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A Rich Man’s Joke Is Always Funny

Living Class in Urban India by Sara Dickey, Ranikhet: Permanent Black, 2016; pp 280, 795.

There is a point in the hierarchy of indebtedness, where debt becomes “credit;” where the lender transitions from a vilified “moneylender” (the only one willing to extend a loan to the undocumented, collateral-less at the highest possible interest rates) to a dignified “banker,” in whose exclusionary domain regulated rates are extended to those who already have demonstrable stability; where “irresponsible” fiscal behaviour, that causes cyclical entrapment, becomes an aspirational “creditworthiness.” In these intangible cusps, where the dishonourable turns into an honourable contribution to productivity, is where the signifiers of class lie. These are evaluated in terms of affording one “dignity.”

Decency, Dignity and Class

Anthropologist Sara Dickey, in her work Living Class in Urban India, gets under these intangible fault lines and traces class in the way that it matters most to those who live it. To do this, she uses the terms that people themselves use to evaluate their own social loci. She distinguishes class from caste, from jati, and from that defined solely by economic or material indicators. In doing so, she arrives at the more dynamic usage of takuti or piruvu, a local understanding of class that has the potential to override caste concerns, thus, offering a dignity-bestowing mobility. Within its hierarchies, the residents of Madurai, whom she chooses to study, situate themselves.

Dickey is herself located within the context of her subjects’ struggles, and is sensitive enough to pinpoint the roots
of these struggles in the Self-Respect Movement. She establishes the links between economic concerns and those of caste and culture, without letting one override the other. Individuals are viewed as poignant humans shaped by the sum of their multiple influences, rather than statistics pulled and pushed around by numerical forces. Dignity is key to Dickey’s understanding of class and its structures.

Her subjects are able to indicate their achievement of levels of this dignity by a certain amount of conspicuous spending, as deemed appropriate to the class one is in. More than appropriate spending can be counterproductive, leading to a loss of dignity, and less is quickly seen through by the peer group. Loudness, flashiness and wearing one’s wealth can be inversely proportional to class, caused by insecurity—a Brahminical hand-
me-down that leeches into the way we tabulate class signifiers. The preoccupation with achieving the appropriate takuti for one’s stature in life inspires consumption, debt and alliances, forging the whole gamut of social networks. This normative hierarchy is one that individuals and families aspire to belong to, in order to be “seen” or acknowledged.

Much of this desire to be seen finds its roots in casteist dis-belonging, a lack of acknowledgement of one’s physical persona as worthy of being seen. As her subjects in the book poignantly put it, “if we are not decent, they will not look at us.” Thus, new age indicators of this decency such as now affordable stylish apparel, thanks to the proliferation of cheap textiles and cellphones, assume a new importance. More than mere symbols of the age, they become symbols of the visibility of the people who acquire them, wherein owning these sets one up as appropriate for a specific takuti.

They also contribute to a sense of order imbued with attributes, such as neatness, cleanliness and well-turned-out grooming set up as the norm by new institutions, from call centres to the consumerist marketing machinery that goads people to belong. Measuring up makes for “decent” people. If you lack these signifiers, you can be classified as “not decent,” which may force you to forego associations, networks, access to privileges like a bank loan when you lack documents, a good alliance for your children, or a house in a classy neighbourhood. “Social standing” steps in where documentation cannot. If you are decent, even if your class or caste deem you unworthy of these class signifiers, you will be normatively permitted to acquire them. This is the purpose and value of being “decent.” This is why people get into debt if they have to, in order to be so.

Those who consciously choose to forego it, or do not value its worth, such
as those who choose to marry for love (risking social censure) outside equal or “superior” caste and class structures, often get left out of the normative hierarchy. The punishment that comes their way is the withholding of capital made available to those who follow these norms, and its ensuing economic consequences. In this world, marriage is as much a process of acquiring capital, a means of acquiring a fridge, a television, a mode of transport, an investment in a career, in a family marrying off their daughters well and lending them lifelong stability, as is an educational degree or the coming to maturity of a liquifiable asset. Those who live with these choices know only too well what ignoring them means. To look down upon these choices whether that is to take a loan from a moneylender or to pay or receive a dowry, Dickey seems to say, is to fail to understand the systems that people operate within and the constraints that drive them.

People attain class through cultural, social and symbolic capital as much as they do through economic, tangible and material capital. This seemingly immeasurable value has the power to upend lives and nudge financially loaded decisions even in the absence of economic capital. Indeed, cultural capital can often be the path to acquire economic capital itself.

The Ethnographic Plot

She focuses her lens on one city—Madurai—that has had over one thousand years of economic development and its associated ebbs and flows to contend with. It is not a young economy, it is one of the world’s oldest and all the themes that had to play out, from economic booms to depressions and disruptions, have run around this playground several times over through the years. The forces with which it shapes people are, thus, far from incidental. Within this context, she follows the lives and trajectories of four individuals, their offspring and the impact their choices have on them.

As incidental as she makes them sound, chancing upon them as she inveigles her way into the by-lanes of the Madurai ecosystem, it is clear that Dickey has picked them carefully, for what they represent of the spectrum of caste, class and gender structures. By the force of the sheer length of her engagement with them—30 years—she achieves an extraordinarily intimate understanding of her subjects’ circumstances. She shares their street, their home and is an ever-present witness to and sometimes participant in their financial choices. Consequently, Dickey’s understanding of class and their mobility within it, is not clinical, though one would hesitate to deprive it of objectivity. In her ability to gain this insider perspective of motive and frustration with what erects and obstructs class barriers, lies the integrity of this study and makes it worthy of extrapolation.

Her subjects are Kannan, an autorickshaw driver of the Maravar caste, Anjali, a graphic designer of the Pillai caste, Jeymani, a domestic worker of the Paraiyar caste, and Usha, a Brahmin housewife. Kannan needs to organise suitable matches for his children, which he manages to do for some with varying degrees of success due to his cultural capital, networking and endearing reach. Anjali is made upwardly mobile by the wisdom of parents who invest in her education. She is able to add to it by making wise choices, seeking employment, starting her own business, seizing opportunity, leveraging her contacts and business acumen, and by positioning all of this as her capital that makes her worthy of a love marriage that hoists her to a higher class category. For Jeymani, cultural capital will only take her so far. Subject to abuse, exploitation, unregulated wages, unstable lodgings, and a lack of access to funds and loans when she needs it, she is blown about by the capitalist growing pangs of a changing local economy. For Usha, though she is not allowed to work, that is capitalise on her education, she is married to a man who leverages social and cultural capital to invest wisely in economic or material capital, land, a hospital, such that when she is widowed, her caste, class, social, cultural and economic privileges secure her and her children far better than those of the others surveyed. Through these people, Dickey demonstrates that people of any caste and class category are liable to be buffeted cyclically by the same ill winds, poor health, sudden loss, unexpected demands, social obligations like weddings and educational expenses, but only a few, who are able to harness their social, cultural and symbolic capital are able to ride the destabilising waves that these bring.

In making these observations, Dickey establishes a crucial lens by which to evaluate not just class, but also poverty and the existential run from it, and interrogate where its definitions are permitted to lie, and who wields the authority to decide who the occupants of these rigid economic categories are. Increasingly, we are arriving at an understanding that it is not possible to restrict privilege and access to the domain of the material. It is a far more insidious structure, and those who may be deprived of social approvals may be denied other benefits too. Indeed, several of Dickey’s subjects rue the fact that while who was worthy of dignity and respect was decided on values, contributions to society and reputation in the past, today this is increasingly being decided by the ownership of material objects. It is an ironic observation because it is that same shift that opens the door for several of them to move upwards to that place of respect too. This makes conspicuous consumption more vital, and the consumerised marketplace drives image and such upward mobility as much as they do a trade of economic goods. What Dickey unearths here is a parallel marketplace, one that runs simultaneous to the trade of goods and commodities.

Class Identity vs Self-image

To comprehend class, its structures, barriers and privileges, it becomes necessary to view human beings in the entirety of their vulnerability. That which cannot be monetised still comes with a social and cultural cost. The notional identity of class is more than mere self-image. When how people see themselves varies with how economists see them, it also establishes a gap in what is made available to them. Dickey explores this gap. In Madurai, the takuti middle class sees anyone with a car as upper class and themselves as poor for not having any mode of transport at all. While the local languages have differentiated between having and not having, the “middle” itself has been a recent post-liberalisation intrusion into the local dialect. The economists put it there, and if the economists have done so then someone must reside there—a population to fill the intellectual gap. A middle has been made possible because it was theorised. The middle must also have attributes. But the middle believes they are poor because the struggle is still basic. All that keeps their head above water is the constant paddling, the maintaining of the façade of meeting the needs of the class barrier. To show that one has, thus, does not mean that one has. That one has given a scooter in dowry, or owns a fridge, does not mean that one is substantially ensconced in the class that ticks those objects off from its list of class signifiers. To own is not necessarily to have. To get there is not to stay. It is a subtle difference. One must keep paddling if one does not want to sink. Only those living class would truly know this.

Dickey in all her foreignness and her years of Madurai residence is in it and is at once, not of it. That is the difference between living class and bearing witness to it.


Gayatri Jayaraman ( is a journalist and author based in Mumbai.


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