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.