentment is the one word which captures what we used to have...and still yearn for!

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    1. We try to be content. I guess we should. It's what will make us and keep us happy, no?
      Thanks for reading, Mumbaikar!

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  15. You just nailed it... "Middle class" is an economic status and when it is tagged along with people's attitude, it loses its identity... And my bigger question, whats wrong in tat attitude? And I am glad that we still wear that life jacket!

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    1. I am glad about the life jacket too!
      Thanks, Loco!

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  17. Nostalgic to read your piece. This world seems so familiar to me and now irretrievably lost. I spent my childhood in the middle class colonies of Lidhi Colony, Nauroji nagar & Sarojini nagar. A striking feature was how the entire colony would sleep outside on their charpais. Can you even imagine this today in this age of hyper privacy and security concerns. I also recall the uniformity of clothes - everyone more or less wore the same clothes. Though choices were limited and a certain deprivation prevailed on basics, we were a happier, contented lot with lots of sharing and conviviality. Sadly, present development is accompanied by increasing cocoon-isation of individuals. Everyone is increasingly compartmentalised and higher disconnect between parents and kids, between families and society in general. It's an increasingly private world where achievement and survival is at the cost of another. Increased isolation, extreme individuality rules. The world you eloquently has gone with the wind. Where are we headed?

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  18. It is such a such a wonderful read mam...

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  19. It is such a such a wonderful read mam...

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