Monday, April 03, 2006

Not Classy

Two separate events that I noticed recently have set me thinking about our notions of class and what constitutes it, therefore affecting our ideas on how we ought to behave towards ‘People like us’ and ‘People Not like us’. Make no mistake, PLUs and PNLUs are two very distinct sets of people entitled to different norms of respect or even just, ordinary courtesy.

The first of these wasn’t actually an event. I’ve been watching recently the new HP laptops advertising, with the King Khan as model. Now, the King Khan changes whatever he touches to gold, or so it seems the makers of the ad do think. Why else would someone bother with such a silly ad. The execution is poor, with a simpering ‘phoren’ model and little focus on the brand itself. The hope is that the charm of white skin will seduce all male viewers since fair can never fail to attract, never mind how un-lovely the acting. Besides that, there was one scene which caught my attention. The attendant at the HP showroom interrupts Shakrukh while he is trying to impress the girl (posing as an attendant himself), and Shakrukh shooes away the poor man, saying “Go, go…..”. Now this Go, go is uttered in a tone much like one would use with a stray dog. On second thoughts, I take that back – one would probably be kinder to a stray dog, but yes, it is ofcourse acceptable to speak like that to a sales attendant. It was quite trivial, but it struck me that we don’t seem to think twice before speaking to a certain class of people in a certain manner, namely, leaving out all the common courtesies which we would otherwise use with PLUs. This is reflected in turn, in our advertising.

Now to real life. Today, while in queue at the ATM, I saw a woman outside the door knocking for the security guard to open the door for her. The guy inside was just on his way out, so the guard asked her to wait for a minute. I could practically see the filmi dialogue inside her mind, “Iski aukaad kaise…” She didn’t actually say that, but she shook her fist at him and mouthed clearly, “you stupid”. I wondered, would she have dared to talk like that to any of the other well dressed people standing in the queue.

So what is it which makes us forget all our norms of nice-ness and feel that it is ok to be obnoxious to some people – salespersons, security guards, delivery boys, office peons, assorted people who just don’t look as well educated as us or speak the English with the right accent that we have? I’ve read occasionally about how the original system of caste has played a role in how we see us versus others. Still, in urban areas these days, notions of caste are breaking down. It is perhaps true though that the caste system has left us with notions of which professions are superior and which are not. So, anything intellectual with three and a half degrees attached to it is great, while anything related to physical labor or non-intellectual activity is rubbish. I could ofcourse be wrong here, not being an academic in these matters, but in practice, it does seem to work that way.

Another reason seems to do with power by virtue of superior economic or other status. We can be obnoxious in situations where we feel we can get away with it by and the other person does not have the power to confront us for our obnoxiousness. Imagine a waiter asking a nauseatingly loud and offensive customer to pipe down. The chaos that would ensue!

Never having lived in another culture, I am not sure if this is something unique to Indians. If power is the key (and the economics behind power), then it would seem that such behavior based on class distinction should be the norm everywhere. Popular fiction and movies seem to belie this however.

Whether or not this is something unique to us as a culture, there is no justification for it – I mean, even if the whole world behaves this way, surely it is wrong to deny some human beings the dignity to which they are entitled, simply because we don’t think they are educated enough or wealthy enough or any other reason that makes sense to us. I think its time we started doing a little introspection on the way we behave, not just to PLUs, but PNLUs and everyone else out there…Why, maybe, its time we started looking at the underlying basis of those classifications, and see if we can’t break them down a little!


Sriram Srinivasan said...


was just browsing and i came across this. nice post.

it's quite sad ppl treat others this way.

probably bcos india grew out of what was predominantly a feudal system.

however, i am not sure if the ATM person cld have got away saying such things to, say, corporation workers or auto drivers.

certainly not in my hometown chennai.

an eg of power derived from being in a group (or union).

Srihari said...

It is such a shame, isn't it? My opinion from what I have seen in India and elsewhere is that this is best explained across multiple situations on the basis of economic power. But it is certainly only one of the main reasons; surely there are more. In India, caste tends to get mixed up with this leading to even further discriminatory treatment.

Another valid point you brought up is that in Indian society today, the accepted understanding of how well educated and cultured a person is based on how well he speaks English. Even worse, it doesn't have to do anything with manners and etiquette while speaking English, so long as he speaks a fast, pseud, accented 'kewl' English. I've known many snobbish people who felt totally superior to a lot of their peers - who were probably much nicer, more cultured, intelligent and well learned in another language - only because they had a better English. Talk of a colonial hangover!

Sowmya said...

I noticed this aspect when I was in Chennai last year. Niceties and politeness is going out of our society ...or may be I am becoming more sensitive :(

apu said...

Sriram, welcome! I do agree collectives have a stronger voice than individuals, though i am not sure how often that is really mobilised in a way that impacts daily life events;

sri - yes, it is complex this subject - infact I would like to read more about class in India - Dont knw if anyone can recommend some good books....

sowmya, i dont know about niceness "going out" of our society - the assumption is that we always had it to begin with - did we? ( I am asking here, not makign a judgement)

Sriram Srinivasan said...


hope u wldn't mind me elaborating this a bit further!

my argument is: u don't have to mobilise ppl all the time but if ppl are aware that others have the potential to mobilise, that's a good enough deterrent!

Shweta said...

Interested in the subject myself. Here are a few books that might interest you. There’s one by Pavan K Varma called Being Indian, which is anecdotal rather than academic but makes an interesting point. Another is called Interrogating caste- Understanding hierarchy and difference in Indian society; this one’s pretty academic.
If you are looking to compare notes with other cultures, there’s a fun book called Mind the gap by Ferdinand Mount about Classism in Britain today. Seeing how the Brits left huge impact on Indian upper crust (?) manners, esp. interesting.
P.S I thought that that Ad was excessively silly too! But I guess they had to have a peroxide firang because having a desi not recognise him was too much for the King Khan’s ego!