India 2008: The Rising Middle Class

Whenever I’m in India, I usually spend a day or two with my aunt and uncle in Gurgaon, the satellite city on Delhi’s southwestern fringe marked by new high-rises, gated communities, shopping malls, movie theaters, and wide avenues. This is where India is building its future.

My relatives’ home—three bedrooms, three baths, a recent-model Honda out front—is on the top floor of a four-family building. My aunt and uncle, now retired, live with their son, who works for Lufthansa, his wife, and their two-year-old daughter. In the evenings everyone gathers in front of a 42-inch Sony flatscreen to watch the latest episode of Indian Idol or this country’s version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. Commercials tout Surf laundry detergent and Tata cars. Their life is typical of upwardly mobile urban families in India today.

Yet their middle-class lifestyle doesn’t spare them the discomforts of a developing country. At some point most days, the lights flicker as the apartment’s convertor kicks in, the city’s electricity having once again failed. My cousin jumps up to switch off nonessential devices. Last spring Gurgaon’s main water pipe burst, and my relatives were forced to pay inflated prices for water delivered in jerricans. The pipe was repaired, but Gurgaon’s groundwater is fast being depleted.

Gurgaon boasts more shopping malls per capita than any other Indian city, nearly 25 by my count. Levi’s, Benetton, Pizza Hut, T.G.I. Friday’s: They’re all here—at the Galaxy Mall, the Ambiance Mall, and the Mall of India, the country’s biggest. Recently I went to a multiplex in one of these malls to see the blockbuster movie Taj Mahal. The service was superb. Smiling men and women in neat uniforms take your $3.50 ticket and usher you to a reserved, impressively plush seat.

Once settled, you order your pizza or Indian chat, and the staff brings it as the previews for coming attractions roll. Onscreen, gorgeous actors in trendy clothes race around in new cars, wielding sleek electronic gadgets. It’s an India where water is no problem and the electricity never falters. On our way out, I stopped in the restroom. It was the most immaculate I have ever seen.

Mira Kamdar is the author of Planet India: The Turbulent Rise of the Largest Democracy and the Future of Our World.