In India, being middle class meant “not poor”, though no longer. Thirty-five years ago, it was different. As a middle-class child, you ate at a restaurant infrequently, once a month or so. There were no fast food restaurants you knew, except if you lived in Delhi, where there was Nirula’s, or Bombay, which had New Yorker’s, and these were expensive, occasional treats. If your mother was talented, she would recreate some of the food for you, such as pizza on sliced bread. Children were less fussy eaters and trained to be so.
You borrowed comics from a “circulating library”. You read about the life of Archie and his neatly defined circle, and the superheroes of Marvel and DC. You loved the work of Hergé, and of Goscinny & Uderzo.
The novels you read were as follows: Enid Blyton and later Franklin W. Dixon’s The Hardy Boys, if you were a boy. Enid Blyton and Carolyn Keene’s Nancy Drew, if you were a girl.
In the teens, girls moved to Mills & Boon, boys to Alistair MacLean.
Sex, and this is where the boys and girls read the same thing, was later provided by James Hadley Chase, Sidney Sheldon, Irving Wallace and Harold Robbins.
Literature, if you were so minded, came with P.G.Wodehouse and Jane Austen and perhaps writers like Charles Dickens and Thomas Hardy.
By now the readers had thinned out because of college. The years of reading for pleasure, and the time available for it, were behind us.
These writers, and the influences, were British and American. The remarkable thing about the list is that there is no Indian.
Today, the best-selling authors in India are Chetan Bhagat and Amish Tripathi in fiction and Rujuta Diwekar and Rashmi Bansal in non-fiction. What these writers have achieved, an overthrow of reading culture, is phenomenal.
Anyway, the middle-class Indian child absorbed the popular culture of these two nations, as he does today, though through two different routes—television and technology.
Little or nothing of their high culture was absorbed because there was no access to it. The foundational texts of European culture, from Greece and Rome, were unknown. Classical music was not available. In any case, since the absorption had been mostly popular culture, there was nothing to prepare us to receive it. Living in India was preparing us to receive our own high culture’s music.
This is the reason why there is no audience for Western classical music today and Indians cannot tell Brahms from Schumann.
English was not spoken at home, and particularly not spoken with your mother.
Vacations were to places like hill stations or a stay at your mother’s family home. The number of classmates who went on a foreign trip was perhaps two in a class of 40.
Classrooms were a mix, and the food in the dabbas showed the diversity. Religion was not noticed because neither was the observer trained nor the observed interested in displaying his difference. Sikh boys were different, but after a week no longer. Some things were noticed. The girl who always came first in my class, Tasneem Mansuri, did not show up for class IX, having married that year.
Girls were friendly, but the boys were unequipped to make casual conversation with them. This made romance an awkward business.
School trips were fun, because the girls were differently dressed and differently behaved (most of the boys remained morons, save a select few and I wonder how life was for them).
Bollywood was then, as now, the most important element of entertainment. You loved popular Western music from your teens till your late 20s, and then moved back to Indian. This is where a second difference arises between you and the youth of today: They never moved away from Bollywood.
Studying was a serious business and middle-class children spent a lot of their childhood memorizing tracts that were regurgitated and then forgotten.
The business of private tuition began about 35 years ago. It was small then and you went to a tuition class of, say, three people. Though the thing was modelled on the one-on-one tutoring system of Oxford and Cambridge, it became an echo of the classroom. More tracts to memorize and little or nothing learnt.
You cycled till late into your teens and used public transport. Parents were conservative, in the original meaning of the word. They sought to conserve culture, which was seen as a good thing. Classical music was revered and Indians take that reverence into adulthood. India is that rare place, a poor nation where the musician has naturally high status. Since khayal, which communicates emotion, is enjoyed only in maturity, children did not learn it easily.
But being middle class meant being encouraged to learn the fine arts: music, dance and painting. Religion was important and there was no defiance of it even though the occasional relative was marked out for his lack of enthusiasm. The particularly devout person was not noticed. Mother was more devout, or more concerned with ritual in any case, than father. The outlook towards the world was liberal, and even today, Indians find it difficult to classify themselves as conservative or liberal.
You were encouraged to be respectful to God, and that meant the God of any faith, because God transcended faith. Pilgrimages, however, began to thin out and they were folded into vacations.
Afternoons were long, and television began only at 6. Ceiling fans were observed.
There was more mingling with the poor in childhood than there is today. This is because games were played with marbles, stones, improvised bats. Good kit was not uncommon (readers will be familiar with the threat “I’ll take my bat away”) but it privileged its owner. Though this mingling did not make you a particularly better or sensitive person, it gave the other person a chance to glimpse your life. These fleeting friendships with the poor dissolved by the time you were 15.
Relatives were closer and took an interest in your life. People visited one another frequently, sometimes without cause, often unannounced. Neighbours were closer and you went over to receive a telephone call or to watch television.
The violence in Punjab coincided with the spread of television. The propaganda and the language used by the state began to be absorbed. I remember my mother’s dentist using the phrase asamajik tatva (antisocial element) in conversation in 1982.
Nationalism was fierce, and only later did you learn, to your horror, how mangled the map of Kashmir actually was, so different from the perfect head-like features of your beloved country.
Access to information from neutral sources blunted the nationalism, which with time became more moderate.
If we set aside the trinkets of modernity, life was not differently lived 35 years ago, though our income is much, much more. By the standards of our parents, we are wealthy. But there is something recognizably like them in the way we think and function, conservative but liberal in outlook.
This says something essential about us as a people.
Aakar Patel is a writer and a columnist.
Also Read | Aakar’s previous Lounge columns