Class or crass: India’s middle class

One of the biggest culture shocks I am now experiencing relates to what is considered to be “class” or behaviour that represents economic and social status. It isn’t something I saw much of when I was backpacking, but now that I am settled into a rather middle class life in Mumbai, I am really struggling with what appears to be considered appropriate behaviour amongst the middle class here compared to what I have grown up with in Australia.

Sitting in a restaurant enjoying a Thai meal the other day with a new friend, I helped myself to a second serve of rice. My friend did not. He made a big deal of waving his arms around and calling out loudly for the waiter from the other side of the room to come over and serve him his rice. My friend has fully functioning limbs and was perfectly capable of serving himself. Coming from a very laid back middle class Australian background, my instant reaction was extreme embarrassment and I wanted to ask, “Are your hands broken?.” Of course, it’s a new friendship, so I maintained my composure and just stayed quiet.

A few days later, at another dinner with another new friend, exactly the same thing happened. Apparently demanding someone else serve you is considered to be “good class” here. I consider it poor taste and cringe worthy, particularly because it seems to be done with a fair bit of fanfare, as if a point is being made to put the server “in their place.” Here the cultural divide between those who have and those who have less is becoming very apparent, if you have more, it seems to be your role to make sure those who have less know it and feel demeaned.

Ok, asking a waiter to serve you in a restaurant is a pretty small deal, but it’s not the actual request that offends me but the way in which it is requested. I have observed this behaviour quite a lot in the past few weeks and it always feels like it’s a way of keeping someone else down. I don’t know how else to explain it.

So now I sit in restaurants and observe, and without fail on most tables there is someone waving their arm frantically or yelling out to the staff, sending food back several times and demanding to speak to chefs and managers to tell them how they should be doing it. Don’t get me wrong, I have sent meals back in Australia and asked to speak to the manager when something is sub-standard, but it’s always done with some humility and a large dose of embarrassment. It’s not the thing to do unless something is very wrong with the meal, and it’s certainly considered ill taste to make a big deal of it. Unfortunately, every time I see it being done here, it is an Indian doing it to another Indian, foreigners don’t seem to behave that way and Indians certainly don’t treat the foreigners (usually the owners) in the restaurants that way.

Unfortunately, these observations extend past service in restaurants and into the home. Listening to people talk about how their staff (i.e., cleaners, cooks, drivers) will “take advantage” of them if they give them a little leeway makes me feel quite ill, and is something I have observed not just in India but in other expat communities in other parts of the world (like Africa). To put it in context, I pay about $17 a month for a lovely lady to come to my house 7 days a week for an hour and half and clean all my dishes, sweep the floor, mop the floor, clean bathrooms and tidy up the house. She has no set day off. So when I hear people talk about their maid taking advantage of them because they want a day off whilst they sip their Rs150 ($3) coffees in air-conditioned cafes, all I can think is who exactly is taking advantage of whom here?

When did someone lose the right to have a day off, particularly when they perform back-breaking work for a pitiful sum of money. Let’s not forget, most of the “support staff” have full access to the house, they see what expensive items are there and are well aware of how little they are paid (I am very ashamed to say that my imported breakfast cereal costs me more in a month than my maid!).

Yes, it is simple economics of supply and demand. People are willing to work for the price they are paid, I don’t argue against this, but the attitude that they are taking advantage of someone who is clearly able to pay them more and in a much better position than them really grates against my personal morals. I don’t see any gratitude for the work that is done, or being grateful just to be able to afford help. In Australia, I had a house-cleaner that came once a fortnight for an hour and half (for which I paid $75 a visit) and I was eternally grateful to them. I can’t even describe how fortunate I feel now that I don’t have to clean anything in my house. For this, I thank our maid every time I see her.

The more I talk to people here, the more it becomes apparent there is an almost complete disregard for those who are less fortunate. For example, I was talking to one person about my daily walks in Bandra and how the middle class walkers along the new beach paths never seemed to look out to the bay, which is where many are bathing, washing their clothes, going to the toilet, basically living daily life. They just looked at me and said “Oh we don’t look at that, you won’t notice it soon either. Just ignore those people.”

So those who “have” choose to ignore those who don’t have, unless they need to use them for something (like to clean their house or drive them to the station), and, in the process, it appears that they have managed to dehumanise them in their minds. I hear the “haves” refer to the “have nots” as “these people,” dissociating them as a different group from themselves. Once someone is no longer considered to be like you, then it’s a small step to forgetting they are human altogether and with that disappears the need to treat them with respect. So behaving rudely and brashly towards them is then almost justified because “they” no longer require you to treat them as human.

I know what I am saying sounds harsh, and I am sure it won’t win me any friends and may perhaps lose me some, but this is what I have observed and it makes me feel very sad. Sad that I see wonderful people treat others so badly and that I think they really don’t see it themselves and actually feel justified in doing so.

So as I try to fit into my new home, I am terrified. Terrified that one day I will walk down the street and no longer see all the people who are there. Terrified that I may feel like I need to compromise my personal values to fit in or, worse still, find my values have been conditioned and changed. Will I be able to continue to swallow my pride and show some class towards my new friends and not say a word when they behave in a way that they consider appropriate but I do not?

I read this article recently about an Indian who had moved from the US, and after 2 years was so distressed by the behaviours they were demonstrating that they moved back to the US. I already relate to everything the writer talks about and it’s a challenge that I am not sure I have seen anyone overcome as yet.

I just hope I can retain my own personal beliefs and treat everyone I come across with the dignity and respect that they deserve. Whilst I want to assimilate into my new life, I don’t think I am ready to leave me behind just yet.

Rakhee Ghelani is an Australian woman of Indian origin who has packed up her life and moved to India. She publishes the blog aussiegirlinindia.com. You can follow her on Twitter at https://twitter.com/#!/rakheeghelani. She also has a Facebook page. Email her at rakhee@aussiegirlinindia.com.

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2 Responses to Class or crass: India’s middle class

  1. You are quite correct, Rakhee. Indians practice classism to an enormous extent. Thank you for bravely pointing out to us what we so often ignore.

  2. Beheruz N. Sethna

    Hi, Rakhee, Well written. I agree. I don’t believe you will change into what you do not wish to be. I was born and raised in India, and never found that behavior acceptable. Fortunately, you didn’t experience the snapping of the fingers to attract a waiters attention. I have. It sickens me.