The sociological environment in India is changing from “Think rich, look poor” to “Look rich, think poor”, but the change is so slow that it might as well not occur at all, leaving the country to remain in an era it has always been pestiferously fond of. In the Indian society, the social standing or the social status, simply referred to as the “status” of a person, means a lot for a number of reasons, the biggest of which has to do with traditions, the way our culture has shaped itself around the caste-based Hindu way of life in a developing nation. Irrespective of one’s education, or the quality of one’s education, almost everyone in India strived to either maintain or enhance this status that had been inherited at birth from their parents.
A case in point would be any middle class family that has, after years of economic and social struggles, overcome a certain set of restrictions that existed earlier in their lives and has now managed established a state of affluence. Such families, which are neither poor nor rich but something in between, are those that run the nation. While the poor are consumed with activities such as earning a morsel of food and the rich are consumed with activities such as minting more money, or purloining money, the middle class is neither engaged in alleviating the pains of the poor nor in avenging the greed of the richer elite. Thus, in such a family would one find the greatest adherence toward cultural values, traditions, religious practices, to many of the things that define commonplaceness. There are producers and there are consumers, and somewhere in between, putting all the parts together and powering the assembly line is the exemplary middle class family.
So, these are also the people who are steeped in such considerations as “what do the neighbours think of us” or “what will they think of me when I am seen with so-so”, etc. By simply living out such doubts, the Indian middle class is subconsciously perpetrating the existence of such notions for year after year, for decade after decade. Given the persistence and the relentless perpetration of such anachronistic ideals in a world that is fast becoming more and more liberal, in a world where clinging on to simply a shred of the past will leave you stranded in the present, there ought to be some adverse consequences, and about a year ago, I observed firsthand what one such consequence is.
One of my relatives was readying himself for an outing and had called for a cab. The agency that operated the vehicle charged him Rs. 1,000 simply for a visit to a nearby mall and a stopover on the way back for a relaxing lunch – and the man had agreed without any a protest. He was and is a very rich man and quite sensible, too; of course, sensibility, more often than not, expedites richness simply by flaunting itself. Anyway, he had an appointment to keep at 10 AM, the ride would take him about 40 minutes and the cab hadn’t shown itself with half-an-hour to go.
I came upon him as he was grumbling in the living room, and suggested the alternative of taking a public bus: there was a stop right outside his house, it would be fairly empty at this of the day and could get him to the mall in 30 minutes. In fact, it was due to arrive in four minutes. At first, he thought it was a joke and smiled weakly, but when I clarified to him that I wasn’t joking, his expression turned (funnily) serious: “Why would I do that?!”, he exclaimed. Obviously, I didn’t understand the question, and so he persisted. “What if I’m spotted by someone else… someone who’s worked for me, etc.? What would he think of me and my stature?”
Which stature? Your stature as a wealthy person? Or your stature as a sensible person?
Recently, this same man posted an angry comment in a newspaper about how the Centre was unfairly hiking petrol prices and how the common man would be impacted by it (I wouldn’t call him a “common” man, but his complaint was necessary because it fairly represented the angst of many). At the same time, if he was so concerned about the price of petrol, why allow it to be consumed in any quantity to ferry one man around a city when, for a slightly higher quantity, hundreds and hundreds could be? These are the kind of people (educated and being able to afford progressive thinking) most likely to talk about the increasing importance of the youth and then thoughtlessly quash any case that they may have made for their “sensibility”.