The new inequality

I have arrived in Chennai as a postgraduate student, a small-town girl eager to have flown the nest. This southern Indian city on a sultry May afternoon feels like the first shelter to run into after one escapes. I step inside the flat I am sharing with three other girls as part of the residential programme that would prepare me for journalism. The girls tell me they are from “Bangalore”, “Trivendrum” and “Calcutta”, the big metropolitan cities of India I have only read about in magazines. I settle down but the milieu around me is reasonably stirred. They don’t expect someone like me to get in, but I have. I don’t get the barbs they casually throw at me. I don’t eavesdrop but I can sense they whisper when I am in the bedroom. Sometimes, on television, the girls bond over cinema and crack jokes in their mother tongues but this is not Hindi or English, the only languages I understand. I stay in my room reading when this happens. Sometimes, I escape to a small bunch of girls from North India, situated closer to the Hindi-speaking national capital New Delhi, who stay on the floor above. They unfailingly mention they studied at Delhi University, the apex university of the national capital, but they learn to love me, I realise, and often call me the girl with nerves of steel. I don’t know if I am worthy of this praise but I take it that hailing from Patna and finding myself to be ambitious and striving must be courageous, something no one expects us to be but this is what defines underdogs, I convince myself.

In my poverty-stricken home state Bihar, academic excellence is not a badge to wear; it’s a necessity we all live for or we know we will be doomed. We don’t brag about doing well because where will we be if we don’t! The details on my place of belonging is folded away as a secret in favour of listening to the languages I didn’t understand, stories I was gleefully told but could never tell them mine because no one asked, and the countless judgements that would jolt me out of the cocooned upbringing I had in my home state overnight. In this new world where I came to seek equal opportunities, I was an outsider, the odd one out in the tight-fisted fabric of regional privilege that allowed no diversity, not a flicker of difference it could respect.

“You don’t look or speak like a Bihari. You sound more like someone from Bombay!” A classmate remarked within weeks of my arrival as we headed to the juice shop on Mount Road where she would often attribute my pink cheeks to the orange juice I was drinking everyday as afternoon snack. I would internally scream – I was born with apple red cheeks!

But in their world, people from my world are impoverished, dark, and to suit the preconceived narrative, always pale, our molars protruding like hungry dogs. We just don’t do any better, wherever we go, whatever we do. Brightness and brilliance belonged to the other worlds, not ours. Many wouldn’t miss a chance to probe me on politics, literature and law, just to fathom how deep I could go, or how shallow. One of them once dragged me on once in online yahoo group, deriding me for my food, my clothes, and language. Not a single condemnation to this discrimination came publicly, not a whimper, not even humanity for someone they had secretly, unilaterally declared an outcast. That day, my hands refreshed the mail browser all day as the caustic words in the group floated on my screen, waiting for one nod to the pain I was experiencing, the alienation I felt, the hatred I was subjected to. There was no mention, nothing at all, of the ethnic onslaught that passed as casual slug fest. The mail I was hoping for never came. I held on to the response I had feverishly typed, and by evening, I saved this as draft never to open again. “I don’t care and I don’t want to respond to the ugliness,” I told a friend trying to sound cool even as my heart smouldered in scalding flames of humiliation and rage.

When I arrived in Chennai for the first time, I realised people like me have to travel outside of our state to contest the million perceptions hurled at us. Everyday conversations can do the job – their ignorance becomes their excuse to bully, their judgement becomes their conviction, and their twisted, half-baked view of the world becomes the last word in conversations. Many conform to this matrix of social exchanges, change or silence themselves to fit in, and eventually dissolve into the metropolitan smoke that engulfs all differences and makes our non-conformist sliver merge into the asphyxiating norm. If you don’t, you aren’t welcome. This is the other world, and we are never welcome unless we change the way we speak, the words we claim as indigenous to us, the colour of our skin, our freedom to be without inviting their disdain, pity or ridicule. Our cultural capitulation may reward us with patronising praise, open doors. Our silence or indifference earns alienation, a cold shower of invisibility that would bury us if we weren’t good. And sometimes, being good is not enough.

Racism is soul-destroying. Many years after that year in Chennai, I am still deeply triggered by any hint of racist experience, mine or others. Just months after that year in Chennai, I started work in a newsroom. My long hours at work and passion for my job were never seen without the prism of the regional backwardness I couldn’t shrug off. “People like you always had to work hard to be taken seriously, you know what I mean” “Competition is in your poverty-stricken state’s DNA” – surviving as someone of less means or little regional privilege in India is like a Maths equation – we are always calculating our risks, making ourselves rock solid in the process to avoid falling through the cracks. Oh, and it would be criminal to even mention racism, the internal conflict and insidiousness of it all. Racism is much too powerful – it enters the most joyful of experiences, frays the edges and lingers long after the offense is over.

A death of a rising film star in Mumbai last year brought it all back to me like a storm I believed I had survived. The star committed suicide and it unleashed a barrage of public opinion on why he took his own life. But in all the noise going around me, I could only feel like I could have been that person. Shining star and all. Introverted, intense, quiet, mind buzzing with a million photons a second. No patience for small talk, lobbies, networks. No friends for benefits, a world of one’s own, dreams to follow, hearts to please, world to make better. Idealism and identity, one complimenting the other. No part of you to sell, no part of others to buy. Values over money, dreams over destination. I have scanned every possible media report on the death and watched countless videos. I am struck by the revelation his death has brought, an important detail he carefully avoided mentioning in his interviews for years: he was born and raised in Patna. Now, they say he remained an outsider; he was never accepted; his good work little acknowledged by an industry where nepotism thrives and where an influential surname trumps hard work and talent. Exceptions exist but exceptions don’t make the rule.

I am regressing into the past, to the place where education is the widely accepted route for intergenerational mobility, for a career, for social prestige, for escape out of poverty. So, the middleclass boy from Patna started off excelling at academics, eventually to realise that he loved to act. Years of struggle in theatre, television and finally, fledgling stardom in a deeply unequal industry. Sure, others have been there too – like a unitary flicker in a deep dungeon that blocks out redeeming rays of opportunities.

Haven’t we all been naïve to equate getting an education with fairness, equal opportunity and acceptance? So what if you are bright and can work hard to get what must rightfully belong to you, but some things are still defined by your roots, by the selfish decisions made by people you vote, by the poverty and absence of enterprise that stifles your dreams but must continue to define you even if you run away from it the first chance you get. I don’t know what I’m saying today. I guess what I mean is that sometimes we just don’t know what the casual inference drawn from contexts we cannot shed and neither are we responsible for, can continue to define us, and the worst thing is, we no longer may know what or who we are. Days when we hear the yearning within us to burn the premediated paths and arise out of our circumstances to dazzle, and then, the days when we allow the unfair prejudices and perceptions to overwhelm us. We no longer remain the person we are, and we see the world crashing around us. We allow others’ negativity to swallow our voice, so much so that when we speak, we hear them, not ourselves or the people who believe in us. We hear them outsiders way too much and that one day eliminates us. Death is never a sudden event; it proceeds like the supersonic wave on a long holiday that we can’t hear and cannot escape. Our courage or our burning ambition, nothing matters when the other voices, outside of us, become our master.

Creativity is the measure of beauty humans can create, but it’s also a curse. The world may not be kind to our craft, instil doubt instead of inspiration, and that’s the beginning of disbelief in oneself. When I started writing, first in school and later as a journalist, I remained a closet storyteller, unsure of every word I wrote. I didn’t build an echo chamber. I didn’t know I had to have a mutual admiration club where I could exchange favours. Writing was art, straight from the heart, not a commodity to be sold or traded in barter. Appreciation is a cruel construct. Once we accept its influence, we are doomed for disaster. Yet, heart craves it and works to turn its infidel gaze in its favour. Some defy, rejection or no rejection, like SSR, and it may not end well. Perhaps, art in some form resists it because it fears its corrupting influence, its disrespect for the craft, its pandering to the norms, its mediocre standards. Our resolve to stick to our art alone can break us. To watch that happening can break those who watch.

I am breaking apart too, as I revisit the past and tie its cruel reminders to the pain in the present. I don’t really know what I can call myself, in a fast disintegrating world. Biharis are the George Floyds of the world, but we don’t make a race, and that’s enough for us to bear indifference or ridicule and carry on as if nothing happened. I have, for years. Many do. Meritocracy can take the same plea but that has lost fervour in a world of deepening inequalities. Being poor or deprived draws attention, but not all of us fit into the frame they consider important to their activism. Sometimes, not being poor or deprived becomes our nemesis, our invisibility, deliberate erasing of our struggles. In the past few weeks, they would argue, millions of them have raged and agitated for millions of us. I know. I have read reports of millions of migrant workers from Bihar sparking a conversation on privilege. All some of them had to do was to get together and feed them, buy them tickets or throw microphones in their faces to draw out their miseries, sometimes with tear, sometimes with fear. I don’t undermine any of this. But death of a bright spark amongst us, someone who challenged the status quo and unearned stardom of several newcomers with lots left to prove, doesn’t affect them the same way a walking crowd of migrants did. The scale of misery and deprivation, I know, are different. A little push to the already fallen doesn’t threaten anything but reduces the burden of guilt enormously – a mountain cleared from their hearts without losing any of their fortune. Even as I write this, I feel shame that I am pointing at this as if no good was done, that I should be drowning in gratitude, that I am reeking of privilege or ignorance or bitterness in comparing the two. Oh. But today, I must, without worrying too much about what others make of it. Today, I should hear my voice and make it heard too.

When you are a teenager in Bihar and you ask for space or demand to be heard, those who hold power over your situation pat on your back, saying, “Bahut chatpatiya bachcha hai. Seekh jaayega (the child is restless, will learn with time)!” You learn to learn the way you are expected, or you snap out, rudderless. You swimmingly endeavour to survive, you build a wall, you smile excessively to shield your pride from breaking because in all else exposed to risk in combat, pride is what artists protect. Pride is sovereign choice, the freedom to make mistakes and claim them as learnings, to reject cages, to fight adversity, to draw from the roots to craft your wings and fly. Yet, the roots that you so need to flower – where it takes you and what it does, isn’t the choice you can make. You could choose to discard it, many do, but your abdication of your identity is never final. Living with it is neither. And, for the George Floyd in you, there is no revolution waiting.

Your birth place and your caste at birth aren’t the choices you make. You realise it as soon as you step outside of your comfort zone, your home, your circle of joy, and that’s only good. You either begin to hide or you begin to invent answers that may lie somewhere between fact and fiction. Or, you claim it as an act of defiance. You could change religion to overcome cast; you could migrate and change the city in Aadhar. You learn to hear Bengalis speaking Bengali, Tamils speaking Tamil, Malayalee speaking Malayalam. You accept that you wouldn’t speak your mother tongue unless you are back in the village, or that even your fellow natives would lie to you about their roots even though you know the truth. What’s left of identity leaves you – words, pronunciation, slang, manner of conversations and socialising, the love for mother’s food, father’s woollen monkey cap, the festivals, the songs, and the cinema. Yet, culture is like flavour – it seeps in and defines the taste of satisfaction, belonging, fulfilment. You couldn’t let go even if you wanted.

Must what you achieve depend only upon the choices and efforts you make or is predetermined by factors beyond your control? This is not an easy question. For centuries, thinkers, philosophers and policy makers have debated it and generally agreed that the returns to efforts made by individuals of different family backgrounds and regions were different. Right from the United States to Europe, various studies now define the definitive new agenda on the role of one’s family background or place of birth in the overall achievement of an individual, be it earnings or cognitive ability.

You are a cog in the wheel if you come from disadvantaged ethnic communities, heavily defined by place of birth or race, in America, Europe or Asia. It leads to lower earnings, low intergenerational mobility, long term poverty, stunted access to opportunities befitting your skills. Patterns of income mobility may rise but won’t tilt in your favour to make any lasting change in poverty. The pervasive inequalities of opportunity stem from dwindling social justice and inclusive growth. In India, this gets worse. Caught in the muddle of caste, region, religion and languages, you fight discrimination. Inequalities based upon caste and ethnicity in education, employment and income, inequality based on perceptions – these haunt you until you adjust, make peace or get lucky. You couldn’t control these however hard you would try. You need policy interventions because this discrimination leads to social exclusion and violation of civil rights. Superior social status ascribed to people at birth and the incalculable privileges that come with it accentuate the historical divide and spawn new inequalities.

This misery is deadly at all levels. Imagine yourself dying because someone sabotaged your business idea. Can happen, so don’t dismiss it as clinical depression. Those fond of tracking roots and forming perceptions can start with tracing roots of depression that lead people to the unthinkable. You are the one with opportunities in your hand. People you know and love – friends, friends of friends, your children and theirs – they are all on a flower bed worrying about the delayed deliveries of their luxury handbags or cakes. Across the road from you, outside your offices, in schools and theatres across India, people you don’t know and don’t care about are lying on the thorns waiting for roses and they believe a bit of good gardening and fertiliser would bring to them a bouquet. Even as they wait, sometimes for years and sometimes for a lifetime, you have sponsored dozens of films, endorsed award shows and launched star kids. Under your nose gathers the smell of stardom; in your hands are the recipes for stardom. What does it take for you to raise those hands in prayer? What really is your prayer in a world where there is no God we can see? Perhaps, a raw talent that is gold, but it needs you to see it. When you have seen it, you need to go further. You need to create a platform where they could walk in and perform. If you don’t have the heart, walk away without violence, rejection, xxx. Don’t fix destinies; don’t make or break lives. Because influence and wealth without generosity are like sex without pleasure – it may be easy to find but hard to relish.

Across the city that never sleeps, your bungalow facing the sea, you hear of deaths on social media and you being you, perhaps the theatrical best in vanity, post a bare-it-all post, mush and compassion remix without meaning anything. You ride the social buzz with ruthless regularity one more time, without single heartbeat skipping.

Your throne of privilege is safe and has one contender less. The world of activism around you is moving from issue to issue, finding new subjects, new horizons, new miseries. Days pass. The privilege grows. The boys and girls waiting for a break disappear even as several more line up, invisible to your eye and hence, invisible to the world. You would never gift them cars, clothes or handbags. You wouldn’t ever meet, protecting the circle you grew up in and your children now must. Outside of this circle, a boy may someday whisper: “I don’t care anymore.” He would sparkle, then jostle, then dazzle more. Someday, there will be silence and he would blame it on exhaustion. One day, he would go very, very far while getting caught in the web of all the confusion: “Am I good? Am I not?” He’ll battle the answers you would give though it may not even require your words, just your cold rejection. This rejection isn’t a test for emotional intelligence. Don’t tell me how emotions run high in your parties, award functions, your intimate worlds – you all break down, and you all then pat and lift each other. See, that’s the thing – you don’t allow your weakness to amplify; you work on dissolving the boy’s courage.

What you can give isn’t all he wants or is capable of. He may be more but you don’t understand. This is the only power you exert and you care about all it can do – and you don’t see beyond it. The onetime meals, the slum existence, the inconvenience of rain under a leaky roof, the aching calves after a day outside your office – this is inequality not visible to the naked eye or decipherable in an economist’s paper on inequality. This inequality of opportunity affects everyone, at all places, across industries. What you turn a blind eye to will be measured in blisters, in deaths, in footprints that will walk and talk and protest and shine and stay on, longer than people, networks and influence. They will do this for decades, until the knowledge that deprivation and denial is not acceptable becomes the defining ache of their existence. Incredible how you will drive the change without wanting one spark of it.

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