April 05, 2020
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Variously Abled

A little repetitive, and not always very pleasurable, but in the final analysis, a useful and significant book on the inner structures of the new middle class

Variously Abled
Elite And Everyman: The Cultural Politics Of The Indian Middle Classes

Edited By Amita Baviskar and Raka Ray
Routledge | Pages: 480 | Rs. 895

The best way to read a text produced by academics is to be unabashedly greedy and unapologetically impatient. The great contribution of academics to any issue of contemporary interest lies in burrowing behind what is apparent, rummaging through neat formulations to extract fresh insight and dismantle the apparent commonsense that prevails around the subject. The great disservice the authors of this book do to their cause is to bury their insight in turgid language and theoretical posturing, blocking it to everyone beyond their intellectual neighbourhood. Which is why you need a combination of impatience with greed to take this book’s indigestibility in one’s stride and to look hungrily and selectively for the insights it offers.

This collection of essays addresses an issue of particular relevance, delving deeper into the diversity of the middle classes and the ways in which they are changing character while retaining their cultural dominance. The essays cover diverse ground with a combination of theoretical expositions, definitions of what is or are the new middle classes and ethnographic studies of different sectors and constituencies (rural Jats, Rajput nobility, the middle-class child, domestic help, women in the software industry, censorship, public spaces, urban streets). The idea that beneath the changes lies a continuation of older hierarchies that are merely changing form and finding new sites of expression underpins many of the essays. As an insight, this is both intellectually engaging and useful, but the unstinting focus on this singular dimension robs the book of the richness of analysis that one would expect from the diversity of the areas under study.

This book delves into the diversity of the middle classes—ways they change character while retaining cultural dominance.

The stand-out essays in this volume are the ones by William Mazzarella and Sanjay Srivastava, the former writing with insight on the subject of censorship in India and the latter on the use of space to create new modes of identity. Mazzarella’s essay takes us into the heart of the implicit distance that even progressive commentators place between themselves and the ‘immature masses’ that are unable to apply an ‘adult discount’ on what they see on screen and hence need censorship. It then goes even deeper into the underlying processes at work. Mazzarella argues that “the moral fabric...is in fact at risk of unravelling, not because of some extreme set of obscene images that can be quarantined by law as unacceptable, but because of the latent obscene potential of mainstream images.”

Srivastava examines the Akshardham temple in Delhi and the idea of ‘Bhagidari’ proposed by the Sheila Dikshit government to argue for the emergence of a ‘moral middle class’. It differs from others in its “capacity to take part in diverse forms of consumption, whereas a more deracinated (or ‘Westernised’) middle class might only be able to consume the products of capitalism”. His deconstruction of the Akshardham temple with its evocation of world-class scale, technological mastery and fastidious efficiency as a site where the motivations of this class find expression is particularly revealing.

At a time when the middle class is finding new ways to describe itself, and is on its way to becoming a more visible political entity, this is a significant book. It describes the inner structures of this new class and exposes its limitations. A little repetitively, not always pleasurably, but in the final analysis, usefully.

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