Readers Write In #293: Middle-class-ness

Posted on November 7, 2020

5


(by G Waugh)

Baskar is incensed that all these days he had been dealing with a ruthless money-lender who had taken the guise of well-wisher/ family friend with a view to acquiring his rare, chemical formula, which is worth millions. He kidnaps the little daughter of the money-lender and calls to threaten him. But to Baskar’s shock, the money-lender remains unfazed and casually asks Baskar to proceed with physically tormenting his daughter.

“What will you do Baskar? Cut her hands. Hit her. Then”

Baskar is flummoxed. He is desperate to settle his score with the money-lender and in a fit of rage has even managed to kidnap his daughter. But when he is asked about his plans on how he shall complete his revenge, Baskar has no answers. He stammers. He cuts the call.

This is a scene from KV Anand’s debut Kana Kanden that released in 2005. The reason why I write about this scene is how nicely it shows the moral uprightness that comes with middle-class upbringing and an inherited fear of consequences that do well to support it. Most of us come from the same class, if I am not wrong and even if we are meted out the same treatment that Baskar gets in the film, I am sure none of us would have the guts to ‘break bad’ and wreak vengeance. I still am confused as to how to regard this quality of being ‘passive’ and ‘harmless’ even during the most demanding and unjust conditions because in a lot of ways, this has led to people like us being labelled ‘impotent’ and ‘docile’ by those who take advantage of us. All of this is not to say that Baskar must have gone on to physically torment the girl but a proper, calculated and a brutal response which is commensurate to the crime of his opponent would have most certainly been welcome (and this is what happens in the later half).

***

I know a certain family (though indirectly) who had saved more than three decades of their earnings with a view to investing in a plot somewhere south of Chennai. The savings were worth in lakhs of rupees and the sole breadwinner of the family had planned to retire from employment and settle in that area with his wife and son. The sale was completed and within weeks after the construction of the house had started, some person had arrived at the place claiming that the plot belonged to his boss. Soon it was discovered that the documents that the ‘boss’ had possessed were nothing but fake despite which the family was forced to pursue the case legally for months together (This was not AL Vijay’s Poi Solla Porom). The case must have run for more than a couple of years and at one point, the family had no options but to withdraw and give up their claim to the land altogether. The ‘boss’ not surprisingly, was a politician who belonged to the ruling party and the family had run out of courage and finances after staging a protracted, yet dogged fight.

***

In Suseenthiran’s Pandiya Naadu (2013), a retired house-holder has two sons, the eldest of whom works as an official for the state government. He soon runs into a ruthless mining mafia and refuses to bend to their whims. As expectedly, the official is killed one day and his sibling plots revenge, killing the mafia don finally in the climax. If the core story looks too thin and clichéd, you must see the film to realize that it is not.

The retired house-holder is played by an excellent Bharatiraja and what I remember the most about the film is his portion of the story. In the scene after he witnesses the death of his eldest son, I still cannot forget the shock I had when I heard him utter the following lines to his friend,

Unaku koolipada yaaraadhu theriuma? En Magana konnavangala naan kollanum”

For more than two decades, I have seen a lot of revenge ‘masala’ films and even if the revenge is ‘owned’ and dictated by elders or strong peripheral characters, the ‘execution’ of the same is always the hero’s prerogative. Even if the hero is not directly affected by the ‘injustice’ meted out to his family or friends, he is always forced to inherit it and consider the ‘revenge’ as his own. But here in Pandiyanaadu, what surprised me was, how by splitting the ‘revenge’ pie into two- one for the younger son and another for the aging father, Suseenthiran was able to transform the usual masala story into something more intriguing and relatable.

I use the word ‘relatable’ because this is one question that has always boggled me. What would I do if I were to face the same circumstances that befall the ‘good’ people in the movies? Will I be able to pay the ‘wrong’ people in the same coin? Do I have the guts for that? We see a lot of news stories of late, about women getting raped by influential people or goons or those who don’t give a damn about punishment and legal justice. How do fathers of these women deal with it? When everything for which they had worked all through their lives is suddenly being taken away by force, for no fault of theirs, would they be ready to put their lives at risk and plot ‘revenge’ like how Bharatiraja does? Isn’t ‘vengeance’ itself a basic human instinct?

***

I remember one excellent moment in Samuthirkani’s Appa that released in 2016. Even if the rest of the film was as ‘cringe-inducing’ as a Samuthirakani film can get, I want to highlight one scene that nicely summed up the uncomplaining ‘passivity’ of some sections of the middle classes. Dayalan’s (Samuthirakani)  son Vetri is enrolled in a reputed, local private school on account of peer pressure and on one occasion he is being insulted by his teachers for fumbling with his project work. The project work involves the hand-modelling of a Taj Mahal in thermocol which other children ‘complete’ easily by purchasing one from the stationery. Dayalan on the other hand, buys a set of raw thermocol and other accessories and encourages his son to do it himself. As it happens, Vetri’s hand-model doesn’t come out as perfectly as the stationery ones as a result of which he gets insulted by his teachers.

On the day of the parent-teacher meeting, Dayalan raises this issue with the teachers. He insists that even if the teachers weren’t encouraging of the creative abilities of his son, they must have at least not proceeded to insult him. Soon the conversation enters into the familiar zone of how private schools churn students out like how assembly lines dispense dolls with identical size and features but the management retaliates sharply with the following question.

“If you think private schools are bad, why did you choose us?”

Dayalan responds by saying that it was peer pressure and nothing else. He also turns to the gathering of other parents and asks how many of them chose the school merely out of peer pressure like him. Almost every parent raise their hands and Dayalan turns to the management triumphantly for having proved a point. But within seconds, many of the raised hands lower and Dayalan is shocked to see how he has been left to fend for himself even if his argument is for a common cause. Frustrated, he turns to the parents and says,

“Ungala laam nambi pesave koodaadhu la?”

Even if the situations that Kani creates as a writer to prove his point are crude and badly imagined, the point that he makes finally, made a lot of sense to me. There have been a lot of occasions in office meetings when I have told the management directly that the task they were imposing upon our team was impossible to complete within the stipulated timeline, hoping that my team-mates would come to support my view. But most of the time their silence during the meetings have shocked me even if they were quick to acknowledge the correctness of my argument while talking to me personally. What usually followed was a week or two of tiring work and badly slept nights only to deliver a product with lot of bugs and issues.

***

I had an opportunity to watch Satyajit Ray’s Pratidwandi(1970) last year and few scenes in the film seemed to have answers to some of my questions.

Siddhartha is a typical middle-class, educated Bengali who has a ‘Naxalite’ brother. He is well-read, respectful to elders, women and authority, everything that you would associate with ‘middle-classness’. When he is forced to look for a job for himself, he is continuously offended by the injustices that keep happening around him. He is incensed when he finds that his sister is being sexually exploited by her employer and goes to his house to warn him. But the moment he meets him, nothing goes according to plan because Siddhartha is held back by his very ‘middle classness’. When he exits the house he witnesses an accident where a little girl is run over by an expensive car. He decides to vent out all his anger against his sister’s employer on the owner of the car but when he nears the scene of accident, he finds that people have already encircled him, denying him ‘his’ opportunity.

The film is set in the late 1960s when Bengal was a hotbed of revolutionary vigour and ‘class’ assertion. Siddhartha is shown to be a sensitive youngster who could barely remain immune to the political currents that keep disturbing him. He often complains about the ‘injustices’ he sees on a daily basis to his circle and in one scene he tells his brother that only a revolution would solve all problems. Amused, his brother asks,

Will you start a revolution on your own?”

Siddhartha replies,

“I may not start one. But when everyone is ready, I will surely fight in it”

What Siddhartha said made a deep impact on me. In fact, he just spoke my mind. As a left-winger who had a slightly inflated political consciousness right from his adolescence, I had always been over-sensitive to certain issues even if some of them had no direct impact on my life. When some of my friends have asked me if I had any solution to remedy all the ‘ills’ of the society, I have told them, not bothering much about how puerile it might have sounded, “We need a revolution”.

But for their very next question whether I had the guts to lead an armed rebellion, I never had proper and defined answers. Why? I belonged to the middle classes. I had a family to take care, my house was on a loan and even the act of harbouring ‘communist’ thoughts could potentially imperil my employment. Right from my childhood, I was taught just like everyone else, to be passive and indifferent to whatever happened around me. In fact, every one of us if I am not wrong, must have been drilled in with a strong abhorrence to violence and rebellion, right from our formative years. I still remember one occasion, when a reckless auto rickshaw driver sped across my father on the road, brushing his right arm and ended up hurting him. Even before I could react to the situation, the driver stopped the auto and started pouring expletives on us. I was baffled. Just when I was about to enter into a fight with him, my father asked me to simply drop it,

Dei yenda avan kooda laam poi sanda potukitu?”

***

Pratidwandi ends with a scene where Siddhartha now fully transformed into a rebel just waiting for an excuse to explode, attends an interview for a job. It is shown that there aren’t enough chairs for the attendees and very few fans to ventilate the waiting area. Siddhartha after a period of waiting and argument with those who conduct the interview, is frustrated at how badly the attendees are being treated. What adds to his frustration is how all his co-attendees simply adjust and resign themselves to the situation without even raising a voice against the management. It is unclear on whom Siddhartha is more angry with – the cavalier attitude of the employers or the pliant ‘middle-classness’ of his co-attendees. Unable to handle any of this anymore, he rushes into the interviewing room, topples the table and hurls a chair on the panelists.

If you look closely, what Siddhartha does is the maximum what a middle-class, educated youngster can do, under circumstances where he has virtually no support from others. But the question to be asked is whether such an aggressive act shall help to solve the problem? Will Siddhartha’s ‘chair-throwing’ change whatever is wrong with our system? Will the employers from the next time onward consider adding a few more chairs and electric fans to help the attendees? No. It is just a simple, isolated act of an impulsive youngster whose anger shall on no account, be considered representative of the majority of the attendees. ‘He was some madman venting his personal anger on someone’. That is how if anything, most of us would consider him.

***

That middle class father who had lost his land to the politician, those middle class parents who lost their children to sexual crimes committed by the rich and the powerful- none of them ended up achieving ‘justice’ through legal means. Why? Our legal system is skewed highly in favour of the perpetrator rather than the victim and in a highly unequal society such as ours, the perpetrator is more often than not, someone belonging to the rich and the powerful classes. Since one is legally ‘innocent’ until proven guilty, the perpetrator can roam freely around until he is convicted. The victims on the other hand, need proper eye witnesses who are ready to testify whenever the court summons them. The perpetrator also has the luxury of employing highly manipulative, criminal lawyers who can prolong any case easily for more than a decade. During this time, the lives and fortunes of the eye witnesses might undergo a lot of changes and when they are summoned after such a long time, there is a possibility that their memory can fail them. Even if there is a slight discrepancy in their testimony, the lawyers representing the perpetrator can proceed to capitalize on it and make the testimony unacceptable and redundant. This is one reason why there are a lot of criminals in India who have committed murders in double digits and have the audacity to even contest elections. If the newspapers say that someone is accused of committing ten murders, it might not be possible that he had done all ten of them on the same night. He might have done his first in say, 2011, come out on bail and committed the second in 2012 even when the legal proceedings for the first case hadn’t ended yet, and so on.

In such a system where you have more chances of winning a lottery than getting a ‘favourable’ verdict, what keeps the poor and the middle classes, passive and morally disciplined? It is understandable that as long as a majority of the people remain unconcerned with ‘core’ issues such as economic inequality, poverty, unemployment, capitalist exploitation and remain pre-occupied with their ‘survival’ and ‘religion’, none of the myriad problems that ail the justice-dispensing system is going to go. And if the poor and the middle classes decide to take justice into their hands, whatever remains of them, they pretty well know shall also be taken away. And this partly explains why there are neither blood-thirsty Bharatirajas nor ‘chair-throwing’ Siddharthas in our society, at least among those we know.

But we are living in really tough times. Every single thing that our people have been taking for granted all these years such as minimum wage, defined working hours, pensions, tribal rights, freedom of speech and expression, etc. are in danger of being trampled upon by the wheels of the inexorable neo-liberal juggernaut powered by the unholy corporate-government alliance. And there are dedicated people out there working under peasant societies, trade unions, tribal and environmental organizations to protect every right that is under danger. Even if we don’t directly participate in these organizations and hold banners and placards for them, is it too much to ask for more a few more raised hands that support these numerous Dayalans who keep selflessly fighting for us?Can’t we all do our bit to at least prevent an embarassing situation where someone like him taunts us with the question,

“Ungala laam nambi pesave koodaadhu la?”