In a hierarchical society is there any greater privilege than being able to declare yourself free of class, wonders Shougat Dasgupta
When I was 11, I became aware of class. It says something about my sheltered upbringing in the Arabian Gulf that I was not already aware of socio-economic stratification, of inequality, of the idea that some people had less and others more, or that birth and surname could be stand-ins for character. True to this upbringing, my first encounter with class was not personal but through my growing interest in British popular culture, mainly football and pop music. I had already been following English and Scottish football for three or four years, insofar as this was possible in the 1980s with so little live football to watch. Instead there was shortwave radio tuned to the BBC World Service, weekly televised highlights, and books and VHS videos. And imported newspapers and magazines, days and weeks old and very expensive, bought for me by my bemused father.
Around the time, I saw a clip from a 1964 BBC Panorama documentary in which a presenter marvelled in Received Pronunciation at the swaying, singing Kop in Liverpool’s last home game of a championship-winning season. “An anthropologist studying this Kop crowd,” says the presenter, looking at the massed ranks of wan, skinny boys and old men singing Beatles songs, “would be introduced into as rich and mystifying a popular culture as in any South Sea island.” Here was an Englishman standing before other Englishmen as if before an alien tribe. The educated, plummy-voiced BBC reporter might as well have been from another planet, so distant was he from the shared culture of the crowd. Like the reporter, I wondered how they were so in sync, so tuned to one another that they improvised lyrics and segued into different songs and chants in one unfaltering voice.
Around the same time, in the neighbourhood bookshop, a rare and precious thing in wealthy but vacuous Kuwait, I found a copy of EP Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class. At home, I scanned it eagerly for its views on football crowds and found instead bewildering passages about Unitarians, farmers, Joanna Southcott (the self-described 19th-century “prophetess”), Jacobins, trade unions, politically charged meetings in taverns and the subsidising of wages in relation to the price of bread. I put the book aside. But in the preface I spotted a passage that, even at 11, struck me as beautiful. “We cannot have love without lovers,” Thompson wrote, “nor deference without squires and labourers. And class happens when some men, as a result of common experiences (inherited or shared), feel and articulate the identity of their interests as between themselves, and as against other men whose interests are different from (and usually opposed to) theirs… Class-consciousness is the way in which these experiences are handled in cultural terms: embodied in traditions, value-systems, ideas, and institutional forms.”
Reading this, I felt like I understood what I had seen on that documentary clip, understood for the first time the meaning of shared history, of community. It also cleared up questions I had about how my parents used their spare time. What they had done was band together, not with other Indians but Bengalis specifically, to set up their own cultural organisation. I don’t remember anyone outside this most pinched of circles either seeking or being permitted entry, no Bengali Muslims, say, or Christians, or Bengali-speaking Marwaris who had grown up in Calcutta, or people who didn’t have professional, white-collar jobs. Confronted by this overwhelming Bengali middle-classness—much of which I was excluded from because my parents along with some of their more aspirational friends paid a premium to enrol their children in British private schools—I retreated into fantasies of the British working class. My parents paid almost no heed to my education, beyond exhorting me to study hard and “score high marks”, neither of which I did; they were shut out from my world, by language and culture, as much as I was from theirs. The chief difference being that they had a community, traditions and values into which they were born and I was inventing my own.
As I got older, I wondered why my parents took refuge in their culture but failed to pass any of it down to me or my sister. Why, for instance, didn’t they teach me to read or write Bengali? I learned that my parents too were outsiders. My mother was the youngest of three sisters, raised in a Nepean Sea Road flat by her widowed Gujarati mother. Her Bengali father had died before she was a teen and their links to a wider family network had grown thin, frayed. Her mother, my grandmother, died when I was six or seven. Later, the flat was sold and the sole remaining sister in Bombay moved to London. My mother was born and raised in Bombay but when she visits the city now, in her 60s, it must seem as if she had dreamed that life, so few are the extant links. My father, meanwhile, somehow wound up in Germany in his early 20s and chose to cut off ties with his lower-middle-class Railways family in Kharagpur so that I grew up never knowing anything about them, and with my child’s self-absorption never thinking to ask. My father reestablished contact with his mother and brothers the year before he died, unable to recover from a stroke, but it was too late for me to establish any meaningful relationships.
In Kuwait, then, my parents rediscovered the parochial comforts of class and community. But they weren’t, perhaps, attached enough to the idea of community, beyond the social benefits of being able to form instant friendships in a dull and dusty country, to induct their children in their ways. And as my parents and their friends revelled in each other’s company, in hours of dinners and after-work rehearsals for some amateur production or another, we were left to fend for ourselves, which I did by lying back and thinking of England.
Football and pop music—The Smiths, New Order, The Jam, Billy Bragg, Gang of Four and Orange Juice—provided a much-needed corrective to the England I knew from Enid Blyton, the Just William books, CS Lewis, Tolkien… all those books about rolling hills, green fields, sleepy villages and country houses. A succession of sympathetic English and History teachers, the only subjects I paid any attention to, brought me back presents from England— a video of Ken Loach’s Kes and, fantastically, Mike Leigh’s Abigail’s Party; old football programmes; newspapers; mix tapes—and I began to build the jumbled rudiments of a worldview. As I entered my last two years of school, I was studying for an International Baccalaureate diploma, newly introduced in Kuwait and intended as an education for cosmopolitans, for the emerging global citizen. It was rigorous and self-led. And so as I failed my Chemistry Higher Level, for which I was intellectually and temperamentally unprepared, I was also introduced to Henry Green, Hardy and Pinter, to Camus and Sartre in French by a Tunisian teacher so pious that she refused to read the “dirty” bits in class in front of me on the grounds of my maleness and the absence of any other students.
At 17, in 1994, I left Kuwait for America and university, which I finished in Ireland. Dublin was more comprehensible, with its class and colonial hangups, compared to the faux egalitarianism of the US. In Dublin an allegiance to the working class, however absurd, made sense; many students thought in tired Marxist tropes and a decades-old dust-up between Thompson and Leszek Kołakowski could still arouse passions. In the US, class was a European conceit, abstract and irrelevant. This, vide Donald Trump, has proven to be a nonsense.
My own delusion, my vain self-mythologising, was to consider myself beyond class, untouched by it because of the singularity of my circumstances—an Indian by citizenship, an internationalist by schooling and working class by allegiance. I took pride in a photograph of my father—a photograph he must have taken pride in too given that it was framed and hung up on a wall in his office—dressed in Levi’s, steel-capped work boots, hard hat in his hand, leading the Crown Prince of Kuwait on a tour of the shipyards. The Crown Prince loomed over my short father, but it was my sturdily built father, in the foreground and in his utilitarian clothing, who appeared in charge, the alpha male. I romanticised my father because he seemed in my muddled imagination like the archetype of the working man: laconic, hard-drinking (even in teetotal Kuwait) and good with his hands, delighting my sister by magicking the silver foil in the packets of Marlboro Red that he chain-smoked into swans and ballerinas. His unwillingness to say much, the paucity of words compared to my volubility, was for me a signal of his authenticity.
Unsustainable though my position might have been, and ludicrous though it would have seemed to my father who prided himself on providing my sister and me with expensive educations and sending us to college in the West, I argued that I came from nowhere and nothing in particular. I had spent so much of my life wanting to be part of a club, to tweak Groucho Marx, but not finding a club that had people like me as its members, that my lack of membership had become an identity. I continued to sentimentalise belonging—finding myself in tears just last year watching Hibs fans celebrating their first Scottish Cup in 114 years by singing the Proclaimers’ “Sunshine in Leith”, an already sentimental song made more so by the fact that these joyous local fans were singing a local song in tribute to their local club. Outsiders could look on but this was a tribal celebration. I was intensely moved, managing to somehow fetishise both that happy parochialism and my own lack of access to it.
The truth is, my father would have pointed out, I did come from somewhere and something and it was a place of inarguable privilege. Having spent six years in New York and Washington, DC, I moved to Delhi with my wife in 2012. In India, the foolishness of my claims to “classlessness” became apparent. We did not have roots in the city, or even the country, really. My sister had, in this time, become American, with the requisite citizenship, American husband and unimpeachably American children. My wife’s sister had an equally unimpeachable British passport, British husband and British children. But my wife shared with me an aversion to paperwork and national commitment. In the US, we could pull off a plausible impression of nowhere people and profit from the notional glamour, the presumed sophistication of the cosmopolitan. In India our status was indistinguishable, except to us, from that of other unconscionably “rich” people in an overwhelmingly poor country.
Still, ignoring the irony, I clung to the narcissism of petty differences. After all, my economic advantages were unanchored in property and an established family. Some magazine came up with a silly acronym to describe people like me and my wife: HENRY, high earners, not rich yet. How could we belong to any class, when the places our incomes gave us access to were dominated by a small knot of people who largely went to the same schools and knew the same people? We didn’t have those gilt-edged connections and our wealth was provisional, contingent on our jobs, as opposed to the unearned wealth of the rentier classes. In Delhi, though, we were forced to look at those who lived in our neighbourhood, those with whom we discussed schooling options for our three-year-old daughter, and recoil in horror as we realised this was the club to which we belonged, however “provisionally”. Ambivalence about your affluence does not protect you from confronting the moral questions posed by your affluence.
Theresa May, the British prime minister, argued in a speech not long ago, “If you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere.” Multiculturalism had long been discredited; immigrants were hate figures; and the opinion, not unreasonable, prevailed that the fiercest advocates of cosmopolitanism were the class of global capitalists who continued to corral ever greater percentages of the world’s riches for itself. Around the world, there appears to be a wariness of cosmopolitans, of strangers. One only has to remember the attacks on Africans in Delhi and Bangalore, or the brute assertions of majoritarian will, to see the effects in India. The scholar Jeremy Adler, writing to the Guardian in response to May’s speech, made the rejoinder that “cosmopolitanism is the apex and indeed the glory of Enlightenment philosophy… the ideal of world citizenship as a means to achieve perpetual peace.”
That Kantian ideal is part of the mission statement of the International Baccalaureate organisation. My schooling made a moral virtue of global citizenship; I hated school and so reflexively rejected that position. But, as Adler noted in his letter, the “pejorative sense of cosmopolitanism… originates in German antisemitic discourse… the ʻrootless Jew’ was seen as a ʻcosmopolitan’ citizen from ʻnowhere’… Subsequently, the prejudice was adopted by the Nazis, and used to justify the slaughter of the Jewish people as ʻnon-citizens’ and ʻnon-persons’ in the Holocaust.” There remain two versions of the cosmopolitan—those who are admitted into prosperity and those who are reviled. There is my kind, enabled by our income, cosseted by our freedom to travel and ability, because of education and the prevalence of English, to adapt, even if no one quite knows what to make of us. And there is the global underclass—refugees, illegal immigrants, labourers in the Gulf—whose mobility is the cause of revulsion and conflict. Added to this group are people, though not cosmopolitans, are citizens pushed to the margins by fellow citizens, who find their rights and claims to citizenship arbitrarily under question.
When I was 11, I fell in love with the idea of the “local”, with the wider kinship that was the reward of being part of a community. Later, I became besotted by the idea of my classlessness, my radical individuality, my attachment to a value system that I had constructed. It is a comical fiction. My education, much more than my social origins, to borrow from Pierre Bourdieu, places me in a particular class. And to deny that class, of culturally advantaged cosmopolitans, is to deny my privilege; is to pretend that I can brandish coming from nowhere as a badge of honour without acknowledging that for others, in this particular moment in human history, it is an existential threat.
This essay was published in the Jul-Sep ’17 issue of The Indian Quarterly.