Post the Lockdown, the Indian “Middle Class” Should Prepare for Survivor’s Guilt. And That’s Not a Bad Thing

Social Commentary

Post the Lockdown, the Indian “Middle Class” Should Prepare for Survivor’s Guilt. And That’s Not a Bad Thing

Illustration: Reynold Mascarenhas

Let’s face it. You and I will be fine during and after this lockdown.

In some ways, we might even be enjoying it – apart from avoiding commutes and dress codes, we’ve been able to discover new music, catch up on our reading and improving our cooking skills. A damning WIRED article said that this is the “cozy catastrophe” many of us have always wanted. Some of us might come out of this better – our skills being more in demand as companies try to make sense of a new world and become increasingly comfortable working with remote teams.

But sadly, we are the minority. For most people in India are not going to come out of this unscathed. Our income inequality remains among the worst in the world, meaning most of the country depends on daily wages just to be able to get by. Even optimistically assuming that the current mass migration back to the hinterland will alleviate this to some extent as people might at least have a roof over their heads and be able to grow their own food, it’s evident that there’s hardly any social or financial security for millions of families. And the loss of employment also means the inability to rise – even generations later – out of the soul-crushing poverty most of our fellow Indians live in.

This lockdown is the “cozy catastrophe” many of us have always wanted.

For white-collar workers with a safety net, after the 2008 financial crisis, it was widely concluded that those who graduated at that time still remained behind, a decade later. Imagine what this debilitating crisis will do to those who have neither. Even if a vaccine were miraculously available tomorrow, it could have lasting effects for generations.

Only when things revert to some sense of normalcy will this fact hit the so-called “middle class”. For – by social and economic design – our lives are inextricably linked to low-wage workers and we frequently let them into our lives and homes. Not without reason: Indians are notoriously bad DIYers (to the extent that we remain the only country where IKEA modified their famous assemble-it-yourself strategy). We spend the most number of hours at work and traffic, in the world. As a result, we rely on a litany of low-wage help – maids, cooks, electricians, plumbers, security staff, not to mention delivery persons, cab drivers, street vendors, and raddiwallahs. An average Indian middle-class life involves inescapable interface with them, many of them knowing us, our lifestyle and preferences better than our friends.

And as things return to normal, the gulf would have just widened. The empathetic among us will and should feel a sense of Survivor’s Guilt. American author Diana Raab says that the phenomenon is “something that people experience when they’ve survived a life-threatening situation and others might not have. It is commonly seen among Holocaust survivors, war veterans, lung-transplant recipients, airplane-crash survivors, and those who have lived through natural disasters such as earthquakes, fires, tornadoes, and floods.” The coronavirus pandemic fits nicely into this definition – the middle class has utilised this time to not just refresh but possibly upskill, while those who rely on daily wages would have been even more devastated. Economist Kaushik Basu has already predicted increased inequality for a country that does not need any more.

How will this manifest practically in everyday lives?

As your maid walks in after two months, she’ll probably say how this has demolished her already paltry savings, hint at domestic abuse, and maybe someone from her locality had to take their kids out of school so the family could make ₹100 more per day. Jeepers, that puts last night’s extra pizza in perspective.

Indian middle-class life involves inescapable interface with low-wage help.

As the electrician comes to install your new smart TV – no more watching shows on the ruddy laptop – you realise what you paid to watch Rick & Morty in UHD could have put his three kids past school for a few years.

When you’re waiting for the auto driver to give back change, you realise the ₹2 will be way more useful to him.

“How were the last few months for you?” will elicit very different responses from your office colleague and your office tea guy.

All this, of course, is assuming we collectively build a sense of empathy (we are, after all, a country that has separate lifts in our society for domestic help) – but on this, I remain, perhaps foolishly, optimistic. The aftermath of World War 2 brought in a wave of empathy that led to increased prosperity and robust social structures (including Britain’s NHS). Now, on a daily basis, we are bombarded with stories and struggles of those less fortunate than ourselves. A friend who runs a food bank in Mumbai tells me he’s thrilled by the contributions from regular people. In a podcast with NPR, chef José Andrés who runs the nonprofit World Central Kitchen spoke about how it’s the small donations rather than the big philanthropic ones that really make a difference.

So – what can we do? Empathy is not an answer – it’s just a precondition. Simply being empathetic without doing anything is as useful as just the intent to bring Acche Din.

No, we need to be kind and show it – recognise our privilege and do what we can to help people. Donating would be a great start – even if you are sceptical of PM-CARES, there are several NGOs that need help and are doing great work. If you need a lump in your throat, read some of the comments from those who donate on various platforms. One donor of ₹2500 for migrant workers said, “I am a student and can give only this much right now – I will cut back on my own expenses and I hope I can donate more later”. Wow.

Simply being empathetic without doing anything is as useful as just the intent to bring Acche Din.

If one’s own financial situation makes donation difficult, then basic courtesy to those who we interact with is helpful too – offer water/hand sanitiser, ask if delivery personnel need to use the loo, check if they’re doing okay… And just show your thankfulness. There are enough plaudits calling these workers – suddenly essential – our heroes in this time. Well, even Superman needs to take a piss once in a while. Enquire about their well-being. Ask how things are. You might not be able to do much but for them, just being able to share their story might be cathartic.

All this can be beneficial both ways – in a chat I had with therapist Vijay Gopal, he mentioned a good way to deal with one’s own anxiety is to actually help others, even if it’s a small thing.

I realise that I’m probably being overly optimistic, and there are as many arguments that can be made that people will get more insular, rude and selfish. As always, reality will lie somewhere in the middle. But I do believe that as urban, middle-class India has been shocked into a never-before reckoning (and realising that some of these tasks are more difficult than they look), a sense of Survivor’s Guilt will take hold in some of us. And that is a good thing.

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