Reproducing Elite Lives
Reproducing Elite Lives
Women in Agarwal Family Businesses
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter explores the social reproductive roles performed by elite ‘upper’-caste Aggarwal women in family businesses in Delhi. By focusing on women’s associational and familial roles in a South Delhi neighbourhood, three strategies of reproduction are discussed: first, forging inter-strata fictive kinship ties for caste cohesion through women’s ‘social work’; second, forging intra-strata fictive kinship ties for business opportunities through sustained interactions; and third, steering the individuating aspirations of children around marital choices for the unity of the joint family and business. These strategies of elite reproduction highlight the secularizing pulls on gender and caste in urban contexts, despite the dependence of family businesses on caste and family ties. Furthermore, by focusing on women in family businesses, this chapter shows that while they are not passive victims of caste patriarchy neither are they invisible in the male-centric family businesses.
This chapter argues that women, along with their families, play a major role in the functioning of family businesses through the reproduction of caste and kinship ties in the urban context. Until 2005, women in India were denied the right to inherit property under the Hindu Undivided Family (HUF), a legal tax entity (Das Gupta 2013). In popular imagination, women appear as consumers of branded items indicative of luxurious lifestyles, while in the everyday, their choices, negotiations, and power struggles are lost within the undifferentiated gender-blind institution of the family. Family businesses have been the forte of old mercantile caste groups (such as Jains, Marwaris, Agarwals, Sindhis, Natukkotai Chettiars, Khojas, Bohras, and Parsis). These caste groups in the present have been loosely categorized as ‘upper’ caste because of their historically accrued economic and political capital. This chapter focuses on a non-Brahmin elite caste—Agarwal. Agarwals have a visible presence especially in parts of North India, and are pushing to be at the helm of state and economic affairs. However, they are often confused with their popular cousins, the Marwaris, who have a longer community history and have received more academic interest (Birla 2009; Hardgrove 2004; Timberg 1978).
(p.218) Studies argue that caste and family ties structure Indian family businesses (Damodaran 2008; Markovits 2008; Tripathi 1984). In the absence of financial intermediaries, the structuring role of caste and family extends to corporate boards and networks in globalized contexts (Ajit, Donker, and Saxena 2012; Khanna and Palepu 2000; Naudet and Dubost 2016). While studies argue for the centrality of caste and family ties in family businesses, they treat caste as a finished identity with an a priori subjecthood (Bairy 2010). This identity which presents itself as a universal is also male-centric. Caste in its substantialized avatar has internal hierarchies and distinctions (Fuller 1996). This class-like hierarchy has led scholars to argue that the lives of ‘upper’-caste members cease to be caste-marked, and secular concerns of class animate their being (Beteille 1991; Fuller 1996; Fuller and Narasimhan 2015; Gupta 2004; Srinivas 2003). A simultaneous increase in caste studies on Dalits leads to a ‘ghettoisation’ of caste around the figure of the Dalit (Bairy 2010: 2). Caste then becomes synonymous with Dalits while the upper caste becomes caste-less. This chapter through a focus on an urban ‘upper’-caste group, Agarwal, explores the following question: how does caste, with its internal hierarchies and urban secularizing pulls, function as a socio-economic resource in family businesses?
This chapter ethnographically demonstrates how women in family businesses help increase the cohesion and reproduction of caste and families in ‘modern’ contexts through three strategies: first, forging fictive kinship ties across caste strata through what elite women understand as their ‘social work’; second, forging fictive kinship ties within one’s own caste stratum through sustained socialization that creates business opportunities; and third, helping find status-appropriate marital matches, factoring in the individuating desires of their children.
In-depth interviews were conducted with Agarwal women in the age group of 40s to 60s in an affluent South Delhi neighbourhood, which I will call Hill Lane.1 Roles in families are not just gendered but also vary according to one’s age. Other members of their family (sons, daughters, and daughters-in-law) were also interviewed. Community and family events were attended. The first rounds of interviews were conducted from October 2014 to July 2015. The second round of (p.219) interviews were conducted from March to July 2016, to confirm the main findings of the study.
Methodology: Field and Researcher
Amongst the South Delhi neighbourhoods, Hill Lane was selected as the field of study because of the following reasons: post-holders and influential people in Agarwal caste associations (Delhi Pradeshik Agarwal Sammelan [DPAS] and Akhil Bhartiya Agarwal Sammelan [ABAS]) in Delhi live here; the women’s wing is the oldest and the most active (it has won awards) and; a tabulation of house owners according to surname given in the Resident’s Welfare Association (RWA) in 2014 shows that 58 per cent of the residents in this neighbourhood hail from the Agarwal caste. Finding members of a caste group in urban residential pockets is corroborated by other studies in metropolitan cities (Dupont 2004; Vithayathil and Singh 2012). Caste-based residential clusters for the lower caste can be read as segregation in which they have little choice. However, amongst the elite upper castes like the Agarwals, the same phenomenon is because of self-segregation. This, in retrospect, is motivated by the amenities available, such as proximity to established schools, safety in the knowledge that there are other Agarwals also buying land in the same area, and fair property prices. As opposed to common imagination, the neighbourhood amongst the urban elites did not lead to anonymity and isolation. Within the heterogeneous neighbourhood, the Agarwals choose who they wish to socialize with. The neighbourhood as a field of activity through the interaction of their class and caste status generated the feeling of Agarwal-ness and ‘ourness’.
Some of the Agarwal families that live on Hill Lane had diversified out of the agrarian economy in the grandparents’ generation and moved to Delhi for higher education. Many families had moved to this neighbourhood by the 1970s, while the women moved from parts of Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, or other parts of Delhi after marriage. They were now second- and third-generation industrialists with manufacturing units (metal and plastic moulds, iron meshes, and temperature monitoring devices) on the outskirts of Delhi and families with inter-generational professional firms (architects, (p.220) real estate and construction companies, and lawyers). The number of those employed in their factories and professional firms varied. The location and size of a house announce the ‘household identity and activity’. It also ‘deeply affects subsequent self-representation and social relations outside the household and daily interaction within the household’ (Zelizer 2005: 243). According to the size and success of the business, families had well laid-out houses with modern interiors, several servants and, usually, two to three cars. Floors to the house were added to accommodate the changes within the family. For example, if the family business was split between brothers and they were no longer on cordial terms, an extra floor was added with a separate entrance and kitchen. A separate floor was also added in case the son in the family got married. However, then the kitchen continued to be common. Families also lived nearby in separate houses in the same neighbourhood. Some of the Agarwal family businesses in this neighbourhood hold important posts in the Agarwal caste associations and have been instrumental in building the Agarwal community and identity in Delhi since the late 1970s.
As I met people in different Agarwal circles in Delhi, I realized it would be difficult to interview families in the upper strata of the Agarwal caste without sharing an enthusiasm for their associational activities. There are approximately 24 Hindi Agarwal newspapers and journals that are published in Delhi. I subscribed to a few of these established newspapers and followed them regularly. Community events like the release of books on Maharaja Agrasen,2 internal award ceremonies, the new caste associations being set up in Delhi, marches and rathyatra (chariot journeys), the inauguration of cow hospitals and organization of Ramlila, and lifestyle festivals3 were regularly advertised in these newspapers. Events like parichay sammelan (matrimonial event) and politicians wishing the Agarwals in Delhi on Maharaja Agrasen Jayanti were reported in mainstream English and Hindi newspapers. The national visibility shows the community’s political and economic clout in the capital. Frequent meetings with people in these events gave me access to women, who were central to this research, and their families on Hill Lane.
In her historical work on the Marwaris of Calcutta, Hardgrove (2004: 8) says when she had to capture the contemporary changes in the society, she employed ‘appointment anthropology’. Unlike (p.221) a village ethnographer, whose geographical mobility would be restricted and who could drop by at people’s homes without fixing prior appointments, the nature of urban ethnography—and especially one amongst the elite—requires the researcher to seek prior permission and to turn up for a scheduled meeting on time. Women did not participate in the paid labour force, and their role within the household was a supervisory one, as they had a generous array of cooks, gardeners, and drivers. However, they had a busy year marked by festivals, rituals, visits to and by extended kin, and accompanying and helping their husbands in social and business gatherings. Power minefields within the family also had to be negotiated. Permissions from mothers-in-law and mothers were required to meet the daughters and daughters-in-law. The interconnected social space of the neighbourhood and the community discouraged many respondents to speak comfortably in our initial meetings. This limitation also made it difficult to ask questions about financial matters, transactions, and scale or the ups and downs in the family business. Women usually evaded the question politely or said that only the men in the family had knowledge about such things.
In the initial phases of my research when my caste was asked, I would say I am a South Indian, which would be met with an immediate smile accompanied by a response, ‘Oh you are a Madrasi.’ The regional cultural identity of a ‘Madrasi’ continues to evoke the impression of naivety, harmlessness, culture, and education in North India. It is an identity which is opaque to caste and religious probing. Appointment anthropology and Madrasi-ness became not just practical considerations of the field but became ways through which the sociologist negotiates her field constituted by elite respondents and in the process is constituted in it as a subject in return.
Women in the Reproduction of Caste and Family Businesses in Urban India: An Overview
Members of the Agarwal caste in Delhi own industries, shops, trusts, schools, hospitals, printing presses, and restaurants. Numerous enterprises are named ‘Agarwal’ or ‘Gupta’, so much so that elderly men in caste associations were worried that these shops were run not by Agarwals but Chamars4 who wish to benefit from the economic (p.222) might of the community. In the process, elders feared lower castes would asperse the Agarwal caste name by diluting the quality of products and services. In the 1970s, the Agarwal caste associations were formed in Delhi by the former Haryana Chief Minister Banarsi Das Gupta. These organizations undertook the task of carving out an Agarwal identity. They encouraged people to use Agarwal in their surname as opposed to their gotras5 (clan) names, standardized the number of gotras to 17.5, standardized the spelling of Agarwal with a double ‘g’, and standardized the descent story from Maharaja Agrasen. In the process, they tried to differentiate themselves from the Marwaris by their region of origin—the Agarwals hail from parts of Uttar Pradesh and Haryana, while the Marwaris from parts of Rajasthan, especially Mewar district.6
According to Louis Dumont’s thesis on ‘substantialisation’ of caste, vertical caste hierarchies are replaced by ‘impenetrable’, ‘inter-dependent’ blocks, as if caste was an ‘individual’ competing with another. He argues that there is a move from ‘structure’ to ‘substance’ and a horizontalization of caste (Dumont 1980: 222). Gupta (2005) using the substantialization theory argues that every caste just like the Agarwals would take pride in their origin story and myth without arranging them in vertical hierarchies. Studies on caste take substantialization as a given, and two of the many directions in which this has taken caste studies are as follows: First, it is argued that substantialization causes castes to be internally heterogeneous. Differences get articulated in the language of culture, which gets expressed only in the private sphere, since it is not possible to defend them in public any more (Fuller 1996; Fuller and Narasimhan 2015; Mosse 2012). Second, caste in public appears only in the realm of politics (Beteille 1991; Srinivas 2003). Hence it is argued that caste has lost its importance for the ‘upper’ castes and only determines the life chances of ‘lower’ castes.
Internal heterogeneity within caste groups is critical to this chapter. Fuller and Narasimhan (2015) account for the internal hierarchies within the Tamil Brahmin caste through a neo-Weberian definition of ‘social class’: that is, a social class which is also a status group leads to the making of the middle-class caste. Fuller and Narasimhan (2015) argue that there is no upward or downward mobility between the white-collar lower-middle class, and the professional and managerial, (p.223) upper-middle class Brahmins within the Brahmin caste. However, in this chapter, the internal heterogeneity within the Agarwal caste is captured using a sociologically neutral category ‘caste stratum’. I argue that with an increase in internal differentiation and secularizing pulls of caste through changes in occupation, education, lifestyles, and women’s mobility and income levels, those who occupy the upper stratum within a caste work towards increasing caste cohesion. The stated aim of these efforts could be community-building, providing self-definitions in everyday, or consolidating numbers in a democracy. However, caste cohesion, unlike in the professional middle-class Tamil Brahmins, facilitates inter-stratum mobility through marriage and business networks.7 It shows that caste is a resource in the urban for those in the upper and lower echelons through ‘networks of caste and kinship’ (Jodhka 2015: 230; Rutten 2003).
In this chapter, I argue that women facilitate the cohesion of caste and reproduction of family business through three strategies: inter-strata ‘social work’; intra-strata socialization; and managing individuating aspirations of family members through marital choice. The first two strategies help strengthen ‘fictive’ kinship ties, based on neither blood nor marital relations, but on one’s membership to a caste group. These roles are undertaken by women in certain castes/classes. This ‘politics of status maintenance’ by women requires them to constantly socialize and form networks with caste others (Papanek 1979: 778). Forging connections and networks is not a given but is achieved through ‘an endless effort at institutions … which is necessary to produce and reproduce lasting useful relationships that can secure material or symbolic profits’ (Bourdieu 1986: 246). Unpaid status reproductive roles lead to the withdrawal of women from paid employment (Abraham 2013; Mies 1982; Papanek 1979). For example, Harris-White (2002), in her study of family businesses in Arni village in Tamil Nadu, argues that women perform three reproductive roles: reproduce and manage the capital-managing male labour; provide food as part of wages to labour; and get their daughters strategically married for business interests. In his study of Jain family business in Jaipur, Laidlaw (1995: 358) says that women keep long fasts, while wealthy merchants make donations in recognition of the long fasts. In this way, the man’s generosity comes across as ‘an expression of piety’ rather than a vulgar display of wealth. (p.224) Women’s roles show that family businesses continue to function as an economic enterprise, where the family needs to behave as a social group (Bayly 1983; Fox 1969; Hardiman 1996). This social group, however, unlike in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, has to accommodate for the internal hierarchies within the caste group as well as the individuating aspirations of its members to sustain the unity of the economic enterprise.
Women’s lives are formed on the interface of overlapping and competing patriarchies of caste and class (Rao 2003; Rege 2006; Sangari and Vaid 1989). However, contemporary studies on upper-caste or elite women in India are scarce. In ethnographic studies on rural Dalit women, upper-caste women appear as straw figures. They are shown to have limited mobility and spaces of interaction. Their roles and lives appear predetermined by their caste identity, without paying closer attention to their social motivations and ‘agency’ (Ciotti 2010; Heyer 2014; Jeffrey 1979; Still 2014). Upper-caste women in these studies appear as acting or acted upon on behalf of their husbands and families. ‘Brahmanical patriarchy’ has been used to explain the obsession of upper-caste groups with women’s sexuality, constituting them as objects of ‘moral panic’ and gateways to the caste system (Chakravarti 1993: 580). The structures and practices of Brahmanical patriarchy, however, need to be reworked without assuming the relevance of ahistorical power relations. Attentive to the meanings women ascribe to their actions and roles, this chapter engages with the ways in which women identify and reproduce their caste identity in the present.
Forging Fictive Kinship Ties Across Caste Strata through ‘Social Work’
This discussion on women’s ‘social work’ focuses on two organizations: the Agarwal caste associations in the neighbourhood and Delhi; and Rotary club meetings.8 Women attend events for both along with their husbands. They, however, hold posts only in the women’s wings of the caste association and Rotary. Caste associations are male-centric spaces, and the Agarwal caste associations are no different. Women’s participation began as late as the 1990s, with the formation of a separate women’s wing. Along with this development, discussions (p.225) on dowry-related deaths, expensive marriages, and female foeticide began appearing in Agarwal journals. Business castes have also been historically documented for their conservative position on women’s question (Hardgrove 2004; Timberg 1978). It took the Marwaris in Calcutta 100 years more than the Bengali Bhadralok to participate in the social reform debate (age of consent, widow remarriage, sati and women’s education). They chose to participate from within the space of their caste associations and only because the mercantile autonomy of the HUF was at stake (Birla 2009; Hardgrove 2004).
In this section, I focus on women’s participation in caste associations. It is noteworthy to discuss women’s participation, as this is the first generation of Agarwal women in the 40s to 60s age group from business families to participate in these spaces along with their husbands in Delhi. Women in the generation before them were homebound and maintained the upkeep of their families. In the generation after them (daughters and daughters-in-law), women socialize with their husband’s friends, occasionally volunteering with their mothers and mothers-in-law in activities of the association. At the Delhi level, the women’s wing is headed and constituted primarily by women from the second stratum living in South Delhi. This selective participation is because, in the third and second strata, women are either discouraged by families or do not have the luxury of time as they shoulder most of the domestic responsibilities.
Philanthropy has historically been associated with mercantile communities in India, serving different political functions across time. In pre-colonial India, donations and alleviating local distress helped merchants gain legitimacy within the local community and accrue abru (honour) and commercial benefits (Appadurai 1977; Bayly C.A. 1983; Bayly S. 1989). In colonial India, there was a shift from gifting to charity and philanthropy that helped merchants distinguish themselves with the colonial government and contribute to the construction of local public culture and places (Frietag 1989; Rudner 1987). Ostrower (1995: 17) defines philanthropy as ‘private giving for public purposes’. Bayly (1983) writing about high-status Khatri and Agarwal merchants in eighteenth-century India argued that their sphere of business was not just the bazaar (market) but success in the entire society. The select society for this stratum of elite Agarwal families was limited in scope and primarily to the (p.226) caste associations. This involved both organizational and funding work and elite Agarwal women describe their contribution as ‘social work’.
The Hindu religious festival of Teej was organized by the women’s wing of the Delhi caste association in the month of August. Yamini, 62, headed the organizing committee in 2014. For the elite women as organizers, the ritual significance of the event had decreased since the previous generation. Yamini had to look up the story behind the significance of the festival before writing her speech. Why did Yamini and the women’s wing then continue to spend their time and money organizing Teej at the Delhi level? Yamini said, ‘Agarwal women in parts of Rohini, Pitampura, or Laxmi Nagar are not allowed to step out of their homes. Even if their husbands come for the meetings, they do not bring their wives. I made it a rule that men could not attend the Teej festival without their wives.’
Elite women like Yamini feel they provide the morally sanctioned cultural spaces of socialization for the less fortunate Agarwal women of Delhi, whose mobility is curtailed to their household or their extended kin. As facilitators of women’s mobility ‘beyond their kitchen and families’, elite women forge fictive kinship alliances based on the common experiential identity of being a woman and an Agarwal. In the process, they also create aspirational standards for Agarwal women from lower-caste strata on what it means to be an elite Agarwal woman.
Women also help their husbands in the organization of a daylong matrimonial event called Parichay Sammelan through the DPAS and ABAS. Parichay Sammelan is an annual event which is organized in the Talkatora stadium in Delhi. Eligible Agarwal men and women register, and go on the stage to introduce themselves, while families sit in the audience deciding with their children which marriage ‘party’ to approach. In 2014 and 2015, more than 600 men and women registered for this event. Till the marriage alliance is finalized, the potential spouse and his/her family are referred to as a ‘party’, signalling the transactional nature of the marital alliance. Promoting choice through arranged endogamous marriages is considered as a ‘revolutionary step’ by Agarwal men. The elite women as volunteers share the feeling of benevolence of their husbands. Radhika, 58, said, ‘Finding a suitable match for your children is the hardest thing to do. (p.227) In villages you have close family ties; you check the boy’s/girl’s family background. In cities, people don’t know enough people within their community. Matrimonial agencies charge so much money. We, through the caste association provide this service free of charge.’ Radhika was aghast when I suggested the Parichay Sammelan as an avenue for finding a match for her daughter. It is understood that such services were for the lower stratum of Agarwals who lacked suitable networks and resources in the urban.
The elite women, by volunteering their time, and their husbands, by investing their money, in such events forge fictive kinship relations across caste stratum, and also get to establish their family’s name and business affluence within their caste stratum. Women get an avenue to show off their creativity, avenues for which were curtailed after their marriage. They also get to exhibit their efficient management of help and other family members. For example, in the preparatory meeting of the event held in South Delhi in 2015, the discussions were not about the upcoming event. Women wanted the DPAS convener to deliberate on ways in which there could be a clearer demarcation of spaces between guests and servants at weddings and other events. What followed was a lengthy discussion on managing servants, their location vis-à-vis their employers, the number of servants each of them had, whether the servants accompanied them on foreign trips, and whether their ‘modern’ daughters-in-law deserved the assistance of servants. In this light banter, was a public articulation of their status while judging the status, household, servant, and daughter-in-law management of other women in the group. Bairy (2009: 1) argues that caste associations in contemporary times are an ‘enunciatory space’, whose primary task is to speak as and on behalf of, a modern caste self. The caste associations do not speak only on behalf of, but are also sites for, the constitution of the ‘modern’ caste self. Projects of self-formation in the case of elite Agarwal women play out by finding commonalities with the internal (other elite Agarwal women) and distinguishing themselves against the external others (non-elite Agarwal women in the caste association). The elite self is made and unmade through women’s familial roles and their efficiency in managing them. The relational status formation process needs constant investments provided by the business family in which women ground themselves.
Fictive kinship ties are strengthened not just across caste strata but also within a caste stratum in the South Delhi neighbourhood through sustained and long interactions. The neighbourhood is a relational concept that structures social spaces in specific ways. This structuring is forged through ‘social relations and material social practices’ (Massey 1994: 254). The concept of the neighbourhood social space is that of a ‘strategy and/or technique of power and social control’ (Low and Lawrence 2003: 30). The neighbourhood is then a political space in which both individual and collective identities are constructed, lived, and reproduced. Gender, class, and caste identities are embedded and structure the social space of the neighbourhood, and are structured by it in specific ways. Donner (2008: 153) argues that amongst the middle-class women in Calcutta (now Kolkata), the ‘neighbourhood is a site of practised self-discipline’. Withdrawal of women from public spaces was perceived as embodiment of traditional Bengali culture. This made young married women and middle-aged mothers proud of their in-laws’ conservatism. Froystad (2006), in her ethnography amongst upper castes in a neighbourhood in Kanpur, argues that her respondents limited their presence in heterogeneous public spaces, and created homogeneous enclosures for themselves.
Agarwal women carved their own exclusive private circles within the public space of the neighbourhood and reinforced them through care, trust, and sustained socialization. These circles overlapped with friendships shared by their husbands and were intergenerational. Reshma, 42, said:
Earlier, when our children were young, we used to do many functions, now there is a space crunch. But earlier, in the summer, we would also call people to take workshops for the kids, such as dancing, paper mache, etc. At the end of the summer, we would invite all the families and have a big function, in which the children would perform the things they learnt. This way our children have grown up together. We would not think twice before leaving our kids in each other’s homes. We are like one big family (emphasis added).
Institutions like DPAS and Rotary further provided avenues for socialization. The DPAS organized trips on an annual basis; there (p.229) were some trips, the cost per person was low enough for Agarwals across caste strata to participate. The last such trip was to Vaishno Devi, a Hindu pilgrim site in which enough people joined to fill seven bogies of a train. However, for the other trips in which the cost per person was high, only members of the second and third stratum participated. The last such trip was to temples in Nepal. A special train was booked starting at Safdarjung station. The head of a business group famous for a well-known chain of restaurants in India helped organize the rail requirements. The capability to organize trains exclusively for DPAS activities shows the political influence and resources the community has. This train had security guards and cooks, and did not stop to pick up other travellers. It, however, stopped to meet members of Agarwal associations in other states. Bharti, 51, had gone on one of these trips and said:
When you step out of the house, you need many comforts; especially we Banias do not eat pyaaz (onion) and non-veg. Some of us don’t eat lasun (garlic) either. That is why we have a special Maharaj (an upper-caste cook) to prepare our food. It is also good to meet our people in other places. Our Hill Lane, ABAS, and DPAS are all one, we keep meeting, seeing each other’s faces and we have all become a family (emphasis added).
The comfort of socializing with people who share the same way of life, reinforced with similar taste in food and values, leads to the expansion of the family unit to embrace others within a caste stratum.
These informal spaces of socialization, involving men and their wives, provide a relaxed atmosphere where business spills into the social and vice versa. Informal environments created through socialization facilitate in the discussion of business, reciprocation of favours, identification of further clients and strengthening the economic with the affective. For example, Radhika’s husband was the president of Rotary and he recently organized a trip for 40 families to Jim Corbett National Park. While returning from the journey, the men travelled in a separate minibus, and Radhika said their pet topic was each other’s business developments, tenders, and contracts. One of the Rotary and Agarwal caste association members owned a paper printing business and was having trouble sourcing material from Uttar Pradesh (UP). The bus stopped in Moradabad, (p.230) and amongst them, they found local contacts and sorted the problem immediately.
Caste and family ties in business, structure social networks, channels of information, credit and generate a feeling of ‘trust’ (Harris 2003). One’s ascribed membership in a caste group was not a good enough reason for creating this exclusive trust. Trust shows a ‘nexus of relations’ that are brought together through social obligations and ‘non-specific indebtedness’ (Bourdieu 1986: 252). These relationships get strengthened when women couch them in cultural, relational idioms sanctified by Hindu rituals. For example, Janaki and her husband Rajiv, who were new to the South Delhi circle of businesses, were asked by the ABAS president, and noted Delhi businessman, to join both the caste association and the Rotary circle to ‘make contacts and work for the community’. Janaki refers to the ABAS president as bhaiya (elder brother) and ties a rakhi (cotton bracelet) on his wrist on Raksha Bandhan every year. Raksha means to protect, and Bandan means a bond. Raksha Bandhan is a Hindu religious festival between a brother and sister. Janaki said her husband was a middleman in fixing big deals, significant amounts of money gets exchanged against sureties. She said ‘trust’ is crucial in this process. Before making any deal, her husband would first check with bhaiya (referring to the ABAS President) about the ‘party’s’ market credibility. She also said, knowing that bhaiya stood behind her husband meant people had reciprocal ‘trust’ in her husband’s credibility and work. Economic activity was not undertaken by isolated individuals but was embedded in social structures, and historical and institutional contexts that facilitate and constrains actions (Granovetter 1992; Polanyi 1944).
Caste as a socio-economic resource is reproduced through actively forged networks of fictive kinship ties. These ties consolidate caste identity by marking public spaces in caste-specific ways. For example, in 2010–11, the neighbourhood park had been named after Maharaja Agrasen. Yamini said, ‘There are so many of us in Hill Lane. We easily got it done.’ The actions of the caste associations at the all-India and Delhi levels are also replicated at the neighbourhood level. Maharaja Agrasen is universalized as a public figure and inserted in the collective conscience away from his caste-specific belonging. Fictive kinship ties translating into an assertive caste identity have (p.231) implications on food choices available in the neighbourhood. Savita, 61, said:
Earlier, the shop in the corner of the road would not even keep eggs. We would not allow him. We have many Jain friends. Now we allow him to keep it, but we ask him to clean his hands before giving us a packet of milk or bread. He also finishes the eggs in the morning itself, so it is not that he is selling it throughout the day. In the Hill Lane market also you would have noticed most of the shops serve pure vegetarian food.
Vegetarianism as a normative choice in a heterogeneous neighbourhood is presented as the Hindu ideal while effacing tastes of many others. Despite the women’s accounts, I found that coffee shops like Barista and Café Coffee Day in the Hill Lane market sell chicken sandwiches and burgers. Also, it is acceptable for some male members of the family to eat non-vegetarian food, as long as it is not cooked inside the household.
Sustained interactions in homophilic gatherings mean that the comparable ‘other’ is carefully chosen, for the ‘other’ is also a reflection of oneself. Rajini, 46, said, ‘I do not know any Muslims in our neighbourhood or [anyone from] a Scheduled Caste (SC). If someone has given the house on rent to them, then we are not sure. But they don’t own any houses here.’ The urban ‘other’ for the Agarwals are the Punjabis,9 with whom they choose to interact in everyday life. Agarwal women of this generation of mothers and mothers-in-law have started interacting with Punjabi women in their kitty parties.10 Women have couples’ kitties, bhajan kitties (sessions of religious songs), lane kitties, and inter-generational mother-in-law and daughter-in-law kitties in the South Delhi neighbourhood. Membership to these kitties required the husbands to be members of the Agarwal association at the Delhi level. The bhajan kitties took place in the temple in the neighbourhood. The lane kitties (involving members living in the same lane in the neighbourhood) were the only kitty meets which incorporated non-Jain or non-Agarwal women. Karuna, 38, said, ‘Earlier Punjabis used to think that we Banias are stingy and don’t have money and we used to think that they were all talk and had no money, but now they know that we are educated, dress well and rich and we know that they also have money.’
I enjoy my time with the Punjabi women more than the Agarwal [women]. They are open and free-spirited. They know how to manage their mothers-in-law so much better than us. They do not waste their time arguing about petty things like ‘what to wear’ and ‘where to go’. Their mothers-in-law are also smart; they know that their son will leave them if they made their daughter-in-law too unhappy. In our case, we can be sure that our husbands will only take their mother’s side.
Urban space contestations were another way in which the Agarwals engaged with their Punjabi neighbours. These interactions, while asserting the strength of the Agarwal bonding, also visibilized what they felt about their urban ‘other’. Shweta and her family had lived at Hill Lane since the 1980s. They were planning to get their elder son married off soon, and so wished to add another floor to their house. The ground floor in their residential block was owned by a Punjabi who would not give them the permission to construct on top and expand their space. Twice, the construction had begun and was halted because the Punjabi resident threatened legal action. Finally, Shweta’s family had to relocate to their penthouse in Gurgaon. Referring to the incident, Yamini said, she and her husband had told Shweta: ‘We can handle the matter together, but bhaisaab (elder brother) is such a cultured man not like these Punjabis ready to fight all the time. He refused to create any trouble. These Punjabis are refugees; whatever they have is because of what the government gave them. They are not self-made like us [sic].’
A loosening of caste norms, rituals, stakes on the ‘modern’ has not translated into spheres of socialization becoming caste heterogeneous, as contemporary ethnographies of urban upper-caste groups have observed (Bairy 2010; Fuller and Narasimhan 2015). This is not just to do with the comfort one finds in one’s shared cultural ethos. Sustained socialization in one’s caste stratum leads to the replacement of active discrimination with caste–class monopolies that function through self-enclosures. These enclosures house avenues for capital conversion entwined with the affective. It also provides the language of belongingness, ways of seeing oneself, and creative lifeworlds.
As shown in the previous two sections, the social universe of Agarwals in Delhi is constituted by their caste and extended kinship ties. These networks also provide suitable marital alliances for children. Financial discussions before deciding marital alliances in Agarwal business families, unlike among the Tamil Brahmins that Fuller and Narasimhan (2015) studied, are explicit. These discussions precede the matching of kundalis (astrological charts). Interested families for marriage refer to each other as ‘party’ and only a successful pairing of ‘budget’ leads to a change in the abstract category of ‘party’ to a recognizable family. Without approaching an interested party, families usually have a sense of the budget the groom’s family would desire. Only if there is a match between the suggested and expected budget are marriage negotiations carried forward. Common family, friends, and at times marriage brokers help in the negotiation process. The budget refers to the money the bride’s family would be ready to invest in the wedding celebrations. The dowry could be given separately, either in cash or kind, from the total marriage budget cited by the bride’s family. Dowry could also be a part of the total marriage budget, depending on the parties involved in the negotiation. The groom’s side decides how they would like the budget spent, and divide it into sub-heads like caterers, venue, décor, clothes, and milni11 (coming together ceremony). The groom’s side could also take the entire amount and decide to organize the wedding themselves. For the Agarwal elite in this stratum, dowry does not involve consumer durables—that is considered fit only for working-class families. Their budgets are spent on expensive, elaborate weddings, a luxury car, or perhaps furnished flats. Kanika, who has a daughter of marriageable age, said, ‘The marriage budget is a good system. No unnecessary confusions about the groom’s family’s expectations or last-minute surprises come this way [sic]. However, one should be prepared for a slightly higher budget that is decided upon.’
In this game of ‘cost analysis’ (Bourdieu 1976: 551), the wedding budget for the bride’s side exhibits: life-long marriage savings of the family, the success of their own business (if they are a business-class family), money they would be ready to invest for the other daughters (p.234) in the family (if there are any), and the resources they have to continue giving ‘gifts’ to their daughters and in-laws for every small and big festival after marriage.
A big marriage budget means that daughters could marry upwards, despite not belonging to the same caste stratum as the groom. For example, Kanika, 52, came from a mixed family: her husband was a highly-paid professional in a private firm while her brother-in-law, living in the same house on a different floor, had his own business. She did not fit in the same stratum as women with intergenerational professional family businesses, or those with manufacturing plants; however, her family had a good reputation, and had been involved in the neighbourhood caste association since the previous generation. Kanika knew all the other elite Agarwal families through the caste association, kitty, and Rotary circles. She wanted her daughter Arunima to marry into a business-class family. When Arunima informed Kanika about her Punjabi professional-class boyfriend in the neighbourhood, Kanika managed to dissuade her from choosing him. Arunima was convinced by her mother, whose reluctance was not rooted in caste difference but in the fact that the boy did not earn enough to provide the lifestyle Arunima was used to and that Kanika desired for her. Studies on marriages in India argue that marital choices amongst the upper castes continue to be endogamous. At times they are expanded to embrace sub-castes or comparable castes (Nishimira 1998; Upadhya and Vasavi 2006). However, endogamous choices or weddings were read as events in themselves. Behind such decisions lies a careful steering through the sociology of familial love and material security. Kanika found an affluent business-class family through her kitty party contact. She also found out the budget expectations, which matched theirs. Her daughter Arunima was married to one of the four sons of a Delhi-based business family and she was not allowed to continue working after marriage. Thus, through her neighbourhood networks and a careful investment of the family’s savings, Kanika married her daughter upwards.
Similarly, the wedding budget for the groom’s side reflects the market worth of their business and its potential growth; the credentials of their son, the size and location of their house, and the family reputation, established through a grounding in the larger Agarwal community. When it comes to marriages of sons, parents (p.235) look for alliances in the same stratum and not in one above them. This is despite the fact that ‘marrying up’ would be a source of more economic and social capital for the business. This is because women realize that daughters-in-law from families above them would find it difficult to adjust. Women secretly spoke of families in their strata who had gone on to marry above their means only to have unhappy daughters-in-law and eventual separations. Daughters-in-law in Hill Lane then came from professional class families and the third stratum of Agarwals (living in parts of Rohini or Pitampura) as long as their status was comparable, budgets matched, and the sons were happy with the choice. Agarwal business families from the groom’s side with successful businesses were ready to contribute towards big budget weddings, as long as they and their families liked the girl.
Mothers help strike a balance between the choices of children and business interests. As seen in other studies, marital choices amongst the Agarwal business families in South Delhi are made through the joint involvement of parents and children (Donner 2008; Uberoi 2006). As friends and confidants of their children, mothers ensure that their choices are accounted for while still securing status-appropriate marriages. For example, Renuka’s, 59, son Piyush wanted a ‘modern’ wife who would respect his parents, work with him, and go partying with his friends. He came back from first ‘dates’ arranged by parents, unhappy with the women selected. Renuka had lived in Delhi from the time of her marriage without her mother-in-law’s supervision. She had an active social circle and did not want to ‘babysit her daughter-in-law’. She convinced her husband to select a daughter-in-law who was also a chartered accountant (CA) and could join the family business. Her daughter-in-law, Roshini, comes from a first-generation business family settled in Rohini.
Allowing daughters-in-law to work, however, continues to be a contentious issue in business families. Yamini’s daughter-in-law, Khushboo had been working in a corporate firm for four years before marriage. When she had got selected through campus placement, her father allowed her to work on the condition that she would quit her job as soon as a marriage match was selected for her. Yamini’s son’s proposal had come for Khushboo a year back. However, Yamini’s family had rejected it because Khushboo was working at that time. (p.236) The second time when the same proposal came Yamini’s way, she and her family decided to meet Khushboo. Yamini felt Khushboo did not have the ‘airs of a working woman’ when she met her. Everyone, including Yamini’s son, liked Khushboo. Khushboo said in her first interaction that she was really hurt when her father-in-law asked her ‘if she worked to support her family’. After marriage, Yamini put in her papers; however, her immediate boss, who had been happy with her work, told her he would retain her position for four months and she could rejoin if she felt she wanted to. Yamini did not hope to work after marriage, knowing that her in-laws would disapprove. However, after four months of marriage when she asked her husband, he did not have a problem and spoke to his parents on her behalf. Khushboo said, ‘My husband is the only son and the youngest child. He is really spoilt, and his parents listen to everything he says. This worked in my favour, or I could have never worked [sic].’
Women’s options to work outside the family or the family business, then, were dependent on the open-mindedness of their husbands or their acting as intermediaries for their wives. Yamini said she ‘respects her daughter-in-law’s and her son’s decision. The servant just has to pack one more lunch box in the morning’. Women in the neighbourhood now cite Khushboo’s case and Yamini’s progressiveness as examples of their professionally qualified daughters also being capable of working after marriage. This, however, depended on their good ‘fate’ which would help them find families like Yamini’s. The reliance on ‘fate’ shows the unpredictability and the lack of control women have in the situation. Renuka and Yamini’s case with working daughters-in-law shows a slow movement in the direction of accepting working daughters-in-law. However, this is far from the norm. Yamini’s second daughter married into an affluent business class family in Delhi, and was not allowed to leave her house unescorted; her time with her natal family was regulated and the money given to her for her personal expenditure had to be accounted for constantly. In Renuka’s case, her daughter-in-law worked in the family business, while Yamini’s daughter-in-law had an independent job in a corporate firm. Yamini did not want to join the family business as it was predominantly a manufacturing line and she was unsure whether she wanted to continue working after having a child.
(p.237) Working daughters-in-law in business families were considered unsuitable to the status of the family, as work is associated only with profitable earnings and not with self-growth or expression. The status reproductive roles expected of daughters-in-law has not expanded sufficiently to incorporate them working outside the family in class-appropriate jobs. When Kanika had met her husband for the first time, she was positive about her chances of working after marriage. However, after marriage when she expressed interest, her husband was unsure. Kanika said, ‘no one said openly I could not [work], but it was understood. Their other daughter-in-law and own daughter were not allowed to work despite being highly qualified’. Kanika joined her husband’s business on a part-time basis, but soon became restless as she felt her role was dispensable. Coming from a professional class family, having studied and worked in Delhi, Kanika wanted her own ‘project’, something to call her own. Mothers-in-law also realize that it would be counter-productive to the health of the family if educated daughters-in-law are actively discouraged. They encourage daughters-in-law to pursue their hobbies by opening small projects on the side, such as designing boutiques, learning through short-term courses like those in baking, or joining the family business and working a few hours a day. This added to the appeal of having a ‘modern’ daughter-in-law who was qualified, yet not required to work. Daughters-in-law would then have the flexibility of work hours, keep the status of being the daughter-in-law of an elite family, and be creatively entertained in the process. Kanika wanted to become a party planner and her mother-in-law was supportive of her plans. Women like Kanika’s sister-in-law and Rajini, who had two children in the school-going age group, were preoccupied as the primary caregivers of their children. On occasion, they volunteered in NGOs and helped their husbands in Rotary circles to organize events or host business dinners at home.
As opposed to their mothers-in-law’s generation, in which one can see a mix of frugality and display of wealth, daughters-in-law have consumptive lifestyles characterized by frequent foreign trips (accompanying their husbands on business trips), shopping trips with their friends and mothers-in-law, and wearing expensive jewellery in social circles and gatherings. Kanika said her life is about ‘khao, piyo, aish karo, shopping karo, paisa udao’ (eat, drink, have a good time, (p.238) shop, and spend money). Women in the mothers’ and mothers-in-law’s generation were allowed to wear salwar kurta much later in their lives. However, the restrictions of daughters-in-law clothing at Hill Lane were rare. They were allowed to dress according to their husbands’ friend’s circles. Kanika said:
My friends back home are surprised to see me post pictures with my in-laws in short dresses. Those who have been married in UP are not even allowed to wear suits. They feel very jealous. My in-laws are ‘modern’. My mother-in-law is also a lot of fun and she would have tried restaurant before us with her kitty friends. It is just regarding women working that they have a problem [sic].
To be an elite daughter-in-law is then to lead lifestyles that reflect the affluence of the family business. In this stratum of business families, the women who have good ‘fate’ have ‘fun’ mothers-in-law, who participate in shopping and eating out with them, allow the couple to have their own space and time, and support their daughters-in-law with their indulgences of side businesses or hobbies.
Higher education was a certain, but risky, requirement for the upgradation of family capital. If the family could afford to invest and spare both their sons for higher education, then it would be undertaken. However, it was usually the younger son—if he had a temperament for studies—who was sent to study abroad; the elder son would have a basic degree and be involved in the day-to-day management of the business. Daughters were also sent abroad for short-term courses. Pursuing higher education, however, posed a risk to the continuance of the family business. When Usha’s younger son, Rajat, sent to the United States to study further, seemed reluctant to return, Usha was quick to gauge his reluctance. Marriage alliances were sought and Rajat was married to Rachna during one of his visits to India. Consequently, Rajat came back to India to join the family business. Marriage is seen as a route for attaining social adulthood, responsibility, and prioritizing the needs of the family above oneself. In Roshini’s case, her son, after finishing his higher degree abroad, wanted to work in India in a private firm for some time, instead of joining the family business immediately. He worked there for a couple of years, and Roshini said that because he took so long to decide, her husband could not expand his manufacturing plant in time. Roshini (p.239) also suspected that her son was seeing someone, but did not want to ask him till he brought it up himself. Higher education could mean sons not wanting to join the family business or finding women they would want to marry. However, there are sons who, through their close bond with their family, do not want to choose women who have the potential of introducing any kind of ‘conflicts’ through their aspirations. Surya, 26, a third-generation real estate owner who finished a higher degree from a top business school in India was seeing his classmate, also an Agarwal. However, Surya said:
I realized she was very ambitious. She would not be able to accommodate [herself] in our kind of set-up. She came home and met everyone. They liked her. I have asked my parents not to look for women from MBA backgrounds. These women would want a separate house and work. This will cause conflicts. I am okay with women working, they can have their own boutique or pastry [shop,] but a full-time job will not work.
Futures of businesses depend on the marital decisions sons make and how well the new daughter-in-law adjusts in the family. Sameness facilitates easier incorporation; however, it is also essential to accommodate the desires of the daughter-in-law and not always forcing her to succumb to the needs of the family.
With an increase in age of marriage, children’s education and modern (consumptive) lifestyles, the fear of families splitting leading to a split in the business is real. A ritual to keep families united, affective ties strengthened, channels of communication functioning, and in the process ensuring the health of the family business, is to find time to spend together as a family. In the previous generation, spending time together was a given. All items of food were made at home, as women were frugal and were also wary of eating food prepared by people of unknown castes. In the current generation, however, the home is no longer the primary site of socialization. Eating out and parties are frequent, and children and parents have their independent friend circles. The ritual of evening snack sessions, going out on elaborate dinners once a month, foreign trips together, and celebrating festivals are some of the things women say they initiate to be a family in the everyday. Rituals help the different family units in the joint family, residing on separate floors and at (p.240) times managing separate manufacturing plants to set time apart for members of the family.
By focusing on women’s narratives from elite Agarwal family businesses, this chapter shows how women, despite being invisibilized in family businesses, play an important role in their reproduction. An increase in internal heterogeneities in urban caste groups, like the Agarwals, causes the upper strata to forge cohesion by strengthening inter-strata caste and family ties. Three strategies of reproduction used by women along with their families are discussed: inter-strata ‘social work’, intra-strata sustained socialization, and a negotiation of children’s individuation desires. This chapter shows how caste continues to act as a resource for the upper caste despite internal heterogeneities and the secularizing pulls of the urban.
As ‘agents’ in the processual structuring of caste and family businesses, elite upper-caste Agarwal women in the older generation are not passive. However, unlike Ostrander’s (1984) elite women, they do not sit on the boards of cultural and educational organizations. Their morally permissible sphere of socialization and mobility continue to be within extended caste and kinship networks. In the younger generation of women, however, there is a waning interest in these caste-marked spaces and an increase in individualized utilization of time and resources. Would this change the nature of capital dependence in family businesses brought about by the ‘modernity’ of its ‘caste-d’ actors? Attention to intergenerational elite gendered subjectivities and articulations of caste-d selves reveals the secularizing pulls of capital on Indian family businesses and the contemporary workings of Brahmanical patriarchy.
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(1.) ‘Hill Lane’ is a pseudonym for the South Delhi neighbourhood. Names and identifiable markers of all respondents have been changed to maintain anonymity.
(2.) The Agarwals draw their descent-based lineage to Maharaja Agrasen.
(p.241) (3.) The Punjabi Bagh Agarwal Women’s Association organized an annual fair where Agarwal, Jain, and Punjabi women rented shops and sold things they made or designed, such as jewellery, sarees, suits, and bags. These were advertised as ‘lifestyle’ festivals.
(4.) ‘Chamar’ is a blanket term used for Dalits working with leather and tanning Dalits. The Agarwals use it derogatorily to refer to anyone who is a Dalit.
(5.) The 18 Agarwal gotras are Garg, Bansal, Bindal, Bhandal, Dharan, Airan, Goyal, Goyan, Jindal, Singhal, Kansal, Kucchal Agrahari, Madhukul, Mangal, Mittal, Nangal, Tayal, and Tingle.
(6.) The neat distinction between Agarwal and Marwari, however, gets fuzzy in the everyday, with Marwaris actively participating in activities of the Agarwal caste association, Agarwal using varna (the four caste classifications) category Vaish instead of the jati (the endogamous caste unit) category Agarwal in public events to encourage Marwaris, Maheshwaris, and Jains to participate in their events and inter-marriages. The differences between Marwari and Agarwal further get complicated with categories like ‘Marwari Agarwal’ or ‘Agarwal Marwari’.
(7.) It would be erroneous to suggest a monolithic model for the diverse ‘upper’ caste groups, and I argue specifically for business castes and family businesses like Agarwal who unlike the middle class have a ‘narrow base of recruitment of caste’ (Markovits 2010: 128).
(8.) The Rotary Club is a part of the Rotary International, and in India, it has been divided into districts and zones. In the specific zone of which my respondents are members, membership is open to all, however, apart from two to three Punjabi families, the rest are all Agarwal. Membership through invitation means that it is an intimate circle of known people. Rotary membership overlaps with that of the caste associations. Families with successful intergenerational industries, however, were reluctant to participate in Rotary meetings and considered it a waste of their time. It was the men in professional firms along with their wives who were more inclined to participate.
(9.) Punjabi is a regional identity. I refer specifically to Punjabi business castes, such as Khatris and Aroras here.
(10.) A kitty party is a woman’s gathering that usually happens once a month. The ‘kitty’ refers to the amount each woman contributes on a monthly basis.
(11.) When the groom’s family enters the venue for the wedding; they are greeted by members of the bride’s family. Usually, it was a meeting of the men from both sides, in which gifts (in the form of money in envelopes or clothing) were given to all the close family members of the groom’s side.