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ELITE AND EVERYMAN: The Cultural Politics of the Indian Middle Classes edited by Amita Baviskar and Raka Ray. Routledge, New Delhi, 2011.

THE middle class is an elusive and yet popular category. Be it lay discourses on social and political life, or serious academic writings on economy, history and cultures of contemporary India, the category of middle class is used in a large variety of contexts. But what exactly is (or are) middle class(es)? What is specific about the Indian middle class? What role does it play in contemporary Indian social life? While recent writings by Indian economists have mostly concentrated on its size as an ‘income category’, the term has a broader sociological and conceptual history, both in the western context and in India.

The edited volume by Amita Baviskar and Raka Ray brings together essays that draw upon and indicate a wide range of scholarship that has recently emerged on the Indian middle class. The essays, first discussed in a workshop at the Institute of Economic Growth in New Delhi, discuss a wide array of concerns about the Indian middle class, ranging from the simple economics of middle class in terms of its numbers or income levels, to its history, changing social and occupational profile, and even the ways in which it is represented in sex surveys.

As the editors suggest in their introduction, the ‘arrival’ of the middle class, or the growing scholarly interest in the subject, is also a consequence of the economic progress that a section of Indians have made over the last 50 or 60 years. Though their numbers in relative terms are still small, estimated to be anywhere between 10 to 26 per cent of the population, in absolute terms they have been growing, particularly during the post-liberalization period. More importantly perhaps, the middle class in India has also gradually occupied centre-stage, displacing the ‘poor’ and the ‘peasant’, the common man.

The pre-liberalization common man was a rather quiet and humble creature. The popular media articulated his concerns in terms of roti, kapda aur makan. The growing presence of middle class has changed this popular concern to bijli, sadak aur pani. While this shows a degree of social and economic mobility of the aam admi, it does not mean that the entire poor population has moved up the ladder. One can equally read this shift as reflecting a further marginalization of the poor, whose number, even in relative terms, remains very large. However, the aam admi of urban India is no longer a humble and helpless creature. He is now a middle class person, a citizen, who could be better described as ‘everyman’. Unlike the common man, ‘everyman’ is assertive and demanding. It is this ascendency of the middle class during the 1990s, the post-liberalization period, that provides the context for different essays in the book.

So far, with the exception of historical commentaries, writings on the Indian middle class have mostly been of a general nature, based on impressionistic notions about the urban professional and salaried classes, invariably focusing on the conceptual difficulties of using the term in the Indian context. They often critiqued the Indian middle class for not being like its western counterpart, as being self-serving or non-secular. In contrast, the papers presented in the volume mostly draw on empirical evidence. Even the conceptual discussions have moved beyond the earlier moralistic commentaries. The introductory chapter by the editors and the paper by Leela Fernandes are good examples of this tendency. Similarly, Sanjay Joshi’s historical account of the middle class in Lucknow and the paper by the Rudolphs on the post-land reform Rajputs of Rajasthan, raise interesting conceptual questions about the specific context of the emergence of a middle class in India. In the same vein, the paper by Roger Jeffrey, Patricia Jeffrey and Craig Jeffrey provides a fascinating ethnography of the mobile Jats of western Uttar Pradesh, their growing desire to be a part of the middle class and their efforts at changing their lifestyles.

The post-1990s context and the rise of a ‘new’ middle class is the subject of several papers. Working through numbers, E. Sridharan provides a comprehensive analysis of the data on employment, income and consumption categories through different data sets. In another paper, Carol Upadhya and Smitha Radhakrishnan present their work on the software professionals.

The book also has several papers on the personal or private life of the middle class. While Nita Kumar focuses on the reproduction of middle class through education by looking at the child, Seemin Qayum and Raka Ray present their work on changing practices of servant-keeping in Kolkata and the challenge that middle class households face in negotiating their relationships with servants vis-a-vis their self-identities of being modern. Another study of Kolkata by Ruchira Ganguly-Scrase and Timothy J. Scrase look at the lower middle class among the Bengali bhadralok, their experience of relative downward mobility and the growing pressure of conforming to the new normative of middle class life, where success in English medium education has increasingly become critical. In another essay in the section, Patricia Uberoi analyzes the changing ‘sexual character’ of the Indian middle class by comparing a survey done by the famous sociologist G.S. Ghurye conducted during the late 1930s with a 2007 sex survey published by India Today.

Continuing with the changing 1990s, the last three chapters of the book look at the emerging nature of middle class politics and urban public sphere. Focusing on cinema, the first of these chapters by William Mazzarella, looks at the manner in which a new liberal discourse on censorship emerged around the ‘freedom of consumer choice’ for the urban educated viewer, even while it accepted censorship for the ‘masses’. Similarly, Amita Baviskar and Sanjay Srivastava discuss the reconfiguring of urban spaces in their contributions. However, they focus on two very different contexts and with differing perspectives. While Srivastava’s ethnography of the Akshardham temple in Delhi shows how the appeal of the temple lies in its ability to present itself as a ‘tableau of consumption’, Baviskar examines the ‘ongoing emergence of the public sphere on Delhi’s street’ and the restructuring of urban space to make it fit the bourgeois notion of environmentalism and modernity.

Though one can always quibble about or identify what has not been addressed by the book, it is hard to ignore its contribution to the scholarship on the Indian middle class. The range of subjects covered and the quality of scholarship makes reading of this book an imperative for anyone interested in understanding the changing character of the middle class and contemporary India.

Surinder S. Jodhka


REFLECTIONS ON NATION BUILDING: A Gypsy in the World of Ideas by Rajen Harshe. Pentagon Press, New Delhi, 2011.

MEMOIRS of teachers seem to be curiously non-existent today. And yet, names such as S. Radhakrishnan, K.R. Srinivasa Iyengar, V.V. John and C.D. Narasimhaiah were widely known to the teaching community in post-independence India. Full of scintillating wit and humour, their accounts accomplished several goals at the same time: they mapped the contours of the teacher’s intellectual and spiritual evolution, captured the history of learning, especially with regard to the institutional and pedagogic aspects, recorded the changing attitude of society towards the university and finally, offered reflections that could serve as an effective road map for the future. Indeed, for a great many of the leaders of our national freedom struggle, education and nation building, went hand in hand. And thus, we think of Gandhiji’s interest in Basic Education, Tagore’s endeavours in Shantiniketan and Sri Aurobindo’s experiments in Baroda, Bengal and Pondicherry.

Paradoxically enough, post-independence India’s commitment to higher education, in terms of a massive outlay of resources of money and manpower, seems to have coincided with a gradual withdrawal of the venerable teacher figure into a private shell as a recluse. No doubt, star teachers and professors have become public intellectuals today; they command a fan following in the media and on campus. But we rarely see glimpses of their private selves, the world of their intimate thought, their anxiety, dilemma and fears, related to their vision of education.

The more teaching has become a ‘profession’ in terms of an increased pay packet and mandatory teaching hours under the supervision of national level bodies like the UGC (University Grants Commission), the more society has been deprived of the valuable presence of the teacher figure. That is why Rajen Harshe’s ruminations on men, matters and institutions in the present volume, seen from the perspective of a teacher over the last three decades, merits public attention. Written in a lucid, conversational style without the pitfalls of jargon, this is not a memoir in the conventional sense. Harshe writes with feeling; there is the personal note, the reflective persona who looks back constantly and revises his cherished views and beliefs as he goes along.

It is this humanistic self of Harshe that comes out again and again in the essays. With an experience that spans many places: Pune, Delhi, Paris, Hyderabad, New York and Allahabad, he has had a rich and eventful career as a teacher, administrator and institution builder. Calling himself a gypsy in the world of ideas, he writes insightfully on personalities like Gandhi, Marx, Nehru, Tilak and Mandela and introduces the ideas of J. Krishnamurti, Sarojini Naidu and Frantz Fanon. He examines issues such as the Naxalite movement, the university system, insurgency in the North East, alienation of youth, the Partition of India, the Berlin Wall and the globalized economy. Above all, there is the all powerful presence of history. He looks closely at history with its myriad meanings, examines the nature of the past and the problems inherent in the writing of this discipline.

The chapters themselves are fairly small, each written in the form of a column; many of these, we learn, were published in the form of a column called ‘V.C’s Diary’ in the Allahabad edition of Hindustan Times. As Harshe looks back, he asks a number of pointed questions: Was Nehru an enigma or tragedy? What are his lasting contributions? How did Tilak add an ideological or spiritual basis to India’s freedom struggle? What is the lasting legacy of the anti-colonial Fanon and the 13th century Marathi saint poet Gyaneshwar?

He has his answers. The ideal is to avoid political correctness and all forms of dogmatic and sectarian thinking. Nehru had his strength and his failings too: Kashmir and China. So much of our schooling, he aptly says, is an unmitigated drudgery. The youth today needs role models and inspiring figures. Violence can be countered only through non-violent peaceful methods. Some of the answers seem to be familiar. Perhaps the novelty lies in the manner in which Harshe articulate these ideas and beliefs with passion and fervour and grounds them in concrete personal experience.

There are primarily two reference points for Rajen Harshe’s personal narrative: his experience at the ‘Golden Threshold’ of the University of Hyderabad, and his association with the Allahabad University. These provide a catalytic agency to his thinking. ‘I have allowed my soul and mind to talk to (my) readers,’ he says aptly.

In the late seventies, Rajen came to the ‘Golden Threshold’ which then served as the city campus of the newly started Central University. Named after an immortal collection of poems by Sarojini Naidu, the place became more than an address or a locale. It breathed the atmosphere of Sarojini and her father Dr. Aghorenath Chattopadhyay who, we learn, was the founder of the Nizam College, Hyderabad. There were also a host of nationalists such as Gandhiji who came to the Golden Threshold.

It is at this sacred site, a beehive of intellectual activity, that Rajen reflected on teaching and teachers. What is teaching and who are the ideal teachers? In the process, he discovers ‘spirituality through research.’ In the intimate bond between the teachers and taught, he sees the non-dualism of Advaita. There are kindred souls such as the philosopher Ramachandra Gandhi and poets like Arvind Krishna Mehrotra and Meena Alexander. But then, no idyll can be a permanent one and Hyderabad University goes through its share of turmoil and conflicts in the eighties before bouncing back.

Later in his career, Rajen picks up the thread again when he is invited to lead the newly converted Central University of Allahabad in 2005. A fruitful five year stint at Allahabad saw him transform the place into an active centre of learning that brought back a modicum of the earlier glory of the university. There is the sense of satisfaction for a job well done!

It is the chapter, ‘Golden Threshold’ that I liked the most in the book. It is at G.T., as the place is known locally, that Rajen reveals his innermost self. The memories often turn lyrical and poetic as he recollects the image of the birds seen through the windows of his office. These birds, he muses, ‘must have been writing poems on the sadness of the sky underneath the veins of green leaves with their beaks.’ They remind him of his students who were ‘perennial angels’ in his life. The music in him takes him inexorably into the many skies traversed by the birds that fly all over.

A Gypsy in the World of Ideas is a memorable account that would be of interest to a wide cross-section of society. The chapters are written at different times and therefore betray a degree of unevenness in style. Where he succeeds, Rajen is able to transfigure the academic experience into the personal, and finally in the form of lasting vignettes. Occasionally, the opinions expressed reiterate the familiar. On the whole, however, this is a book that should have a wide appeal. Attractively produced by the Pentagon Press, Rajen Harshe’s reflections on higher education would hopefully lead to a more full-fledged personal narrative.

Sachidananda Mohanty


FLOWERS FOR MY FATHER. Tributes to P. Lal and His Writers Workshop compiled and edited by Srimati Lal. Writers Workshop, Delhi 2011.

Professor P. Lal called his only daughter Srimati, ‘child of my heart’, who after his death in 2010, has expressed her profound, rare and deep devotion to her father in this collection, Flowers for my Father, which has essays, reminiscences from 33 writers/colleagues, drawings by Srimati, and photographs.

P. Lal, a legendary Professor of English Literature at St. Xavier’s College, Calcutta, founded his highly controversial and path-breaking Writers Workshop for Indians writing in English in 1958. At the time, few thought Indians could be creative in English. I remember Philip Larkin saying that no Indian could write poetry in English! All the more incredible, therefore, was P. Lal’s Open Sesame to Indians writing in English, a language which he believed was as much an Indian language as any other. So finely honed was his intuition that he bravely sparked off his Writers Workshop with an anthology and a credo titled Modern Indo-Anglian Poetry (1969). It was a radical and refreshing manifesto, rejecting even Swami Purohit and Tagore (who had been included by W.B. Yeats in his Oxford Book of Modern Verse) for ‘syntactical Victorianisms, philosophical Gibranisms, and pious yearnings of the spirit.’ (Lal did, later, translate Tagore’s last poems.) Even more irreverently, Lal rejected Sri Aurobindo’s Savitri as ‘a gushy comical experience.’

The stage had been set for a new poetry, a fresh language and poetic idiom, and, with increasing confidence, Indian writers began to explore and express a sense of their own world. No more poems about larks and daffodils! I remember, still, the thrill of first reading Mary Erulkar’s stunning poem: ‘The Third Continent’:

‘Where Europe and America build their arches

The pale women lean like fountains in the wind…

There, the women walk where the winds of hunger

Lament in the black harps of their hair.’

Many who first published their work with Lal’s Workshop went on to become known nationally and internationally. Anita Desai published her first stories with WW. So did Shashi Deshpande, Ruskin Bond, and Farukh Dhondy. Poets Nissim Ezekiel, Kamala Das, A.K. Ramanujan, Arun Kolatkar, Agha Shahid Ali, Keki Daruwalla, Vikram Seth and many others were all first published by Lal.

Lal also opened up his house in Calcutta for literary meets, and among the famous who met there were Pearl Buck, R.K. Narayan, Allen Ginsburg, Mulk Raj Anand, Gunter Grass and Geoffrey Hill.

He also published Miscellany, a magazine which accepted stories, poems and articles from unpublished writers. This gave new writers a sense of identity, and encouraged them to keep writing. Perhaps there could have been more critical input, and more editing. But I think Lal’s attitude was: Here is a boat. Get in, venture into the ocean. See how far you can go. Many drowned along the way, or just gave up. Many went on to reach distant shores!

Lal was a great teacher of English literature, but no Anglophile. He was well grounded in Sanskrit, and started to ‘transcreate’ (a word coined by him, now in the Oxford Dictionary) the great classics of India. He started with the Mahabharata, shloka by shloka. This he continued to do almost till the end. He also translated the Ramayana, the Upanishads, great Sanskrit plays, the Dhammapada, the Bhagavad Gita, the Jap-ji, and much more.

And to add to this phenomenal output, he was also a stylish calligrapher. I remember the thrill of receiving his exquisitely handwritten letters, addressed to Sujatha Devi! His highly developed aesthetic sense was surely the reason for his books being handbound in exquisitely coloured handloom saris by Tulamiah Mohiuddin. They were printed on an India made hand-operated machine by P.K. Aditya. What a tremendous achievement this was. Gopal Krishna Gandhi writes in his tribute to P. Lal: ‘If P. Lal had been born in an age when scripts were emerging, he would have stayed with the mystic signs and symbols that preceded the alphabet.’

Since he belonged to the age of writing, of fully-formed letters and a world of evolved words, he made his choice early and clearly: he would adhere to that which was readied by the hand, read by the eyes, and retained by the enquiring mind, all in one seamless stretch.

To overthrow the colonial legacy, claim our own, and yet have the stature and poise to start a movement encouraging those wishing to write in English. When everyone was debating ‘Indianness’, Lal knew that Indians could and would make English one of their own languages, and use it in a unique way. Lal wrote many poems in English himself. One of his most touching poems is ‘For My Daughter, Srimati’. In Srimati’s article, ‘Bouquets to Baba’, the daughter has a vision of her father, senses his presence. He whispers to her: ‘Forgive them all, Tepari! You know better. They know not what they say or do…as usual! Remember how they didn’t even know which switch worked at Belle Vue nursing home? You did. Among many other things. Smile, my little Tepari…smile. Do your own thing!’

That Lal was a genius and visionary is very clear. He was never small-minded, petty or vindictive, with a clear and open spirit, aspiring always to a life of beauty and an exalted spirit.

Anna Sujatha Mathai


DANGEROUS SEX, INVISIBLE LABOR: Sex Work and the Law in India by Prabha Kotiswaran. Princeton University Press, Princeton, 2011.

Dangerous Sex, Invisible Labor is a complex and courageous interdisciplinary study of sex work in contemporary India. Its complexity lies in the sheer variety of epistemological and methodological registers that the author has chosen to navigate, drawing widely from writings in feminist theory, legal realism, postcolonial theory, and law and economics, besides herself undertaking a multi-sited legal ethnography. Its courage, in its attempt to provide an account that takes seriously sex workers’ own description of what they do as ‘work’, without collapsing into the tired (but easy) binaries of coerced victim/transgressive heroine that characterize most writing on the subject.

The book is divided into three parts, with distinct but interlocking theoretical orientations and narrative styles. The first, ‘Theorizing Sex Work’ analyzes the feminist skirmishes over the sex work question, painstakingly tracing the theoretical trajectories of radical, abolitionist and materialist feminist divergences and agreements. Kotiswaran then maps the effects of these diverse strands onto the contemporary international discourse on sex markets and trafficking. This is unfortunately the least compelling section in the book. The writing seems laboured, and tends to be repetitive. In chapter two alone, for instance, the author ‘revisits’, ‘recasts’, ‘resituates’, ‘rethinks’ and ‘re-modifies’ the debate several times over, in delineating the contours of tediously and tenaciously intractable feminist (op)positions. Despite her exploration of lesser-known feminist materialist writings on the subject, parts of the section read like a mandatory review of literature from a doctoral dissertation. For an author who is unembarrassed and vocal about her postcolonial materialist politics, her choice to foreground these predominantly western feminist genealogies, and bracket off the postcolonial into her concluding section, is somewhat puzzling.

In the second section, ‘The Political Economy of Sex Work’, the book takes an unexpected and refreshing new direction. The section is based on fascinating ethnographies of two very different and highly differentiated markets for sex work, the pilgrimage town of Tirupati and brothel-based prostitution in the red light district of Sonagachi in Kolkata. The author’s materialist and legal realist orientation leads her to study minutely the economic institutions of livelihood and rent, and the relationships of formal and informal legality which structure the libidinal economy of sex work in these two locales. Her study of the complexity of contractual and non-monetary economic forms, plurality of governmental, legal and social norms, and political movements and manoeuvres that variously constitute the contemporary urban sex worker as the ‘adhiya’, the ‘chhukri’, the ‘flying sex worker’, the brothel, street or ‘lodge’ based prostitute working on ‘contract’ or ‘commission’, seriously unsettle existing theoretical and legal frames and should be compulsory reading for every advocate for policy or legal reform. If there is a failing in this section, it is that the ‘thickness’ of Kotiswaran’s ethnographic description occasionally wears thin, and her writing can tend towards economic determinism, even reductionism. For instance, in detailing the kinds of tenancy agreements that exist in Sonagachi, she ends every sub-section with an assessment of its relative investment and legal risk, and profitability. Her uncritical deployment of policy and governance terminology such as ‘stakeholders’ or ‘Category A/B/or C sex workers’ (classified on the basis of income, and in one instance used to generalize about their relative preference for cigarettes or alcohol!) without unpacking the discursive histories of these managerial classifications flatten and diminish what is an otherwise politically engaged and carefully wrought narrative.

In the final section, ‘Toward a Theory of Redistribution in Sex Markets’, Kotiswaran ‘applies’ her theoretical frame to her empirical field. In the first of the two chapters that make up the section, she undertakes a leap of legal imagination, conjecturing how legislative changes such as partial decriminalization (the criminalization of customers as contemplated in the proposed amendment to the Immoral Trafficking Prevention Act, but not passed by the Indian Parliament), complete decriminalization or legalization would impact the complicated world of brothel based prostitution in Sonagachi. Such ‘modelling’ is premised on several farfetched assumptions (including that the law will be uniformly and perfectly enforced) which make it vulnerable to the charge of over-determinism. Nevertheless, through this hypothetical exercise, Kotiswaran successfully demonstrates that even in a model where laws have no unintended consequences, legal changes can ripple out into the social world in complicated and surprising ways. In her concluding chapter, Kotiswaran draws together the sometimes disparate themes in her work, and proposes a (post-colonial) materialist feminist theory. She provides a trenchant critique of the teleological nature of Marxist, feminist and developmental progress narratives, and instantiates through her ethnographic work, how sex markets in India disrupt any such universalist histories.

The diverse disciplinary domains that Kotiswaran traverses, the depth of detail, her use of Marxist and governance terminology, and her classificatory and densely analytical descriptive style can make this book a demanding, though sometimes a difficult, read. Nonetheless, it is an important, even unique, book and for these reasons should be read.

Shrimoyee Nandini Ghosh