Thursday, May 7, 2009

The Indian Middle Class Values

My great grandmother on my mother’s side was a Namboothiri’s (a Malayali Brahmin) “sambantham’ – girlfriend. She had 7 children from him. I believe he was so rich he used to bring hollowed out ivory tusks filled with gold coins home to her.
But when he died, his legitimate children came and took away all the wealth.

On my Dad’s side, my great grandfather (grandfather’s father) was a government servant appointed by his highness of Kochi state.

Two people who shaped my character more than anyone else (apart from my parents) were my two grandfathers. Kumarankutty Menon was my father’s father, a man with the highest level of integrity, sincerity, energy, focus and drive. Throughout his life, i have seen him stand up to injustice. He was fearless, a bit of a rebel, an early innovator for anything and impeccable in his integrity.

He left Kerala for Benares when he was a teenager to do his undergraduation in engineering at Benares Hindu University. The stories of how he made his way there without knowing a word of Hindi, how when he reached there he was told that there was some confusion in the admission and he had to go back, how he stayed on and eventually cleared up the issue are all now part of family legend.

He used to tell us stories of how cholera, typhoid and small pox killed many members of his family when he was a child. This, inspite of the fact that being from a reasonably well off family, life must have been easier on him than on most others. I find it amazing, used as i am to modern medicines and vaccinations to think that 50% of the family died before the age of 20.

What were the values I learned from my grandfather?
• First and foremost – integrity. He retired at a senior level in the government- as a chief engineer in the Kerala State Electricity Board. At a time when a government officer of that level could just about command anything and was almost like a ruler of a fiefdom, he managed to keep his humility intact. He would not misuse any government property or perks ever for personal use. He was totally incorruptible and the respect he carried for this was enormous.
• Energy and drive – it is believed that in India, government officers have limited abilities to move things. The bureaucracy is just too slow and cumbersome. But KK Menon refused to believe this. Dressed in his smart shorts, T shirt and British style cap, he would be leading his team from the front. The 100% rural electrification achieved by Kerala state way ahead of any other states in the country could partly be attributed to the efforts and energy of this small dynamite of pure will power.
• Ownership and responsibility- He never shirked a responsibility. Ever. Whether at work or in his personal dealings, he always stretched and took ownership.
• Willpower and focus – KK Menon never gave up in life. He faced many health challenges in his 90 year life span- Cholera, Diabetes, slipped disc and even a mild heart attack. He not only never gave up, he attacked each of them in his usual methodical focused fashion and he conquered each of them. You could actually say of him – danger knew full well that KKM is more dangerous than he !!!

And then there was his opposite pole – VS Panikker. Slow to action, high on intelligence, a repository of vast amount of knowledge. My maternal grandfather. My memory of him- wearing his Mundu, bare-chested, slowly devouring one book after another. For him, any knowledge, however trivial or eclectic was welcome. From science to Vedanta, history to geography all went into that brain.
Financially he was not as well off as Kumaran Kutty Menon. But the one thing he did not compromise on was his children’s education. My uncle, Dr. V Balakrishnan is a shining example of this uncompromising focus. My grandfather ensured he put my uncle thru his course in medicine. From there, he went on to get his MD and then his DM. One of the first to attain this level of educational qualification in Kerala.

What he passed on to me was an undying thirst for knowledge. Knowledge of any kind. I still see this thirst in my uncle, Dr. Balakrishnan. I hope this thirst is never quenched in me.

In a nutshell, the middle class values I acquired were the gift of my grandparents. Strengthened further and delivered to me thru my parents. And I can tell you, delivered to me and my brother with the utmost efficiency and amplification. Strengthening the lessons thru personal examples and other delivery methods, which would leave indelible and deep impressions in my psyche.

The one common value which was strongly embraced by both my sets of grandparents was the huge importance they gave for education. This was one very visible phase of the evolution of middle class India. And possibly what laid the foundation for the knowledge based economy that India is evolving into many generations later today. The middle class knew that education was an important path towards upward mobility. And they focused on it. Ensuring a college education for all the children became a must for parents.

India was also going thru the first flush of independence. The country embraced Nehruvian socialism. It was the time when large government owned public sector institutions came into being. Working for the government was prestigious. It was also the way to fast tracking in the new feudal order- the feudal system of government bureaucracy.


Parvaty said...

Amazing read RamG uncle! I think this is the closest and by far the best I'll ever know my great grand fathers.

Anonymous said...

Nice piece. Evocative of the past. Although I might have used the phrase 'morganatic marriage' instead of 'girlfriend' :-)

V Nandakumar