The Bengali urban middle-class psyche January 2008
The middle class, dhoti-panjabi-clad bhadralok has appropriated a large part of the written history of colonial Bengal. This urban, middle-class, liberally educated individual had also become the cultural symbol of Calcutta, marginalising other social or ethnic groups by the sheer normalising power of this image. In the past two decades, there has been a dramatic alteration in the rate at which things change, at least in the material realm, around this urban populace. There has also been a perceptible, howsoever feeble, attempt on the part of this population to find a way to maintain a continuity with its past in a way that resists change, or at the least tries to modulate its rate.
The neighbourhoods and homes of the urban Bengali middle class in Calcutta and in mofussil towns are currently undergoing tremendous changes. There is an overt change in how urban settlements look, and what constitutes ‘the neighbourhood’. But there is an ongoing change within homes, as well. Such changes have been uneven – certain ways of living, of being, arranging and utilising the living space – and have proved to be more resistant to changes than have others. Exploring this differential provides an interesting insight into a very particular question: What constitutes the ‘signature’ of the Bengali urban middle-class identity?
A closer look at the past and present living spaces and practices of the Bengali urban middle class might offer a few clues as to their ‘middle class-ness’. Any attempt to do so, however, needs to proceed with caution. The aim is not to document how these spaces looked in the past versus the present. Rather, it is about what aspects of the past 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 that is of most interest: the specific patterns of ‘falling short’ can be quite illuminating.
To the middle-class Bengali, the bedroom is not the sanctum it is for the middle-class Westerner. Among the first order of business after everyone awakes is to ‘sweep the bed clean’, neatly arranging the pillows and placing the mosquito net in a corner. The bed is then covered with a heavy bedspread, which, tucked tightly under the mattress, encapsulates and protects the privacy of the nights spent on it, and prepares the bed for use as a seat for close friends and visiting relatives. The drawing room, in contrast, is used to entertain formal guests who fall outside the large circumference of those who are considered to be ‘like family’. The traditional distinction between the bedroom and the drawing room, the use of the bedroom to conduct heartfelt conversations or engage in simple adda, and the practice of sweeping the bed with a jhnata (a broom of thin, stiff rushes) have all survived Bengal’s changing lifestyles.
Bedrooms in old Bengali houses were designed with built-in taks, or recessed shelves, on which all middle-class Bengalis, across the political spectrum, displayed a collection of Rabindranath Tagore’s gitobitan (songs) and sanchayita (poems). Other names that one could expect to see included Saratchandra Chattopadhyay, Subhash Chandra Bose and Swami Vivekananda. In addition, the Materia Medica, a popular encyclopaedia of homeopathy, was not an uncommon find. This literary display was a sort of intellectual companion for the middle-class Bengali, and the tendency to have a series of “Complete Works…” of some authors was perhaps a wish for comprehensive erudition. But unlike jhnatas, taks have fallen victim to change. While the walls of gated communities have grown thicker and higher, those of modular units have been cut in half – too thin to house a tak. The intellectual companionship of books is still sought after, but a family’s library will today be found in the drawing room, in free-standing wooden cases with sliding glass doors, not on a bedroom tak.
Eliminating class-insensitive mosquitoes in more technologically advanced ways has not become a priority of the urban middle-class Bengali: the mosquito net remains the primary defence. Methods of stringing up nets remain as diverse as the types of stagnant water bodies that breed the pests in the first place. Sari paars (liners that prevents sari edges from fraying), pyjama cords, jute or plastic string and sometimes a combination of all four are found hanging from door latches, hinges or miniature hooks precariously embedded in thin apartment walls. A mosquito net is erected by adjusting the tension in the four strings that are fastened to pre-fabricated loops at the net’s corners. The art of setting up a mosquito net before going to bed has remained largely untouched by transitioning lifestyles: when the lights are switched off and no one is watching, the urban middle-class Bengali continues to enjoy the comfort of familiarity of the sagging roof of an asymmetrically strung-up mosquito net.
Unlike the frequently busy bedroom, the bathroom of a Bengali urban middle-class family is arguably the most unacknowledged part of the home. Certain markers set the Bengali middle-class loo apart from the bathrooms in upper-class homes. First is the matter of soap. A new bar of soap is allowed to grow thinner and thinner through use till it becomes a wafer-thin sliver or a tiny pebble, at which point it is added to a bar of soap of a peculiar variety: one comprising dozens of other such slivers and pebbles, and whose colours and textures trace the history of the household’s varying brand allegiance. This conglomerate ‘bar’ of soap is used solely to wash one’s left hand after defecation.
In middle-class Bengali households, the bathroom is nearly universally associated with odd smells of varying degrees. Thus, a middle-class person’s first observance about a bathroom in a luxury hotel or an upper-class household is something along the lines of, “The bathroom does not have a [bad] smell!” Often, commodes and latrine pans do not work particularly well because either the flush’s piston or chain has broken. Meanwhile, the air oftentimes seems thick, generally due to a lack of ventilation and the near-permanent presence of a zone of slimy substance known as pechhol.
Why pechhol is such a fixed feature has to do with the nature of the bathroom broom, or jhnata. Instead of having a soft, feathery sheaf that smoothly picks up the smallest of particles, the jhnata is instead composed of stiff dnatis of unequal length, which generally refuse to cooperate with the task at hand. Regardless, there is something about those tough sticks that packs in an awful lot of service: the jhnata has a long shelf life, perhaps because it is rarely used. The idea of cleanliness that originates with germ theories of infection of European vintage does not hold much currency in the middle-class Bengali consciousness. In fact, the use of disinfectants to clean commodes or latrine pans has been excruciatingly slow in coming. As is the case with the jhnata, a certain lethargy inevitably takes over when it comes to replacing the ubiquitous handle-less mug – of which income levels explain nothing.
Certain features common in middle-class Bengali bathroom fittings are also part of the distant past, but have persisted despite changed circumstances and levels of affluence. The presence of a tap affixed halfway between the floor and the showerhead, for instance, is almost guaranteed. Its height is no accident. Though now used mostly to fill up buckets and for the occasional foot washing, its height – whether calculated in a rush, through ineptitude or simply in a desire to recreate the familiar – enables it to be used as a surrogate shower. This is the koltola, or tap station, recreated!
Oddly, builders and architects continue to include this feature, possibly ignorant of its original purpose. This standard height has somewhat unwittingly lingered on in the perception of designers of small flats. Although it is possible to sit under this tap and bathe, few do so except for children forced beneath by their parents. Another relic of the bathroom past is the practice of keeping water in buckets, even in modern residential units with round-the-clock water supply. This primordial tendency to store water, even in the face of abundance, necessitates an arrangement to minimise waste: a thin cloth tied over the mouth of the tap ensures that every last drop flows directly into the bucket.
The mark that a tap leaves on the stone-chip floor directly beneath its flow is another hallmark of the middle-class Bengali bathroom, as is the largely unused hand or ‘telephone’ shower. A late-1980s addition to housing projects, this latter gadget serves little more than an ornamental role, though a widely recognised one. Another trait of this bathroom is the state of its floor. While no self-respecting upper-class bathroom would be caught dead wet, the middle-class bathroom floor is nearly always wet. Indeed, the only time that it is dry is generally when everyone has gone on vacation.
If one moves from the state of the bathroom to the cleanliness of it users, a few other signature traits also become evident. To deal with cloudy bathroom mirrors, users adopt all sorts of sophisticated correction strategies, so that a semblance of a real face can be constructed from whatever is actually on show. There is no individual allocation of gamchha, the thin red cotton cloth that urban middle-class Bengalis use as towels; instead each family member randomly grabs whichever is dry, or at least semi-dry. Coconut oil is in wide use, but washing machines, ostensibly because they do not wash very well, are not. In fact, the real reason for avoiding washing machines is this: urban middle-class Bengalis are reluctant to relinquish control to the vagaries of a panel of buttons. Mechanisation is concomitant with loss of control.
While bedrooms and bathrooms are haunted by the past, contemporary urban middle-class kitchens have little in common with their ancestors. The compressed living spaces of modern flats have necessitated smaller kitchens, and the popularity of interior planning has made the use of such limited space supremely efficient. Besides, kitchens are just for cooking these days; they are no longer a social space.
Not too long ago, however, the kitchen, along with its appendages and accessories, was a cultural signifier for women. Perhaps the one traditional practice that urban lifestyles and associated changes in socio-religious practices have completely erased is the historical division of the kitchen into an amish space (where cuisines include animal flesh, onions and garlic) and a niramish space, where only vegetarian dishes are prepared – what the average non-vegetarian Bengali would disparagingly call ‘cattle food’. The fact that decades ago even the tiniest household required a niramish kitchen was a reflection of the position of women. Not only was meat taboo, but so were certain pulses and spices, for fear that they would encourage ‘certain physical urges’. Though the days of two separate kitchens are long gone, separate utensils and separate stoves (or separate sections of a single stove) are not. Such manipulations testify to the tenacity of ancient traditions even in the face of modern trends that do not keep the middle-class urban Bengali in mind.
Practices in modern kitchens contrast sharply with those of the past. The male residents of urban hostels and dormitories used to eat communally in the common kitchen of their accommodations, or they would venture out to one of the many affordable eateries of questionable hygiene. While running water was virtually unheard of in rural areas, urban kitchens extended to koltola, where utensils were washed and where fish or the occasional piece of meat was cleaned. Ironically, washing utensils under running water, something that many people presume to be a uniquely Indian convention, is in fact a modern innovation.
What has transformed the modern kitchen into a species almost alien to its predecessors is the advent of gadgets. Even the humble knife, indispensable in today’s kitchen, was unheard of at the turn of the last century, when bnotis, floor-based curved kitchen knives steadied with the foot, were used exclusively for all cutting, chopping and dicing needs. The refrigerator has also replaced both the once-ubiquitous meat-safe (which, contrary to its name, held leftovers, sweets, butter tins, savouries and snacks – and never meat), as well as the jolshora, a large, flat bowl of water in which a dish of food is floated to keep out earth-bound insects.
A unique twist of refrigerator usage found in middle-class Bengali homes today is that these appliances are not actually kept in the kitchen. Instead, they are found in a corner of the dining room, exactly where meat-safes were once placed. This is perhaps also due to the fact that Bengali kitchens have almost no scope for functional machinery within their premises, except for perhaps the exhaust fan, a modern invention that nonetheless inevitably loses the battle with Bengali grease. The walls behind the ovens are proof: they are as dark and greasy today as they would have been decades ago.
The more-than-lingering presence of the bnoti, even in the presence of fashionable vegetable cutters and graters, begs explanation beyond mere efficiency. Certainly, the inevitable presence of the hamamdasta, a medium-size mortar-and-pestle used to grind dry spices, and the sheel-nora, a flat version used to make pastes out of non-dry spices, is more of a declaration of dissent than sporting a Che Guevara T-shirt in some other metropolis. Such ancient kitchen technologies exist side-by-side with top-of-the-line mixer-grinders – and the rationale for employing domestics to avoid using them is exactly the same as the argument for having a domestic helper wash clothes rather than using a washing machine.
Cultural choices, hesitant futures
Naturally, the reasons for these and all other cultural choices run deep. As Ashis Nandy has observed, “Many oppressed cultures, in trying to keep alive an alternative vision of civilisation and resist 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.” While on the face of it, to look upon the Bengali middle-class way of life regarding their imagined antiquity as an oppressed culture would be erroneous, one could say that some identifying elements do feel threatened and indeed oppressed. The presence of both mixer-grinders and sheel-nora in the Bengali middle-class kitchen reflects this internal struggle, a skirmish that encompasses far more than a choice between automation and manual labour. The apparent irrationality of storing water in a bucket in the bathroom, of hiring a domestic helper to hand-wash clothes – these are all visible signs that hint at the subversive underbelly of this skirmish.
These patterns, some or all of them, together partially define what can be referred to as the ‘psychocosmology’ of the middle class. To stick to them, in the face of myriad alternatives, is in a large part an attempt to keep a sense of selfhood. The element of dissent here is not to be missed, for it is this urban middle class of Bengal that is considered the most vociferous cheerleader for some of the most perturbing patterns of change, especially in the last 15 years. If one looks at the pattern of elements that have been retained, the urban middle-class Bengali exposes a particular tentativeness and apprehension of vulnerability.
The middle classes are split between the potential for a lifestyle that is at once swank and unknown, and a lifestyle that has a certain comfort level due to familiarity, even imagined familiarity. As such, when external changes are introduced, there is set in motion a negotiation to preserve the existing identity. There is another aspect, too. Urban middle-class Bengalis are not fully convinced about the permanence and sustainability of the changes being brought about by new money and aspirations, and hence the attempt to keep lifestyles less expensive. This zeroes in on one of the deepest of middle-class values: an economically low-risk lifestyle, wherein the status quo is more desirable than a higher-stakes game of economic rising. One of the elements that also goes into this process of shunning come out as a middle-class contempt for the rich, and an assumption of dishonesty on the part of anyone who has made a considerable amount of money.
The disjoint between affordability and lifestyle of the urban Bengali middle classes is extremely revealing. With an increase in riches, and by being confronted with lifestyles that the middle classes associate with luxury, the middle classes are faced with a nagging feeling about the value-neutrality of its own recent prosperity. As such, in their own homes they want to see as few signs as possible of a radical departure from a lifestyle that was, in their imagination, ‘honest’.
This complicity and dissent often exist at the same time. In between, the complicity has a non-consensual element as well, arising out of what the middle class thinks is an absence of choices: the choice is not whether to be a business person or an information technologist, but rather how far down any particular road to go. It is the absence of choice to jump off the bandwagon that creates extraordinary internal turmoil, but also works to maintain an illusion of no-change. Having little or no control over the external urban geography, the theatre of dissent subsequently shifts indoors.
-- Garga Chatterjee is a doctoral student in Psychology at Harvard University.
-- Priyanaka Nandy is a graduate student in English Literature at Jadavpur University.
-- Somanath Mukherjee is a freelance writer on Southasian development and culture.
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