Muddleheaded Middle Class

The Khirkee episode reminds me of a similar incident about seven years ago in Dayalbagh. In those days Dayalbagh was only a fifth as full as it is today and with new buildings coming up the neighbourhood was upbeat about us as being a new colony with promises of a prosperous consuming community. This means that in those days if you called the police they came. We had a young couple for neighbours just about two plots away and often the man would take a while to be back from work and the young bride would join us for tea in our house. Soon she was complaining of strange people coming in our out of the ground floor flat of her building. She felt uncomfortable at the sight of so many different men, always new ones she would insist. Soon others started reporting to me that girls young and bit older were often seen in and out of the flat as well. They all seemed to suggest that there was a call girl racket operating out of the seemingly unoccupied flat. I am not the one to be fazed by such fucks, let people fuck as they want to. At that point of time I was completely liberal towards such “private matters”. But one day, things changed; it seems that three men caught the sight of this young girl standing atop her terrace and decided to climb the two floors up and ring her door bell. They wanted an entry right into her flat. These men were not wholly unknown to her; one among them was our next door neighbour. In a manner of being polite to his new young neighbour he offered sex to her as a compliment! It was at this point that Madhusree decided that she would call the police in. Since it was those days, they did come. In those days the police had not found out that Dayalbagh would be the low brow colony that it presently has come to be; in those days, the game was not yet on its course and so the police could not make out that in the great game of development we were the losers.
The flat was cleared of its contents the next very night with two jeeps full of women police taking the girls away. On the next morning the flat owner, also a woman romped down from her south Delhi residence and raised hell about we being vigilantes and not respecting people’s privacy. Something rather similar to what happened to Khirkee extension actually. I am fortunate to have at least one friend who lives in Khirkee extension and so I know of this locality. It is right next to Malviya Nagar and right behind to Sarvapriya Vihar, spaces quite familiar to my friends but Khirkee extension, no one in my circle have ever seemed to have heard! Someone thought that it was a Muslim village, some thought that it was an unauthorised tenement, some thought that it was a slum and some imagined that it was close to the airport where foreign tourists lived. The society of Khirkee extension was completely unknown to my friends. The difference was that those who lived in this place earned less than what my friends do. Only this slight difference in incomes has been able to create a world so apart that Khirkee seems to be a different planet altogether with different natural laws and different rhythms to its seasons. Khirkee is home to students as well, North east and the Africans dominate the population, unfortunately both prejudiced and harassed categories in the city. In a city with an overwhelming population of vegetarians and with a significant abhorrence to meat cooking in pots, these communities of non-vegetarians are repulsive too. Prejudices are bad things; they are like the false cries of wolves often block the prospect of rescue when the real danger comes. So when the residents of Khirkee complained about the African students, people thought that they were witch hunting.
I know of this place because a friend from Assam lives here; she is also a JNUite and admittedly this makes me more favourably biased towards her to believe her story. She takes me on a tour around the place and I see these flats that are right inside apartment complexes that are built like chawls. Customers confuse doors and sometimes when they are inebriated also confuse faces taking any and everyone as their service providers. Surely this might be a welcome opportunity for someone yearning for sex and I am sure that many a bored women may find such an opportunity exhilarating but there are perhaps more of us whose tastes may be different. The embeddedness of a racket of drugs and sex right into the residential complexes might not exactly be the “commercial purpose” one could allow out of residential areas. My walk in Hell gives me a good idea of what goes on. Complaints are filed and reports are written but never an arrest. The stupidity of Delhi’s lower middle class prejudices against some kinds of people turn against them and they do not seem to be able to register a well worded complaint. In their representations, racial hate flows out making the complaints frivolous. The residents continue to be hemmed in by the growing racket around them; yet not every student from an African country is involved but there is something as being of bad company. The good and the bad stick together; in a city like Delhi they do not feel encouraged to share their woes with fellow citizens, the good among the bad lot are thus severely disadvantaged.
The racket continues; young girls returning from schools are propositioned by customers and pimps and young boys are lured with rolls of powder and who knows even sex. No one in my society knows of this world, for prosperity has shielded them into other kinds of posh localities where they also have gates with security men to shut the rest of the world. There is really no mixing of spaces, mixing up of societies across these gates. The safety of the rich is unknown to the poor, the risks of the poor are disbelieved by the rich; the rich cannot comprehend the poor’s vulnerability while the poor does not know of the rich’s security. Therefore, when the Law Minister from the incumbent AAP Party charged into these flats, the rich saw everything from the point of view of their world, shut off from and secured against the poor and the laws of their world. So when Somnath Bharti stormed into the citadel, his act was seen as being vigitantist, sexist and racist.
Everyone believed the media; not really because they were the media but because the media had people who were richer than my friends. Wealth has interesting shades; one of those interesting greys being the legitimacy of what wealth speaks. The rich man’s sayings are truer than those of the poorer and hence the media, backed by media houses, networked through family and kinship ties to politicians and the police what they said were all true. Bharti was excessively enthusiastic, he was a male chauvinist, he was a moralist and above all he needed to be hated. No one asked why did the police make FIRs against non-existent persons? No one asked why only one particular hospital was identified for the medical tests? No one ever questioned on what the interests of the police were in protecting this racket, no one ever sensed a web of interconnected interests. Instead of questioning the media everyone got busy in the media’s mind game. Is Somnath Bharti a vigilante or not? Whether he set up a kangaroo court or not? Whether Somnath Bharti can walk inside our homes and snatch away our wine glasses, beat up my boyfriends, drag me out into the streets and force me to urinate? Who asked these questions? The media did. These were media’s questions which emanated out of its own reaction to an episode.
The media is magic in many ways; it shows to us what we are supposed to believe is true. In the wired world mired with only mediations of the electronic waves, we are so much like the characters out of the films of Michaelangelo Antonioni who are unable to respond to anything which is real. Hence it occurred to none of my friends that the media was an opinion on an episode and not the episode itself. It could use evidence only selectively. Indeed, an entire discipline of media studies has emanated from such manipulations of the media in which news produced by a few is consumed by many. This already makes media possess disproportionate power and much of the media studies attempts to quell that power by repeatedly asking the question of the access to and interpretation of facts by the media in view of its interest positions. Unfortunately for us, not all are trained media studies persons and hence open to manipulation by the media.
The idea behind Bharti’s raid is atrocious, ridiculous, vigilantism, obnoxious, prejudiced and uncouth. But all this qualifies if the act is what is presented to us. But if the act is not what has been presented the description of Bharti by the media does not fit. The media cleverly manipulates us into imagining that vigilantes are walking into our homes, breaking our curios, scratching our furniture and vanadalizing our honour. The media quietly substitutes the context of quiet upper middle class respectable homes for the Khirkee chawls where random doors conceal prostitution and drugs and in this way, extracts Bharti’s raid to place him right into our drawing rooms. The media is a superior sociologist for they use sociology to manipulate us every day and no one other than the media would ever know that ideals must be located in their material context. This is why, it has cleverly made us imagine that Bharti was acting in the way he did in a world which is a continuity of ours; it concealed the fact that he was dealing with very different levels of objective conditions under which his act would indeed, contrarily have been the moral one. Amitabh Bachchan was a star of my times, and his films used to have such arguments to the core. Thankfully my doctorate is on this star and the media has not been able to fool me.
The media has played on two levels; at one level it has already decided that Bharti’s is an immoral act and asked us to condemn it on moral grounds. Here it accesses our arguments of politicians being naturally corrupt and asks us to reverberate its thesis that here is a case of utter moral corruption. By placing Bharti’s as a moral issue the media has pulled from beneath the rug of arguments the claim for it being a political one. The issue could have been political were we to debate on the context; why did the police not heed to the residents on their complaints, what did the residents find objectionable, was it prejudice against the Africans and women, or were the objections for real. These questions and such questions could have helped us to travel into larger dimensions of politics. We could have asked are Delhiites witch hunters, do we like the Cold War America also suffering from Mac Carthyism? Is the police class conscious? Does it treat its citizens who do not live in the posh localities like they have done? Possible replies to these questions would have opened up the real dimensions of politics that would have made it easy for us to understand the various nexus and networks that bind politicians, media and the administrators to rot every possible institution of the society. Institutions fail not because they have lost their ideals, for everyone knows how to mouth these ideals and moralisms; institutions fail because they, through their crony connections keep off those who claim entry on purely the grounds of merit. The networks close off societies that were supposed to be redeemed as open ones. Morality is the instrument of the entrenched to ward off questioning. This has been true for almost every revolution under the sun; morals are challenged during any and every change.
The second level the media has played on is to break the confidence of the Aam Admi supporter. The plank of the party is morality because anti-corruption is its principle battle. To the corrupt, an anti-corruption drive is vigilantism, it attacks one’s wealth, it has raids, and it has people coming inside your homes to take away your possessions, your lifestyle. By projecting Bharti as one who walks into your homes objecting loudly to the freedom of lifestyle you lead the media has pushed all of you who supported the AAP’s agenda that the entrenched and the corrupt must be attacked into one of your own enemies. In a manner we are all becoming the murderer of Psycho, where he murders by donning his mother’s clothes because he was so oppressed by his mother that as soon as he felt attracted to women, he would assume his mother’s persona and kill the young woman off. Psycho went onto become Hitchcock’s greatest works and it inspired and continues to inspire film makers even today. Psycho was made at the conjunction of two eras of America, one in which its new middle class challenged the order of the corporate militaristic ruling class. Though latched upon a psychotic hero, Psycho became the metaphor of people turning against themselves by internalising the language of the oppressor. The language of the oppressor would invariably be moral and things would be taken out of context to absolutize truth statements. Psycho is being played out through the media’s moralising a political question in which we, like Norman bates assume the persona of our oppressors because our oppressors start finding fault with us whenever we try to realise our dreams.
Morality is central to the middle class, so is moralising. Anti-corruption motto of the Aam Admi can only be a middle class because of its high moral tone. Yet the middle class keeps to its morals; the khaap’s honour, the honour killings, the rise of conservatism and the recent recruitment of professionals in terrorist outfits are extensions of this middle class morality. Morality is pertinent to the middle class because morality is instrument through which it guards its own class from being predated by the wealthy or falls prey to poverty. Its morality helps in the creation of the family, in sustaining its social capital.
The function of morality of the middle class is not merely an ideal, it is an important objective affair because by transgressing the moral limits the middle class can access means that help it to break out of its ilk and stand above its milieu. This is exactly what has happened through corruption in India; people of similar means have earned disproportionate rewards through transgressing the moral limits. Then they have become a rich class that can afford cars, flats, clothes and others. Since wealth brings about certain legitimacy, this richer class too defined our goals for us. We all thought that we lived to earn for a life style and indeed life style politics by driving up consumerism cracked the very crux of middle class from one that was an intelligentsia and literati into one being a glitterati. Once we are on the path of consumerism, we oriented ourselves along planks that would help us with the money. The middle class pursued that kind of education that made it seek shelter in the wealth generating corporate houses and the industry, made them into fortune seeking NRIs and when they were more autonomous people as bureaucrats plunged them into corruption. In all such pursuit of education the middle class only plotted its way to be close to wealth. This was a complete reversal from the days when the middle class would produce ideas, intellect and knowledge. The media, owned again by the wealth class was now the producer of knowledge, and hence started to define the very ground for the middle class. The wealthy now seemed to define the middle class as a class in itself; the media defined its morality, the industry defined its profession while the advertisements defined its needs. Through such definition, the wealth class took charge of creating the middle class, where it forever moved the bar of the middle class into higher and higher income levels. The middle class depoliticization was complete in a mad rush to pursue wealth; its fall into corruption was also due to this.
The above process turned the middle class against itself; those who had more possessions guarded it from sharing with the rest. Families were the first institutions to go; better off relatives were no longer in a mood to stand beside the less successful and earning more for the household was all that one could think. At no point of time in its history was the middle class so stressed over money as it is now. Corruption is a symptom of this deeper anxiety over status that for the middle class only money can beget. Privileges were also guarded in the form of coteries and clubs; even the departments in Universities are filled with similar people those who knew one another. I attended a course in the India Habitat Centre which was strangely attended by people who I realized knew one another. The rise of ethnic politics is essentially middle class politics; communal politics is also middle class politics. Everywhere spaces are getting closed, only familiarity speaks, connections speak; gone are the days of open societies today we are looking to developing known circles of friends of mutual support so that our ideas totally disconnected from the objective reality are nonetheless legitimised on affectionate considerations. The rise of the gated colonies of high rise apartments is symbolic of the enclosures of the middle class by which this class in itself fights its own members. The middle class’s transformation from an intelligentsia to a consumer has broken its own moorings, made its existence into a zone of civil war.
The wealthy breaks the middle class through its ownership of morality. What the middle class no longer notices is what this morality consists of; does it have its own objective base or is it some manufacture from above. The media seems to be a good hand maiden to manufacture morals first by defining such morals and then by obliterating the location of such morals from their objective embeddedness. This is what has happened; we never know whether the Batla House encounter was of terrorists or of boys mess; we similarly have assumed that the drug racket was only a tourist party and that the sex den a paying guest accommodation. Keeping the veil of normalcy as it is, the act of Bharti becomes demonic; but to turn one’s attention to the facts where the harmless routine of everyday life conceals the lurid reality of customers knocking randomly at my door, Bharti is indeed a relief. Just as Bharti’s act of raiding shocks us from the perspective of our well protected lifestyles, but seen from the viewpoint of a single woman as I having to hear knocks from strange men who assume that I am on sale is abominable. In such a situation, Bharti is my messiah.
I think that my politics with the Aam Admi is all about recovering my self-respect and this I can only do when I generate the language of my reality, pursue possibilities that transform my opportunities. And this I can do by recovering my good sense to generate my language, my concepts, my theories from my perspectives rather than play only a verbal game proffered to me by the media where anchors are cued in to their onwers’ commands with that microphone fitted into their auditory meatus.

About secondsaturn

Independent Scholar. Polymath.
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