New York Times Magazine / April 15, 2001
Keeping Up With the Shidhayes: India's New Middle Class
By JAMES TRAUB
There is an expression you hear nowadays in Aurangabad, a city of about a million souls located 150 miles northeast of Bombay, that would have made absolutely no sense when I lived there 25 years ago. People will say, "The traffic is too-too bad in old Aurangabad," or "The shopping is still cheaper in old Aurangabad."Back in 1976, when I served as a junior lecturer on the English faculty of the Maulana Azad College and its affiliated Ladies' Section, everything in Aurangabad was old. The city had decayed, but otherwise not much else had changed since the glorious moment in the late 17th century when Aurangzeb, the last of the great Mogul emperors, moved the capital from Delhi to this little outpost at the top of the Deccan Plateau. And in fact, the city that I knew, with its dusty lanes filled with the insane honking of scooters and motorbikes and three-wheeled auto-rickshaws and its sleepy sweet shops and its ancient wooden houses, hasn't changed a bit.
But a new Aurangabad has wrapped itself around the old. The new Aurangabad has modern factories and broad, brilliantly lighted commercial streets and houses as big as hotels and health clubs and cybercafes and Chinese restaurants and even, in what is widely considered the single deepest incursion of cosmopolitan culture, a Domino's Pizza. I used to take great pride in Aurangabad's authentic ordinariness -- no god-men or yogic celebrities, no elephants, princes, movie stars or hippies. Aurangabad was the real India. And it still is, but the real India is a very different, and very much more differentiated, place than it used to be. In 1976, when I arrived, India was understood to consist of an enormous number of terribly poor people, a tiny sliver of the jet-setting rich, and a middle stratum consisting largely of civil servants. This stratum is now known retrospectively as "the old middle class." The public servants, or babus, were a governing class, not a consuming class; there was, in any case, scarcely anything to consume, since import and license restrictions ensured that all but the jet-setters had to content themselves with an extremely limited range of generally rather shoddy domestic merchandise.
But India began liberalizing its economy 10 years ago. This winter, India Today, the country's leading newsweekly, proudly devoted virtually an entire issue to "the new economy" and to the new middle class that it had produced. A poll conducted for the magazine concluded that 86 percent of respondents in five major cities owned a color TV, 72 percent a refrigerator and 44 percent a washing machine. (The corresponding figures for Aurangabad in 1976 would have been zero, tiny and negligible.) These Indians probably represent a rarefied slice of the new middle class. In 1998, India's National Council of Applied Economic Research concluded that 32.5 million households -- about 162 million people, at five persons per household -- belonged to a more modest "consuming class." The typical member of the class owned a TV, a bicycle and a watch.
What most Americans know about India is simply that it is very, very poor. And that's true. Perhaps 40 percent of the country's one billion people are still locked in mind-numbing poverty. But it is also true that even perfectly ordinary places like Aurangabad have a large and growing middle class, with the aspirations and the orientation toward change and growth that come with middle-class status. In his book "India Unbound," an unabashed celebration of the new culture of capitalism, Gurcharan Das, a former C.E.O. of Procter & Gamble India as well as a playwright and novelist, writes, "The most striking feature of contemporary India is the rise of a confident new middle class." India is slowly shedding its fabled otherness; perhaps we're too mesmerized by the otherness to recognize the reality.
The Aurangabad that I knew was a city of beautiful ruins. Aurangzeb had ringed the city with 52 gates, and when at night their great, spiked doors were swung shut, the city was safe from the Maratha horsemen who came swooping down from the surrounding hills. The Maulana Azad College lay just beyond the Delhi Gate, which marked the city's northern terminus, and the fields all around the campus were filled with crumbling funeral monuments that over time had subsided into the hummocky earth. From the terrace of my house, I had a view out over the fields to a stand of custard-apple trees and an ancient domed structure, probably the tomb of some minor notable, both framed against the yellowing walls of what must have once been an enclosed fort. In the rainy season, the pits in the earth turned into ponds, and the water buffaloes that always seemed to be shambling dreamily across the fields used them for mud baths.
Aurangzeb was never able to subdue the Marathas: they picked his army apart, and the overstretched empire itself collapsed with the death of this austere and pitiless figure. But he left behind him a city of pools and gardens and palaces and mosques. In the mid-18th century, the gracious and refined provincial city was absorbed into the empire of the Nizam of Hyderabad, among the most powerful of India's Muslim princes. Since the British permitted the so-called princely states to govern themselves and since the nizams had little interest in adapting to the ways of the Raj, Aurangabad remained an old-fashioned sort of place, largely Muslim and Urdu-speaking and virtually devoid of Western influence. It was, when I arrived, an overgrown small town of about 200,000 where everyone knew everyone else's business, no one ever seemed to arrive or leave, and nothing much ever happened. My colleagues at the college were readers and thinkers, but many of them had never ventured more than 200 miles from home. My closest friend, Saqib Anwar Khan, had passed one of the happiest years of his life studying at the American center in Hyderabad, but in matters of faith he was highly orthodox; his wife was so deep in purdah that when I came for dinner she would pass the food through a curtained doorway.
I would have described almost everyone I knew as poor, though they all lived innumerable grades above Aurangabad's truly poor, who lived piled on top of one another in the squalid warren of the city. The teachers earned about $100 a month on average, and most lived in tiny houses with a few sticks of furniture and nothing more than a calendar or a clock on the wall. Nobody I knew owned a telephone, and refrigeration was so unheard of that when I invited the girls from my Ladies Section class to lunch at my home, I heard them all excitedly murmuring, "Thanda pani"- cold water. It was a novel idea to them. The only cars I ever saw were the white Ambassadors driven by government officials. Virtually the only form of entertainment was conversation, and in this one regard, Aurangabad was rich. We would sit over endless cups of tea, talking about politics and literature and what little we could glean about the affairs of the world. Aurangabad was an Islamic version of R.K. Narayan's Malgudi, the mythical town where nothing ever happens and everyone is a commentator.
But all that was a quarter-century ago. On the first day of my return to Aurangabad, I was walking around the college campus when I was approached by a man whose light mustache, slicked-back hair and sparkling eyes gave him a dashing Errol Flynn sort of look. "Do you remember me?" he asked. I didn't. "I am Farooqui," he said, "from your second-year class." He was one of the boys who had gone to the college principal to complain that my accent was so strange that they couldn't understand a word I was saying. Now he was a professor of commerce and an altogether fluent English speaker. In Aurangabad, even commerce instructors are poets, and Farooqui had written a poem for the local Urdu-language newspaper about the changes that had come over Aurangabad. Would he translate it for me? He would. In the meanwhile, he would take me on a tour of the new Aurangabad.
We drove out of the campus on Farooqui's scooter and took a left on a broad boulevard. "Was this road here in my day?" I shouted into the wind. "No," Farooqui said. "All this was jungle" -- a word that in Indian parlance refers to any sort of land in a state of nature. Entire neighborhoods had sprung up in what had once been bumpy wasteland. Here was the Browser Internet Café and the Softy ice-cream shop, and camera stores and a car dealership, and a gleaming new movie theater, and a steamroller resurfacing the road. Nothing had prepared me for the residential architecture of the new Aurangabad. The homes of the nouveaux riches rose from the earth like colossal movie theaters, with cantilevered balconies and oversize pillars and domes and broken pediments and Hindu and Mogul elements jumbled together.
Farooqui and I continued out to the industrial area. We drove past the immense factory of Garware, a manufacturer of polyester films, and Farooqui pointed out the sports stadium that Garware had built for factory-league soccer and cricket matches. We drove past something called Indo-German Tool Room and then the Wockhardt pharmaceutical plant. Most of the factories had lush mats of lawn facing the road. Every other expanse of grass in Aurangabad had turned brown months earlier, but the industrialists could afford to splurge on scarce water.
Aurangabad is Green Bay or Utica, circa 1900 -- a provincial town bursting with new industrial wealth. That is not to say that India is a century behind the West but rather that it occupies several different epochs simultaneously. The 21st century has arrived in places like Bangalore, several hundred miles south of Aurangabad, where every block has a software company and Indian telephone operators are operating call centers for American companies who need inexpensive, competent English speakers. Even nearby Pune has become an information-technology mecca.
Aurangabad, on the other hand, makes things. The city had almost no industry until the mid-70's, but then Bombay, and even Pune, became so expensive that industrialists began looking for cheaper locations. In 1984, Bajaj, India's leading manufacturer of scooters and motorcycles, agreed to locate a large plant in a new industrial zone outside of town, and after that, Aurangabad's fortune was made. Factories today employ more than 200,000 people, mostly drawn from the surrounding towns and villages, though some come from impoverished regions of northern and eastern India. The industrial sector includes about 200 ancillary plants that supply parts to Bajaj. The fastest growing company is Sterlite, which makes fiber-optic cable. Paradoxically enough for this orthodox old town, Aurangabad is said to be India's premier manufacturer of both whiskey and condoms.
Aurangabad now has a working class, an ownership class and a professional-managerial class, and new people have brought new demands and expectations. On the plane ride from London to Bombay, I got to talking with the young couple sitting next to me, Pavan and Bhakti Shidhaye. It turned out that in 1988 Pavan's father, Kumar, moved the family to Aurangabad, where he now owned a factory -- a staggering coincidence that itself seemed to sum up the transformation of my old country home.
One morning, I went out to visit the Shidhayes, who live in a large but unobtrusive house screened by one of the few groves of trees left in Aurangabad. Pavan introduced me to Kumar, a short, pudgy, genial figure with a light brown goatee -- think Vartan Gregorian a few shades darker. Kumar was something of a reluctant industrialist. After spending 24 years working as a corporate executive in Bombay, he had agreed to move to Aurangabad as C.E.O. of an Indian-American joint venture. In 1994, he started up his own company, failed and then took over one of the Bajaj ancillaries. He was now, after some very difficult years, making a decent profit manufacturing propeller-shaft assemblies, whatever they were, for Bajaj's three-wheelers.
The Shidhayes were cosmopolitan, widely traveled people, and their transition to the sticks had not been easy. "When I first came here," Kumar said, "I tried to rent a house. You could get a 10-room house for a thousand rupees a month" -- a little more than $20 -- but the layout was terrible. I couldn't find a house with an attached bathroom anywhere." Kumar was a modern man, in a traditional world where any room could be a bedroom and a whole family might share one bathroom. Life was even harder for his wife, Anita. "I cried that whole first year," she said. "Hardly any ladies in Aurangabad would drive a car, and so that would attract attention. A sleeveless dress, if you wore, people would stare. Talking to a strange man on the street was not accepted." There was scarcely anybody like the Shidhayes in Aurangabad. But industrialization has transformed local society. The Shidhayes now have a circle of eight like-minded couples -- managerial people, not the more rough-hewn entrepreneurs. Anita has become headmistress of an English-language school. They belong to the arts club, which brings musicians and dancers to town. Kumar belongs to the golf club; Anita, to the ladies club. They are firmly ensconced in the new Aurangabad, and they plan to retire there.
Among my own friends, I could see the signs of an incipient generation gap. When I went to visit Mazhar Mohiuddin, who was the principal of Maulana Azad College in 1976, his 19-year-old daughter, Shadab, popped into a chair and said that she had been looking forward to meeting me. Shadab had her mother's pale skin and classically Mogul features, but as far as I was concerned, she was something absolutely new: an Aurangabadi girl who didn't cast down her eyes or murmur or generally look for means to erase the fact of her presence. She was a college girl, though a very polite and protected version of the species.
Shadab agreed to bring some of her friends to meet me the following day. Two of them, as it turned out, were boys -- one the little brother of the other. All five spoke perfect English, all planned to be doctors and most of them expected to finish their studies and ultimately settle elsewhere. (Shadab's older brother was doing his internship in Pune.) Hajra Qazi, shy, dark-eyed, the "traditional" one in the group, said that she planned to finish her studies in the United States, where her brother also planned to go. I asked if her parents would permit that, and Hajra giggled and said, "They would have to" -- meaning, I think, that as long as she stayed near her big brother, her parents would have no reason to insist she stay nearby.
"And then, would you move back home?"
"That would be as I wish. After my studies, I will be grown up. Then I can choose for myself." No giggle there.
I asked the kids what kind of electronic stuff they had. VCR? Roll of the eyeballs -- of course they had a VCR. Telephone in your room? Ditto. Cell phone? No. Computer? Too expensive, though Hajra's brother, a computer-engineering student, had one, and the older boy, Rizwan Deshmukh, was about to buy one for $1,000 or so. His little brother, Imran, a 10th grader, had a PlayStation and had left his Super Nintendo back in Saudi Arabia, where they had grown up. Walkmen were common, though CD players were not. I asked what they did for fun. Dating was not done in their circle. They hung out, during the few hours that hanging out was permitted, at Domino's and at Niralama's, a snack bar. They went to movies and watched videos. Shadab said, "You can get American movies, but only certain American movies are available."
Signs of the generation gap were everywhere, though in some cases the results would have seemed very modest to an outsider. I spent one afternoon at the Aurangabad College for Women, the evolved version of the old Ladies Section of Azad College. The college had grown immensely, but it still appeals to parents who want their daughters in educational, if not necessarily literal, purdah. It is overcrowded, with the girls sitting two to a desk and 40 or 50 to a room, and traditional: the students generally respond in chorus and speak when spoken to. I knew from experience that most of these girls would be too shy to speak to an unfamiliar man, so I talked to them collectively in class. When I asked where they had traveled, the answer was almost always the same: "Bombay-Pune, sir." And Hyderabad? Yes, Hyderabad. Any place else? No. And yet they had glimpsed that larger world: every girl has a TV in her house, and they watch the Discovery Channel in both English and Hindi versions and BBC News and the slightly racy Indian channel, Zee TV, and the Hindi films on Star TV. When I asked the girls in the second-year class if they would like to travel to foreign countries, they all forgot their manners and shouted, "Yes!"
The girls had bigger expectations than their mothers had. One of the first-year girls, Nausheen Afsha, tall and slender, stood up and said that she wanted to get her Ph.D. in English literature. I asked if her mother was educated, and Nausheen said: "My mother graduated from this college only, but she never had the chance to work. That is why she encourages me now." Most of the girls said that they expected to work -- a huge change from my days in Aurangabad, when a degree was essentially a negotiable instrument in the marriage market. The general view was that boys were useless layabouts and would be perfectly happy to be supported by their wives. On the other hand, few of the young women could imagine any work other than teaching. I asked the third-year class if it was possible to go into business. "No, sir," one of the girls caroled. "Our parents wouldn't permit." And of course defying their parents was unthinkable. The same was true for Shadab and her friends, who had chosen medicine because in their world it was considered an acceptable profession for girls. Everyone's aspirations were running about a notch ahead of their possibilities; maybe they would push their own daughters a notch or two further.
Education is itself a new source of opportunity in Aurangabad. As recently as 1960, any youngster interested in pursuing education beyond high school had to leave town. Now Aurangabad has 40 institutions of higher learning, including medical colleges, dental colleges, engineering schools and a university. The Maulana Azad College that I knew had perhaps 500 boys; nowadays, the college and the women's college together serve about 4,500 students. And the college itself is now the core of the Maulana Azad Educational Trust, which includes the Millennium Institute of Management, the Horniman College of Journalism and Mass Communication, the Tom Patrick Institute of Computer and Information Technology and the Indian Institute of Hotel Management. Most of the students I spoke to in the graduate or specialized undergraduate programs expected either to work with one of the local industries or to leave for Bombay or Pune or yet more distant points -- girls no less than boys.
The hotel-management school, which is affiliated with the prestigious Taj chain of hotels, draws 5,000 applicants from all over India for about 60 places. The day that I was visiting, a recruiter from an international company was interviewing students. A tall young fellow in regulation blazer and gray flannels, possibly late for his interview, came flying up the stairs and almost knocked me over, making him possibly the first person I had ever seen hurry in all my time in Aurangabad.
Educated Indians are deeply divided about the merits, even the authenticity, of the new middle class. Modern India was born, in 1947, not simply as a nation among nations but also as a great experiment -- in democracy, in autonomy from the world powers, in forging unity from bewildering diversity, in fidelity to ancient spiritual ideals. The parents of free India, Mohandas K. Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, had very different, and ultimately incompatible, visions of the new nation, but both understood India in moral terms. Nehru's modern values, especially, provided a self-definition and a sense of high purpose to the old middle class. And so there is, to many of them, something repellent about a new class that defines itself by consumer habits. In "Mistaken Modernity," Dipankar Gupta, a scholar at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, accuses the new middle class of "Westoxication," by which he means consuming Western goods while ignoring the core Western values of respect for the individual, acceptance of impersonal norms, meritocracy and public accountability. The new middle class, he writes, is not the engine of modernity but its chief adversary.
But these consumers are also producers. Gurcharan Das argues in "India Unbound" that the new middle class will liberate India from the morally irreproachable stranglehold of the Nehruvian servitors. "The older bourgeoisie," Das writes, "was tolerant, secular and ambiguous. The new class is street-smart. It has had to fight to rise from the bottom, and it has learnt to maneuver the system. It is easy to despair over its vulgarity, its new-rich mentality. But whether India can deliver the goods depends a great deal on it."
My friends in Aurangabad were on Gupta's side, though for an entirely different reason. I learned this one evening when Farooqui translated his poem for me. We were in his bare little sitting room, sipping dark tea out of tiny cups. Farooqui put on a pair of half glasses and began to read. He read the Urdu couplets first, so I could appreciate the steady meter and the felicitous internal rhymes; then he laboriously translated. "India was in the golden era," Farooqui said in a lyrical singsong. "Hearts were very young. The willpower was very strong. . . . India was treated as the golden bird." There was Sanskrit and Persian, fountains and gardens, poets and scholars, peace and justice, "the silence of the minaret and the tomb." That was my backyard. "Now," Farooqui intoned, his son, Shis Mohammad, sitting beside him and gazing up with huge, reverent, 8-year-old eyes, "the age of science has come. It's very fast, cars are running, and the people are cutting jungles. . . . Artists are gone. People have their earnings, but there is no peace. Everyone is running blind after money."
I asked Farooqui if the golden age was a period in the distant past. He looked at me in surprise, fluttered an open hand in a characteristically Indian rhetorical gesture and said, "This was the time of my childhood."
Farooqui is a child of old Aurangabad: his mother's family is said to have served in Aurangzeb's army. I thought he might be an eccentric devotee of the ancien régime, but no: I found that declinism is the shared faith, or mood, of all true Aurangabadis. One evening virtually the entire college faculty traveled out to a guest house high up on a hill less than a mile or so from the famous Ellora caves for a dinner al fresco. I was sitting next to D.M. Khan, the tall and saturnine head of the College of Education, and he pointed to the stars and said to me in perfect seriousness, "Do you enjoy the sky where you live?" And then he launched into a threnody of his own, his theme being the loss of an old life of contemplation and calm, dignity and respect. His subtheme was that progress wasn't even succeeding as progress.
Farooqui had confided to me that few of his commerce graduates were likely to land decent jobs, and Khan said the same was true of the education students. The students looked to computers as their salvation; they were frantic to get a diploma in computer anything. What's more, the government of Maharashtra was bankrupt, AIDS was on the rise, boys and girls were hugging each other when no one was looking, communal tensions were increasing, etc. In such moments, sitting beneath the stars on a cool and quiet night, melancholy takes on a beauty that is very close to romance. No one broke the spell with crude suggestions of optimism.
Dipankar Gupta was, of course, a modernist, while my friends were critics of modernity itself. But their sense of displacement was not just a matter of sentiment. Aurangabad had grown fivefold since I lived there, and the great majority of the new inhabitants were Hindus from the surrounding villages and towns. Aurangabad was a historically Muslim town; now it was perhaps three-quarters Hindu. The city was being subsumed into Hindu India. There had been anti-Muslim violence, though not as bad as elsewhere in India. The Shidhayes felt a sense of growing comfort as their world expanded; my friends felt a sense of encirclement as theirs contracted.
This is a very strange and unsettled moment in the history of Aurangabad, which declined for almost 400 years before discovering new life in the last 25. The heirs and conservators of the old culture feel threatened by the new middle class, and yet that new class in turn feels threatened by the even more powerful and more inexorable force of global capitalism. Just as Aurangabad's destinies are now tied to India's, so India has begun to be incorporated into the global economy. Since India began to liberalize its economy in 1991, foreign goods have come to dominate much of the Indian market, enfeebling and even destroying some of the great names of Indian business. And this accelerating process of change is likely to accelerate yet further, for India recently dismantled myriad trade barriers as a condition of joining the World Trade Organization. It turns out that new Aurangabad is new only in comparison with old Aurangabad; in comparison with the world, it is backward. The most frightening sound in the city's industrial zones is "W.T.O."
One day, Kumar Shidhaye took me to Mikronix, a manufacturer of industrial gauges and one of Aurangabad's most competitive small businesses. He and G.D. Hanchanal, Mikronix's owner, began ticking off the new products pouring into the market. The Taiwanese had cheap air-conditioners. The Italians were challenging Bajaj in three-wheelers. The Chinese were going to flood the market with cheap scooters and cheap everything. Bajaj had, in fact, already sharply cut scooter production and eliminated 1,200 jobs. Shidhaye had plenty of time to drive me around because he had closed down his plant for three days; Bajaj was suffering from a glut of inventory. Shidhaye gave a passionate little speech to his friend Hanchanal. "We must learn how to hold down labor costs," he cried. "We can't keep saying to our workers, 'Here's another 500 rupees; increases must come only in exchange for productivity gains."' And it wasn't just the factory workers who had to pull up their socks; virtually all the big firms were also firing white-collar workers.
A new Darwinian language was arising from this combination of determination and fear. "You have to sleep with your eyes open," said Rahul Sethi, the C.E.O. of a kitchen-appliance company called Kenstar. And it wasn't just the factory owners. Today in the market you could find kiwis and even milk from New Zealand. Milk! Everyone talked about the milk. Somehow, dairy farmers in New Zealand were underselling the peasant from 10 miles down the road, and their milk was said to last for 90 days. It was marvelous and terrifying: if Indian milk couldn't compete, what could? The W.T.O. was like a tidal wave that would blow Aurangabad's economy to flinders. "The milkman is going to die," Kumar Shidhaye said. "The grocer is going to die."
Anil Save, the president of the Marathwada Industries Association and thus in theory one of the town's chief boosters, said to me, "If you return to Aurangabad in several years, you will find a dramatic change." I asked if I had, by an odd coincidence, arrived at the high-water mark of the city's industrialization. He nodded gloomily.
The basic principle of any Darwinian system is, of course, adapt or
die. Presumably, some of Aurangabad's industrial firms -- the ones that
sleep with one eye open -- will emerge from the forge of competition stronger
and utterly transformed. They will look like successful companies everywhere:
professionally managed, responsive to the customer, prepared for volatility.
No more nepotism for management, no more endless tea-and-tiffin breaks
for workers. The remorseless law of change that has engulfed old Aurangabad
will engulf the new as well. This is a disturbing thought, and not just
for my old friends who see a life they loved slipping away. Many of us
who live in the whirligig of the West prefer an India that remains bound
to an immemorial, folkloric past. Someone, we feel, should resist the forces
of change -- though, of course, not us. But nobody wants to. Not the local
businessman who pines for his vanished peace of mind, not Shadab and her
friends, not the girls in the women's college who yearn to see the world
they've glimpsed on TV and not the peasant who leaves his village and his
two meager meals a day for a job fetching tea in a factory in the industrial
zone. And perhaps not even Farooqui.