I grew up with middle class morality – and mentality. You know the kind that teaches you to be honest and hard working so that you can get a clerical job at a corrupt business. The rallying cry was striving for mediocrity. Not excellence, not even success. Do not be so full of yourself. Have some modesty. Yes that kind where mediocrity is always protected under the veil of modesty. No one ever told in the collective face of Indian middle class: “Don’t be modest, you are not that great.” So we kept struggling to survive. We middle class marveled at our mundane mediocrity.
Growing up, the names of Ramanujan, Tagore, and Raman were repeated endlessly. Their names were used to inspire us – not to become mathematician, poet, or scientist – but to get a paying job at the local bank. In Christianity taking lord’s name in vain is blasphemy: it is a sin. In our moral universe, invoking of greatness to achieve mediocrity was akin to a chant: it was saintly.
We did not have money; so we clang to morality. Rich had money. Poor had freedom. Middle class had morality. Rich did not have any character: we pitied them. Poor did not have any shame: we avoided them. Morality gave us the right to feel superior without the burden of becoming one. Such was its power. Morality made mediocrity seem magnificent. Such was its magic.
Abstinence, denial, and hypocrisy were the trinity of middle class morality.
When it came to abstinence drinking was sin; smoking half-sin. Any of those activities made woman untouchables. For women half-sleeves were indecent, sleeveless vulgar. Lipstick was sure sign of decadence; jeans were unthinkable. Many a mother-in-law fainted at the revelation that their daughter-in-law on occasions wore jeans – oh god, what a punishment for past lives.
Anything that needed money was sin of the soul. At first, black and white TV was bad for health. Then color TV caused cancer of the eyes. No self respecting family ate out. It was considered an insult to serve store bought food. We confused miser for mystic. Our mantra was simple living, mediocre thinking. We excelled at that.
No morality can be complete without denial. Money does not make anyone happy. I heard it so many times. What no one pointed out was that lack of it was making everyone unhappy. Money was bad. A desire for money was sin. Possession of it was arrogance. We did not talk about it. But we thought about it all the time. Every other human quality was tied to the financial well being. Anyone with expensive clothes was better educated. Anyone with well fed tummy was from a respectable family. Anyone with a bigger house was more cultured. Anyone with lavish offering to god was more spiritual. It is not that middle class did not fight about money: it was that we fought for so little. Our ceiling fans were from Phillips, a foreign brand; our neighbor had Usha, that cheaper Indian brand.
If denial was the clothing of morality, hypocrisy was its jewelry. It was the crowning achievement. Rich were happy sinners: we wanted to be like them. Poor were happy beggars: we envied them. We did not take dowry because of money. No, it was a valuation of our family prestige. We despised material possessions, so we taught our children to proclaim that our TV was better then that of our neighbors. I have an uncle, who never would brag about how much money they had. He was too modest to do that. He would always boast about how much money he had lost: it was a thief, or a scam artist, or a conniving relative.
I guess morality is like mud: once it dries up it is hard to mold. My generation is not going to change much.
What is the morality of middle class today?
Abstinence does not seem to be in fashion these days. It lost its charm over the years. With the proliferation of shopping malls it is hard to abstain. Shopping is new national pass time of the middle class. The choice is clear: purchase or perish. We are no longer haunted by guilt. We have become hunters. Indian middle class is hunting – hunting for a good sale. It is buy-one-get-one-free deal. We bought into the becoming consumers, and get compulsion for free. Abstinence is replaced by addiction.
What about denial? We do not deny the value of money. We no longer deny our desire for it. We do not deny we dream to be rich. What we deny is that we are not there yet. There is nothing we cannot afford: it is just a matter of finding the right financing scheme. Nothing is beyond the reach of our lifestyle: it is just a matter of reprioritizing. This generation eats only puffed rice for months to buy a fake Gucci. Debt is a fair bargain for designer clothes. Sacrifice has a new sound; vanity new vocabulary. Denial is not dead, just has a whole new definition.
Hypocrisy is in hyper drive. We all want to be American without admission. We dress, eat, and talk like them, but keep the right to complain about the corrupting culture. My choice of the country may be too specific, but you get the point. Our NRI son-in-laws are treasures; NRIs in general are traitors. We love our country, but proud to live abroad. We harp on our heritage, and hunger for Hollywood. We hate the very thing we wish to have. Hypocrisy is hard to hide.
So the middle class morality has a new trinity: addiction, denial, and hypocrisy.
At last, mediocrity has gone mobile.