In the movie Annie Hall directed by Woody Allen there is a dialogue which goes something like this: “I would never wanna belong to any club that would have someone like me for a member.” The essence of the dialogue invokes deep philosophical understanding. However, I shall not go into the depths of this meaning in an article which revolves around deciphering the entity called Indian middle class. Let me clarify from the outset that this article does not pertain to any economic or political question. So, for the time being we can shed off the pedantic glances of an old professor eager to question the nuances of existentialism. It is simply a Sociological explanation bordering on psychology attempting to address the enigma popularly known as Indian middle class. Before we begin, the reason for beginning the article with a movie dialogue is because I, too, am a curious and sometimes enthusiastic member of this class. Once again this must not be interpreted to be a universal account of the entire middle class. Rather it is an analysis of the analysis that the middle class is struggling to give name, to its perceived collective sense of guilt amalgamated with frustration and apathy.
Since the last one month or so Facebook pages and twitter accounts are flooded with news and posts of the devastating impact of the lockdown on the poor, primarily the guest workers. And it should be rightfully so! The pictures are disturbing and often calls into question our consciousness as human beings or our actions as responsible citizens. We are emotional and naturally a visible outburst of such a desperation is manifested through this parading of messages across virtual mediums. There are two points that must be mentioned at this juncture: the economics of the poor have been like this since time immemorial. The wages they receive and the inhuman treatment that accompanies the work they are engaged in can hardly be labelled as dignified job. In times of ‘peace’ (for lack of an appropriate word!), as long as their plight is invisibilised through our concerted efforts channelised towards our own daily struggles of livelihood, it attains the status of normalisation. During times of crisis, naturally the already desperate circumstances are metamorphosed into further situations of distress when the already meagre sources are blocked or remain unavailable. Therefore one is justified to raise question about the structure which allows such acts of desperation to continue unabated which is clearly an outcome of poor planning and even weaker implementation. And since we have already ensured that the poor should not and must not be endowed with agency or a bare minimum dignity, no matter how badly we have treated them during their times of crisis, we know they will have to return to ‘us’ for work to ensure their survival. They can never take a stand and unitedly raise their voice against our apathy because once again we will be waiting for them like vultures to take advantage of them during their moments of desperation. Some of us will have a smirk on our face while some others will gloat, and the rest will remain as cruel as they have always been.
It all began with our ‘innocent’ circulation of posts when we saw police (read State) attacking the poor and the helpless when they attempted to venture out to seek means of survival. We all laughed. We all poked fun. Some of us even passed judgements and criticised them for refusing to follow orders. What we often tend to forget in this discourse is that Class is a relative term. If we are laughing at someone, someone else is laughing at us. We are so engrossed in our cocoon that for us the rationality to look beyond and question the circumstance do not even cross our mind. It is the perceived rationality of this irrationality which ensures successive governments to run their show without much challenge to the basics of governance. That is why we try to justify our sense of apathy with rationale like “coping mechanisms” or “Who on God’s earth sleeps on a railway track?” when we share pictures of baked cookies vis-à-vis bodies of guest workers run over by trains.
As we all have been transformed into a lump of mass without an iota of criticality left within us to engage in meaningful discussion or question the authority for their perceived show of governance, we bang our utensils or light candles as ordered by the State. Now the obvious question remains is there any harm if a little show of solidarity is expressed towards those who are our frontline workers or display a basic sense of unity among us to enliven our mood during moments of hopelessness. No absolutely not. Infact many countries before us have done the same. The problem remains somewhere else. No I shall not engage in the cliched argument about how without providing the basic facilities like Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), the government is simply trying to hog the limelight by displaying a show of solidarity which reeks of hollowness. Rather my problem lies in our collective inability to question the State or the roadblocks put on our paths by the State (troll army, for example) which prevents any kind of path to follow other than the one engraved by the State. There is a problem in blindly following orders. But the even bigger problem lies in the criticism and harassment faced by those who do not follow the prescribed orders. And that differentiates a mature democracy from the one we are portraying as a nation.
Over the period as the desperation inches closer to lower and middle-middle class, there is a resurgence of yet another characteristic which is coming to the fore. The argument revolve somewhat like this, ‘government has plans for the poor and the rich is already taken care of. It is we the middle class who are suffering. We are at the receiving end. And it is we who are left with no other options.’ Now a lot of arguments can be placed against this. However, one observation which comes to the mind is the perceived sense of ‘dignity-bubble’ which prevents this community from standing in line for rations or engaging in labour induced jobs. They are the service class who are frustrated. They can neither ‘STOOP’ like the lower class who are scrambling for food or dying in road accident or squabbling to get in the train to reach their destination. They are also unlike the rich class whose means are already safe and secure. Naturally, they have found an easy channel to blame the poor instead of questioning the system which has placed a cover of satisfaction that once again can only follow orders and perform puppet dance on a stage but can never question the system which allows such injustices to flourish with impunity.
Finally, it is the extreme indifference and the failure to perceive the senseless apathy of the upper middle class which primarily comprises the elite, secular and liberals of India which invokes shock. Recently a twitter thread suddenly stormed into the virtual medium. It is the #metoomigrant. The thread began to share stories about how individuals have migrated from their hometown in search of better living. This, I must, say is in no way equivalent to the existential crisis on the verge of death and desperation being suffered by the hapless poor and migrants of the country. One has to be completely detached from reality and posses a special kind of senselessness to even begin to fathom such a twitter thread. However, events like these happen and it happens to be produced by the liberal and elites of the country. It is no wonder then that the right wing ideology is gaining popularity by every passing day.
What a helpless person detests most is the eyes of sympathy. The convenient emotion of feeling good about oneself emanates from having to look down upon others. There is a sense of power which is constantly in motion here that defines the relationship among humans. As data from across India continue to pour of deaths, irony, once again smiles from the comforts of its abode. Someone has died from exhaustion, while others from long walk, some others have committed suicide and the rest are awaiting tragedy to unfold. Deaths are not just data. They were living beings. Will all these deaths be counted under COVID? Pragmatism tend to lead us towards the negative. Life as we continue to experience has made us rude, uncanny, uncivilised and loud. We are all crawling to the nearest safe destination that will give us one more day to live. We can never be detached from this collective human tragedy. We might feel powerful for the time being. But we all are part of this unfathomable sorrow of our fellow compatriots. Tragedy is relative – both in terms of quantity and quality. Tragedy is a network. And hence there is no scope for complacency. But the dark and black was always present. It simply needed a nudge. Crouching somewhere in the deep corner of the heart, dust had gathered all over it. Or perhaps not. It was occasionally entertained and rejoiced. Today it is they who are our host and we….. Well we are simply passers-by letting it overtake our soul without even realising the poison which it has drained in our veins. We are crying out of pain. But instead of a soul searching we are looking for its solace beyond us. And blaming every single being, but us, for this tragedy. Is this what is commonly referred to as an irony? Well who knows!
When Pablo Neruda exclaimed, “Today I can write the Saddest Lines”, he had his lover in his heart. Today as the world has come to a standstill, the destination of the poor appears like a mirage – moving away as they walk closer. They are exhausted. Their world is surreal where they have long refused to separate dream from reality. They have been doing their job without attempting to feel or feeling to talk or talking to share. They have not batted their eye lids for long; not even for once, but somehow it do not show any sign of fatigue. When they reach their destination (if they survive) they no longer realise the presence of life around them. Every day they wish, today must be the saddest day. But somehow every tomorrow challenges that today. As if the past and the present are in a bet to win the challenge; in a tussle to prove the other wrong. But man being man lives to hope for a better day where sadness also has its ending. The surge of this sadness rises from the core of the volcano which burns his soul. But everyday man survives wishing to mark the end of his sadness and write with his pain about the last day he was the saddest. Our (middle class) everyday reality is not that much of a difference to the ones we are witnessing since the past two months. We will continue to scroll the Facebook posts occasionally uttering expressions of disdain mixed with exclamatory sentences manifesting our sensibility while clinking our glasses of red wine or singing a Pete Seeger!
Suparna Banerjee is Doctoral candidate, Centre for Development Research, University of Bonn, Germany