The vicious business of becoming upper-class—and the harder task of staying there. Bulbul Sharma on the cut and thrust of an eternal game
“When I was young, people like this stayed at home,” hissed my friend, glaring at a young man sitting next to us on the plane. He was happily picking his nose. The young man was obviously travelling by air for the first time and kept shaking his legs nervously as he read the safety instructions upside down. He wore a gold watch, shiny-new Nike shoes, carried two iPhones and had sprayed himself with a strong aftershave which made us sneeze. We glared at him and he gave us an indifferent glance that said, “Poor khadi types with two-year-old phones.”
“I am not a snob but…” is how every prejudiced person begins his or her tirade against the “other”. Anyone who is not like us, does not speak like us, or wear clothes like us, does not deserve our attention, respect or compassion. Prejudice exists in every country but in India it is an evolved art form learnt first at your mother’s lap. You pick up the signals of disdain and learn to hold your nose in the air at the correct angle when you meet people “not like us”. You learn to differentiate between burnished gold, old money and flashy new money, a proper English accent and behenji vowels, oiled-hair types and us.
Indians have always been very fond of being snooty. Bengalis look down on Punjabis, calling them uneducated, aggressive, onion-and-garlic-eating people, while Punjabis think Bengalis should work more and talk and think less. South Indians, regardless of which southern state they come from, are dismissed by North Indians as “Madrasis”. Those Madrasis think that everyone living beyond the Vindhyas are unwashed barbarians and should stay put in their dusty, buffalo-grazing land.
Of course, there are exceptions to these rules, and many happy mixed marriages in India are proof of this, but we do love indulging in snobbery as often as we can. It all started during the Indus Valley Civilisation when a few outsiders—their skin the colour of polished ebony, happen to pass by. The “other” fairer side looked up from their drain-building activities to take notice and immediately began calling them rude names which exist in some form or the other till today.
Caste snobbery is a cruel part of our culture and deeply hurts everyone concerned but now a new kind of money snobbery has come to replace the age-old taboos of caste. There is old money, new money and old no-money. A brand-new shocking-pink house stands in one corner of a village in Himachal and everyone who passes by turns up their noses and spits.
“Uneducated peasant. Made pots of money in Dubai and now he has come back and built this eyesore. I feel like throwing a bomb at it,” grumbles my neighbour, whose family were rajas of this region. His house is crumbling and he has to sell his land bit by bit to make ends meet. Yet he wears faded Savile Row jackets with leather elbow patches and an old Rolex watch. My other neighbour—the owner of the much-reviled pink house—had this jacket copied but by mistake his tailor in Chandigarh put red Rexene patches instead of leather.
“Look at the creep. He looks like a clown,” mutters the old-money jacket every time the new-money jacket passes by, Rexene elbows gleaming brightly. Both envy each other and both know that the best way to cope is to look down on the other. Contempt always helps to douse the fumes of jealousy and heartburn. Nothing makes you feel better than criticising and snubbing those people whom you secretly envy.
While in the villages people show mild resentment of the other and mostly ignore any newcomers till they have lived in the village for at least 50 years, in the cities the prejudice starts from the minute both sides encounter each other. “Where are you putting up?” is the first wrong thing the new rich member in shiny white shoes says to an old member just leaving the Gymkhana Club bar and is thus doomed for life. “Who let this chap in?” asks the irate, grey-haired member, echoing the same words used by an angry, red-faced British brigadier in 1945 when he saw an Indian having a peaceful drink at the bar.
We learnt quite a few tricks from the British and still use them to put down people who we think do not belong in the same class as us. Though U and non-U lore has almost disappeared from England, it does exist in pockets, especially amongst the hunting and shooting brigade of Norfolk. Here an outsider will be pecked to death at once but they love people from India because they think we speak better English than the “yobs” from London. Crows will always attack a bird they feel is an outsider and in the same way we too like to hang out with our own kind and attack any outsider with cruel jibes.
There are so many symbols of class snobbery in England that only the true blue-blooded snobs know: shabby old tweed jackets and not new American ones, shoes your grandfather bought in Italy, your nanny’s old chair and, of course, a few thorough-bred horses and pedigreed dogs. Lace curtains, hanging flower baskets and three wooden flying ducks on the walls will never be seen in an upper-class home just as in India you will never have images of gods and goddesses displayed in the drawing room unless they are antique Chola bronzes.
What surprises snobs and stops them in their tracks is when the person they are trying to cut turns around and nips them in the ankles. I went to a wedding in a new and remote area of Delhi which is considered very unfashionable by people living in Lutyens’ Delhi.
“Where is the bride from?” I asked, without thinking.
“She is a typical South Delhi girl, you know…always dressed in faded Fabindia and oxidised silver but we made her wear this lovely set from Karol Bagh today,” replied the mother-in-law smugly.
“Something happens to people when they cross the Ridge,” said my friend’s uncle who has lived in Amrita Shergil Marg all his life. He says his ancient car stalls if it has to travel beyond this verdant boundary. “They say many people now live in some place called NCR. Is it safe from bandits?” he asked me the other day.
Delhi residents whose families have been here forever are accused of being the worst snobs in India and people from Mumbai, Chennai and Kolkata have all remarked on how they were snubbed at parties because they did not have the right answers to give.
“Where do you live?” is the first question they are asked and depending on the answer the conversation may or may not go any further. If you happen to live in Khari Baoli or Paharganj or Paschim Vihar, eat your dinner quietly and return to those lively but unacceptable regions. Do not expect to be invited again.
If you happen to have a “good” address then the next question is, “What do you do?” If you are a woman then it is the humiliating query, “What does your husband do?”
“I am a nuclear physicist working on the space project” will not impress an old, pearl-chokered dowager of Delhi but she may look at you with interest if you say you are an Assistant Inspector in CPWD. Though many old families of Delhi were builders and contractors to the British these professions are looked down upon now. Leaping across two generations, the new-money family quickly becomes old money and begins to snub others of their kind who are still climbing the social ladder. They look down their noses and say, “Who are these loud people in their flashy cars?” ignoring the garlanded portrait on the wall of their grandfather in his bus driver’s uniform.
What impresses Delhi people most is when you say, “I do nothing. I spend all my time repairing the house my grandfather left me on Prithviraj Road.” This they feel is truly upper-class. You may be boring, rude and bad-tempered but the people of Delhi will adore you.
There is a sub-class of snobs within the old families and these are people who lived in Delhi before Partition. This small community of original Delhiwallahs never stop talking about the Delhi of those golden pre-Partition days; food was untainted with the ubiquitous onion-garlic-ginger-tomato masala and people spent time discussing art and poetry instead of money and the price of property.
“Everyone has money now—even your paanwallah drives a car—but in those days very few families in Delhi had a car,” said the old lady whose family owned the first Rolls-Royce in Delhi. Now to be rich is stressful and unsatisfying because anyone and everyone who has money can saunter down to the Emporio Mall and buy all the designer brands. “No fun in shopping abroad anymore,” complained my friend who loves designer labels. “My husband’s secretary has the same Louis Vuitton handbag as mine. It gave me a terrible shock. Now I must look for some bespoke bags from Italy that her kind will never find.”
When things get really bad you can always resort to reverse snobbery. My cousin who buys his shirts from Jermyn Street makes sure all the labels are carefully snipped off before he wears them.
“Where did you go this year for a holiday? We hired a yacht and went on a cruise to the Aegean Islands,” says the new snob proudly.
“We spent a week in a bamboo hut, digging wells in a village in Bastar,’’ replies our reverse snob and walks away. The dart hits home painfully and the new snob is now desperately looking for suitably rough and uncomfortable destinations.
Children are not affected by snobbery, but usually only till the age of eight. They will happily play with all other children regardless of where they live, what they wear or how they speak. They may discriminate based on other criteria, like being a bad football player or a child who cannot skip rope or blow bubblegum balloons. Then one day they look around and find they are different from their friends and the seeds of snobbery are sown in their hearts. Things their parents have said at home suddenly become clear.
“Our house is bigger. We have five cars. That man speaks English with a funny accent and puts some stinky oil in his hair.”
What worries me is that now the age of snobs is quickly getting younger and six-year-olds are snubbing other children and doing it with more cruel barbs than grownups.
“I went to Agra by train to see the Taj Mahal.”
“We never go for holidays in India. My mother says trains are dirty. You will catch a disease now.”
“I have four televisions in my house and my friend only has three. He is very poor,” said a five-year-old boy to me the other day when I was visiting a school. He came running out of nowhere, said this and ran away.
He was just showing off but I could see he was going to grow up to be a good snob. He will eventually look down on his parents, who are shopkeepers—very rich but they live on the “other” side of Delhi. They have sent their son to a “good, English-medium school” where the children of rich families go and they don’t realise that like a cuckoo in a crow’s nest, this child will eventually disown them because they are not the right kind of parents. One day he will notice that their accents are wrong, their clothes too ashy and they eat the wrong food.
Thus a new generation of snobs will be born and snobbery will flourish forever, in villages, in cities, amongst families and friends and as long we have someone to look down upon we shall live happily ever after. There will always be Us and Them jostling for space, each side trying its best to leap higher into the sky. And just as we reach the pinnacle, a more accomplished snob will fly up, dislodge us and then look down at us, literally and otherwise. No one can ever emerge a winner in this race unless you are the Queen of England and perched on a golden throne high above the fumes of class and snobbery.
This article was published in the Jul-Sep ’17 issue of The Indian Quarterly.