Born into an avowedly middle class family in the austere post-war years in west London, I grew up racist, sexist and deeply class-conscious. To say nothing of conservative with a Capital ‘C’ and dragooned unwillingly into a squeaky-clean Home Counties version of a Good Christian Boy. How wrong did my parents get that one? About as wrong as you can get.
It took years of deprogramming — some of it still ticking away in the background — to move out of my stereotypical beginnings to the position I am in today. Left of centre, sensitive enough to gender issues to think twice before opening my mouth — and secular to a fault. What has never changed is my class origin, and moving to Pakistan to live over 20 years ago, it came as something of a surprise to find myself in terms of the class experience, transported back to the London suburbs in the early 1950s.
By national standards, we have all the accoutrements of the middle class. The nearly-new mid-range car. Occasional foreign holidays. A houseful of computers, flatscreen TVs and hi-tech gizmos. A gardener of military-grade grumpiness. A small and extremely scruffy dog, various cats, parrots, budgerigars and a distinct propensity to make an early visit to the latest shopping mall, fast food joint or restaurant that may pop up in the city. And then there is the education of our daughter. Yes… it’s private, not top-draw in terms of cost but just-about affordable and, we think, rather good value for money.
We live in a house that has a library, a separate hobby room, a study-cum-office with original artworks on the wall and a room for the daughter that is hers alone, private and she shares with nobody. There are domestic staff that take care of running the house and assorted odd-jobbers coming in to fix this and that. A picture which I feel sure will be very familiar to many reading this.
All of which is a bit of a preamble to coffee shops and the morality or otherwise of sending one’s child to get educated in a school system that is, even to the perennially purblind — elitist.
A new coffee shop has opened in Bahawalpur, the first of its kind and we paid it a visit. ‘Click’ go the middle-class detectors as we seat ourselves on the comfortable but clunky furniture. Up pipes 7.5 years daughter looking at her tablet… “They don’t have wi-fi”. “And why is there not a bookstall?” Then it was the Missus, looking distinctly sniffy… “No newspapers either… or Vogue”. Thus it was that the Bahawalpur coffee shop — which I have to say sells a cracking cup of coffee but falls flat on its face when it comes to serving anything vaguely innovatory in the savoury line — was deemed somehow unworthy, not quite up to the mark of us instantly judgmental middle-classers. ‘Not quite Khosar’ was the collective verdict.
Having been taken to task this week for supporting an education system — the private sector — that deepens and widens the class divide almost like no other in Pakistan, I found myself on the defensive. My interlocutor laid out in logical detail just how class division in education may contribute to a head of steam building up that could trigger a class revolt. A real revolution, not the ersatz kaffee-klatch and disco version we have been treated to of late — and I had to admit the validity of their arguments.
The private education sector in Pakistan is anything but egalitarian — with notable exceptions, the TCF being one — and yes, it perpetuates a divide that has created a middle class archipelago, islands of privilege that have decent schools (which make a lot of money for their owners), coffee shops and restaurants where lunch for four costs as much as one pays for all one’s domestic staff in a month. They are little politically neuter republics these islands, enclaves of the middle class surrounded by a sea of support services.
So do we, us middle classers, have a choice about this? In theory, yes. We can down-class. Cut salaries and benefits. Send the kids to state schools. Move to a less salubrious neighbourhood. OK… hands up… who wants to go first? Tootle-pip.
Published in The Express Tribune, November 20th, 2014.