India, alongside much of the world, seems to be in a state of alarm about “people like that” who are propelling political and social change. The disruption of the old social order seems to have created for many a “tyranny of the masses”, a sudden pervasiveness of “inferiors” — apparently an intellectually, socially, culturally deficient lot, conservative, brash and lacking in the upper-class lingua franca. Confusion prevails in trying to define this phenomenon though. Much like with the definition of the “common man”. Whilst the phrase has expansive prevalence in India, with entities across the continuum brandishing it, who exactly is the saadharan aadmi or aam aurat, the aam vyakti? Those barely above the shameful poverty line, the “middle class”, the powerless, the ones moving up the ladder, all of these — or someone altogether different? Over the years, I have felt the distance, between those defined as the “common person” and those who use this definition, only increase when it comes to relating. The only common thread that seems to run through these categories is of an absolute disconnect.
There is a historical backdrop to the sudden clashes we see. For centuries, our ruling class was not connected with the masses. In that scenario, the real was often used as a mere prop. If Slumdog Millionaire or Peepli Live become the passport, the defining lens to view how much of India lives, then that is indeed quite a few degrees of separation.
However, to bracket this purely as “elites” now clashing with “commoners” would be simplistic. At a recent literature festival, many were lamenting the loss of poetry and the emergence of a lewd lexicon in the songs of our contemporary popular culture. A Bollywood song like “Munni badnaam huyi” makes the genteel uneasy. But the origin of this song can be traced back to “Launda badnaam hua”, a Bhojpuri song sung in small nautankis for scores of years before the reel version happened.
The unease comes from having had little exposure to that part, that kind of living. A few of us were leading a culturally shielded life, where every linguistic morsel was carefully chosen and placed tastefully on our seasoned palate — music, art and poetry were inculcated and a wall existed between the elite and the rest. The food, music, clothing, sensibilities of each were at complete odds.
But there also existed a parallel world, surviving with a simmering sensibility. And in reality, finesse was not the prerogative of a subset of society.
Perhaps we have lost the appetite, the courage, the honesty to see that, creating cosy versions and convenient windows, instead, through which we can peek at a sanitised version of the real, be it films, theatre, books, travel. An interesting example is the proverbial “Ramu kaka” figure in our films — the trusted man-nanny of the elite world. But how many times did we know Ramu kaka’s life’s truths, share his reality, know his surname, the food he enjoyed or the language he spoke in his village? We simply used a narrow media lens to observe a much broader reality.
However, media is two-way traffic. As one lot was peeking into a larger culture, the larger culture too stared back and consumed and tailored the codes of the other side. The signs are telling. Pasta and soup are now mass-marketed; art, music, clothes and travel are now consumed by the larger section of society too. The media’s dark era, where luxury, opulence and creature comforts resided in tales that were far from the grasp of the multitude, and democracy was just a term, has given way. Sometimes, the sacred, repeated too often, becomes placid and a “-cracy” or “-ism” or philosophical belief can find itself locked in a language capsule. It is only when the capsule breaks, and is ingested by an ecosystem, is this a felt reality.
Thankfully, that is happening to democracy now. The walls are more permeable than ever before. Social and status mobility can now be either way — upwards and downwards. And this is not easy to come to terms with. The resistance to change is palpable, at times covert, or else stated with warnings of impending doom.
But we have to be ready to shake ourselves out of a comfort zone and realise that status quo is never the answer. The choice, not to be victimised by change but contribute to and design it, will need to be made.
Change should also not imply throwing the baby out with the bathwater. There are immensely far-sighted intellectuals in our country who can clearly see the contemporary picture. Their views should be asked. For one can’t always make it about black or white and be forced to decide once and for all. Us vs them; class vs mass, sane vs the “mindlessly” angry, liberals vs conservatives, ethnicity vs multiculturalism, folks vs trolls, patriotism vs nationalism, futurists vs navel gazers, globalisation vs localisation. We simply have to find an equilibrium. For, at times, the truth is in-between two sharp notes. A “teevra madhyam” (a sharp middle), as one would call it in Indian classical music.
The substance is not in the “or”. It’s in the “and”.