The Financial Express

The lower middle-class conundrum

| Updated: October 29, 2020 21:52:11

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The lower middle-class conundrum

In many of his novels Humayun Ahmed quite deftly portrays the life in the lower middle-class families in Bangladesh. These unremittingly poverty-battered people are mostly concentrated in the country's cities and towns. In spite of being beset with many deprivations, they hardly surrender to the cruel treatment of fate. On the contrary, the members of these families learn from the very childhood how to adapt to small and big unmet dreams. Surprisingly, people in these families know how to derive pleasure from the petty happenings --- even if they are despairing by nature.

Most of the lower middle-class family youths engage in formal academic activities. As offspring of supposed educated parents, they go to school, college and university and achieve good results. They have little complaints about their inability to enjoy the many normally happy moments of life. They go to school or college by bus or, on rare occasions, by rickshaws. Notwithstanding these day-to-day woes, they consider themselves happy.

That Humayun Ahmed could narrate these middle class families this convincingly had its root in a startling fact. These portrayals mostly reflected that of the author's own parental family.

Not all middle class, lower middle-class to be precise, families are so happy and content. Generally, they are seen engaged in a desperate struggle in order to lead the semblance of a gentle life. But they can't. Ordeals and woes keep hounding them one after another. Malnutrition, youth and teenage dropout in the family, nonstop bickering, swearing etc make them distinct from the other educated families. They are also caught in a seemingly never-ending dilemma. Due to their overall educational and cultural background, they cannot reconcile to the fact that they are much different from the upper middle-class. On some counts, some of their members even leave those of the latter behind. Yet the lower middle-class high achievers are not accepted as equals by the latter.

According to sociologists, it is money and affluence that plays the role of a catalyst in these cases. Ironically, due to the lower middle-class people's unbeatable ego, the class just below it is looked down upon by them. What all this results in is the isolation of the middle class, defined as 'lower middle-class' for the last few decades.  

The definition of middle class as it prevailed in relatively developed countries, especially in the pre-revolution Russia, and that in the low-income countries has long been different. With the emergence of the nouveaux riches in capitalist countries, the classical middle class comprised a major segment in those societies. The 'upper class' was still unknown to society. In fact, a small number of people used to take pride at being identified as members of this exclusive class. As a general rule, they belonged to the extended branches of royalties or the trading class. Owing to their accumulation of enormous volumes of wealth, the humbler outside world began viewing them as being parts of the upper class.

It was the great wars, especially the World War-II, which had expedited the emergence of the urban middle class throughout the world. In the post-war Indian sub-continent, the disintegration of social classes continued to become visible as decades wore on. It was especially in the West Bengal urban areas, especially Kolkata, where the middle class became ubiquitous in a short time. Another new factor in the process took shape in the form of isolated pockets of the so-called upper middle-class in the large cities. In reality, that was the beginning of the growth of a new class, alongside the upper class and the lower middle-class which defined Kolkata's socio-economic landscape. Compared to it, Dhaka had to wait for two to three decades to see its middle classes in place.

The 1971 Liberation War against the West Pakistan-based army backed oligarchic clique played the most critical role in the social transformation in Bangladesh. The city-based middle class had turned out to be a new reality in the independent Bangladesh, formerly East Pakistan.

The concept of middle class couldn't send out its roots in East Bengal due mainly to its agro-based rural legacy. At the same time, feudal lords stood in the way of the emergence of an educated young generation in villages. In spite of these hindrances, a large number of youths set out for the cities, especially capital Dhaka, to see their ambitions materialised. It was mainly these youths and their teachers who can be credited with giving permanent shape to the early educated and well-off urban classes in East Bengal. Later, after 1947 partition, the country was suffering from the ills of the blatant discriminatory policy adopted by the West Pakistan-based rulers against the people of the then East Pakistan. Conscious students, despite being slowly relegated to the rungs of lower middle-class, had not failed to understand the rulers' stratagems. Uncannily, this relegation of the middle class to the lower middle-class status has reappeared after the Covid-19 pandemic made its onslaught on Bangladesh.

During the last eight months after the assault of the novel coronavirus on the country, the social scenario has seen a great turmoil not experienced in the recent times. In the large urban areas including the capital, the dominant scene turned out to be the continued decline in incomes. During the shutdown enforced on outside activities, not excluding the economic ones, all fixed-income city residents fell on hard times. Apart from the government employees, those at massive private enterprises and big businesses having cash savings, most of the urban residents had to go through bouts of spending cuts. Despite efforts to hide information about the embarrassing domestic realities of hard-hit families, they kept coming out. In cases, they haven't remained a secret at all. During the peak of the pandemic, families in a lower middle-class neighbourhood faced common woes. Those became common to all families. People living in one particular block didn't feel ashamed to share the tales of their economic ordeals with the others living close by. The problem with the middle or lower-middle class is they cannot seek help like the other needy people. The scenario, however, changes after the strikes of sudden natural calamities. Disasters, natural or man-made --- like the outbreak of war, function like a great leveller. As earthquakes, cyclonic storms, volcanic eruption etc spare none, so do the bombardments carried out by enemy forces. In the aftermath, both the socially affluent and the poorer victims face the similar fate. In a weird twist of destiny, people from all economic strata are seen standing shoulder-to-shoulder in order to receive relief materials.

The case for both common and exceptionally terrible pandemics is different. In these protracted nightmares, the rich can devise their way out of the calamitous situation. It is money and riches that work the magic. As has been seen through the ages, the rich can manage arrangement of medical care and medications. In the past, they remained mostly ensconced in their secure cocoons. In the 21st century, the middle class professionals and petty traders in general discovered themselves in the soup. The downslide in their incomes and status has continued unabated. The situation came to such a pass that these people began viewing themselves as members of the lower middle-class. Few signs are there that they will get their earlier social position back anytime soon. Not even after the pandemic's intensity begins weakening.

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