“The people of India live as fishes do in the sea- the great ones eat up the little. For first the farmer robs the peasant, the gentleman robs the farmer, the greater robs the lesser, and the King robs all.” – Sir Thomas Roe
A friend of mine said something interesting the other day which has stuck with me. She is older than I am, and she has lived in India for many years. She was talking about the first wedding she went to, in a farmhouse outside of Delhi. Dressed for a country wedding, she had no idea how out of place she would feel when women arrived decked in emeralds the size of robin’s eggs, dripping with diamonds and pearls. As she described this,shaking her head, she said “The world has no idea how wealthy Indians are. All they see is the poverty, but they have no idea about the wealth”.
I’ve thought a lot about that since I first heard it. The city I’m spending time in now, Mumbai, is the product of extreme wealth and crushing poverty. Of course, the Indian middle class is huge and real, but as another friend described it, talking about her parents and their immigration from India decades earlier, “We weren’t the class who stayed in Mumbai. We didn’t have the money.” In a third conversation (I swear, this post isn’t going to just be proof that I talk to other humans) with an alumnus from my college who was talking about the luxury market in India, and the shallowness of it until recently, which makes sense, given the fact that economy only opened recently, relatively, and that indicators of wealth have been, in India, traditionally as conspicuous as possible, and even now are only more so. She described the recent tiny trend she’s seeing with people who finally have had enough money for long enough that they don’t feel the need for their clothing to reflect their wealth at every turn. This was all in the context of paying money for Western designer clothing, and how that is a hard thing for many Indians, who would pay ten times more for a sari, to make themselves do, despite the relative utility of the pair of pants or blouse in question. But still, anything to differentiate themselves with the gaudy sparkles and spangles of the majority of the population. Blingy clothing might be wedding finery, but you said more than a fair share of sparkle and shine in everyday life, and the differentiation between expensive and cheap grows more and more subtle, at least to my foreign eyes, the more glitz layered on top of it.
So how does one measure wealth, and class, in India? Especially as a non-Indian? And why does it matter? I guess for me it matters because class is everywhere here, and it becomes central to any conversation almost unbearably quickly. There is no avoiding it, even in the most benign of conversations. Even talking about the weather, sooner or later, becomes a question of class. (You think I’m kidding? Here, let’s do it in five steps or less: Oh, it’s hot, yes, glad I’m wearing shorts, Why don’t more people wear shorts here? well, people with exposure to the West/who live in liberal families do but other people don’t find it acceptable to show so much skin, so you can only be cool if you have the money or the background? and there you go. Class politics, in a weather report.)
When I first knew I would be spending extended periods of time in India, I asked a Bombay native about walking. I think I’ve mentioned this before, actually, but it bears repeating. They told me that no one walks, very firmly. Other people hemmed and hawed, yes, you could walk, but it isn’t pleasant, it’s dusty, etc, so people just don’t really do it. But then when I moved here I realized that this isn’t really true. I see thousands (literally) of people walking around every week, but most of them look a certain way, dress a certain way, live a certain way. Mr. India likes to talk about the fact that there are hundreds of Bombays, thousands of Indias, and he’s right, really. And many of them are, or were, delineated with a thousand tiny class oriented distinctions that keep everyone neatly hemmed in to a tightly woven social fabric. After all, this is the one country that the British came to and were like, “Oh I say, that’s rather a rigid class system, isn’t it? Oughtn’t one to do something about that? Horace, my good man, tell them it’s not done, it’s just not cricket!” But I sometimes feel like all India heard was the cricket part.
There was a time when class was clear, through caste obligations, through social interaction, hell, through clothing itself. The very fabrics people wore designated their class and marital status, and sometimes even their profession. In Rajasthan I have toured two separate museums with displays of turbans and fabrics whose colors and styles marked their wearer down to “sheep-herder community, widow” and “hat for candy sellers in Marwar”. Beyond such specific connotations, clearly created within closed/small communities in which social rules and ramifications were bred into inhabitants from the cradle, urban centers had their own breakdown of communities and classes, long after the breakdown and banning of the caste system. Wealth was measured by what people wore and what Western goods they had access to, especially as India opened economically to the West. But now with the rise of synthetic fabrics, fast silk production, and the influx and competitive prices of foreign goods, you can’t no longer so easily delineate status, and wealth is no longer the hallmark of the high-class. For a country whose social evolution didn’t get the rapid boost of a rising middle class or an industrial revolution for centuries, and then got it al at once in the not so recent past, class still matters deeply. But how do you even know what it is?
And so weddings, social events and visible indicators of consumption remain clearest indicators of class for many, or at least of wealth, which, for a post-caste system society, are finally, for the first time ever, the same thing. And while there are the obvious references to the fall of Rome, the 1920’s whatever, I honestly think that maybe for India, that’s not the worst thing in the world. I mean, this has been a society literally devoid of class mobility for millenia. The way I see it, If you can buy your way up, at least you’re moving, right?
Still, sometimes it seems like a fascinating minefield of expectations, assumptions and the resurfacing of prejudices no matter how many indicators of social mobility you see around you. At the stylish smart cafe that opened up across from my gym, where the waiters are intelligent, articulate in English and well dressed in their off-hours (I caught one of them after shift-change looking like any other college kid off to study in a top I wouldn’t mind borrowing) I still hear the same kind of language used on them that people use for their maids at home, or the people who clean the streets. The vast assumption about labor is pervasively lower-class, at least, as I’ve understood it. And class is still king,
I will close with a final story, despite my claims that I wouldn’t be referencing any other friends. A friend of mine took an Uber home recently, and the driver got to talking with her. She called him brother in Hindi, using a word that many Hindi-speakers use when speaking with someone who is serving them who is male, because it’s sexless, neutral, and not without respect. (Sidenote, more than one rickshaw/cab/Uber driver has been thrown by my use of the word sir when speaking to them, but if I’m going to get madamed all the time, something that literally makes me want to tear out my hair more with every occurence, they can deal with sir). As they spoke, my friend thought her driver was getting a bit friendly, which amused her, but it turned out that he was a drama student, recently graduated, looking for work as an actor, and driving Uber for some extra money. In the West that’s a totally normal story, in fact, once I was driven from Manhattan to Brooklyn by the heir to a Canadian restaurant fortune who drives Uber because, and I quote, “I like to party, but I don’t want to ask my family for money all the time, you know? And when I bartend I have too much fun.” But here in India, a labor job is for the laboring class, and the social stigma is still such that it says something about you you don’t want people to hear if you work in a job that requires physical ability but not intellectual training.
Still, he’s out there, driving people around for money and looking for acting work. And the children of farmers are spending rupees all over Europe on bags that a generation ago only old money Indians would have known about, and the Kangana Ranaut’s of the world are refusing to be thrown out of Bollywood by the Karan Johars, and slowly, symbolically, class becomes something that can be attained. For some. Sometimes. Because I don’t know a country or society that exists without classes and class scrutiny, and while this might be the most visible one I’ve been in, maybe the fact that people talk about it all the time is better than nothing.