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Indian Class Divide - Alive And Kicking

Indian Class Divide - Alive And Kicking

February 18, 2010

It might be changing with the rise of a sizeable middle class, but we still turn a blind eye to gaping inequalities.

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.


  • Bhadra
    16.07.12 12:29 PM
    I'm not sure I understood your comment. The contempt which is reserved in India for servants and people of lower-class professions is not something to be proud of, and it would certainly be a good thing if society was to become more equal, or as you put it, "Westernised", in this matter.
    Regarding Slumdog Millionaire: Why are so many Indians getting offended by the potrayal of the slums in the movie? That is how a lot of people in India live, and we have to accept it.
  • Aaina
    13.03.12 02:54 AM
    @ jyoti Agarwal, being money wise is not a class issue, its an educational issue. If you don't know how to handle money, even millionaires in the US, end up bankrupt.
    @ barnaby, if you want to see "class" just visit a low"class" poor worker's house and see how gracefully they welcome and feed you.
    In all the places in India, the class divide in Kerala is perhaps the least, due to communism and literacy.
    I was appaled when I visited an Indian friends home when I was 12 and she threw the lemonade her servant made, on him because it was not sweet.
    I would never done that to another human being out of my own integrity.
    Also, I would never have gotten away with that behavior, with the parents I had.
    Being from a multi racial family, I have felt more @ home in the US, than I ever did in my brief childhood in India.
    @ Viabhav, why on heavens should you feel low to be from a profession, or any profession.
    Its not wrong to have help, drivers, maids.
    Whats wrong is when you treat them like they are less than you.
    To the people who do, they are not you are.
  • Vaibhav
    07.02.12 05:43 PM
    It's hateful to know that still we are better known with such low perceptions!!! Ofcourse, we are far ahead now. I belong to a down-town not-so-rich barber family and I don't feel low about it...In fact, it all depends upon your traditions, culture, family echo and here might be no one have any doubt about our great culture, traditions and values in India....
  • Anna
    28.01.12 11:55 PM
    @Jyothi Agarwal perhaps the family you speak would have done the same if they would have any experience with that money or education such as accounting courses that cover money and case scenarios with exploring what is best option and what to do with the money. Many kids with their pocketmoney do the same because they lack the insight and are still in process of learning how to deal with money.
  • Jyoti Agarwal
    Jyoti Agarwal
    28.01.12 11:21 AM
    A very well written post! However, based on my personal experience I believe it is not only about how high society treats their servants, but also about how the servants want to be treated. My maid-servant’s father-in-law died in an accident at his work-place. My uncle, who is an advocate, took a lot of pain to help them get a compensation of two lakh rupees. Even after getting a significant amount like this, all they did was bought a TV, a necklace, a fridge, and a scooter. And soon all the money was finished and in the next 6 months they sold all these items one-by-one.
    With this example, all I want to convey is that a sane person would have invested the money to make his life better. But not the lower-society. They are comfortable in whatever condition they are and just do not want to improve. They like to live under the mercy of their so called Lords
  • SJC
    19.01.12 03:48 AM
    "What bothers me most about the middle class in Kerala (and, from what I understand, throughout India) is that they seem to think being more Westernised and, more importantly, less Indian is the goal."

    we have all been culturally brainwashed unfortunately.

    this article is good, and right to point out that caste plays as much of a role in india as it ever has, which of course is tragic, but im not sure if saying that class in england is a non issue is really quite true either. it might not match up to the severity of the caste system, but it has its proportionate share of problems too. there havent been a string of articles in recent years talking about how social mobility is that much more limited for nothing. comparing western countries to their asian or african or south american counterparts is good to put things into perspective, but often seems like were simply letting ourselves off the hook. 'well its not as bad as over there!' well of course it isnt. and it shouldnt be either. doesnt mean we shouldnt look at our own backyard though.
  • Sanat Sarkar
    Sanat Sarkar
    23.11.11 07:03 AM
    That's a gerat article with a glimpse on caste division in India. I was born & brought up in small town in India.Where my identity was linked with race,religion,language.Even some people asked me the question being a bengali how I was here.Since, the Town B.Deoghar,Jharkhand India,my birth place time to time changed it's identity It was part of Bengal then Bihar now Jharkhand.Our Family was one of the oldest and respected but with the inflow of new people we were as a people without our base.
  • Eva
    18.05.11 01:32 AM
    I also wish (Western) people stopped using Slumdog Millionaire as a source of 'Indian reality'!
    Blue collar workers may get treated better in the UK but still you wouldn't exactly treat a cleaner as a house guest. I may sound like devil's advocate here but what would those people in India do if they didn't have all those menial jobs? Are there any better options for them? The upside is that there is less unemployment whereas in the UK many people choose to sit at home and get benefits from the state rather than get a less skilled job...To be honest, what you outlined above is just one aspect of the whole caste issue and there are worse implications than house staff not having certain rights or priviliges. Also, it is worrying how prevalent the concept of caste still is within the Asian communities in the UK (and probably elsewhere too)where caste (not class) has little relevance in modern day life...
  • Barnaby Haszard Morris
    Barnaby Haszard Morris
    23.02.10 02:12 PM
    Hopefully your colleagues were equally appalled by Slumdog's nonsensical and inconsistent script as they were by the subject matter...

    Living here it's very clear the class divide is self-promoting. A mate here tells me that when they have friends of a lower caste to their home, those friends - however close - insist on entering quietly through the back door, despite my friend's protests and insistence that 'everyone is equal here', etc.

    What bothers me most about the middle class in Kerala (and, from what I understand, throughout India) is that they seem to think being more Westernised and, more importantly, less Indian is the goal. The other definition of 'class', synonyms for which are 'grace', 'dignity' and 'elegance', seems frequently lost on them.
  • Shashank Kaushal
    Shashank Kaushal
    22.02.10 05:34 PM
    I think its the lack of an understanding of how a nation works that people can turn up their nose towards a certain way of life in any country.
    It may seem like I am digressing from the point at hand but I feel the topic is a non issue and in the group you mentioned quite plausible.
    The issues of class are very obvious and apparent in every country. I think you've defended it but to a western audience I wouldn't have defended it only brought to their notice their naivety to think that its such a piteous thing in India...
    Your writing though is concise. And it was easy to read through it. Went back to some of the others that you have written. Enjoyed them as well.
  • Rahul Bhatt
    Rahul Bhatt
    21.02.10 09:31 PM
    Sad but true. I partially leave my hopes on the rapidly emerging 'middle class' section of the Indian society - like you mentioned - for the community at large to reach a some what definite socio-economic common ground.

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