Before “middle class” became the catchphrase for the standard-bearers of India’s race towards prosperity, it had a cultural and contextual specificity. Middle class meant people in a similar urban situation, in close proximity, living by an unwritten yet easily-understood code of behaviour.
Nobody elected that class, but it thought it represented the society’s morality. In 1912, George Bernard Shaw could mock the hypocrisy when Eliza Dolittle said in Pygmalion, “I have to live for others, not for myself; that’s middle class morality,” indicating the conformist and paternalistic aspects of expected behaviour.
The middle class sought respect, but neither was it so poor as to be forced to live in an open space, as in a slum such as Dharavi, nor so wealthy it could hide its existence in a tall skyscraper at Cuffe Parade. The chawl it was, then. It is claustrophobic,?in?some ways more so than in a slum or a skyscraper. You can look across homes, you know what’s going on, but you never say what you saw in public. Outwardly calm, within the chawl there is turbulence and, often, violence.
Each chawl has a hidden story; each home, a Mahabharat. Prowl through its narrow passageways, and you discover the venality of urban existence. Look through that peephole, and you will find a father worrying about his unmarried daughter’s pregnancy, which she won’t abort. Next door is the family that can neither live together, nor apart. Nobody likes the sister-in-law who sways her hips when she goes to the terrace to dry the clothes, or lets her dupatta fall when bending low while sweeping the floor. And nobody will mention the two women plotting with their husbands, turning brothers against one another.
Then there is that kaka (uncle). He claims to be a Gandhian, even wears homespun clothes. He provides shelter to abandoned women, but better not ask what goes on. Other housewives are suspicious of the women who come and go, talking of anything but Michelangelo. There are occasional screams, but they must be watching the television.
Then, the social worker who has risen to be a petty counsellor, aware of everything within the ward, trading information to his advantage, threatening to reveal affairs of the deputy commissioner of police, the home minister, the mayor. He can arrange riots (maybe even has).
There, that woman lives alone. She tutors girls, but neighbours don’t know what to make of rumours that she was pregnant once and had aborted a child. There was even a trial; she had briefly gone mad. They say every man on the floor has, at some point, slept with her. But who is to know?
And what about that woman that kaka brought once, the whore who would wash their clothes? Ishhh, she asked the nice mangalsutra-clad housewife (she is a BA—second-class), how much her husband had paid for her. Such insolence! No shame?
And finally, that other woman: She jumped off the building, taking her life, after the councillor found out about her love for another woman. She said they were only “friends,” but how can you permit such perverts in the chawl, no?
Calm without, fire within. Dig a bit and the chawl’s hidden hatreds, insecurities, sexual frustration and long-suppressed violence burst out. It is not just the brutal violence sadists visit upon the man who takes a wrong turn on the wrong day, or what a man might do to a woman, or what some castes do to others. It is the primeval need to subjugate, an expression of raw power exercised over the one without.
Nobody scrutinized the Indian middle class this way. Bollywood showed Dharmendra touching Nirupa Roy’s feet, saying: “Ma, main first aaya (Mummy, I came first).” Atul Dodiya or Bhupen Khakhar would paint a tranquil family with the son doing his homework, the grandfather on a swing, the mother in the kitchen, the father still in the suburban train. Gurcharan Das and Vikram Seth wrote about the fine family of suitable boys marrying suitable girls.
But furies lay beneath, spawned by jealousy, arousal and denial. Outsiders steal our jobs. Muslims bomb our buses. Dalits marry our daughters. This class looked away when Gujarat burned after Godhra, when Sikhs were roasted in Trilokpuri, when millions were displaced when their villages drowned as dams were built.
In the churning of the past 60 years, many barriers have shattered, dislocating many lives, eradicating boundaries and shattering complacencies. The chawl wants to resist.
Vijay Tendulkar did not permit that satisfaction. He shook us out of our stupor. Shrimant. Gidhaade. Sakharam Binder. Ghashiram Kotwal. Shantata! Court Chalu Ahe. Kamala. Mitrachi Goshta. Kanyadaan. They were not mere plays at Chhabildas or Tata Theatre. It was not about “them”. This was “us”.
Now, Tendulkar is gone. The plays— and the violence—remain.
(Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London. Your comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org)