Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Ugly, Black People

"Today's lesson is on self-respect," said Captain Mehta, as he walked into the class with a smile. "Apne aap ko kisi se kam nahin sochna (don't think that you are inferior to anybody)", he told the class and I believed that this lecture would be far more interesting than the previous one we had on 'Communication Skills'.

"No matter who you are and immaterial of what job you do, you must always believe in yourself. Whenever you feel down and low, just say these words to yourself - 'I am also great.' " Makes sense, I thought. He was speaking about the same things which are talked about in spiritual texts, self-help books and personality development courses.

Then, directing his gaze at the frail lad sitting in the first row, he asked him to stand up. He subsequently asked the guy next to him, Rohan, to stand up as well. Rohan stood at about six feet and with dark, curly hair, he had a wheatish complexion. Captain Mehta then asked the frail Marathi lad on the left, "Kunal, tu yeh bata (tell me)... who among you both has a greater personality?" (as if it a quantity you can measure using the sabzi-wala's beam-balance)

Kunal looked at Cpt. Mehta with his bright, dark eyes and he laughed. "Mera hi better hai, sir!" (I have a better personality)

Clearly, Kunal had understood the lesson in Self-respect and I was about to clap as I thought the experiment  was complete. But Cpt. Mehta spoke once more: "Kya hai yeh, Kunal! How can you say you have a better personality... Look at yourself - you're small and black. And look at him - he's well built, muscular, has great complexion and he looks so confident."

Kunal nodded. There was nothing much else he could do. Then Captain Mehta said, "But tumhe aisa sochna hi nahin hai (you mustn't think like this)... So what if you are dark? You must think that you are equal to others... And THAT, Gentlemen, is Self-Respect." He said that last line with great pride.

So that's the lesson we're teaching people these days, eh? It's OKAY if you're dark. It's not your mistake if you're black. Or, as another gentleman phrased it a few days ago, "Bhagwaan ne banaya hum sab ko (God made us all) And sometimes, he wants to put us in our place... Not always can he give us all that we want." And then I thought about what I read on Quora a few days ago, "We're definitely not a racist country. Look at all the values we are brought up with." Values, indeed.

While I thought that this lesson on 'self-respect' was the worst one I had ever been taught, what made my blood boil was the subsequent lecture we had. "Hi, my name is S.K. Sra," said the man who hobbled into class. I forget what the content of his lecture was about because I couldn't get over this one 'example' he talked about:

"When I was in Barnala, Punjab, in my youth, I used to be a teacher in a school... and I got to interact with many little children. But there is this one incident I remember about this little girl," he said. "She was the daughter of a Commanding Officer and he was my friend. She was from Tamil Nadu, and like a lot of people from the south, she was very dark... And to make matters worse, she was surrounded by beautiful girls from Punjab. I observed her for a while and she looked very sad... I knew at once what was the problem..."

I knew where he was heading but I controlled myself. He continued - "I told her that it doesn't matter if she was black... All she had to do was be smart. Be intelligent. And she could have friends... So what if you are dark? You can overcome your difficulties by being smart. Everyone loves smart people and besides, we don't discriminate on the basis of skin colour!"

"You fucking idiot, if this is not discrimination, then what is it? People don't want your pity for being dark - they are as pretty as you are; prettier actually, as their stomachs aren't falling out of their pants like yours." I don't know if people understand this - but if PITY is the emotion you feel for people darker than you, then you are a racist.

Sometimes, I wish I'd been born as dark as coal, just so that I could have heard someone try to be condescending to my face... And then I'd have carved his guts out using a kitchen knife. I'm sure the courts would see the violence as provoked. And it'd be totally worth the Prison time.

All these incidents has one looking at other aspects of this ugly society: cosmetic products which promise to make you white, our abysmal attitude towards African tourists, the fact that most of our 'backward castes' are dark-skinned... The list goes on.

Ultimately, one looks at the ruling class and is left bewildered: there aren't many dark-skinned politicians in a country where a massive portion of the people are dark, and I'm not talking just of South India. Many people from states like Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and West Bengal are as dark as people from the South. So, why no dark leaders? (except for Mayawati and a couple of others) Are we really a forward-thinking people? Or do we still think it's below our dignity to be ruled by a man or woman who is darker than us?

On that note, I wonder how many votes Mayawati got from the fairer upper classes of Uttar Pradesh when she won...

Apart from politics, what provides a snapshot of India's zeitgeist better than the media does! I turned to the Television Channels and Bollywood, with only one question in my mind - 'Are we really that racist?' I'll let you answer that question yourself but first I'd like you to name five Bollywood heroes who are darker than the average Indian. Wait, forget that: Name two Bollywood heroes who are as dark as the average Indian. There's no point talking about heroines here as the darkest lady is probably Bipasha Basu, and she covers herself with enough paint so that she can fool the audience.

As a country, we are proud of calling ourselves secular and we boast about our religious tolerance. We say that we are empowering women and alleviating gender inequality. We talk about taking steps to remove caste-ism in the society. But what about racism? We are racists even before we know what caste someone belongs to. Why don't we acknowledge that?

If we weren't: We'd have had a few black news-readers by now. We'd have had a black prime minister. And what the hell, we would have a black Bollywood heroine.

Monday, 2 July 2012

The IIT Phenomenon

The entire hullabaloo about the Joint Entrance Examination (JEE) has dimmed down at long last as the Indian Institutes of Technology have finally reached a consensus with the genius revolutionary that is Kapil Sibal [sarcasm sign]. While I'm quite glad that insane suggestions of doing away with the JEE altogether have been put to rest, I disagree with the way many of the 'intellectual elite' of the country argued their case.

I heard many rise up in fury, saying that the Joint Entrance Exam is the only possible way to gauge intelligence and problem solving skills, and that all other exams are doing little more than burdening the students with extra workload. They said, and I quote, 'I know people from remote villages of Bihar and Andhra Pradesh who did abysmally in their respective school board exams despite acing the JEE and making it into the IITs.' This, they said, is proof that our board exams misrepresent how intelligent people really are.

This is not really an argument; if it is, it's rather feeble - laughable, even. I can retort by saying that I know a whole lot of people who did perfectly well in both the tests and that all these cases cannot simply be dismissed as mere coincidences. Or it could be argued that a fair portion of intelligent junta do extremely well in a lot of other challenging tests but fail to crack the JEE simply because they aren't good enough on the day. Surely, there is an element of luck involved - in some cases, more than in others.

Many people who consider themselves part of the Indian intelligentsia have a ready response to this though: 'There is no luck involved,' they say. 'The board exams are looking for all the wrong qualities in a prospective engineer. There is a lot of rote involved and innovative problem solving is not something they test.' This statement if true, at least in part, but what takes away a lot of its credibility is what happens to students once they are inside the IITs. Aren't Cumulative Grade Point Averages largely dependent on how much a student learns by rote? I know a handful of absolutely brilliant students who'd derive formulae during exams and solve them only to hear from peers after the test that the professor had given them the formula in class the previous day. So, if learning formulae by rote is all that's required to make it out of an IIT with decent grades, shouldn't board exams be sufficient for getting into them in the first place?

But I suppose that with limited seats being available, it is in the interest of the institutes and in the interest of the country in general, if people who pass what is acknowledged to be a difficult test take up the aforementioned seats. What this does not say however is that people who don't make it through these tests are imbeciles who cannot discover water in an ocean. People have told me that the JEE is a greatest thing because it removes all inequalities. They say that in a nation with such economic and academic disparity, it is impossible to compare a person studying in poor schooling conditions in Jharkhand with a person who enjoys the best schooling facilities available in New Delhi, if not for the JEE. While the first part of the statement is entirely true, 'inequality' is an issue which the JEE tackles very poorly, if at all.

It is still impossible to compare students studying in IITian manufacturing centres in Kota and Andhra Pradesh with students without these facilities in certain other parts of the country. Besides, there can be no monitor for 'innate intelligence'; no matter what we do, we will remain victims of circumstance. What the JEE does tackle, however, is another issue altogether. The various boards across the country - the state boards, the CBSE, the ICSE etc - have such different standards that an even comparison cannot be made using tests conducted by these bodies. This is fairly true even if a percentile based system is used across all these boards. So a common test which everyone strives to ace is a justifiable solution.

So, while the JEE is seen as the ultimate prize for people outside the system, especially people still waiting for their chance to have a go at 'glory', IITians see it as something entirely different. It is a life-giver - a source of immense confidence and something which tells us that we are capable of doing anything. Sometimes, even in the most impossible situations, I tell myself - 'This can't be hard. This can't be harder than the JEE anyway.' What the JEE in effect does is bring together a group of fairly talented, immensely confident people. And frankly, this is what makes IITs so very special.

What is disturbing, however, is to see this confidence turn into vanity and vainglory. While it can be argued that it's one of the toughest engineering exams in the world, it isn't very smart to say that people from the IITs will be the best options for any available job profile. No, it isn't possible to argue that by putting in a few hours into 'Accountancy', an IITian could so easily become a Chartered Accountant, whereas a CA couldn't hope to get into an IIT no matter how much 'Integral Calculus' he/she studies.

I wonder if I'd be wrong in saying that a majority of the people still fresh out of one of the seven, enter the world thinking that they are worth more than someone from another institution. And I think it is deplorable that two people doing the exact same job should be paid on different scales just because one person is from an IIT. The fact that this happens only stands testimony to the point I'm trying to make.

There is still another attitude almost as disturbing as vanity, but worse for growth - Complacency. Today, so many IITians are so happy with what they have 'achieved' that they think there is nothing else worth getting in life. Sadly, these people see IIT as a goal and not as means to one. A group of institutions which has developed a reputation based on the hard-work, determination and skill should expect more from its people or risk dying as a brand. 

So, while it is an indisputable fact that certain IITians have brought about significant change to the country we live in, there is so much left to be desired from people who claim to be the nation's most talented people. Maybe it is time to forget vanity and that falsely based sense of greatness, and believe that we still have everything left to prove to the world. What the IITs have given you is something precious. Please let it not be wasted on you.