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Photo: iStock
Photo: iStock

Opinion | Is the big fat Indian wedding more vulgar than you?

Being middle-class in a poor country is to be rich at a heavy discount

A slew of extravagant weddings this month has repulsed a type of middle-class Indian, even though he may not be from the South. Too golden, too grand, too garish, he complained. How can you spend so much money when there is “agrarian distress"? The urban middle-class does not employ the poor merely to cook for them, drive them and walk their dogs, but also to be used as moral pedestals to stand on and accuse those who are richer than them that they are “too vulgar in a poor country".

Some people were even reminded of the time when police raided wedding feasts because India was so deficient in food there were limits to how much food can be served. But now that Indians are allowed to be debauched, the urbane middle-class is disgusted.

But then do India’s vast poor make a serious distinction between the billionaires, multi-millionaires, the mere millionaires and the rest of the top 1%? Aren’t the Skodas of the conscientious “austere" Indians as gaudy as the Maybachs in the eyes of the starving? And isn’t the elegant and spare soiree on the lawns as vulgar as mega-weddings in the eyes of gaping drivers? And the disdain that Arundhati Roy has for Mukesh Ambani’s giant home, wouldn’t a malnourished tribal feel the same way for Roy’s affluent home in the Delhi’s prime Jor Bagh?

The conscience of the nation are asset millionaires themselves, or at least they belong to the top 1% by income, considering the fact that India is so poor it takes only a household income of about 2 lakh a month to qualify. What they think is austerity is still vulgar in their impoverished nation. Also, to the poor, it is the upper middle class that is the most visible section of the rich, because the ionosphere of the super-rich is beyond what their eyes can see. This is what commentators missed in the aftermath of “demonetisation" when they did not see its political popularity—in the public misery of the middle class, the average voter saw the rare fall of the rich.

The vulgarity of super-rich weddings should ideally suggest to the Indian middle class how vulgar they themselves appear to the poor. The classy think their wealth is hidden from plain sight, but there are things that are not invisible to the poor. In fact, class reminds them of both wealth and alien culture, the reason why class is politically more despicable than son-of-the-soil wealth. Isn’t it true after all that the average Indian relates more with Salman Khan, a multi-millionaire, than with any of Delhi’s “austere" intellectuals whose only extravagance is the invisible money their parents had spent on their college degrees?

From this fault line flows a stream of politics. Indian politics is the revenge of the poor, but it does not pain the provincial capitalists as much as it harms the global Indian, the believer in both the West European enlightenment and peepal tree enlightenment. This is not exclusively an Indian phenomenon.

In one of the several attempts by the New Yorker magazine to understand the popularity of Donald Trump, the magazine quoted Charles Keeney, a history professor: “When people (in West Virginia county) talk about Trump, they talk about how they don’t like the establishment or the élites…When they say that, they mean who they see on television—they envision people in New York City making fun of them and calling them stupid…So when they see that the media élite is driven out of their mind at the success of Donald Trump it makes them want to root for him. It’s like giving the middle finger to the rest of the country."

They find the sophisticates so vulgar that they identify more with Trump, a very rich man.

The rise of strongmen and of the right across the world, and the Brexit vote, too, is a demonstration of the fact that the average voter despises the articulate global intellectual--so much, that even when the intellectual talks sense, the voter hates sense itself. People are not irrational; they just hate some people more than others. This is why it has been an excellent strategy for some intellectuals to seek refuge in activism, where they are more endearing.

You may argue that the poor can tell the difference between you and a billionaire who commutes in choppers. I grant this though I will find it hilarious to tell a poor man, “Wealth, my friend, is a spectrum." Is poverty a spectrum? There can be a spectrum of data, but is the state of being poor a spectrum?

In politics, identity is never a spectrum. Political identity is often binary--flawed, but binary. Male, female. White, black. Rich, poor. There was a time when the Indian middle-class behaved like the poor (many of us went to ration shops, we went to the same schools and watched the same film as the poor in the same theatre and, probably, voted for the same political party, Congress). But today, we behave more like the rich. A person always knows the precise answer to the question: In your nation are you rich or poor?

There is a view that the rich of India subsidise the poor. But, as the former chief economic adviser Arvind Subramanian pointed out in the economic survey in 2015, India’s subsidies benefit the rich more because they are in a position to consume more of the cheap power, utility and food. Also, the lifestyle of the middle class is subsidised by the low-wages of the poor. Being middle-class in a poor country is to be rich at a heavy discount.

Manu Joseph, a journalist and a novelist, most recent of Miss Laila, Armed And Dangerous, was a Mint Lounge columnist.

Comments are welcome at views@livemint.com

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