The myth of the 'urban poor': Gayatri Jayaraman continues specious argument in a new book

By Sharanya Gopinathan

I remember once telling a colleague about how rebellious teenagers around me, myself included, were being sent en masse to psychiatrists by their parents and teachers a few years ago when I was in high school, and more often than not, diagnosed with depression and put on medication. She told me that in her day, more than a decade ago, kids like this were given two slaps and sent to do their work.

Both of these reactions to middle class depression seem emblematic of two older generations — my parents and my colleagues' parents — which believed very firmly that if you were middle class in India, you had nothing to be sad or depressed about, and if you thought you were, it could either be slapped or drugged out of you. It comes from the same place as the belief that if you were middle class, none of your problems were really that bad and you had nothing to really complain about because at least you weren’t living in abject poverty.

This is an idea worth demolishing, because it’s simply not true: Of course, upper and middle class people have problems too, and it isn’t fair to live in a public culture where there’s no space or permission to talk about them. Middle class people can be depressed, can face violence and anxiety, just as much as the next person. (No point lecturing an office-going woman to not complain about misogyny for instance, because she doesn’t have to haul water for kilometres. As if the women forced to haul water for kilometres don’t face misogyny.)

But whatever else a middle class person may be, there is one thing they simply cannot, by definition, be. And that is poor.

Back in May 2016, Buzzfeed India published an article by journalist Gayatri Jayaraman titled The Urban Poor You Haven’t Noticed: Millennials Who're Broke, Hungry, But On Trend. It was about the “circumstances pushing young professionals into bankruptcy”. These various circumstances include maxing out your credit cards to buy pricey gadgets to fit in, and starving all day so that you can eat an over-priced sandwich at an over-priced bakery like Le Pain Quotidien or drink coffee with colleagues at a five-star hotel in order to keep up the appearance of affluence. It spawned a barrage of well-articulated, angry response pieces at the time, and the general consensus was very clearly communicated to Jayaraman that the words ‘poor’ and ‘poverty’ were hopelessly problematic when used to describe people who simply are not poor.

 The myth of the urban poor: Gayatri Jayaraman continues specious argument in a new book

'Urban poor' is a term Gayatri Jayaraman used to describe a section of millennials who (in her words) 'objectively and relative to a vast majority of Indians, aren’t “poor” at all. But they’re certainly hungry and broke a lot.' Image for representation only; via Daniel Battiston/

So it feels like Jayaraman is purposely trying to drive you round the bend by using both the words poor and poverty in the title and sub-head of her new book, Who Me, Poor? While initially, even some of the critics of the original piece felt it was forgivable because the choice of words in the headline may have just been the unfortunate contribution of an over-enthusiastic Buzzfeed editor, you can’t help but notice how deliberate and almost brazen (or opportunistic, you decide) the use of the word poverty is here.

Perhaps the biggest problem with this book is something upper and middle class people are rightly accused of often already: Looking strictly within the confines of their own social and financial realities to make judgments and proclamations about the world with very little acknowledgement of anything that happens outside this understanding of the world — and worse still, exercise their power to make decisions for the whole country based on that limited judgment.

Take Chapter 4, whose title comes pre-programmed and ready with implied judgement: 'The Boundary-less', and begins with a quote from Lakme Fashion Week director Anjana Mehra, who bemoans the “loss of moral values — the exchange of sex for money”. In a section with the revelatory title ‘It’s Called Voluntary Prostitution Now’, Jayaraman says that police know “young people everywhere are putting sex on the table in exchange for money, alcohol, drugs, gadgets like the latest iPhones, and expensive holidays or free meals, even places to stay, but won’t and cannot do anything to stop it”. She goes on to quote a policeman who says, “these kids need their parents”, and later, says that “it’s a short step from a free drink to the ubiquitous cocaine”.

The first thing you notice is the sort of wonder and implied horror with which she talks about these very real things; you get the feeling that she has discovered just now that such a thing as voluntary sex work exists, and is trying hard to be politically correct and swallow her instinct to gag in well-bred horror. Her attitude towards sex work, of course, becomes much clearer in a couple of pages, where she shares her own experience of being “severely depleted” in an attempt to show you that she too has faced grave economic hardship in her life and this is why she has the locus to speak about it. She narrates “one of the most humiliating phone calls she ever made in her life” where she basically spoke to a doctor about selling her eggs. “That was the closest I’d ever gotten to selling my body for cash,” Jayaraman says, “But it is also why I don't sit in judgement on those who do.”

Except it sounds like you do, yo. Which non-judgmental person thinks of sex work as “selling your body”, let alone of selling your eggs in the same way? It takes a pretty hefty amount of privilege, by the way, to draw comparisons between contemplating selling your eggs once in a medically supervised set-up and actual sex work. And if the fact that you almost sold your eggs once at a time when you needed cash because you’d sold your gold to pay for “lawyer’s bills, holidays, credit card payments and furniture, moving costs, school fees and clothes” is the only reason you don’t sit in judgement on sex workers, maybe you need to take a couple of steps back and assess your own system of morality, if not your idea of poverty. Maybe both.

The thing about a book like this is, the people you don’t include speak just as loudly as those you do. Never mind the huge section of actually impoverished people this book obviously ignores, it’s also pretty interesting to see the kinds of stories Jayaraman chooses to tell: 'The Boundary-less', for instance, speaks to a judgmental fashion show director, some uncle-type policemen, a deliberately sassy (“so puhleez, spare me the moral judgement”) woman who once bought an iPhone with money she earned from sleeping with men, and a European actress in Mumbai. My favourite, of course, was a holier-than-thou NRI businessman who narrates the story of how he was talked into entering a “club” (quotes hers), talked into meeting a woman and talked into staying long enough for a pimp haggle the price down by 2000 dirhams, until he finally left feeling “more than a little saddened”. He also tells us that he would feel bad for the women if they were trafficked or in dire need of cash, but the woman he spoke to seemed to be “in it for the bling”. Thank you sir, you can sit down now.

This book is an exploration of social anxiety, not the economics of actual poverty, and it would have been fairer, more useful and far less insulting to everybody if it was touted that way.

You have to acknowledge, though, that everything in Who Me, Poor? is real. There are indeed people who have sex with other people in return for dinner, or to pay off bills and debts, or to buy things they want. There are people who are enamoured by the high life when they move to a new place and feel anxious when they don’t fit in, and there are people who spend their money in ways that don’t ensure month-long nutrition in favour of keeping up appearances of wealth, or to feed a gambling or drug habit, or to lead the life they’re used to living. All of these things happen, and have been happening in different forms since time immemorial. It’s just insulting to call any of it actual poverty, and a bit funny and classist to be so shocked that this is happening. The fact that she seems to find the concept of voluntary sex work so very astonishing and worthy of dissection as a “new” facet of poverty, for example, says a lot about her social location and knowledge of how the world works, and that of her intended readers.

Or take this excerpt, from Chapter 5: “We are students in Dresden, Germany, and there is this guy who is above 30. He is a Master’s student from the Hindi hinterland and can’t exactly ask his family for support. He works part time at the doner kebab shop as a cleaner, but he is only allowed to work 20 hours a week. After paying rent, there is very little left over. He lives on raw tomatoes and bread. That’s the scariest thing I’ve ever seen.” Really, only the Indian middle-class could manage to muster this much horror at the idea of a cleaning job, and it’s pretty indicative of their social and financial status when the subjects you’re interviewing are petrified beyond measure by nothing more than the idea of an honest job and a (temporary) diet of bread and tomatoes.

That’s also probably why her article found a huge number of supporters when it was published by Buzzfeed India, and why the book will be popular with a certain section of people too. There are a lot of people who choose to spend their money badly, or who associate abject humiliation with work that people in most places in the world would consider normal. (Which also allows these Indians to abjectly humiliate people who do have those jobs.)

When the piece was originally published, there were people online who said that this was the best thing on the Internet, and were exulting in the fact that someone had finally spoken the truth (not to be catty, but my immediate instinct for some unknown reason was to slot them into the same group of people who don’t study for exams and then blame reservations when they don’t get admission into college). There were other readers who said that what Jayaraman spoke of resonated with them deeply, particularly sections on the peer pressure people face when moving from small towns to big cities, and feeling the need to fit in and make expensive choices and put up expensive facades. They said they were glad someone had articulated what they had been feeling for so long.

But maybe that’s the point. Sure, Jayaraman tapped into a feeling. A feeling, not an economic phenomenon anywhere close to the idea of poverty. This book is an exploration of social anxiety, not the economics of actual poverty, and it would have been fairer, more useful and far less insulting to everybody if it was touted that way.

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Updated Date: Jul 06, 2017 19:33:18 IST