India’s Middle Class

Vir Sanghvi has come out with some realistic and revealing findings in his weekly column in Hindustan Times on April 27, based on his exposures to the interviews of the participants for audition of Shahrukh Khan’s latest quiz programme ‘Kya Aap Paanchvi Pass Se Tez Hain?’ on Star Plus that is beamed at 8PM from every Friday to Sunday.

Religion: Surprisingly large number of Hindus in reply to give his religion wrote things like “humanist” or “agnostic”. It was almost as though they resented being asked. Are Hindus in general more liberal about the religion? Is it because of very much different rituals followed in different regions of the country? With so many gods and goddesses and very much flexible manner to remain religious, the rigidity of identification as Hindu is being manifested in their replies.

When contestants were asked what they would do with the Rs 5 crore if they won, some said they would give it to charity, but nobody mentioned a religious charity, a temple, a mosque or whatever. I still doubt that the candidates winning the prize will go for charity. I wish they donate to some education trust or open a good school. We have too many of these temples and mosques. I am sure Rs 5 crore can get a good primary school for deprived class at least with sufficient amount left for other wishes.

Indian secularism also seems alive and well among the middle class. Interestingly, where contestants were asked to list their close friends. Many Hindus listed Muslims and, oddly enough, Muslims tended to list mainly Hindus. In schools and colleges as well as in the workplaces, hardly anyone today bothers about the religion or caste before making friendships. Unfortunately, the younger generation still doesn’t stand up against those who behave and act as fundamentalists.

Communication: Nearly everyone under 30 had an e-mail id. Even those who looked as though they could not afford their own computers clearly had access to the Net, either at work or through Internet cafes. So Internet penetration is deeper than we may realize. It is very true. Most of the marriages are today through matchmaking web sites. Even a town like Sasaram that I considered as backward has many cyber café with going on rate of surfing at Rs 10 per hour.

Most surprisingly, everybody had a mobile phone. Not only did they have their own phones, but also they keep numbers for parents, friends, teachers and relatives. This was as true of people from small Orissa villages as it was of those who lived in Bombay. Mobile telephony seems to have achieved total penetration at all levels, all over the country. Many a times, I talk with my cousins or brother-in-laws in remote Bihar villages, when they are in fields.

Language: Television has achieved what decades of government policy could not. Hindi is now truly a national language. It surprised me how high the standard of Hindi was. There were regional variations (the Assamese could not get the soft ‘d’ and ‘t’ sounds; the Bengalis had a poor sense of gender; and the Andhra-ites mispronounced many words) but, overall, everybody seemed fluent in Hindi. This is in spite of all opposition of political parties. People of the country on their own have tried to find a common language of communication.

Standards of English, on the other hand, were dodgy. It could be that many of the younger people were first-generation English speakers, but a horrifyingly large number could not frame a grammatically correct sentence and nobody knew how to spell even the simplest words. Plus, there were made-up usages. A word that turned up again and again was ‘proudy’. As far as I could tell, this just meant proud (“they are thinking I am proudy”) but it cropped up in application forms from all over India. Also misused was “sporty” which did not mean athletic but meant ‘sporting’ as in “he is a good sport”. If we are going to boast about our prowess in the English language as one of our strengths in the global economy, then – judging by these auditions – we are in deep trouble. Basic causes are lack of good teachers for English, particularly at school stage and that also more so in rural schools; and the focus in its teaching that is more on rote for score rather than on developing the excellence of communication in the language.

Mood: This will come as no surprise but the mood of the middle class was cheerful and optimistic. Everybody looked forward to the future. There were few complaints of any kind in the interviews – nobody even bitched about politicians. People dreamt of buying their own homes. The unlikeliest contestants had ambitions of acquiring Ferraris. Nearly all of them were well dressed. Even the tapori boys who came in jeans and T-shirts managed to look prosperous. Asked about risks, nearly all said they were risk-averse though some (Gujaratis mainly) pointed to their stock market investments as evidence of courage. (A gallantry award in Ahmedabad is probably called a Param Veer Bonus Issue.) More and more people will do and say anything to appear on television. Indians have lost their old self-consciousness about TV. It is an integral part of our lives.

And icons for the younger generations are different class of celebrities. Is it not a great middle class that is growing fast in number and will soon like to thrust its opinion about the subject like integrity of politicians and corruption too? India has learnt to think big. Could one expect ISRO, a government organization to attain the marvel of putting 10 satellites in one go a decade ago?

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