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The Inscrutable Indians

Vikram Johri  |  New Delhi 

The Indian middle class is the subject of much introspection. If, as Dipankar Gupta says, it is a model of “mistaken modernity”, it is also the engine that drives the great Indian economic wagon. Journalist Alam Srinivas’s interest in studying the Indian middle class was piqued by its heterogeneous character. In fact, a good part of this book is devoted to outlining the varied subsets of this segment.

Srinivas starts with the rise of what he terms the Neo Middle Class (NMC), a class of conspicuous consumers that came into the spotlight after the opening up of the economy in the early 1990s. The NMC, says Srinivas, constitutes those who have directly benefited from the growth in sunrise sectors such as BPO, event management and IT & communication. New avenues have enabled a generation of youngsters to earn and spend much more than did earlier generations.

Further, Srinivas speaks about the Other Middle Class (OMC), “the outer and larger layer of the NMC nucleus”. The OMC isn’t a fixed entity, rather a Rorschach, a dispersed array of people that varies with the prism through which it is viewed. Viewed from an economic lens, the OMC will include bureaucrats, senior Indian railway officers, CEOs of large PSUs, and senior officers of the Indian military. Likewise, political and social perspectives yield different constituents of the OMC. To wit, the rise of Dalits in the hierarchy of political power has contributed to a burgeoning layer in the middle class.

Srinivas’s excursions into history are less enthusing. The rise of a middle class consciousness in India is attributed to the willingness of Brahmins to educate their progeny and join the Raj’s administrative framework. The rise of a Brahminical political consciousness — the Congress was accused in those days of being a Brahmin-dominated claque — is only cursorily dealt by Srinivas.

Post-Independence, Nehru’s stress on building institutions of academic excellence had the unlikely consequence of contributing to class consciousness. The IITs and IIMs launched a most powerful segment of the Indian middle class. The alumni of these elite institutes were able to command hitherto unheard of salaries, and thanks to reservation, economic well-being spread to the lower rungs of society as well.

Returning to the NMC, Srinivas divides the young into three distinct groups: Spenderati, Seenerati and Smootherati. Spenderati are unabashed spenders, reveling in the heady sensation that shopping gives (them). Seenerati like to be seen at “happening” joints — malls et al — not to spend but to build connections. Smootherati are the more conservative section of the young middle class, who traverse the middle ground between the Spenderati and the Seenerati. These tongue-twisters are Srinivas’s creation, and they do not leave the reader any wiser about spending patterns in today’s India.

Except perhaps when he delves into the economics of beer drinking in the capital, citing his own shift from the Press Club to go pub-hopping in search of groovy music and interesting company. He concedes that he is part of the curious metro crowd that likes to drink at home before going to the pub merely to socialise.

Srinivas comes close to building a cogent argument in tracing Bollywood’s portrayal of the changing habits of the Indian consumer. From the socialist self-denial of Manoj Bharat Kumar to the lush settings of marital discord in Karan Johar’s popcorn entertainment, Bollywood has closely followed the rise of the new India. Srinivas is an emphatic admirer of Dil Chahta Hai, Farhan Akhtar’s 2001 film that instituted an informal, urbane storytelling style.

In “Retail’s Short Tail”, the book’s fifth chapter, Srinivas compares the mall culture in the west to India’s, and points to major differences. Malls in the west took off after the postwar economic boom resulted in both parents working, so that the idea of a place where one could shop for everything was a blessing for time-pressed couples. In India, on the other hand, malls are an extension of the kirana stores, as pioneered by Kishore Biyani’s Big Bazaar format. People jostle with one another to get the best bargains — Indian malls can hardly be thought of as islands of prosperous calm in a sea of deprivation, which description they may be expected to fit.

An interesting account of the rise of the Indian middle class, The Indian Consumer’s most telling takeaway is the new-age motto, “I can spend, so I will.”

The Indian Consumer: One Billion Myths, One Billion Realities

Alam Srinivas
John Wiley & Sons

Price: $24.95
Pages: 216 pages

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First Published: Wed, October 15 2008. 00:00 IST