Faked rags to riches stories that hide rather than tell

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By Garga Chatterjee

There are certain special positions in the brown world. Holders of some of these positions get an automatic license to give sermons to more than a billion people. These positions also come with a certificate of greatness, if not saintliness, and most usefully, an effective immunity from prosecution for any crimes one may have done. The position of the President of the Indian Union is one such. Of course, sermon are only grand when it is coupled with an occassion that is made grand by splurging public money. Teacher`s day is one such public money funded grand occassion. I am yet to come across a brilliant student or a great teacher who was inspired by sermons of the powerful on Teacher`s Day. I may have a small world. It is possible that Teacher`s Day sermon inspired people are out to transform this subcontinent at this very moment. But I have not seen them. In the Indian Union`s sarkari Teacher`s Day for 2015, its President Pranab Mukherjee spoke about his teachers, his school and his bygone days.

Shri Mukherjee said that he walked 5 kilometres every day to reach his school. `My life is my message` must be one of the oldest PR stunts in the world. The picture that was evoked in me by Shri Mukherjee`s publicly stated memory of his childhood was that of a child who walked to schools alongwith other children of the area. It is a picture of labour, hardship and determination in the face of a 5 kilometre walk. And the subliminal message I got was if Shri Mukherjee can get from there to where he is now, everyone can reach whatever their dreams are. Apparently, it has been prophesised even when Shri Mukherjee was young that he would become the Head of State one day. Most of the population has less ambitious dreams than that, and hence those should be more easily achievable. This picture of a 5 kilometre walk also has the quality of being not entitled, of being `self-made`, through merit and struggle, whatever that means for a Brahmin boy from a well-to-do family with a Congressite father who was a 3-time Member of Legislative Council, when Congress was the ruling party in Kolkata and New Delhi. The official website of the President of the Indian Union states he is `a man of humble origins`.

What this picture does not tell is that Shri Mukherjee`s class in his school was thoroughly unrepresentative of the caste composition of the area to `all` whose inhabitants the school supposedly catered. That was true then, that is true now for the schools where subsequent generations of such Mukherjees, Chatterjees, Jaitleys, Sardesais, Chaturvedis, Bhats, Mishras, Iyers, Namboodiripads and such others have moved to. `Other` people who could hardly enter the school now do the 5 kilometre trek. There is a caste-class pattern about who these `other` people are. They are the people whose caste numbers are being kept secret by suppression of the Socio-Economic caste census (SECC) data about the percentage of non-savarna castes, especially OBCs, in the Indian Union. There is `humble origin` and there is humble origin.

There is another aspect to this 5 kilometre walk picture. It gives the impression of a humbler, more austere time, when school density was abyssmal. Schools that are primarily expected to be attended by `others` are also in a hopeless state now. Austerity didn`t touch the Viceregal Palace then, and does not touch its renamed avatar called the Rashtrapati Bhaban. To metropolitan yuppies who are accustomed to store information by copy-pasting and not photo-copying, a longish walk to school also has the aura of being poor. But I have lived at the peak of the photocopy age and I photocopied, but I was never poor. Ashis Nandy points out this fashion among the historically well-to-do to falsely claim that they were poor or not rich. Is this to make the self-made through merit and struggle argument sound convincing, to get an ego-boost about achievements, to play down the defining role of inherited privilege in their lives?

Stories of rags to riches, chaiwala to King-Emperor, labourer to tycoon, obscures the statistical reality of the upward progress of the rest of the chaiwalas and labourers who have minimal chances of vertical movement in legal ways, irrespective of many miles they walk to school. These stories, of which the `American dream` is the Western Hemisphere version skilfully ignores systemic causes of exclusion – precisely because they are identifiable and changeable in a humane, democratic society. In its place, we have individual `human stories` of exceptions, labelled as products of grit, innovation, merit and hard-work, thus marking out the excluded as people who lack these qualities, as a group. Of course, building of my concrete home and cultivation of the paddy that ends up in my plate as rice, does not require grit, merit or hard-work. In a subcontinent of saints, sermons need to be decoded for what exactly they are.

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