A problem with the computer server in office left me chatting away with a bunch of workmates last Saturday. I was the only Indian amid a cluster of white faces, unusual for a West London office space especially on the weekends. The conversation swiftly flowed from how boring work was, to food, Bollywood and the recession until it stuck resolute, much to my chagrin, on the one issue any Indian would be squirmish about – class. Of course most of my colleagues had seen and been appalled by Slumdog Millionaire and that is how it all began, summarily boiling down to personal questions on how it felt living a privileged life amid such inequality and disproportion.
Do you have servants? Do you have cooks? Do you guys really have drivers ferrying you around town? I was bombarded with questions from a most intrigued group of people for whom the definition of class was something quite different from mine. It isn’t a secret that Britain is a class-obsessed society. In fact, if there is anything else they are passionate about after the weather, it is class. There are hours of airtime dedicated to which Tory leader went to what private school, whose grandfather went to Eton or who was a former member of the Bullingdon club and so on and so forth. There is also this huge hullabaloo about Labour raking up a ‘Class War’ ahead of the elections and how the skewed ratio of privately educated students being admitted to Cambridge is a conspiracy to keep the working classes out of the exclusive set.
But that is pretty much where it starts and ends, with private schools, dining clubs and a mutual disdain for each other among the readers of The Guardian and The Sun. I don’t mean to undermine the daily battle of British people living in poverty, but at least class doesn’t seem to get in the way of people’s daily lives or obstruct the road to a reasonable amount of achievement for those who really want to make it in life. More importantly, the basic dignity of social egalitarianism and people’s attitudes towards you aren’t governed by your economic or social background.
Hard as you might try and argue, it’s not the same story back home! In fact, the undisturbed nonchalance with which most of us choose to ignore a rather uncivilized division in our society always strikes me, more so after having lived abroad. I am ashamed to say it, but yes there is a marked distinction between ‘us’ and ‘them’. A wall, of sorts! The ‘servant’ never sits on the sofa. The cleaner, the sweeper, the driver – they all have their separate pots and pans, they don’t sip tea from the same cups as ‘we’ do or use the same loo. The doctor (yes, we do have doctors coming home to treat our flu!) is always welcomed with chai and biscuits, but the plumber waits at the door to collect his fee. These are only the obvious examples of visible discrimination on the basis of class. What’s more distressing are the preconceived notions we have about what class people belong to, formed largely on the basis of their colour, accent or looks.
There are theories about how this could be a consequence of years of caste-based divisions that led to the ‘one above the other’ phenomenon, or our feudal history with the master and his subjects as a way of life. I am no anthropologist or expert on this, but I feel, in the modern context at least, this segregation between the holders of power and the beholden has to do with India’s massive (and rising) population. In a country of a billion plus, where illiteracy is in epidemic proportions, skilled job opportunities are far and few in between and cheap labour is available in abundance, expecting a level playing field socially for those involved in lesser skilled jobs is naïve. In the West there is a respect for manual, blue-collared work largely because it is a service for which you pay through your nose. You respect your cleaner because she charges 8 pounds an hour, with overtime for any extra minute spent. Your butcher is probably your next door neighbor and that isn’t social suicide because manual or not, his expertise is recognized. There is a direct correlation between demand and supply here. India has too many people to do the dirty jobs, and too few to whisk them around.
Thankfully though, things are changing. With a huge services boom in the past decade there is a burgeoning middle class, a sure sign of society reaching equilibrium, and at least in places like malls and supermarkets (once restricted to the footfalls of the rich), there is an evident blurring of social divisions. Then there is that one gadget which unifies all of us – the mobile phone. My dad’s driver changes his every 3rd month, while mine, 3 years old now, is stuck with tape because I can’t afford a new one.
Of course, none of this represents any significant change after all, and broadly speaking classism in India still thrives with all its might. But these small changes are at least a beginning, at least a small sign of empowerment for a huge mass of humanity that has been subjugated for centuries.