Articles of Faith, India, Revisited

‘This happens in India,’

I close my eyes, and the vast rush of Africa thrills like I can feel the mighty wind of the savannas in my hair.

Vivek would be in Zambia, shooting lions for National Geographic, he said. The picture is a difficult one for him to illustrate in the fog of the pre-dawn bender he’s just concluding, sprawled across the floor in the hall of a featureless 6th floor apartment in Chembur that he shares with his coworkers- engineers in their third year of work at a local truck company. The view from the floor to ceiling windows on his right, the one he wakes up to every morning is all flaming chimneys and the factory spires of a chemical and fertilizers plant that could give Isengard a run for its money. Zambia feels very far.

‘This happens in India,‘ he says, with a wry smile flickering on his lips. I think his eyes may have twinkled- once for something very old. His dreams have dried, wilted somewhere on a superfast highway he never stopped on. As I look at him now, with his bimonthly professional haircut now at least two weeks defunct and sagging in a sweaty mess upon his brow, I wonder what his thoughts were, during his most weightless moments- the excursions of his mind.

He tells me about the magazines. Born to language teachers, Vivek was no stranger to literature but the only books that seem to have made any impression on him were copies of National Geographic he received for his birthday from his uncle until he was 14. They were the most beautiful insight into the world beyond the small Uttarkhand hill station he’s from.

Ranikhet. The lush, verdant cantonment town of around 20,000 people sounds like it’s been lifted right out of a story by Kipling- a place littered with relics from our colonial past, full of lakes and streams and any number of waterfalls; a place where at dusk the sun sets last on the western-most peaks of the Himalayas, bathing their summit in a soft golden light that lingers until the rosy glow of the ‘pahadi’ twilight cedes completely to the thin, starry veil of the frigid night. This was the view from his childhood bedroom window, one shared across time, in humility, by Jim Corbett, Keki Daruwalla and many others. The hours Vivek spent scouring the pages of his uncle’s magazines had nurtured his perspective into a vision through which he wanted to capture the beauty and relevance of his surroundings, and utilize them as a means to express himself.

He was, after all, ambitious.

Crop 1880's PHOTO INDIA VIEW OF RANIKHET

Ranikhet, circa 1880

‘Andhon mein kana raja,’

Vivek grew up in a colony built by the East India Company to house military staff, his parents taught English and Hindi courses in government schools nearby. Being a first rate student, he was sent off to a district army boarding school when he was 11.

Run by an Anglo-Indian brigadier, the institution was tailored to provide a standardized education gleaned from the remnants of the British method dating back to the colonial era, complete with the Tom Brown setting and a singular focus on discipline. Being an army establishment, visiting officials and dignitaries would come to the school and give talks about patriotism and national defense, few of which Vivek ever attended. For all its talk about nationalism and retaining identity in changing times (something that used to lead Vivek to long arguments with his father concerning his job as an English teacher), it was a finable offense to be caught speaking in Hindi at the English medium school, and Vivek was a serial violator. As was usual in his circle of friends he would take off from the school premises at first opportunity to any one of a number of ‘jharnas’ nearby where he’d shed the navy blue blazer and striped tie school uniform, somehow extraneous without a Buckinghamshire backdrop to go, and swim in the clear cool waters of the ebullient streams of the hilly North.

Vivek says he cut his teeth on ‘reality’ in 9th grade and gave up his aspirations toward photography. Towards the end of the first half of the 2000’s, with the globalization tempest in full swing across the country and MNCs launching operations and markets in every major city, young Indians were beginning to find a host of new ways to use their education. Vivek saw his cousins and older friends find respectable, if conventional, employment and address their responsibilities towards their families and their upbringing far faster than used to be the norm. During the same time he also saw the varied ambitions of his classmates sieved evenly into medicine and engineering, as coming of age in a country spinning with the new energy of massive foreign investment clearly set practicality against, well, impracticality.

It isn’t hard to understand how these circumstances impacted Vivek to give up his longstanding dream, but the abrupt ruthlessness he did it with was startling. Earlier, he had spoken earnestly of having always known he could perform, in academics and much else, better than his peers. ‘Andhon mein kana raja,’ he said dismissively, but this was coming from a star student and athlete whose picture had been on those ‘state topper’ banners you see on roadsides until he finished high school. He would be ‘the best’ at anything he tried, and his success pushed him to adjust to the idea that if he wanted to, he probably should rise to the top of every list he signed himself up for. Perhaps he came to see employability through the same competitive lens that he viewed education with. Either way, he dedicated the next few years of his life to raising himself, further, to the absolute limits of the education circus and decided to go to Kota, Rajasthan- a coaching hub- to prepare for. All he had in mind at this point was his career.

Army School Certificate

Army School Certificate

…he was one of those peculiar kids solving questions from textbooks 2 or 3 years above his grade in school

Kota is a horrifying city. If you go there, you will be terrified,’ he tells me, ‘You don’t do anything else there (but study). It is the hub.’ 

Vivek is adamant I understand the gravity of his decision to go to Kota. His parents, seasoned educators, knew exactly what he was getting into. For a student of Vivek’s caliber it was the only logical step to take before appearing at the All India Engineering Entrance Examination, the results of which would determine the course of the better part of the rest of his life. He ranked in the top 1 percent in that exam, at number 2017 amongst 300,000, a feat that got him into NIT, one of the best rated universities in India.

In the year he spent in Kota, he says he realized that there was nothing special about him. Nothing about what he had achieved and what he had given up stood out among the trials and sacrifices of the many thousands of other students he met there. He called Kota a place where ‘machines are made, programmed to do things that would make them the best in the world.’ He reminded me of a Chinese student I had met in Edinburgh. This guy was doing a Masters in chemical engineering, studying plastics. A little surprised, I’d asked him how he’d come to develop an interest in plastics. He told me it was no such thing- he had given an exam and the government had decided to allot him to a subject according to his score. I asked him what it took to get into arts, and why he hadn’t gone into that ‘field’ if it was easier, as is the case in India. He said that it is nearly impossible to get into arts because only the highest scoring students qualify.

Vivek is something of a mathematician; he was one of those peculiar kids solving questions from textbooks 2 or 3 years above his grade in school. Today, they have him figuring out itineraries and overseeing sales and shipping at AMW trucks.

He and his colleagues are paid well for what they do, but probably ‘more than we deserve,’ observes a fellow NIT graduate who lives and works with him. Vivek’s situation clearly touches the heights of the ‘best case scenario’ as far as education and employment go. The prospects are endless, if slow to mature, and the potential is undeniable.

It is disappointing to observe that Vivek’s story just kind of middles and while he did earn the security he was looking for, it’s difficult to say he enjoys it very much. I have this empty feeling that there’s an army of hard working, hard drinking Indian geniuses in this country chasing after spare parts and processing email inquiries that would otherwise have been shaping the face of our nation at unexpected and groundbreaking avenues. But the national fear of failure persists and breeds within most a reluctance to experiment, to wander within themselves and explore not only what truly makes them happy, but even what they can be most productive at. It isn’t hard to boil down the issue at hand to the tyranny of circumstance, national or otherwise; or to our half-baked system of education- the one that was imparted to us by our colonial masters to educate us to a degree that would enable us to be more dynamic in our servitude. But must we?

Vivek in his flat

Vivek in his flat

…we’re only wetting our lips from a cup when there’s an ocean of possibility we remain… ignorant of

It is fruitless to blame the British at this point; they’ve been gone for a while now. The real problem is that other one- circumstance.

The fact is that things are no longer dire. Actually, things have been getting better and better, and I’m not one to pick a fight with the statistics. But however better off we might be than whatever we’ve been comparing ourselves with, it is my unshakeable feeling that as a nation, we stopped too early, and still on our colonial tracks, at the earliest signs of actual prosperity and said, well this is it, we’re here. India has always been bridled with the best, but we found contentment too many trials too soon, and we put a label on it and declared it right and practical. Vivek could have settled for the peak at his bedroom window, but fueled by the belief that he could invent a future for himself among churning things, he chose a different one- a faraway one that can barely fit itself upon the landscape where it now stands.

But that is not my problem with his situation. My problem with his situation is that he got there, and it’s boring, and it shouldn’t be. Not for him. But it’s the same story all over. By charting our perception of success and satisfaction on maps of experience drawn generations before us, we’re only wetting our lips from a cup when there’s an ocean of possibility we remain, in congress, quite ignorant of. But who’s to launch a debate on the mass perspective of a nation that gets by?

Vivek tells me that the only instance of failure in his academic life occurred when he was 4. Tasked with drawing an apple for some kind of exam, he drew a beautiful one and coloured it black, despite having spent the night before practicing the same endlessly with his mother, in the right colour. ‘I still don’t know why I did that,’ he says, it seems to be something he’s wondered about on occasion. Had it been some kind of act of preemptive mutiny, an early premonition of a rebellion that would never materialize? The black apple hangs in his childhood home, a vision of possibility framed unwittingly by his mother on a wall in his room, a constant reminder of untaken paths to ponder over whenever he can steal a couple of weeks off work and take the train home. Ominously, he says he will ‘return’ to photography and the other things he’s put off when he’s 40 or 50. It’s a feeling a lot of us know.

I feel like I have shared sweet smiles with the gone children, a generation of men and women who never had a chance to wander at leisure and examine their souls. It is a generation doomed to the turmoil of uncertainty concerning its decisions and the guarantee of the now classic executive mid-life crisis that goes with a moderate monthly salary. They are deaf to the calamity of their situation. ‘This happens in India,’ and dreams are lost, regurgitated in a youthful mist that vanishes a little more every day. But between every shaft of the harsh glare of the sun is shade, and we thrive there.

Vivek is asleep on the floor, surrounded by empty glasses and a bottle of rum he couldn’t quite finish. I lift his jacket, a Pepe Jeans sleeveless fleece, from the sofa-cum-bed adjacent to the window and throw it over him. Shimmering in the shaky glow of the flames from the fertilizer plant, a Union Jack glares at me dimly from the back of it.

The night speaks in tongues; I switch off the lights and leave.

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