The Tribune - Spectrum

, April 14, 2002

In a class by itself!
K.K. Khullar

MORE sinned against than sinning, the middle class of India has been praised and penalised simultaneously for the same reasons and by the same critics. There is no term in Indian dictionary which is more used, misused and even abused than our great ‘middle class’ which has not been defined anywhere in India’s long history from Indus Valley to Narbada Sarovar Dam.

There is no agreed criteria to determine what exactly constitutes a middle class. Is it wealth, health or education? Is a primary school teacher with a meagre salary a member of this class? Is a plumber with four times the salary of our teacher, a worker, a labourer? Or is an electrician with five times the teacher’s salary still a worker, a labourer as defined in the Indian Labour Act enacted during the days of Good Lord and modified in post-Independence India several times?

In some countries it is the consumption of liquor which determines the issue. In others, it is the use of lipstick by women which decides their classification. It is said that the amount of money spent on cosmetics by Indian ladies is the same as would be required for providing safe drinking water to all Indians. Similarly, the expenditure by Indian males on liquor is almost just the same as would be required to eradicate adult illiteracy from the land. Asked why he drank every night, the businessman, although much maligned, replied: "Because I can afford it". Remember that it is the same reply which an English country squire gave to an irate housewife in the 18th century England, as per the authority of Oliver Goldsmith, an expert on rural England. For confirmation read the Deserted Village.


The distinguishing feature of the middle class is that it has a sacrificing spirit. It lives for others, to keep the society alive. If there was no middle class, the society would have been dead long. According to G.B. Shaw, himself a no mean member of the middle class, Galbraith defined middle class thus: "a moderately honest man with a moderately faithful wife, both moderate drinkers in a moderately healthy house constitute a true middle unit’. In other words it is moderation which is the hallmark of the middle class in the world, including India.

Another criterion to be eligible for being a middle class person is the number of films you see. Here we find that the weaker sections or the so-called disadvantaged groups see more films than those who from the upper, the lower-upper or the lower classes. The poorer sections are not content to see films on the TV, they want to see them in theatres. "A TV film does not give me a kick", said a labourer.

Is wife-beating a criterion? Available statistics show that the extremely poor and the extremely rich beat their wives more than the middle class.

In ‘henpeckism’ a criterion? No, it’s the rich, the neo-rich and the filthy-rich who are more henpecked than the middle class.

Laden with these facts I asked a beggar, "Who gives you more alms?"

The beggar looked at me and replied, "People like you."

I looked at the beggar, his bowl and a coin in my hand not knowing which of the three was more in the middle than the lower-class.

Reaching home I found the lights were off as my wife was waiting at the door with a candle in her hand."Is that the time to return home?" She asked me within the hearing distance of my neighbours whose wives were waiting for their husbands without candles. I was unable to decide whether a wife waiting with candle belongs to the middle class or a wife without candles.I got the answer only the following morning when another wife was waiting for husband with a torch.

So what constitutes a middle-class? Among men it is the man with an umbrella even while it does not rain and among women, a woman waiting for husband with a torch in her hand even during the day-time.

So when Ram Bilas met me the other day with an umbrella in his hand: I exclaimed: "Ram Bilas, has the monsoon arrived’?

"Yes saab,it has hit Kerala".With that he unfolded his 54-year-old umbrella as if the monsoon had hit the India Gate of Delhi and he must rush to greet it on the spot.

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