November 22, 2010

Set the bar high

Forgot this. The November-December issue of HouseCalls magazine carries one more in the series of essays I'm writing for them. I'm not sure what's going on with their online version, so the essay is appended below.

Comments welcome.


At a party some years ago, I ran into a young woman, I'll call her B. She had attended the same school I had -- one of Bombay's best-known -- though we hadn't been there at the same time. When we found the old school connection, I looked forward to a few minutes trying to find common friends, or sharing experiences about the teachers: you know, just the usual when things like this happen. I even remember a couple of the guests asking if we had discovered any friends we had in common.

So I was stunned when something quite different ensued. B turned to the others present and announced: "But you know what, I was a misfit there. See, my family is from the lower middle-class. This school really catered to Bombay's elite."

I really should have had some quick-witted remark up my sleeve, but as ever, even weak ones came to me only weeks later. ("Yes, and my family all failed the 5th class").

But seriously, what an odd thing for B to say. For when she joined the school -- as she told us later that evening -- her father was a senior engineer in one of the country's oldest industrial firms, where he had spent several years. Five of those years were as an expat in Iran, the whole family in tow, leading a project there. After returning to India, they settled in the firm's tasteful housing colony in a Bombay suburb. When B later graduated from school, she travelled to the US to get a degree from one of the finest liberal arts colleges there.

This was hardly the profile of somebody who belonged to the "lower middle-class" in India. I mean, if B thought her family was "lower middle-class", either she had not the faintest idea what that term meant, or I'm the Queen of Easter Island.

Which I assure you I'm not.

Still: for me, this raised two interesting questions.

The first, and bear with me while I use a few figures: What do we really mean by "middle-class" anyway?

Consider: a PTI report from last year said that India's per capita income -- what the average citizen of this country earns in a year -- "doubled in 7 years to Rs 38,084". That's just over 100 rupees a day. Of course it was much lower when I met B, but for now, let's use that figure.

If the average Indian -- the Indian more or less in the middle of India's economic scale -- earns 100 rupees a day, do you qualify as average? I know your answer is no. I'll bet good money that none of this magazine's readers takes home that little. Well, how many Indians do you know who earn 100 rupees a day? Few or none, I'll bet. And yet if that's the average, there must be many millions who earn even less. By itself this is sobering: I'm hard-pressed to name anyone from below that level, even though they exist in great numbers around me.

Still, how then should we define the middle-class? One way: mark out a band that stretches above and below the 100 rupee line. If you fall in that band, you're middle-class.

But think of this: Even in 21st Century India with its cars and cellphones and Swarovski crystal, the very state of being educated, and at an American university, means you likely belong to the upper reaches of the income spectrum. Maybe not the stratospheric reaches, but up there anyway, far above the per capita income mark. Truth is, you and I are firmly part of India's upper-class. Yet think how many of us see ourselves instead as firmly middle-class. (Don't you?)

And what of B's lower middle-class claim? Well, do you believe her father belonged below that 100 rupee line? Neither do I. Enough said.

My second question: what's wrong with being elite?

Why would B, an articulate young woman, want to deny Indian realities as they apply to her? Why would she seek to pass herself off as what she isn't? Because to her, being seen as elite is somehow undesirable. Much better to belong to a lower rung on the economic ladder. Whether this is political, or somehow fashionable, I don't know. Whatever it is, she wants to wear that hat.

But really, what's wrong with being elite? I haven't a clue. Yet I'm always surprised by how many people fling the word about as if it is an insult. I'm surprised by how many people try to make out, in convoluted ways that defy reason, that while plenty of people around them are elite, they themselves are anything but.

Though I shouldn't be surprised. For reasons I've never followed, generations in this country grew up suspicious of wealth, assuming that the rich, by definition, are immoral. "Must have made his money illegally," we sneer, if a little enviously. I'm sure it's true in some cases -- remember Sukh Ram and Telgi? -- but to make of that a blanket generalization? And if that's what so many of us think, what does it do to our perception of ourselves? How many of us will willingly admit that we are rich?

Yet the way to look at being elite is this: In any society, some people rise to the top. Sure, you hope they use legitimate means to get there, not stepping on others. But by itself, simply being at the top carries no shame or guilt. There is no reason for those who are up there to deny being up there.

In fact, the point about being elite goes well beyond recognizing how misplaced this kind of shame is. Every functioning human society needs elites. They drive change, lead revolution, dream new dreams, carry out research. Believe me, I am not being even slightly condescending or facetious when I say that these things cannot come from the hoi-polloi, the aam-janta. Societies need leaders, by definition, and they will find them.

There's no shame or guilt there either.

Besides, elites are also signposts of achievement, and in being so, they are beacons for their fellow citizens. Whether in entrepreneurship or teaching or innovation or something else, the elite among us set bars that others strive to leap over.

Yet while striving, some use the bars themselves to thrash the elite. In his excellent little book In Defence of Elitism, William Henry discusses a strange period during the 1992 US Presidential campaign between George Bush (the senior Bush), running for re-election, and his challenger, Bill Clinton. Bush's team had begun whispering certain things about his opponent. Not unusual for high-stakes political campaigns, of course. But about these particular insinuations, Henry writes these lines:

[President Bush's] import was twofold: that Clinton was too smart to be President, a notion that gets weirder and more disturbing the longer one looks at it; and that the electorate ought to vote based on envy and resentment towards their betters, an appalling onslaught made surreal by Bush's own status as a senator's son, prep-school smoothie, Phi Beta Kappa at Yale, and "self-made" oil millionaire -- via a company he launched with money borrowed from his rich uncle.

Fine, you think, even if this was an incumbent President, he was a politician intent on winning an election. What else can you expect from someone like that but surreal arguments? Not much. But no less surreal to me, in light of the life she had led, was B's appropriation of a lower middle-class cloak.

No less surreal, too, was the exchange I once had with someone who pronounced that studying subjects like English Literature or the pure sciences "only satisfies the intellectual idle curiosity" of a few. Therefore, he asserted, India "should not support this study with money extorted from the masses."

What a strange idea, right down to those words "idle" and "extorted."

Because a state that scorns research and intellectual curiosity, that thinks elites deserve contempt and resentment merely for being elite, is a society headed for destruction. Nothing less.

One Pol Pot took that lesson to its logical conclusion. In Cambodia under his monstrous Khmer Rouge regime of the late 1970s, the resentment turned into genocide that particularly targeted the elite. His cadres, one paper reported in 1978, had "orders to carry out the most thorough-going terror of the 20th Century … to kill all the high-ranking military people and non-communist intellectuals."

Implementing those orders for three horrific years, the Khmer Rouge slaughtered two million Cambodians, over a quarter of the country.

Put that insanity down to a fear of the elite.


Sumedha said...

Two things I thought of while reading your post:

1) I think people associate 'elite' with 'elitist'. It's thought that "admitting" to being an elite means that you look down on people who are not elite, or that you have pride that makes you believe you're better than others. That might be one reason why the term "elite" is not seen as positive.

2) Before I read this, I wouldn't have put myself in the upper-class either. I think that's because, as you pointed out, how many people do I know who are earning the average Indian living? No one. But I know a whole lot of very rich people, and I associate them with "upper-class". Compared to that, I am middle class.

What I'm trying to say is, maybe people don't think about what "middle-class" really means. You often judge your standing in the world by comparing to people you know, and we tend to know more people more "elite" than we are. Hence, we're middle class.

But you're right. In a country like India, I'm being quite stupid calling myself "middle-class". But maybe that's what B also meant: that people around her were richer than her, more "elite", so she put herself in the middle class.

k said...

Here I am sitting in a nice 3 bedroom house in the USA, zero mortgage, 1 car , tv fridge washing machine etc etc. Still if you ask me about my background, I will accurately say Indian middle class, more precisely lower middle class.

I think there are problems with your PTI report. Regardless, I'm not going around squatting in a mud hut & sipping dusty coffee in a steel tumbler standing under a construction site, like the 100 rupees per day chaps you describe. But you forget, I'm not sitting in posh 5 star Ashoka hotel after a round of golf & sipping champagne with karan johar either. I mean, there is a vast gulf in between the two states. Growing up, I never played tennis or guitar or whatever the rich people do. Never smoked, drank, it was a pretty boring life full of books & cramming. Now I might be "set" as the Indian chaps say ( saala main to saheb ban gaya! ), but its all relative. My entire networth might be half a mil on a good liquid day, but these days who is willing to buy my house & my car, with 25% unemployment in my area. So these are highly illiquid assets with make-believe prices. Whereas, you, my poor jholawala writer, is a multicrorepati. Your tiny apartment in Bandra or Parel or wherever you live is a seriously liquid asset in the middle of the biggest property bubble in Asia's history. You can drop by the USA 3 times a year plus go to Shillong Ladakh all without breaking a sweat. Whereas I have to watch my assets carefully & husband my portfolio & can't think about visiting India even once in 2 years. Things are tough bhaiya, cause the tables have turned. I am middle class, maybe even blue collar, & so is your friend B. You otoh are seriously upper class, elite, elitist, whatnot.

Dilip D'Souza said...


Re: your point #1, you mean "elitist" kind of like it's used in the comment above this one?

In my country, I am in the elite by pretty much any definition. It's the way things are.

MinCat said...

dilip, i do actually make a little under 100 a day after taxes... granted i took a pay cut. and i don't think of myself as lower middle class at all - more like upper. but that has more to do with the way we think in my family than with our income. which makes me think it's a state of mind. i see a post here...will link if i ever write it!

Anonymous said...

Per capita income involves dividing the total income by the entire population (adults and children). Given that the average household size is still over five, the correct mean income of a household is about 2 lakhs per annum. Which is actually not bad - especially in rural areas - it would certainly comfortably feed, clothe and house such a family. At purchasing power parity this is about 18,000 US dollars, just a little below the American poverty line.
The real problem, or at least one real problem is that the wealth is hardly evenly distributed.

In other words the mean is a very poor measure in this context and median
household income is likely to be much, much less. Hence, the Sengupta committee's estimate of 77% of India's population as poor.

Lastly, being rich got a bad name because people (more or less correctly figured) that most rich people acquire their wealth not necessarily through hard work or ability but mostly by a series of accidents (of geography, birth etc.) or, especially at the upper echelons, through less than savoury practices. That still holds, except for some small number of exceptions in the information technology sector or the very exceptional clean manufacturing industrialist.


Chandru K said...

In India, it seems to be the Naxals who have the fear of the elite. And there's little doubt that the state they wish to establish will be similar to the Khmer Rouge. It surely will not be more free, open, pluralistic and democratic than what exists in India currently. That's not their goal, and their behaviour proves it.

The other violent separatist groups have a fear and/or dislike of "India" or "Indianness". Whether it is the Khalistanis, Kashmiris, Nagas or Manipuri separatists, this is the one quality that links them. It's probably the subject of another article, but really, there is no other issue than denial of India and Indianness, that these groups are based on.

The Orange Cat said...

The bit about B being a graduate from a good liberal arts college in the US particularly resonated with me. I'm studying in one right now (Simon's Rock) but I'm here as a scholarship candidate, and I really doubt whether I would fall in the lower middle-class category which your friend chose to say she belonged to. Most of the social divisions I encountered in India were indebted to inborn privilege or outgrowths of the caste system. More than economic parameters, it might possibly make sense to have a system which "ranks" individuals based on their sheer merit and excellence. Even this system could possibly be described as arbitrary at best- I feel that classifying people by any standard; monetary, academic, artistic or otherwise; fails to take into account the inherent idiosyncrasies present within them. Your friend could've chosen to classify herself as an alum of her school, a liberated woman, an Indian, a shopper at Marks & Spencer, so on and so forth. The burgeoning Indian middle class which attracts so much publicity possibly needs to examine its values and worth a bit more. I feel more than a bit guilty of writing all that I have, primarily because in my case I never really felt the need to justify my upbringing or present situation and can well be described as an irrelevant outsider to whatever the country is becoming.

Anonymous said...

"But you know what, I was a misfit there. See, my family is from the lower middle-class. This school really catered to Bombay's elite."

She was simply saying that in that school she was near the bottom of the economic spectrum. As for the definition of middle class - I am picking the one off Wikipedia - "The middle class is any class of people in the middle of a societal hierarchy. In Weberian socio-economic terms, the middle class is the broad group of people in contemporary society who fall socio-economically between the working class and upper class". Although income is one of the qualifiers, it is not the only one. Also the "average income", as another commentator has noted, really has no useful meaning. With your feet in the fire and your head on ice - on the average you are comfortable?

Anonymous said...

Did you even write this? It is hard to believe...