Tales from Abje #1 : Home of the new middle class consumer
This post first appeared on this blog as http://mumbaionahigh.com/2015/02/who-is-your-average-middle-class.html
In a village called Abje
Only 120 km away from Mumbai in the middle of nowhere, is a small village called Abje . It has a population of around 2000 simple folk belonging to a demographic that our government classifies as ‘Adivasi ‘ or aboriginal.This village has been pretty much the same for the past forty years – dry, dusty and barren for the better part of the year.
During the monsoon months, when the clouds burst all over India and the rains come pelting down, the desultory stream that flows near it becomes an angry, muddy river in full spate. The land around turns green and the villagers grow their crop of rice – a yield that will last them throughout the year, on the plots of land that most of them own. The rice that they cultivate is coarse and round, the tiny pearl-like grains that become soft and mushy when boiled.
This is their staple food which they wash down with a fiery hot curry or dal and some locally produced vegetables. On some days they have a piece of fish . And on special days they slaughter a chicken . Vegetables are sold on market day once a week in the nearby township. The villagers walk down there to stock up their requirement of onion, potato and other fresh vegetables that keep without refrigeration.
Their chief occupation is tilling the land for the four months of the year that it rains . In the remaining months they forage the nearby forestland for firewood. And they hunt down the wild rabbits in the scrub land or stand for hours in the shallow little stream waiting for the fish to bite. Of course, they also have the village carpenter, the tailor, the schoolmaster, the witch doctor or shaman and several other craftsmen.
With industry making inroads into their village now, several of them have been pulled into the twenty-first century and have listed factory worker, computer operator, electrician and even beautician among their professions!
The people live in clusters or settlements of 4-5 families in each and several scattered clusters to make up the entire village. There is no Main Street but there is a village post office,a kindergarten and primary school.
They also have a very basic temple with three stones that represents their village idol ( MariMata), a Village Council (Panchayat) office and a government sponsored ration shop that doubles up as the regular grocery store.
With a cell phone tower in the vicinity, every villager has a mobile phone ( even though he may not have a regular source of income) . They all wear shoes on their feet ( something that was unheard of by their forefathers) .
They also watch television in their own homes and most have converted their traditional wattle and daub homes for red brick ones made out of bricks that you can see in the local brickyards.
Almost every household has some vehicle – a bicycle, a motorbike apart from the traditional bullock carts which they prefer to use while transporting things locally.
They also prefer walking and you can find groups of school children walking home in the midday sun. While all of them have abandoned their traditional garb of loin cloth for the men and simple wrap around saris for the women, there are a few people like Ananta, the wizened old man who likes to sit astride his bullock cart with a 1 litre Coca-Cola bottle which he has recycled to hold his supply of water.
From A(bje) to B (ombay)
Two months ago B, one of the young girls from the village came home to help us with the housework. She needs to collect money to get married and we need an extra hand to help around. Since it was her first trip ever outside her village, I was apprehensive about her reaction to the big, bad world of Mumbai. My fears proved pointless, I soon found out.
She sat quietly all through the two-hour ride home and walked into the lift of our high rise with confidence. She was equally at home with the indoor toilet, the refrigerator and the gas stove.
I asked her if she had brought her toiletries along with her and wasn’t surprised when she said that she hadn’t. But I was surprised when I asked her if she required hair oil and she said ” No I don’t use hair oil.”
There were more surprises in wait for me : like the comfortable way she munched away on her first ever Mac Fish and Chips on just her second day in the city. I was equally shocked when she said that she is used to eating Chinese Noodles in the nearby township near her school. But what really shocked me was when I asked her if she needed any sanitary napkins and she said ” Yes, I use Whisper.”
That’s when I realised that the average middle-class consumer is not the urbanised Indian living on the outskirts of the city, but the ordinary villager living in the back of beyond.