AN 214: Anthropology of India: Discuss the way urban middle-class identities have been debated in relation to changing kinship and consumption patterns with reference to the ethnographies you read. "Materialism is the new karma." (Pavan K Varma, 2005) Whilst numerical estimates of the Indian middle classes vary drastically, media images contribute to their portrayal as affluent consumers- participants in the IT boom in urban centres such as Hyderabad and those revelling in India's status as a call centre "superpower", particularly thought to symbolism a new urban middle-class. Varma's quote encapsulates the astonishing effect mass culture is thought to have had upon Indian identity, especially those who occupy this middle ground of consumption. This spectrum ranges from the lower middle-class youth, such as the aforementioned call-centre workers whose parents often experience a very different lifestyle, to the upper middle classes whose educational heritage has enabled them to maintain their class status over a longer period. Hence it is clear that the notion of an "urban middle class" within the Indian context is uniquely problematic, being internally differentiated- encompassing great variety in factors such as culture, language and religious belief, while of course attempting to reconcile the existence of the caste system as a further, but importantly distinctive form of hierarchy to class. As Fernandes notes, the very question of defining what Bete ille termed the "most polymorphous middle class in the world", itself represents a site of political debate in both academic and public discourses.
Additionally there is a marked transition between what is considered the "old middle-classes" and the "new middle-class." Whereas the former has its origins in the "colonial encounter", the latter, since liberalization policies initiated by Rajiv Gandhi in the 1980 s came to fruition, has become increasingly defined by its consumption patterns, most apparent in an era of a global economy. Fernandes writes that this overwhelming focus on consumption has somewhat neglected the impact of structural socioeconomic changes in the middle classes. (Fernandes, 2000). At various points these intersect with shifting economic conditions, such as kinship changes affecting the upwardly mobile, however they are not always resultant of the status jockeying of these newly prosperous classes. (Vatuk, 1972). Thus while the trans formative effects of liberalization may appear to have directly visible effects upon the restructured labour market, in the context of family life- locale and historical factors, as well as the advent of urbanity must all be considered.
For instance a shift in the values of the Malayali middle-classes can be partially attributed to the implementation of colonial legislation instigating the abolition of polygamous practices such as the Marumakkathayam system of inheritance amongst Nayar communities, whilst increasing nationalist sentiment contributed to the diminishing importance of unique matrilineal forms in Kerala in favour of the patrilineal inheritance that prevailed as a middle class norm in the rest of India. (Arunima, 2003). Note that I have made no distinction between "Nayar castes" and "a Malayali middle class", necessitating the clarification of two dimensions: reconciling class with the alternative hierarchical structure of caste; and related to this how the concept of a middle class has changed over time. From this I will discuss how shifting values in India have created an affirmatively dynamic middle class. The Indian notion of caste is of something you are born into- I am considered a Nayar because my mother is whereas in comparison one notes the relative mutability of class, deriving more directly from economic and social standing, to become one of the most potent idioms of identity, rank and political power in India.
(Dickey, 2000). Being at the apex of the caste hierarchy Brahmins also happen to occupy a disproportionate number of the new software entrepreneurs. However these patterns of employment reflect long-standing connections between caste background and educational opportunity and Harriss states that in the "new economy" employers have idea what caste backgrounds their employees are from and are thus not influenced by this in any way. (Harriss, 2003). Government policy would certainly endorse such a positive outlook, yet in the domestic sphere one might contend there is a refutation of such "progress", where it appears class has merely been substituted for caste, as shown by the continued ambivalence over employing domestic help amongst middle-classes, where the maintenance of a certain level of hygiene and order is crucial to maintaining class status, but in entering this domestic sphere, servants bring an implicit threat derived from "the juxtaposition of spatial and emotional intimacy with class distance." (Dickey, 2000). Thus despite its illegality, caste still retains its relevance in Hindu society and consequently public life, although now rather more palpably in the form of positive discrimination - e.
g. scheduled castes retaining quotas in schools and universities, enabling them to gain skills through education, and ideally allowing caste boundaries to ultimately be transcended. Shashi Tharoor recounts the autobiographical tale of his youth when his childhood friend Charlis, of a lower caste status was effectively banned from playing football. As time went on the family elders eventually allowed this, but he was still strictly prohibited from transgressing caste boundaries and eating with them at the dinner table.
Finally as a young man, Tharoor encounters Charlis, who has risen to the position of District Collector, and when he is invited back, he is welcomed into the house and dines as an equal. Tharoor makes the point that middle class views of caste differed even within his own family- compared to the prejudices of the extended kin in rural Kerala, his own attitudes were informed by his living and being educated in the urbane setting of the Bombay metropolis. (Tharoor, 1997). By achieving a certain occupational status, Charlis had become upwardly mobile, and we see a reflection in the phenomenon of the "Gulf an" migrant who attempts a similar transition, in attempt to escape caste and transcend class.
Characterised by their comic depiction in Malayalam cinema, this diaspora have elevated the status of their families back home in Kerala, despite often taking menial jobs considered to be of a lowly status (Osella and Osella, 2000). Both the above examples are illustrative of how the relevance of caste purity supposedly decreases with economic advancement, not only at the level of the individual- the boundaries of untouchability were to an extent negated by Charlis' newly acquired middle class status, but also at a macro-level- as the results of liberalization effectively transform social relations. Hypothetically this could be read as a political denouement extolling the virtues of an open economy, the final stage of a process of industrialisation started with Nehru's steel mills. As neatly correlative as this appears, it is clear such an assumption is a fallacy on several counts- there remain certain spheres in which urban middle classes continue to stress the importance of caste, such as marriage and also the unavoidable influence Hindu nationalism has had upon Indian society, in particular its relationship to the middle class, both which will be examined in greater detail further on in the discussion. However in order to elucidate certain strands of debate, one must clarify how an affirmatively dynamic middle class has developed over time from its colonial origins to its present incarnation. The "old middle class" constituted a tangible remnant of those service or business traditional classes who were "privileged" by their inextricable association to the British.
Many were employed in occupations such as government or civil service; administrative positions which required a certain level of education, resulting in the creation of an appropriately qualified English-speaking elite. It is suggested middle class expenditure was denoted by an emphasis on scrupulous investment as opposed to the perceived extravagance of contemporary consumerism. According to Donner, the old middle classes were characterised by their "proverbial frugality", a somewhat austere term one would perhaps associate with Mahatma Gandhi, in vivid contrast to public images of the middle class as global consumers with high disposable incomes. Certainly my own father recalls how despite his family's purportedly middle-class status, and his schooling in British educational establishments, if new apparel were needed measurements were given to a tailor who produced garments of a varying quality, for the vast majority there was no concept of purchasing a ready-made, branded item. Of course growth in public culture has altered this for the middle class, as described in accounts such as Conlon's that documents emergent changes in Indian food ways in urban cosmopolitan centres. Citing the emergence of Irani cafes where one might take "tiffin", as marking the end of an era where the norms of social life discouraged the institution of restaurants (due to traditional notions such purity of food preparation) and in a way displaced "the psychological and moral obstacles to public dining" this "represented a transition towards the "meal as experience"- an essential component for the evolution of a restaurant culture." (Conlon, 1995: 102) In the 1960 s entrepreneurs recognised market potential for customers and growth in educated middle class with discretionary income, made the publication of Bombay: The City Magazine with it's "Eating Out" feature the "juncture between the traditional concern for finding satisfactory food in Bombay and the emergence of a new "public culture."" (Ibid: 108) Echoing Fernandes' notion that it is only a small segment of the middle class that provided the basis for this new cultural standard portraying the consumption practices of a global consumer, Conlon writes the reviews themselves "found a substantial audience who vicariously experienced the presumed pleasures of the restaurant under discussion." (Ibid) A notable Bombay ite Abbas decried the emergence of fast food at the expense of the old Irani and vegetarian restaurants, and this seems typical of criticisms derailing against the "corrupting influence" of Western modernity upon "traditional values", or indeed viewing them as "manifestations of the cultural consumption on the periphery of a euro-centered world capitalist system " but as Conlon says this fits the "assumption that Indian public culture is merely a derivative, if colourful, form of global modernity." (Ibid: 115) From his descriptions of Chinese cuisine being made hotter and spicier to suit the tastes of an Indian palate, we see glimpses of Singer's notion of a "highly selective process of borrowing...
which seeks to develop and incorporate novel elements." (Harriss, 2003: 328). In fact he notes that in India globalization is perceived "not as a cultural process that makes something new out of that which is old" but conversely as a form of "." (Ibid). However Harris notes that this doctrine may have been informed in part by Singer's encounter with a nationalist scholar of the time, thus possibly overplaying the Indian element in any global equation. (Ibid: 329). Perhaps instead one should point to the impact of modernity upon India as a reflexive two-way process. On frequent holidays to Madras when I was young, I remember the first incarnation of MTV in India, where it was an imported channel showing exclusively Western music and videos.
A few years later years later the channel had undergone a transition now being "MTV India", presented by ostensibly Asian "veejays" speaking Hing lish- a combination of Hindi and English, and playing mix of music. Whilst much of the format of music programmes and the production values have been maintained, the actual content needed changing to suit an emerging Indian youth market. Incidentally it is this younger generation that are mostly associated with these emerging consumption patterns, and in light of Donner's conclusions on Calcutta's middle class, it is apparent that this potential misnomer exists partly because it is the new jobs and incomes of the younger generation compared to the relative poverty of their parents' generation that has fuel led much of the retail boom, and where this is not the case amongst upper middle classes- there is a tendency to attribute conspicuous consumption to the fickleness of youth, even whilst the older generation actively participate. This creation of a scapegoat in order to alleviate one's own in -group of perceived culpability, is lent an additional dimension when one comprehends how middle classes in Baroda understand consumption in moral terms. Van Wessel illustrates the morality of 'new' consumer ism and how it is considered negative by way of the presumed harm it causes to sociality. There is a localised notion that "the pursuit of self-satisfaction through consumption...
(the modern)... conflicts with the emotional involvement with others that he glorifies as part of village life (the traditional) " and thus urbanity is perceived as a dehumanizing artifice, where materialism is valued above intimacy. (Van Wessel, 2004: 102). Van Wessel also recognises that the middle-classes are no homogeneous entity; there is intra-class stratification, whether it be due generational differences, or a disparity between those with "new thinking"-the upwardly mobile for whom goods that were once considered luxuries are "necessities" and those who retain the "old thinking"- who actively resist participating in these new consumption patterns (Ibid: 106). Hence one question whether this new middle class consumption as exhibited by Roy's "Cyber coolies", can indeed be considered merely emulative of Western behaviour al patterns. Watching television in India one notices many advertisers use stereotypical images of a new middle class, a content, vibrant and youthful family; the husband coming home from office to his attractive wife and exasperatingly cutesy kids, undoubtedly elated at their latest purchase.
Whilst portraying the new consumption practices of a global consumer they appear to have an underlying thematic significance- appearing to reinforce the domestic sphere and the housewife as the locus of "traditional" culture, diametrically opposed to the largely male public domain of employment. In some senses this dichotomy (a possible reflection of Western distinctions between of public and private) demarcates contemporary middle classes as a Platonic ideal for the urban masses- what one should "aspire to be", whilst subliminally propagating a nationalist agenda, where arguably "the notion of the family was naturalis ed and made into a source of traditional male authority." (Donner Lecture notes). Whilst on the other hand this re visioning of what constituted "authentic Indian tradition", perhaps follows the Appadurai and Breckenridge hypothesis that the cosmopolitan public culture of India, as typified by the institution of the restaurant in an urban centre of "cultural hybridity" such Bombay, acts as a mediator in negotiating India's relationship of symbiosis with the global economy. Indeed it may be posited that in fact the socio symbolic practices that contributed the creation of this cultural projection of the urban middle class, are derived from a combination of both discourses -re-imagining "Indian values" within a framework compatible with Hindu nationalism whilst simultaneously advancing globalization. The example of the soft drinks market shows us that whereas Pepsi succeeded in gaining vast share via a localized advertising approach, Coca-Cola's relative failure was due to their reluctance to "Indian ise" their product, demonstrating perhaps that recognition of Fernandes' notion of hybridization is crucial in advertising a product successfully in the Indian market.
(Mazzarella, 2003: 218-222) Can such a concept be extended to other facets of middle class society, such as changing kinship patterns? It is clear one could posit a relationship between the effects of liberalization and the subsequent changes in kinship and regarding the decline of the joint family, many critics of modernity see a movement towards a more unitary nuclear family as symptomatic of Western malaise, where there is less weight attached to duty of children to their elders and generational interdependence. In Baroda, the case of elderly parents residing in different houses from their sons was taken "to mean that he spread of consumer culture and the pursuit of wealth it demands lead to the collapse of loyalty of children to parents." (Van Wessel, 2004: 106). However whilst this school of discourse became extremely convenient political rhetoric in discussing the trans formative effects of liberalization upon kinship and social relations, one may refer to Singer who cited the emergence of a modified version of the joint family emerging in Madras, which successfully adapted notions of the traditional and modern. Old economy businesses characterised as being family-led have according to Harris experienced a process of dis-embedding: "a shift from "personalized relationships" to "systems.".. an extension of the rationalizing principles of bureaucracy, and the deepening of modernity." (Harriss, 2003: 345-6).
Such a change was necessary to maintain competitive edge in a global marketplace, and also resulted in changing role of women in the workplace, as Harris writes:" my interviews with these software professionals suggested the development of a stronger sense of that individual autonomy which is held to be characteristic of (Western) modernity, than has emerged hitherto in Tamil Nadu, for the notion both that young women should control their own incomes or return to work after the birth of a child are still commonly frowned upon in Tamil society." (Ibid: 333) Seemingly this pertains to why conservative attitudes are being partially eroded, because the burgeoning middle class now consists mainly of a younger generation, who in previous eras perhaps acquiesced more with parental desires, but now with the pre-eminence of class- have perhaps escaped the agent ic states of caste hierarchy which characterised the actions of their forefathers. Surely this would explain why those in rural environments or even the urban poor, to whom there is the enduring bearing of caste upon socialization, continue to follow such "traditions" as arranged marriages more so than the urban middle classes? While there may well be evidence of the values associated with these new consumption patterns and consequent cultural change, the renewed importance of marriage to Indian middle classes must be noted, -indeed it is still largely inflected by notions of caste. Someone of my mother's generation may talk of the functional importance of arranged marriages or marriages through introduction to the middle class, as a "marriage of families" the purpose of which is procreation in order to strengthen the joint family, and it is for this reason that "love marriages" and informal attachments, as well as childless marriages were often viewed in moral dimensions. Nowadays amongst urban middle classes it seems much of this has changed, with many youngsters permitted the freedom to engage in pre-marital relationships with or without parental consent.
So does this increased "individual autonomy" sound a death knoll for the Indian arranged marriage? Apparently not as a trend in young IT professionals letting their parents arrange marriages for them shows (Nanda, 1992). The crucial distinction made between this and the image of past "arranged marriages" is that here young people are making a pragmatic choice that perhaps their parents are more well informed on such matters and thus in a better position to seek for them a potential life partner. There is little question of a union being "forced" with consent being very much at the forefront of, as well as caste, class, character, physical attributes, education, horoscope outlook and of course employment prospects considered essential components of a portfolio, that echoes very much a notion of "cultural hybridity" and explains why India's huge marriage industry has been exported successfully to immigrant communities in America and Britain. Despite this many critics of arranged marriages point to the inevitable horror stories, but for every one of these one could cite a multitude of uneventful unions that remain undocumented. Perhaps most of this remains routed in the irreconcilable differences between two fundamentally opposed concepts of marriage- the Western ideal of romantic love versus the practical functionalism of the middle-class Indian notion of marriage which has little inhibition about explicitly stating monetary credentials and the like. Without becoming embroiled in a debate about what constitutes a "happy" marriage, one must recognise that perhaps the term itself should be used cautiously when discussing such contrasting contexts.
It is clear that urban middle-class of whom we speak are not a static phenomenon, reflecting the huge diversity and constantly changing nature of India itself. It seems impossible to accurately quantify the boundaries that delineate this new middle class, and indeed it seems rather than a mere expansion of the middle class, we may refer to the renewed projection of discursive cultural constructs in the media when attempting any definition of the new middle-class (Fernandes, 2000). And so one envisions the upwardly mobile who buy cars, live in households with, hi-fi systems, fridge-freezers and air-conditioning; can afford to eat at an eclectic variety of restaurants; one whom Varma says constitute one of the most technologically advanced workforces in the world after the United States, yet live in a nation possessing "the most illiterates in the world"; and it is in this one sees the essential shortcoming in rehabilitating an antiquated notion of national character or imposing cultural generalizations upon something of such evidently capricious nature. Whereas the Indian intelligentsia derails against the excessive self-interest of these new middle-classes as detrimental to Mahatma Gandhi's vision of a secular nation espousing values of tolerance, equality and redistributive justice, only an insignificant minority eschew these consumption patterns, while most middle-class validate these new consumer configurations as crucial to reformulating their relationship with the nation and consequently India's glorious future in which Goldman Sachs predicts it will be the world third largest economy by 2050. Many possess a genuine belief that it is via this spending that poverty will be eliminated.
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