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In India, a shift to meritocracy uproots old elites

In India, a shift to meritocracy uproots old elites

Author: Anand Giridharadas
Publication: International Herald Tribune
Date: January 29, 2009
URL: http://www.iht.com/articles/2009/01/29/asia/letter.1-418331.php

'Oh my god! Akshay is your cousin? He and I went to Cathedral together. What a small world it is!"

It happens at every gathering of well-educated Indians from New Delhi to New Jersey to Nairobi. Two Indians, drawn from 1.2 billion, will suddenly discover an improbable connection.

It is a game of multiple choice: a) They were classmates. b) Their cousins were friends. c) Their fathers worked at Unilever. d) All of the above.

This connection-making was all around me growing up with Indian parents in the United States. I found it charming, never gave it too much thought. But when I came to live here five years ago, I began to see the cruelty built into this small world.

The world seemed small to this class of Anglicized elites because the vast majority of Indians were ineligible for it. Their grandfathers didn't go to one of the certified elite-spawning colleges, so their parents didn't, so they didn't. They didn't speak English in the faux-British accent that elites did, but in their own craggy, sing-song Indian way. Their idea of a great film was not Satyajit Ray's latest somber release, but a long, lush Bollywood musical.

The un-Anglicized formed a majority. But, in order to get ahead in the India now receding, there were certain mannerisms to possess, certain codes to know, certain connections to have. These the majority lacked.

Old-guard elites asked traffic cops, "Do you know who I am?" before speeding away. They filled their homes with servants and used them almost as performance art, their servility part of the status-boosting décor. When they gave directions, they relied less on landmarks than on others in their small world: "You know Anju's house? Take a left after that. Rohan's place is on the right. Cross it and take a left at Bunty's sister-in-law's."

But now it seems to be the end of this world as we know it.

Accounts of India's changes focus on its economic growth, its surging migration, its skyward construction: changes in outward trappings. Less apparent, but no less momentous, is the decline and fall of the Anglicized ancien régime.

Some in the old elite saw change coming. They sold inherited businesses, learned new professions, reined in maharajah-like spending. But many did not, and now a wave of aspirations is rising from dank slums and hopeless towns, crashing at last into the delicate structures of unearned privilege.

Quietly but unmistakably, a whole country is changing hands.

In cities, middle-aged graduates of India's leading colleges struggle to get their children into the same schools. With children of humbler backgrounds aiming higher than ever, even a 90 percent score on the entrance exam is no longer enough. This is the secret reason why, in a new age of Indian opportunity, many rich Indians still send their children abroad for college: not to escape India, but because their children are unable or unwilling to compete in an increasingly fair society.

The newspapers print photographs of those who "top" the exams. They are routinely scrawny and dark-skinned, drawn from the distant suburbs and villages, Indians whose ancestors might have cooked and cleaned for the ancestors of the students they now displace.

Visit the companies staffed by this new meritocracy, and you encounter a new elite. In the Indian offices of, say, Goldman Sachs or McKinsey, the paychecks are fat and the intellects razor-sharp. But they seldom speak English in the old, affected British way. They are coarser and yet more confident. They feel the world is theirs, but are less obsessed than the earlier elites with emulating the West. They are proudly indigenous, often preferring Indian food, music and movies to the alternatives.

They are changing the language. On television, on college campuses, in businesses, you hear new-economy elites who sound much more Indian than their predecessors, their English unapologetically peppered with Hindi: "Let's go have some khana. I'm hungry, yaar."

Rama Bijapurkar, an Indian management guru, has a theory for why Indians from simpler, small-town backgrounds are overtaking urban elites. Those in the former group often have drastically higher earning potential than their parents. The parents, needing retirement security, refrain from telling these children what to do. The children take risks, chase their dreams, do the things that breed success.

Elite children have an incentive not to rock the boat. Apartments cost millions. Cars and servants and cooks are not free, either. If they stay at home, tend to their parents, merely coast, all this can be theirs.

In Mumbai, this dualism is seared into geography. The northern suburbs were once backwaters. But areas like Bandra are now havens of energy, full of young people who come from elsewhere, thrive without parental string-pulling, pay their own rent, cook their own food. Meanwhile, in south Mumbai, the beauty and history of the place mask an impending social obsolescence.

The rot is palpable in the last strongholds of the Anglicized: the Bombay Gymkhana, the Willingdon Club and other such colonial-era hangouts. They are pretty places, steeped in (imperial) history, just splendid for tennis and a gin and tonic.

But to spend time in one of these clubs and then among, say, the employees of Google in Hyderabad is to visit two different countries, one withering, the other roaring.

At the clubs, they still all know one another, as their forebears did. They still utter "chap," "poorly," "atta boy." There are few Indian garments around. But the uncomfortable truth about the clubs is that they also operate today as a kind of insurance for India's nouveau pauvre.

Refreshments at the club are lavishly subsidized for members. It is expensive to join now, but if you were lucky to inherit membership, you can spend your days there, eating for peanuts, maintaining the appearance of prosperity, even if you have suffered in the new meritocracy and have little actual cash.

India's age-old tragedy, a lower-caste leader once told me, was that, in a system where roles were assigned by birth and not talent, everyone ended up in the wrong spot. Today, not all goes swimmingly in India. But it is a kind of forward progress when certain people slide backward, when a nation's elite is more regularly refreshed, fortified by the rigors of having to earn the lives they enjoy.


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