“What is middle class morality? Just an excuse for never giving me anything.”
― George Bernard Shaw, Pygmalion
This blog is based on my recent role-taking experience within an RWA (Resident Welfare Association) of a gated society of eighty odd bungalows – experiences of dysfunctional politics within, that threaten to consume and corrode away any sense of community, decency, and safety in an upper middle-class neighbourhood.
This microcosm of the gated society I live in, reflects, quite aptly – what is wrong with middle class and upper middle class in India, its self-absorbedness and its self-righteous morality that barely shrouds inner angst, hate, and fears. There is also an element of hope, and in times of Covid-19, the same microcosm does offer some excruciatingly painful yet meaningful opportunities to learn, and even grow as a human being.
This blog is hopefully not seen as a rant by you!
Taking a role within the management committee or RWA was akin to immersing myself into a seemingly languid pool, and then discovering the deep undercurrents of insidious politics, of historical hurts and letdowns that have never been allowed to heal, and of an abyss that sucks away my well-being, and threatening to substitute this with hatred, fear, and sheer vindictiveness. The latter set of feelings, are metaphorically as potent and pointless as a drug or an upper with short-lived highs followed by deep despair.
The task challenges of running a small complex are not too many and almost a non-issue, but accompanying these are complex five questions that can be maddeningly frustrating:
1. Control versus Empowerment
As a committee, the first ideological challenge that I experienced was re-calibrating the extent of control, the RWA sought to exert in the past, along with punitive penalties that were talked about. We had a legacy of our predecessors wanting and institutionalizing a high control regime – almost rendering the community of residents – many of whom are successful entrepreneurs and CXOs, as a bunch of immature and rebellious children that need to be ‘trained’.
The Covid-19 lockdown had been a great excuse in the past 12 weeks – of reinforcing the need to be tough and dictatorial, of energetically defining and imposing punitive measures such as fines for those residents that break curfews or walk their pets or forget wearing their masks.
Self-righteous grounds were constructed to kill any dialogue or ideas from others – all we needed was our predecessors to organize goose-step march mornings and evenings to reinforce a sense of fascist governance. It has been a tough battle thus far – even today, a simple challenge of allowing in gardeners into our society draws as intense conversations as that of China invading India.
2. Surveillance and Intimidation
The Panoptican, as per Jeremy Bentham and later reinforced by Foucault, has been one innovation that shows how powerful ‘surveillance’ is in modern society.
Our society is no different, where a large network of security cameras, recording all infringements and micro-violations such as children sneaking in without permission, people socializing within and breaking distancing norms, and technicians or plumbers coming to select houses (how dare they?) become the key to exercising control and dominating the Other. It is almost as if this surveillance is the greatest source of entertainment, replacing Netflix and television – the rights to a camera are seductive and addictive.
Surveillance today is not for our collective safety – the mighty cameras and their recordings are being used for intimidation and harassment, and settling old scores. Thus, dialogue gets replaced by a barrage of accusative emails seeking instant explanations from residents.
It is strange how all of us are colluding to create a nightmarish resurrection of an Orwellian dystopia of 1984, where the RWA is potentially the judge, the jury and the prosecutor rolled in one, and the residents perpetually shiver in fright and helplessness.
3. Othering and Us Versus Them
Our microcosm consisting of wealthy and successful residents seem to be fragmented on intriguing fault-lines – many of these are never openly worked within the community. Data suggests that while Hindu festivals are celebrated with tremendous fan-fare, other festivals such as Id or Christmas do not evoke collective interest. Yet our society has a larger share of residents that come from minority communities of Christians, Muslims and even Sikhs.
- No one wishes to explore deep unconscious prejudices that may underlie if a Muslim resident is seen as a ‘goonda’ / bully and norm-breaker, and then continually harassed.
- No one wishes to explore deeper bias when women are not allowed to play roles in RWA, or are set up as nominal role-holders, where if and when their intensity is expressed they are branded as ‘unstable simpletons’ ….
- No one wishes to explore other prejudices between the nouveau riche who flaunt their Mercedes and BMWs and the ‘truer’ elites.
- And most interestingly of all, no one wants to look at the fault-lines between generations, and that there is inter-generational conflict between the elders and younger members, influenced by feudal patriarchy. I personally think some of the elders are geriatric buffoons set up as the wise.
The biases are there for all to discern, but there seems to be a collective resistance to open this pandora’s box – for it means having to own up and work with oneself. Thus, this microcosm seeks the easier way – ‘Othering’ and building Us versus Them stances, reminiscing of what is happening to modern India.
As a microcosm, we are fragmented – some of these demand a collective dialogue and ownership – and yet no one really wants to take the first step.
4. RWAs and the burdens of Noblesse Oblige and Martyrdom
I think all our predecessors and us share a common legacy – that of being martyrs as we serve our residents. So, while our residents can behave like reactive hooligans and bullies, demanding customers, and spoiled brats, there is a decorum that RWA members in their role must subscribe to.
Nobless Oblige is a French expression where the nobility or the upper class (such as the RWA members) have to act with honor, be compulsively gracious, and be generous to a fault, to the other residents within. While one may be discerned as patronizing RWAs is a segue to the wonderful road of martyrdom.
Thus the RWA cannot publicly talk about its own inner struggles and politics to the community, but remain with honor and generous, despite meeting some very dysfunctional behaviors around.
If serving the community of residents has to be this blend of martyrdom and noblesse oblige, and that members within the RWA have to make supreme sacrifices – the RWA as a system is set up for consequent processes of ‘discreet entitlement’ and ‘invisible power differentials’.
These processes happen with an unconscious need to compensate self.
5. Community Building and Apathy
I am beginning to realize that the urban upper middle class has no clue how to build communities within and more depressingly, are apathetic to the term – community. This process is much easier for other segments and classes of the society – some have legacies of the past traditions that help them.
But in this microcosm of economically thriving residents, who may hold on to the belief that they have made it big, and that they are special individuals in their own right, the community and collective processes get postponed if not denied. Thus, despite this homogeneity of economic surplus, competition turns into rivalries, and jealousy turns into envy as we rub shoulders with each other.
I am beginning to believe that atomization peaks with upper-middle class citizens who have chosen to insulate themselves from the larger society – our gated communities are no better. What lies outside the gates is not our problem!
However, what lies within the gates is not my problem either!!
Covid-19 has been a great leveler though the poor are suffering more from a disease that was brought to India by the global elite – people like you and me. While we can quarantine ourselves in our little cocoons, the others cannot.
- Search for a Greater Cause
There are communities that have taken this challenge head on – and crafted new roles and commitments to the society – of training, of charity, of re-skilling and of funding the poor that they know of.
Unless my community of denizens agrees to serve a larger cause – that dismisses our current conflicts as affectations of spoilt and querulous adults, who have nothing to live for except their small insulated lives of consumption, the future does not appear to be very bright.
- Exploring Governance
Governmentability was a term used by Foucault, where he stated that liberalism (read market capitalism) has been encouraged by a shift of authority from traditional systems of governing to the individual. We all know that governing bodies of MHA at the central government, of state governments, of local municipality have abandoned and abdicated governance and that in this process, the RWA has become the noth the unit of and a symbol of governance.
RWAs receive anger, frustrations, disappointments, sulks et al from its residents, and yet becomes an interesting vehicle to explore governance – should it be inclusive, democratic, participative. These have been questions that have only enhanced my learning, and how I participate in the processes of politics, of conflicts and of resolutions.
A traditional management degree or an MBA is of little worth when we work with voluntary bodies such as RWAs in this fluid context, and I think, this area needs more research. These two strands aside, I think community building is a subject area that should be a part of everyone’s education, and not left within the realms of sociology or political science.
While ancient community structures have been decimated in the last couple of centuries, marked by colonialism, urbanization, industrialization, and technology, it is time that we invest into looking at emerging communities – homogenous and heterogenous, and give these a role beyond just management of amenities. Unless we work on the emerging communities, the essence of safety, belonging, and faith gets challenged each day, rendering each of us more lonely, more alone, and perhaps less human.
Additional Insights on RWAs
The Angry Young Men who refuses to heal as they age!
It is said that we need to age with grace and become seen as ‘elders’ blessed with wisdom and a spiritual essence of living.
One of the greatest archetypes immortalised by Indian cinema – is the ‘Angry Young Man’ epitomised by Amitabh Bachchan – playing a series of characters in films including Deewar, Zanjeer, Trishul et al. The Angry Young Man was a big hit especially for those who could not deal with existential angst and Injustice in a fragmented India. This identity / archetype replaced the original Indian archetype of the Sensitive & Stoic Man who could balance both the feminine and the masculine within (Nar-Naari / Purusha – prakriti). The Sensitive Man could be poetic in his suffering, be one with his community, and could be both strong and weak at the same time. This identity was immortalised by Guru Dutt, Raj Kapoor, and later by Rajesh Khanna.
The growing Indian middle class in 1970s, sitting on their rage, began to identify with the Angry Young man more than ever. – for the Angry young man (or woman). appeared to be powerful and omnipotent, sexually intense (hyper masculine), and most importantly someone with freedom – for he/she was exiled / cut away from his/her own community – this exile also implied a certain ‘license’ to fight.
The Angry Young Man, caught up with his need for omnipotence, never really ages with grace – old wounds are kept festering so that each day, the wounds can be scratched with a violence and with the pain comes a sense of injustice being meted out to self, and a personal purpose of living – an odd sort of ‘self righteousness’ where the person is blind to his own violence; this process of – never allowing the wounds to heal coupled with self righteousness – creates tremendous energy to feel alive albeit with bitterness, vindictiveness, and rage.
The Angry Young Man never ages with grace or honour, for ageing only increases the quantum of hurts and injustice – ageing adds to the masala. In a society like ours, the fights are not physical but the play is ‘legal-legal’ – we are the laughing stock of the local police stations and the courts – wealthy upper class residents who cannot learn to live together in a beautiful society.
Interestingly, the next few generations, especially the millennial, are not really caught up and mesmerised by with the Angry Young Man – they don’t seem to be bothered, perhaps they have been mute spectators of the violence and violations of men and women who don’t want to heal and move on.
The Covid 19 crisis is a call for us to move on and do things for Others – the lesser privileged who are suffering and dying- some of us are investing into such work with the poor and needy communities, and there are others who are consumed with rage and injustice … perhaps anxiety of infection and contamination of the virus, and possible death, creates a sense of impotence that can only be denied through the Angry Young Man
I think the Angry Young Man lurks in each of us who were born in the 1950s and 1960s… I am aware of this man within me.
I also think this archetype does not allow us to live like a community nor age with grace. It just creates bitterness and rage – two feelings that actually make all of us bitter, pathetic, and impotent.