'Ego', morality and sophistication: The making of the Indian cosmopolitan person among urban youth in Kerala
Contrary to arguments about youth friendship in south India as a period marked by an egalitarian ethos by which more established hierarchies of caste and community are to a large extent rejected, this paper argues that youth-to-youth interactions among middle-class urban youth in Ernakulam are increasingly marked by strategies of distinction. The core objective of this paper is to draw attention to how peer group relations in and beyond schools play a critical role in the production of successful middle class subjects in India. To this end, the paper proposes a move away from the pervasive consumption-centric discourse that has infused debates about becoming and being middle class in India, to the idea of competence as a key analytical notion. Lashing onto the hype surrounding this moment of Indian history, in which being Indian entails being a ‘world citizen’, the emergent hierarchies among youth draw primarily from particular kinds of competences that are perceived to stand for a person’s cosmopolitan character. Specific focus is given to the experiences, perspectives and practices of three 17-year-old schoolmates of widely divergent backgrounds. Their experiences reveal that on the one hand the new hierarchies do mediate earlier categories of distinction (centrally caste, family background and class), allowing youth from more established middle class backgrounds to reify their status. On the other, this paper shows that other youth of less dominant positions actively sought to undermine or adapt to the cultural dominance of the former. This was creatively accomplished through cultivating mutually distinctive identities or by seeking to appropriate the cultural styles of dominant peers, always highlighting their globalised competence.
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