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The Bengali ‘Global Citizen’ And Reflections On The Evolution Of Indian Middle Class Identity

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By Sayendri Panchadhyayi:

Globalization has liberated the values, attitudes and aspirations of the Indian middle-class that has embraced the dogma of liberalization, envisioning its potential of guaranteeing a better life. This new middle-class comprises of the educated and qualified, professional and technical white-collar staff that made their mark with the advent of a globalized economy. They possess the cultural capital of skill, expertise and cultural attainment.

middle class

The new middle-class exhibits alacrity towards ‘economic internationalism’ that assigns western style consumption patterns. For the new middle-class, consumption doesn’t determine an aspect of ‘good life’ but a good life itself is equated with consumption. This ‘noveau rich’ section of the middle-class has identified that consumption of the best of brands and indulgence in investment is the expression of power. Investment in foreign education especially in the USA and the western European nations has become the yardstick for assessing one’s success and status. The admiration for NRIs is a peculiar kind of nationalist adulation and role-modelling. Any achievement of an Indian at the International level, whatever may be its degree, becomes a source of national pride.

According to Amartya Sen, the erstwhile middle-class was largely part of the public-sector jobs and committed to the Nehruvian ideals of nation development. Their participation in social activism was streamlined towards the eradication of poverty and giving voice to the voiceless. However, the new urban middle-class are disenchanted by the public sector jobs attributing the traits of low salaries, stagnation, corruption, bureaucratic hierarchies, deficiency of work ethics and stifling conservatism. Social activism has turned to ‘online activism’ through the social networking sites, this has become the new zone for mobilising like-minded people at a click away. Not just that, the new middle-class now align themselves with neo-liberal protest movements that promote cosmopolitan globalization. So, now there is campaign for global protection of human rights, LGBTQ movements, green activism, child rights and animal philanthropy among others.

There is an increased career-consciousness and ambition among the middle-class children as education promises the fulfilment of the aspirations of a consumerist lifestyle. There is a consciousness about working towards a lucrative CV that would make one a sought-after candidate in a market-driven economy. The middle-class is increasingly becoming aware about the importance of internships, vocational courses and the imperative to engage in philanthropic endeavors which would add to their credibility as a potential candidate.

Bongs are the NRI Bengalis, Westernized Bengalis or simply a term employed by the other communities in India to label the Bengalis. There are certain characteristics, dispositions and images that we form about different communities that goes onto represent their identities. So, whenever think of ‘a Bengali‘, it is assumed wherever that person goes, they won’t have their lunch without fish and rice, and will never turn down ‘mishti doi’ or ‘rosogolla’. This can be termed as ‘prison error of identity’ which translates to a world where each human being has one native country, which he cannot choose; he is born into it and conform to either/or logic of nations and the stereotypes, a concept by Sociologist Ulrich Beck.

The ‘Hilsa’, ‘rosgolla’ and the ‘adda’ continues to go parallel with the Bengali identity, however, there is a twist. The quintessential ‘Hilsa’ in mustard curry may now be prepared with Olive oil, with a dash of Thai sauce punched with white truffle and fresh herbs from Greece! The ‘rosogolla’ is now baked and comes in the flavours of chocolate, strawberry and what not; the ‘adda’ has switched to a CCD or a Barista that have mushroomed in every pocket of the city. Even if the samosa in the multiplex costs thrice than one samosa in your locality, the Bengalis are not afraid to spend. This can be attributed to the emergence of the new middle-class who is mostly part of the IT sector or management sector. They are earning a lucrative income and unlike their ancestors who believed in the philosophy of ‘saving for a secured future’, they are motivated by ‘live in the present and not in the future’ and the idea of ‘earning big to spend better’. The American Dream of the possession of a car and house has seeped into the minds of the Indian-middle class. What remained a slow and steady dream of the erstwhile middle-class is the aspiration of the new generation of middle-class who strives to achieve big in a short span of time. The status consciousness among the middle-class is now all the more displayed through where one goes out for dining, where they go for shopping, where they go for vacations, in which accent they speak English or from whom their children take vocational courses.

The new market continues to spur nostalgia and has not dipped down in popularity but the new breed of Bengali would prefer to take pride in shopping in South City or the more elitist/bourgeoisie Quest mall and post a ‘selfie’ on Instagram.

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  1. Akshat Seth

    “The Dogma of Liberalization.” Ironic! The objectivity of your tone is praiseworthy comrade but one thing- it is interesting that the kind of materialism mostly associated with the Punjabis, you’ve associated particularly with the Bengalis because from what I’ve gathered, the stereotype is about the ‘Bongs’ always giving precedence to intellectualism over materialism. Food for thought…

  2. Uzair Belgami

    Well written! Enjoyed reading thoroughly. Your perspective seemed Leftist, I don’t know if you identify yourself as one though.

    Do you think this evolution of the middle class signifies us still being a ‘postcolonial’ society rather than being truly ‘independent’ as we all are so proud of?

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