Indians, in general, operate from a scarcity mentality. Whenever we queue up, we do so in great haste as though standing a few places back carries grave consequences. I have observed this even in international flights returning to India.
Today, the newspapers abound with stories of toppers achieving distinction in competitive exams. PUC, CET and JEE are some of the great abbreviations resounding in drawing rooms across India. Fathers and mothers who skimmed over such columns when their offspring were younger start devouring them word for word by the time the little blighters enter 10th class. Seats are booked in coaching centres or integrated schools. Kids are lectured over the crucial importance of the coming two years. But the heat doesn’t stop there. UG, PG and marriage. Each of these milestones is subject to tremendous gut-wrenching competition.
Competition is now woven into the fabric of Indian life. It is, in some ways, a positive sign of India’s socio-economic and cultural health. It shows that Indians are striving to achieve upward mobility. Competition can be a powerful motivational tool if properly channeled. However, if given free rein, it can be a corrosive malignant force which can wreck lives. My contention is that today’s increasingly cut-throat environment is artificially created and sustained by a society unwilling to relinquish memories of past privations. The general belief that unremitting drudgery over several years is crucial for survival in the modern world is, I believe, the greatest falsehood ever implanted in the minds of a whole generation of youth.
This raises the question: why has the hype increased so dramatically over the past decade-and-half? Were Indian parents less concerned with the well-being of their children earlier? I believe the answer lies in the summer of 1991, in the corridors of power in New Delhi.
The liberalisation of the Indian economy was an unprecedented phenomenon in modern Indian history. It signified the unshackling of the enterprise and ambition of one-fifth of humanity. Accumulation of wealth as a motivation for personal industry was legitimized. This led to fabulous prosperity throughout the demographic spectrum. According to a recent study, the average salary has risen seven times even after accounting for inflation. This has completely changed the lifestyle of Indians today. Yet, it is my considered belief that our mind-set has failed to keep pace with our success.
The Indian middle class (by which I mean the professionals) has for decades grappled with a lack of abundance. Our parents (in the pre- -91 era) and grandparents strove hard to achieve personal success and financial stability in the face of great deprivation inconceivable today. Therefore it is not surprising that the mind-set forged over the better part of a century hasn’t entirely been erased. This is not a completely negative heritage. Thrift is an admirable virtue we’d do well to learn from our elders. However when it comes to education and early employment many parents are still driven by ancient fears and insecurities. In the pre-91 era they couldn’t do anything about it. Now they spend vast sums in coaching and tuitions for competitive exams. In this they are heartily encouraged by coaching centre crooks like Narayana and Sri Chaitanya. These dangerous developments can cause incalculable damage to the very psyche of the nation.
At this point let us embark on a small historical digression…
The British aristocracy, notably in the Edwardian era, regarded their second sons with marked distaste. By the laws of inheritance the entire estate went to the first son. The younger son either went to the farthest reaches of the Empire to lord over the natives, or if fortunate enough he could become a gentleman of leisure. This involved jolly lunches at clubs (gentlemen clubs, not the Honey Singh ones), being extended guests at country houses, investing whatever small sums they could scrounge on horse races, playing darts – always nattily dressed – and in general passing time in convivial repose. They were cheerful blokes; sometimes a little fatheaded but always willing to admit it.
Of course, such a lifestyle is not possible today, nor is it entirely advisable. However there are certain points of interest in the lives of these young-men-about-town. We can learn from their appreciation of the fine things in life, their gay jollity and, most importantly, their sense of security and well-being even in the face of temporary indigence. We must learn to believe in our unique blend of skills and talents. Forget mere employment, a glorious career beckons every man (and woman) who’s confident in his abilities and mindful of his temperament and disposition. This is particularly true in 21st century India and we’d do well to remember it.