More than ruins in an unfamiliar city – locating the Bengalee urban middle class psyche in change and persistence

( Himal SouthAsian, Jan 2008)

The milieu of the urban Bengalee middle class in Kolkata and mofussil towns is undergoing tremendous changes. There is an overt change in how urban settlement units look and what constitutes the neighbourhood. But there is an ongoing change within homes as well. This change inside encompasses both physical changes and changes in life practices. Such changes have an unequal distribution which means that certain practices, certain ways of living, being, arranging and utilizing the domiciliary space have proved to be more refractory to changes than others which have been given up with less persuasion or greater cajoling – persuaded from within and persuaded by changes around. To look into the differential pattern of refractivity to changes provides an interesting window to a question – what constitutes the signature of the Bengali urban middle class identity? Beyond quantitative economic indices of income and consumption, one can conceive of a space whereby a constellation of signature elements of urban domiciliary space layout and utilization, the urban Bengalee middle class can be satisfactorily mapped to.

Defining the middle class in pure economic terms, discounting the particular engagement of its psychological self with its milieu and aspects of this engagement that help define the middle-class stereotype, can be dangerously off limits. There is a greater danger of such definitions :changes in economic parameters, for the better, are considered to be surrogates of ex post-facto consent to changes in ways of living, consuming, engaging. Many of the drastic changes in the exterior urban landscape and associated changes to concepts of neighbourhoods and the sense of belonging therein, concepts of ecology and nature, concepts of inter-human relations within and beyond relations of consumption have been without consent. A specific type of a ever more consuming urban vision delegitimises such lack of consent. Being the products and perpetrators of the self-exorcism that regularly figures in the journey from the village to the city in the tropics, the urban middle class often finds itself in a peculiar double bind when forces of “progress” or “development” of the day start trumping the sense of perch, identity and imagined antiquity of urban middle class ways of life, especially when such forces drastically threaten to turn on its head this negotiated identity the middle class has come to know as a part and parcel of its way of living. In this assault, amidst changes within domiciliary urban spaces, what the urban middle class negotiates to hold on to give a peek into some of the innermost chambers of their selves. And a closer look at the past and present living spaces and practices of the Bengalee urban middle class might offer a few of the signatures of their “middle class-ness”.

To look at such urban domiciliary spaces of the Bengalee middle class with the above aim has to be done with caution. It is not about documenting how these spaces look today or they looked yesterday. It is about what aspects of yesterday remain today, in spite of greater spending capacity per family and the overarching logic of ‘saving time’. It is this gap between affordability and reality which is of interest – the specific patterns of “falling short” can be illuminating.

The middle class, dhoti-panjabi clad bhadralok or gentleman has appropriated a large part of the written history of colonial Bengal. This urban, middle class, liberally educated bhadralok had also become the cultural symbol of Calcutta, marginalizing other social or ethnic groups by the sheer normalising power of this image. In the past two decades, there has been a dramatic change in the rate at which things change, at least in the material realm around this urban populace. There has also been a perceptible, however feeble, tendency to find a historical comfort and maintain a continuity to its past which in some ways resists change, or at the least, tries to modulate its rate.

The privacy of the bedroom does not quite stand in as high regard to the middle class Bengali as it does to a westerner. After everyone has woken up in the morning, amongst the first order of business is to ‘sweep’ the bed clean, neatly arrange the pillows and the mosquito net in one corner of the bed and cover it with a bedcover, usually a heavier cloth than the bed-sheet. Tucked tightly around the mattress, the bedcover encapsulates and protects the privacy of the nights spent on it and prepares the bed as a place to sit for the close friends and visiting relatives. In contrast to the bedroom, the drawing room is meant to entertain formal guests who fall outside the large circumference of ‘like a family member’. The changing middle class has not ignored the demand for a clearer distinction between the drawing room and the bedroom, yet they have not given up the bedroom as a place for heartfelt conversations or plain simple adda. The bed, as a place to sit and talk has survived the changing lifestyles of the Bengalis and so has the thin hard-stick broom to ‘sweep’ the bed in the morning.

Large sections of the middle class Bengali have shifted to modular living in multi unit apartment buildings, transforming both the sociological and spatial boundaries of a para (neighbourhood) as well as redefining the individual space within a household. Examples of incongruous ways of living could be interpreted either as efforts to adapt to an unfamiliar yet sought after way of life, or a resistance to un-participatory change.

The bedrooms in the older houses almost necessarily came with taks – built in recessed shelves in the wall. A collection of Tagore’s songs and poems (Gitobitan and Sanchayita) on these shelves, held in public view, were a unifying factor for the middle class Bengali across the political spectrum. Other names that have a high probability of occupying the coveted spaces are Saratchandra Chattopadhyay, Subhash Chandra Bose and Swami Vivekananda. A Materia Medica, the popular encyclopaedia of homeopathy, was not an uncommon find. The literary display on the shelves, as it were, was an intellectual companion of the middle class Bengali. The tendency to have a series of “Complete Works of…” was perhaps a wish for comprehensive erudition.

Some boundaries have been made porous while others rigid, and taaks have fallen victim to these changing permeability. Boundary walls enclosing gated communities have grown higher and thicker while the thickness of the walls of the buildings has been reduced to half, eliminating the possibility of built-in taaks. The ability to hum the tune of a Rabindrasangeet, recite a stanza from a poem to match a situation, quiz others about the author of a recited poem or invoke Marx on occasions, during serious opinionated discussions, have continued to be the mark of an erudite Bengali which is intrinsically tied to the intellectual companionship of the books. The evicted books have found room in stand alone wooden cases with sliding glass doors. It has remained an important companion of the family, finding a niche in the bedroom as a first preference failing which it has found itself relocated to the drawing room.

Eliminating the class insensitive mosquitoes has not been a priority of the rapid changes that have been sweeping across Bengal and the mosquito net remains the primary defence of the middle class Bengali. Methods of stringing up the nets, across various households, are as diverse as the stagnant water bodies, including the drains that are the breeding grounds for the mosquitoes. Sari paars (sari liner that prevents the edges from fraying), pyjama strings, jute or plastic strings and sometimes a combination of all kinds knotted at ends could be found hanging from door latches or hinges and from miniature hooks precariously embedded in the walls. The mosquito net is erected by adjusting the tension in the four, mostly unequal, strings that are tied to the pre-fabricated loops at the corners of the net itself.

The art of setting up the mosquito net before going to bed has remained largely untouched by the transitioning lifestyles of the middle class Bengali. When the lights are switched off and no one is watching, and there is a momentary let-up in the pressure to modularise, the self, finds comfort of familiarity under the sagging roof of an asymmetrically strung up mosquito net.

The bathroom of a Bengali urban middle class family is arguably the most unacknowledged part of the home. But there are markers which set it apart from the upper class homes.

The soap used for the body gets thinner and thinner by use till it becomes a thin flake or a small pebble. At this point, the soap is added to a pre-existing soap of a peculiar variety. This is formed solely of such earlier thin flakes and pebbles. The soap has a variegated appearance reflecting the brands that household has used. The use of this soap is solely to wash the unclean hand after defecation. It is a very specific type of a hand washing soap. The absence of a soap to solely wash hands is a feature. The issue of cleanliness creates its own signature where the presence of a bathing soap for exclusive hand washing use is generally as exception.

Several specificities come out of the issue of cleanliness and cleaning. The bathroom is nearly universally associated with stench of varying degrees. This phenomenon leads to a middle class person’s first observances about luxury hotel bathrooms or bathrooms of the upper classes – “The bathroom does not have a (bad) smell!” Comodes and pans which regularly have one of the following dysfunction – flush not working due to broken piston or chain has broken, leading to various ingenious ways of flushing – mostly by manually enabling the dysfunctional flush to work. The thickness of the air can partially be attributed to dysfunctional flushes , lack of air ventilation and the semi-permanent presence of a zone of slippery material called pechhol. The semi-permanence can be attributed to the presence of the jhnata, a type of short broomstick. This jhnata is different from the room sweeping jhnata whose cleaning units are more like soft sheafs than stuff sticks. What is typical of the jhnata is the unequal lengths of the dnatis (sticks). The jhnata has a long -shelf life and is mostly not used.Whether that is the cause of the pechhol not being cleaned or the presence of pechhol being the natural state of a bathroom making the jhnata a secondary accessory is an open question. The bathroom jhnata is generally used many times before they are discarded – the particularly tough sticks of the broom pack into themselves a lot of service. Interestingly, the idea of cleanliness originates from hygiene but microbial and germ theories of infection of European vintage don’t hold much currency in middle class consciousness and hence the jhnata does remain the mainstay of cleanliness, driving out macroscopic threats. The incursion of microorganism killers even in commode or latrine pan cleaning has been very slow in urban middle class Bengalee households. Robert Koch lives but the jhnata rocks. Like the jhnata, there is a certain lethargy to replace a broken mug in the bathroom. The commonest point of breakage is the handle. In fact, attempts at mending the mug along the fault lines are not uncommon.

Certain feature are evident in the fittings too – certain patterns which have been a part of life as it was practiced but stay on in changed circumstances. The presence of a tap, poised at nearly half-length of the shower is a fairly constant feature. But it is not a random length. Though now mostly used to fill up buckets and occasional foot cleaning, the length, either in emergency, ineptitude or plain familiarity serves as a surrogate for the shower – the “koltola” or tap station being recreated. The builders and architects have continued keeping this feature, may be even oblivious to the reason of its specific height, as it is unlikely to be mentioned in the texts and plans they studied at universities. The height allows someone to sit under it and bath – few people do it, except the force bathing of children (who can stand full height) under it by parents. This standard height has somewhat unwittingly lingered on in the perception of the designers of small flat units. Also, something that is retained is the storing of water in buckets even in modern residential units with non-stop water supply. This primordial storage even in the face of abundance – logical or not – needs an arrangement by which water is not wasted. Hence, often a thin cloth is tied at the mouth of the tap to make it a controlled focussed flow, into the bucket. The tap generally leaves its mark on the floor directly beneath, especially if its made of tiles with stone chips. It is more rocky than smooth and marks the place where the gushing tap has been hitting the floor for a few years. The hand shower also called the telephone shower is also kept largely unused – a late 80s addition to housing projects, its ornamental role is sometimes very obvious. The most obvious difference between strict upper classes and the middle classes in how they think the bathroom floor should be – the upper classes prefer it to be dry, all the time. The only time the middle class bathroom floor is dry is when they leave the home en masse for more than a couple of days.

If one moves from the health of the bathroom to the cleanliness of it users, a few other signatures become evident. The fogginess of the bathroom mirror calls into action sophisticated internal correction strategies so that a semblance of the real face and hair can be constructed from what is seen in the mirror. Gamchhas (thin red cotton cloths) or towels, whatever is used to dry the body after bath, are generally not allocated exclusively for each family member, but each randomly chooses to use whichever is dry or semi-dry. The presence of coconut oils is as characteristic as the general absence of washing machines because they purportedly they don’t “wash well”. This has another aspect. There is an hesitancy in the move to mechanisation for that is also gives a sense of loss of control (in a very different sense than the numerous “controls” in the washing machine display or buttons). During certain times of the month, there are toothpaste packs which are crumpled – crumpled from the end to the mouth to squeeze out that last brush full left in it.

Unlike the bedroom or the bathroom, and indeed, the practices and daily rituals associated with them, the contemporary urban middle-class kitchen has less in common with its preceding models. A lot of this has to do with the physical layout of the kitchen of urban living unit, notably flats. Compressed living spaces have necessitated smaller kitchens, which with the advent of interior planning have nonetheless become more efficient in the actual utility of allotted space, given that the space is small to start with. Also, kitchens in contemporary homes have only the identity of a functional space or unit, unlike a social space that it once used to be.

Not too far back, kitchens in their classifications and their appendages and accessories, were a cultural signifier of the female social narrative. Perhaps the one practice that, with sudden changes in urban lifestyles and therefore in socio-religious practices, has been completely erased from the discourse of cooking spaces is the dual existence of amish and niramish kitchens. ‘Amish’ being the Bengali word for cuisine that includes animal flesh and the vegetables used typically to season it (primarily, onions and garlic), and ‘niramish’ encapsulating that which the Bengali, traditionally scornful of vegetarian diets, would dismiss as cattle food. That the niramish kitchen was a necessity in even small houses is representative of the function and position of women in contemporary Bengali society. First was the unavoidable fact that the number of widows of considerable, and the firm adherence to a distant behavioural code for them put them into special prominence. The niramish kitchen was ‘their’ kitchen, these women who, with the death of their husbands, had lost the right to a high protein diet – which included certain pulses along with every form of animal flesh – because a high protein diet would encourage those physical impulses which as widows, they had lost socially-approved access to. But the “loss” of the separate kitchens have been negotiated as separated utensils and even separate stoves and most ingeniously, separate portions of the stovetop. The negotiations do point to impulses of cultural survival, in a milieu that throws up living conditions that do not really have the Bengali urban middle class cultural context in mind.

The urban kitchen achieved visibility when Calcutta first saw a noticeable upsurge of middle-class family settlements, as opposed to messes or hostels where men, young and old, would live in dormitories or rooms, drawing nourishment from either the establishment’s common kitchen or one of the many affordable eateries of questionable hygiene. Initially, the kitchens in the city were not much different from the kitchens in the suburbs or villages, one prominent difference being the source of water. For those areas that provided them, a kitchen would extend up to the koltola, which was a tap or a hand-pump just outside the kitchen. This was where the utensils were washed and often, where fish or the occasional meat was cleaned. Few kitchens had running water inside them. The so called ‘Indian’ convention of washing utensils under running water comes after the actual availability of said running water in newly installed kitchen taps and sinks.

What transformed the modern kitchen and made it nearly unrecognisable from its predecessors is the advent of gadgets, both as cooking aides and as preservative devices. Even the humble knife, indispensable in today’s kitchen, was unheard of at the turn of the last century, when bNotis were the sole device to cut, chop or dice. It is the refrigerator in particular that replaced the once-ubiquitous meatsafe (which, contrary to it’s name, was never used to keep uncooked meat) as well as the somewhat obscure concept of jolshora, which involved keeping food safe from insects by floating a bowl or dish of it in a larger flat bowl of water. Following convention, however, few Bengali homes install their refrigerator in their kitchen. Like the meatsafe, which usually held leftovers, sweets, butter tins kept in jolshoras and various snacks and savouries, the usurping refrigerator is usually situated a few feet away from the door of the kitchen, at one corner of what is usually the dining space. Bengali kitchens do not provide the scope for functional machinery to exist within it’s premises, unless it the exhaust fan, that successor of the tiny ventilators which dispelled the smells of cooking and the smoke more effectively. The walls behind the oven are proof to this – they are as greasy and dark with smoke and residue of fried oil today as they were a few decades back.

The more than lingering presence of the bNoti, even in the presence of fashionable vegetable cutters and graters begs more explanation than efficiency. The hamandista, which is a medium size mortar and pestle to grind dry spices and the sheel-nora, a flat version to make pastes out of non-dry spices as well as onion, garlic and the like, are in some ways, more real statements for cultural choices than sporting a Che-Guevara T shirt in a western metropolis. These devices exist in spite of top of the line mixer-grinder contraptions and in the hired labour that is employed to do this, the rational goes similar to what is given for not replacing the domestic helper for washing clothes by the washing machine.

Reasons for cultural choices may run deeper.” Many oppressed cultures, in trying to keep alive an alternative vision of a normal civilization and resisting some of the modern forms of man-made suffering, have sought to defy the modern concept of productive work and the totally instrumental concept of knowledge which goes with it.”1 While on the face of it, to look upon the Bengali middle class way of life of their imagined antiquity as an oppressed culture would be somewhat erroneous, but one could say, with some trepidation, that some elements which define the selfhood and identity of the class, do feel threatened and indeed oppressed – just that other parts of their selves may be complicit as cogs, wheels and even engines of this supposed oppression. Mixers-grinders and sheel-nora play out this internal dialectic tussle of sorts in living spaces – it is much more than a tussle between automation and authenticity, but crucially includes elements of those. By the sheer “irrationality” of the persistence sheel-nora, the domestic help who washes clothes, one gets a hint of its subversive underbelly.

The listing of these instances serves a purpose – the purpose with which we started from. These patterns, some or all of them, together at least partially help define the psychocosmology of the middle class. And to stick to them, in the face and in spite of alternatives thrown in from without, is in a large part an attempt to keep a sense of self-hood that comes with certain values and life practices. The element of dissent here is not to be missed for it is this urban middle class of Bengal which are considered the most vociferous cheerleaders for the patterns of change that are perturbing life practices and domiciliary spaces, especially in the last 15 years.

The Bengali urban middle class self exposes a particular tentativeness and apprehension of vulnerability if one looks at the pattern – the things that are retained. The middle classes are split between a hitch ride to a lifestyle that is swank and unknown and a lifestyle that has a certain comfort level due to familiarity as well as a sense of perch and imagined antiquity. So, when external non-consensual changes come in, there is a negotiation to preserve the existing identity of the self. There is another aspect too. The pattern also gives away another aspect. They are not fully convinced about the permanence and sustainability of this change brought about by new money and aspirations – hence these tries to keep a lifestyle less expensive. This zeroes in on one of the deepest middle class values – an economically low risk lifestyle where status quo has much more currency than a higher risk game of rising. This shunning of change for a rise comes with a dread of falling. One of the elements which go into rationalising this shunning comes out in middle class contempt of the rich and aN a priori assumption of dishonesty on the part of anyone who has made a considerable amount of money or has a flashy lifestyle. The disjoint between affordability and lifestyle of Bengali urban middle classes is extremely revealing. With increase in riches and getting confronted with lifestyles middle classes associate with luxury, the middle classes are faced with a nagging feeling about the value-neutrality of its own recent prosperity. They do want to see in its domiciliary space as less as possible, signs that mark a radical departure from their lifestyle that was honest in their own imagination. And this complicity and dissent exists at the same time. In between the two, the complicity has a non-consensual element to it too, arising out of what it thinks is absence of choices – the choice being not of choosing to be a MBA or an information technologist but the choice to chose how far down any road it wants to go. No one is obligated to make the journey. In the same vein, no one is obligated to complete the “full” journey either, having once embarked on it. It is the absence of choice to drop off the bandwagon that creates internal turmoil of the most extraordinary kind. When one cannot chose extents of complicity to non-consensual change all over, dissent works out in maintaining an illusion of no-change. Having little or no control over the external urban geography, the theatre of such dissent shifts to the indoor.

What we have just described might well apply to other South Asian middle classes but we studied only the Bengalee urban middle class. May be in some of these tenacious “typical” middle class behaviours, people externalise their lack of consent to aspects of change that have come to affect their urban spaces, especially after it became passé to be ashamed of being rich, at least in urban public discourses in Bengal. Who is to say?

1 Ashis Nandy , Traditions, Tyranny and Utopias : Essays in the politics of awareness, (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1987), p.42

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Filed under Bengal, Change, Identity, Kolkata, Urbanity

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