Reviving a Dream of India

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The paper that follows this is one I wrote a few years back and tried for months and months to have published by academic journals. As must be obvious, it didn’t happen and I’ll be the first to say it can be improved. In the end though, I decided to not pursue that part of my research agenda and have not attempted to write about a similar topic since. Recent events have had me thinking I should at least have posted it online. So here it is, if you read and enjoy it, drop me a line and let me know! Better yet, if you use any of it in your own work, please cite it using this:

Leong, Susan (2016). “Getting India: Chetan Bhagat and the Indian Middle Class”. Accessed [insert date accessed here]

Getting India: Chetan Bhagat and the Indian Middle Class

Given Australia has ambitions to deepen engagement with India in ‘the Asian Century’ (2012a), a firmer grasp of the whys and wherefores of the subcontinent seems non-negotiable. Whilst the Australian government is aware of this need, much remains to be done at the everyday level to fill in the gaps in our understanding of India.

Since the Indian middle class dominates discourses and understandings about India at home and abroad, knowledge about middle India would be fundamental to a better grasp of the ways of broader Indian society. This paper argues that the novels of Indian author, Chetan Bhagat, with their insider views of the expectations and aspirations of middle India, offers us an effective and valuable way to begin the task of really ‘getting’ India.

Middle India

The phrase ‘middle India’ is used interchangeably with the term middle class Indians in this paper. It has the effect of shortening the cumbersome term but it serves also to remind that the middle class is perceived to form the heart of India today. Whether this is due to its economic, cultural or socio-political domination is perhaps of less importance than the fact that within the Indian social imaginary, the middle class holds a hegemonic status (Fernandes and Heller, 2006). In other words, the aspirations of middle India are perceived to be the aspirations of all Indians. Their views on education, marriage, status and religion dominate the public sphere, the media and the national consciousness. Broadly, the new middle class ‘sets the terms of reference of Indian society, not only because of its development, but also because it is the darling of the official discourse and policy makers (Jaffrelot and van der Veer, cited in Mathur, 2010).

Traditionally, the middle class is ‘the intermediary social stratum that separates the two main classes: the rich and powerful and the poor and powerless’. However, since the 1920-30s, this stratum of society has expanded to become the largest demographic of most modern nations (Meier and Lange, 2009, p. 6). The question, today, of who belongs to the middle class has no easy answers. Whilst professions are an indication of one’s position on the social ladder, social mobility and distinctions do tend to vary with geographical mobility. For example, although plumbing is a blue-collar profession in Australia, many plumbers earn incomes that place them well above the brackets of lower rung white-collar professionals.

More specifically, as Nijman (2006) points out in an article on the middle class in Mumbai, because the affluent are over-represented in that city, the middle class of Mumbai are different to their counterparts elsewhere in India (Nijman, 2006, p. 766 ). In fact, as ‘the lifestyle trendsetter in India’ (p, 768), Mumbai’s middle class is ahead of the curve on so many factors that a middle-class family in Mumbai might well be considered affluent in another city. Such distinctions derive from the differing levels of economic prosperity of India’s various urban centres, an inevitable reality in a nation as geographically dispersed and socio-economically varied as India. However, these differentiations compound the problem of how the middle class can be defined and positively referred to.

India’s National Council of Applied Economic Research (NCAER) separates the various classes by their ‘consumption habits’. Within this system, ‘car ownership’ is associated with the rich, ‘colour TVs or motorcycles’ with the middle or consuming classes and ‘electric fans’ the archetypal purchase of aspirants (NCAER cited in Nijman, 2006, p. 768). Such a system is reflective of the role ‘conspicuous consumption’ plays as a ‘determinant of status’ (Ganguly-Scrase and Scrase, 2008, p. 11). Even so, as Ganguly-Scrase and Scrase (2008) point out it is possible and necessary to differentiate between the lower middle, upper middle and middle middle!

There are clearly nuances extant within the middle stratum that are difficult to capture but important to explicate. The various institutes that compile and study socio-economic trends on the Indian population seem to concur on this point. Unfortunately, these same institutes do not agree on or indeed, use the same yardsticks and characteristics for establishing categories in their studies. Hence, while a lot of data on the middle class is generated, cross-correlation remains difficult and uncommon. For the purposes of this paper, the definition of the middle class most relevant is that by Fernandes and Heller (2006, p. 500), who define the middle class as ‘the class of people whose economic opportunities are not derived primarily from property…but rather from other power-conferring resources such as organizational authority or possession of scarce occupational skills’.

Fernandes (2006) uses the terms ‘new middle class’ (NMC) and like Bhatt et al (2010) argues that ‘the new middle class is differentiated from the old middle class by its relationship to the state’. Specifically, whilst support for the ‘anticolonial struggle’ and the work of postcolonial nation formation defined the old middle class, the new middle class is distinguished by ‘its support for policies of economic liberalization, marketization, and consumption’ (ibid, p. 129).

To understand this differentiation is to realise the British Raj’s hand in the shaping of India. During its long reign, the colonial government found it had to staff the administrative machinery necessary to the management of British India’s vast territories and trade commodities. Beginning with the 1854 Woods Dispatch, a British education system was established to train a class of people that would serve as intermediaries between the British and the Indian people (Walsh, 2011, pp. 116-9). The combination of a pressing need for English-speaking interlocutors and the education system served to create an elite class of Anglicised Indians, mostly Hindus of the higher castes (Walsh, 2011, p. 145; Fernandes, 2006, p. 9).

The number of people who pursued an English-language education grew alongside its importance as a ‘credential for elite employment’ in India (Walsh, 2011, p. 143-4). Those who consolidated the required education with the right socio-economic status rose to serve in the Indian Civil Service, the ICS (Fernandes, 2006, p. 7). Overall, as Fernandes argues, ‘the pattern of development pushed the emerging middle classes…to rely on education as a means of achieving access to employment and economic power’ (2006, p. 4). This attitude is a defining trait of middle India and one of the reasons why one might still describe this stratum of Indian society as being ‘education-mad’ (2011a).

Still, until the 1880s this elite group made up no more than one per cent of the population (Walsh, 2011, p. 271). Its size, however, belied its influence in the shaping of the Indian nation. Schooled in the ideals of the European Enlightenment, the nucleus of today’s middle class were amongst the earliest critics of British imperialism and thus, it was from within its ranks that India’s first nationalists emerged (Walsh, 2011, p. 135, 166).

Although the years following independence in 1947 saw language politics divide the India into 14 and subsequently, 28 language-based states (Walsh, 2011, p. 227), the postcolonial middle class with its literacy in English and familiarity with the grammar of governance continued to play a central role in the development and modernisation of the nation. Moreover, apart from being targets of the newly formed socialist state’s ‘nationalist discourse’ and policies, the middle class also grew to have a hand in shaping them (Fernandes, 2006, p. 20). It is in this sense the state and the middle class were mutually constituted during the colonial and the early post-colonial periods.

Mathur defines the new middle class differently from Fernandes but the two approaches overlap rather than diverge. According to Mathur, it was during the mid-1970s that the ‘character of the Indian middle class underwent significant transformations’ (2010, pp. 216-7). Along with better healthcare, this stratum of society expanded alongside the growth in India’s general population (Walsh, 2011, p. 271). Indeed, in 1981, when the population of India itself stood at 683, 329, 097, the middle class accounted for a commanding 71 per cent of the Indian administrative services (Fernandes, 2006, p. 23). Following the New Industrial Policy and liberalisation of India’s economy in 1991, the middle class was released from its commitment to national interests to begin its collective emphasis on ‘social position, public or political influence and western-style education’ (Mathur, 2010, p. 215).

The link between an English-education and better life chances is one that has been entrenched in India over time (Brass, 2004). English literacy continues to remain a condition of a better class of employment today (Ganguly-Scrase and Scrase, 2008, p. 149). Significantly, however the new middle class is defined, a western-style education remains pivotal to the middle classes’ chances of upward social mobility. To more fully engage with Indian society Australia needs to a minimum understanding of the conditions, aspirations and expectation that concern middle India. This, I contend, can be obtained through reading the novels of Chetan Bhagat.

Bhagat’s Ouevre

Appropriately, the theme of Bhagat’s debut novel is the getting of an elite education. Titled, Five Point Someone (2004)—a reference to the deplorable grade point average of the three main protagonists, Hari, Ryan and Alok—is a fast-paced expose of the trials and tribulations associated with life at one of India’s Institutes of Technology (IITs). IITs are famed, as Alok phrases it as ‘the one college in the country that virtually guaranteed a future’ (Bhagat, 2004, p. 73). The trio are warned on their first day that if ‘[y]ou get bad grades, and I assure you – you get no job, no school and no future. If you do well, the world is your oyster’ (p. 11). Some parts of the plot are a touch melodramatic but the account of the trio’s antics offer its readers a quick and humorous peek into India’s high-pressured education system.

The three main characters come from different socio-economic backgrounds. Ryan’s parents, for example, are Non-Resident Indians (NRIs) who run a thriving business and they send him ‘[US] dollar cheques’ to compensate for their absence (p. 73). Alok’s family comprising a sickly father, a un-dowried sister (p. 154) and an over-burdened mother sits at the other end of the social spectrum. Right from the start, Bhagat writes a nuanced awareness of the brand consciousness and conspicuous consumption habits of middle India into his characters. For example, on a Ryan dressed in: ‘[a] loose gray T-shirt proclaimed ‘GAP’ in big blue letters on his chest’, Hari thinks: ‘[r]elatives abroad for sure…Nobody wears GAP to bed otherwise’ (p. 3).

Dialogue in the book occurs in a mix of English and Hindi, using terms like insti (institute), hyper-harried and bhaiiya (brother). Hinglish, according to Kaminsky (2011, p. 325), is a hybridised linguistic form that combines Hindi and English within sentences. Hinglish, with its heavy emphasis on technological lingo and littering of brand names is now common parlance in India and more so with the middle class and aspirants (Kothari and Snell, 2012, 2012b).

Bhagat’s second novel, One night @ the Call Center (2005), centres on an evening in the lives of a group of Indian call centre workers, a much-maligned occupation even in Indian society. Published in 2005, this book examines the hierarchy of occupations and the limited life opportunities that await those who graduate from the less prestigious educational institute. The cast of characters consists of Shyam, Radhika, Esha, Vroom, Military Uncle and Pryinka, who work together at Connexions Call Centre. They all take on Anglicised pseudonyms at their workplace. Shyam Mehra, for example is Sam Marcy and like his colleagues is required to speak with an American accent whilst working at the call center (p. 510).

The author depicts with humour the tensions between the two ways of life—the one defined by conspicuous consumption and the other by traditional values—through the introduction of the sari-only wearing Radhika, who has to deal daily with a domineering and paranoid mother-in-law and Military Uncle who is estranged from a son based overseas. As Saavala argues, the contest between ‘dressing for propriety and prestige’ is crucial because it is a moral issue as well as ‘one of the few striking markers of class belonging’ (2010, pp. 125-9).

The vexing issue of arranged marriages to NRIs makes its appearance through the experience of Shyam’s ex-girlfriend, Priyanka, who consents to marry Seattle-based employee of Microsoft, Ganesh (p. 518). Given the office setting, the text is more laden with corporate and technological lingo. For example, Priyanka’s match is described by the bike-mad Vroom, as ‘MS Groom 1.1—deluxe edition’ (p. 522) and phrases like ‘cost-cutting’ and ‘value-addition cycle’ pepper the speech of manager, Bakshi. Vroom’s is also the voice that expresses the frustration with the State that many Indians working at similar jobs share (p. 548):

[w]hy do some dim-witted Americans get to act superior to us? Do you know why? Not because they are smarter. Not because they are better people. But because their country is rich and ours is poor. That is the only damn reason. Because the losers who have run our country for the last fifty years couldn’t do better than make India one of the poorest countries on earth.

Bhagat’s third novel, 3 Mistakes of My Life (2008), is subtitled; a story about business, cricket and religion but essentially it is one of friendship too. There are again, three protagonists, all young men at the age of 21 at the start of the novel, who might more accurately be considered aspirants rather than members of middle India. Govind Patel, the chief narrator, is a Maths wizard/tutor and budding entrepreneur. Ishaan (Ish) and Omi, the other two parts of the trio, nickname Govind ‘Mr Accounts’ because of his habit of reducing life to mathematics. While Ish is an army dropout and a former school district cricket champion, Omi is the not-too-bright son of a Hindu temple priest.

Ish’s younger sister, Vidya, plays the role of Govind’s love interest. And it is primarily through her ways and speech that the author portrays the middle class. Vidya’s fondness for the Hinglish term ‘hi-fi’ (meaning posh) and her incessant SMSing on her mobile phone, like the premium placed on the ‘air-conditioned mall’ at Navrangpura later in the novel, provides readers with a window into the priorities that occupy middle India.

The three good friends open a sport store, Team India Cricket Store. Religion and business are intertwined through the siting of their business on temple grounds. Religious-communal politics enter the narrative through their landlord’s involvement in the Hindutva movement and his recruitment of trio to the cause. The plot is further complicated when Ish discovers a cricket protege, Ali, who is Muslim and has a father who works for the secular political party.

The novel takes on darker shades and broader issues than any of Bhagat’s earlier works in the weaving of the cast’s fate with national events. The author makes Bittoo Mama’s 14-year old son one of those who went on the infamous Yathra (religious procession) at Ayodhya in 2002 and subsequently died at the hands of allegedly Muslim arsonists on his way home to Ahmedabad. Through his depiction of the revenge wreaked by Bittoo Mama and his men on Ali, Bhagat captures the havoc that arises from the link between religion and politics that typifies Hindu nationalism even today.

My point is that Hindu-Muslim conflicts are part of India’s formation as a nation. Whilst the British-brokered solution of the Partition that saw India and Pakistan split along communal lines was meant to separate those who, seemingly, could not live together in harmony, the tensions between these two parts of Indian society have continued to simmer. Some knowledge of the contexts and complexities that underlie these propensities can only help us understand Indian society better.

As with 3 Mistakes, Bhagat’s next novel, Two States begins in Ahmedabad, and similarly to Five Point Someone, the two protagonists, Krish and Ananya, are pursuing their postgraduate qualifications at the prestigious India Institute of Management (IIM). The regional distinctions that crisscross India society are given play later when the Krish and Ananya decide they want to be married. With Krish’s family being of Punjabi origin and coming from Delhi (North India) and Ananya’s of ‘Tam Brahm’ (Tamil Brahmin) pedigree and hailing from Tamil Nadu (South India), the gulf between the two families stretch before the young couple. Krish manages to secure a posting to Chennai (where Ananya lives) with his MNC (multi-national corporation) and much of the subsequent chapters are concerned (mostly) with Krish’s Aegean efforts to win over her family and bring his own mother round to the idea of the marriage.

The couple’s labours accentuate some of the deeply entrenched cultural and linguistic differences that divide India’s regions that are obscured by the notion of a monolithic India. The author dramatizes the tensions in Indian society surrounding the increasing preference of young people for love matches over arranged marriages with humour and makes them occasion for social commentary as well.

A more mature version of Hinglish is evident in this novel as the main characters are working professionals. Hence terms like ‘time-pass’ (passing time), ‘flaunt toy’ (status symbol) and ‘eve-teasing’ (sexual harassment) intersperse the dialogue (pp. 65, 68 and 85). Notably, even within the context of the novel, English or rather, Hinglish, acts as the neutral language to bridge the communication gap between families, generations and communities.

Making Sense of India(ns) in Australia

Bhagat is an alumni of two famous Indian educational institutes, the India Institute of Technology (IIT) and the India Institute of Management at Ahmedabad (IIM). Before turning to writing full-time, Bhagat worked with investment banks Peregrine and then Goldman Sachs in Hong Kong for several years, so he was for a period a non-resident Indian (NRI). Up until his decision to become a full-time writer, his trajectory from an elite education and overseas posting to marriage is one that many of young Indians aspire to. Not surprisingly, then, when he draws on all of these experiences in his novels, they are devoured by his readership.

For the most part, all Bhagat’s works are genuine attempts to address historically significant and heavyweight issues in an accessible manner. That the author makes no effort to disguise his disgust at the social ills that plague India means that in the eyes of his readers he is a champion of Indian society. A ‘paperback messiah’ as it were (Perur, 2010). For example, in April 2011, using social media Bhagat rallied his countrymen (and it seems it was mostly men who responded) to support the passage of Anna Hazare’s anti-corruption Lokpal Bill in Indian Parliament (Bhagat, 2011). And many were the proud young lads who, for a short period, went around with Mera Neta Chor Hai (my leader is a thief) penned in large letters on their forearms at his behest (Singh, 2011). Bhagat is keenly aware of the influence he wields by way of his loyal followers who currently, on the social media micro-blogging platform Twitter alone, number close to 800,000.

Moreover, he seems to be in earnest and demonstrates a willingness to use his clout to engage and mobilise his followers in the socio-political issues surrounding India today. This wont to express ‘an alternative way of thinking’ (2012, p. xxiii) takes a more serious turn with Bhagat’s first non-fiction volume of essays, What Young India Wants (2012). In the collection he reproduces some of the essays he has penned for the Times of India’s four crore (40 million) readers since 2008. Mostly the contents are broad brush strokes pieces on an array of problems that younger Indians impatient for the nation to take its rightful place in the world as a superpower despair at: endemic corruption, an archaic education system with out-dated curricula, defence budget ills, gender discrimination and the lack of life opportunities for the non-elite. ‘Leading the Idiocracy’ (Dasgupta, 2012) or not, it appears a significant section of India’s middle class has an advocate in him.

Detractors deem Bhagat’s works lightweight and lacking in literary merit. They also chide him for spinning improbable plots in bad English and portraying stereotypical characters (2011b, 2011c, Pal, 2011, Roy, 2012). I suggest that a more accurate way to assess Bhagat’s novels is as popular fiction. After all, by his own admission all of Bhagat’s works of fiction were designed to be ‘entertainers’ (2012, p. xvi)

According to Schneider-Mayerson, ‘a novel is ‘popular fiction’ if its success is measured… as much by its sales and the devotion of fans … as opposed to timeless literary quality’ (2010, p. 22). There is no doubt that within the India domestic market, Bhagat’s books are best sellers as four out of five have sold more than a million copies in India. According to Random House India’s editor-in-chief, Chiki Sarkar, India is today the third largest publisher of English books after the US and the UK. As he also acknowledges, Bhagat’s works are the trail-blazer for English popular fiction within the domestic market (Sarkar, 2011).

It is my argument that in their subject matter, tone, voice, concerns and issues, Chetan Bhagat’s novels speak of and to Middle India. From the securities that an elite education sets one up for and the dreaded prospect of otherwise having to work all night in call centres to the contentious issues of religion, familial pressures regarding marriage and regional distinctions, all of these are in intrinsic part of life in India. And it is these conditions that compel and shape Indian society. In a sense, then, there could be few better windows into middle India than Bhagat’s oeuvre.

There is one other way to understand this quarrel between popular fiction and serious fiction in India today. Whilst Fernandes (2006) and Mathur (2010) see relationships to the Indian State and habits of consumption as, I suggest that a major factor distinguishing the middle class of old and the current ‘new middle class’ are their views on the acceptability and legitimacy of Hinglish.

In his essay, Learn and Share English Lessons with All (Bhagat, 2012, pp. 114-118), Bhagat sums up the gap between the English-speaking elite, whom he dubs E1s, and the less fluent Hinglish-speaking E2s. According to him, E1s are (ibid, p. 115):

a tiny minority of English speakers who are extraordinarily fluent in the language…. These people had parents who spoke English, had access to good English-medium schools…English is so instinctive to them that even some of their thoughts are in this language. These people…are much in demand. Irrespective of their graduation specialization, they can get frontline jobs across various industries.

He goes on to explain E2s are (ibid, 115-6):

technically familiar with the language and even understand it. However, their English communication is not at a professional level.

If they sit for an interview conducted by E1s, they will come across as incompetent, even though they may be intelligent, creative [sic] hardworking. They cannot comfortably read English newspapers and are thus denied the chance to upgrade their language skills. They know English but have not been taught in an environment that facilitates that virtuous cycle of continuous improvement through the consumption of English language products. …For lack of proper teaching, an entire world is closed to the E2s.

As one Indian columnist asserts, English does, in fact, ‘mediate’ India’s ‘social hierarchy’ (Bal, 2011). So much so that access to life opportunities is firmly tethered to fluency in English. The old middle class sitting comfortably at the top of the pyramid is loath to budge and accommodate the new and impatient new middle India, those whom Derne (2008) dub ‘ordinary middle class’ Indians.

A recent Twitter stoush between Salman Rushdie and Chetan Bhagat, which began with the latter’s criticism of the Indian government’s decision not to allow Rushdie into the country for the Jaipur Literary Festival, is instructive (Paul 2012). As the doyen of Indian English literature, Rushdie’s epic prose has garnered him countless awards and accolades whilst, apart from healthy sales figures, Bhagat’s work has earned him a place on Time Magazine’s 2010 list of 100 Most Influential People in the World. The two authors, then, can be said to represent the two facets of Indian literature. ‘Leading the Idiocracy’ or not there is no doubt that in Bhagat, middle India has found an advocate who remains accessible to his readers (Dasgupta 2012).

That raising the consciousness of people is the raison d’être of the arts is not in dispute but the view that it is acceptable only when performed in the ‘proper’ way via elegant prose and epic narratives is being hotly contested in 21st century middle India. As Radway’s (1984) ground-breaking, ethnographic research into women’s reading of romance argues, power relations do not act out only in the text of paperback novels but also play a part in how readers select, access and practise the act of reading. The struggle, between old and new India, the postcolonial socialist India with its need for dignity and correctness in the Western world and the rollicking, devil-may-care paperback stories of an India poised, as ever, on the eve of superpower status is like the birth pangs of a newer, more confident nation from which its mobile and savvy citizens look to partake of the fruits of economic liberalisation. This field of contestation is the multi-layered context from which India and Indians reach out engage with Australia


In cross-cultural communication classes and lessons across Australia, students are told of the customs and preferences of Indian society. Much is made of Bollywood and the cultural expectations of women whilst in India. Little of the down-to-earth middle India is truly reflected in Western media and even less so in media exported from India and consumed by Western societies.

Even as efforts and resources are bent on putting together language and cultural programs that will help Australia build a long-term relationship with India, simpler and more direct methods should also be employed. It is my argument that the simple expedient of reading works of popular fiction like that of Bhagat’s for the insights they lend into the conditions of life in India might well serve the purpose of ‘getting India’ in the short term.




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About Post Author


I'm a research fellow at an Australian university where I work on a number of projects. These include projects to do with new media and migration and the Chinese diaspora in Australia, projects on the Malaysian internet, ethno-religious issues in Singapore and Malaysia. And, before I forget many of the photos I use on this site were taken by my sister, Jessie and myself. All rights are reserved.
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