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The Caste Buster


1947-2014 (Archived)
Jun 17, 2004
The Caste Buster
Published: December 30, 2010

I came to Umred to write about a riot. A few months earlier, power blackouts that rural Indians always suffered silently triggered a violent reaction. Why? Umred was just another small town in the middle of nowhere, dusty and underwhelming. But Umred had begun to dream, townspeople told me, because of television, because of cousins with tales of call-center jobs and freedom in the city. Once Umred contracted ambition, blackouts became intolerable. A psychological revolution, a revolution in expectations, had taken place.

“Electricity is essential to ambition,” an energetic young man named Ravindra Misal explained to me, “because I need it to do my homework, I need it to listen to music if I am a dancer, I need it to listen to tapes of great speakers, I need it to surf the Internet. But I cannot, so people get angry.” Over plates of mutton and chicken, Misal and his friend Abhay offered examples of the little things that were changing in Umred: young men hunting online for wives, farmers’ sons deserting the farms to work at a bank in a nearby town, a deluge of students signing up for English classes. And beauty pageants. “I see Fashion TV on television, Miss India contests in the big cities,” Misal said. “So I thought, Why can’t we have that also?” And so he organized the first Mr. and Miss Umred Personality Contest, which seemed to be half about physical appearance and half about the communication skills that are all the rage in small-town India.

Misal embodies the type of person who will truly transform India: not an engineer or a financier, but an average person who refuses to be satisfied with the status he was born to. Umred rioted because its people had somehow acquired the courage of their own dissatisfaction. But what kind of India will they build?

The beauty contest was enough of a success for Misal to organize the second Mr. and Miss Umred Personality Contest just months later, which he invited me to attend. On plastic chairs in a gymnasium, eight women sat dressed as if for their weddings, with sequined saris in pink, green and orange, pinned with white laminated contestant number tags. The men took their inspiration from Bollywood gangster movies, leafy collars drooping over the lapels of their ill-fitting suits. Their belts, the belts of the Indian underclass, were too long for their waists, traveling all the way around their backs, such that two belts would have furnished enough leather for three men.

The pageant began with a talent contest. Some of the contenders, most of them engineers from local colleges, sang; some danced; others told jokes. All of them seemed to plagiarize television, which was their main portal to the world. The pouts were lifted from Fashion TV, the breast shimmying from Channel V, the joke timing from the Great Indian Laughter Challenge on STAR One.

After a Q. and A. session and a catwalk round, which involved men and women who were probably not allowed to have lunch with a member of the opposite sex strutting down a ramp, it was time to choose the winners. The judges whisperingly reached their verdict and came onstage. One by one, the contestants thanked them, their hands touching the judges’ feet. The two winners were announced and handed their prizes: 600 rupees each and a gold-colored tiara (including one for Mr. Umred). Two banners on the stage declaring the name of the contest were removed and, reimagined as sashes, tied around the winners’ torsos.

I realized that night as I watched Misal, dressed in a crisp white-and-purple shirt and a dark tie emblazoned with the crest of a family not his own, that he had made himself Umred’s ambassador of escape: part motivational speaker, part revivalist preacher of the gospel of ambition. When he established the Mr. and Miss Umred Personality Contest, he was not bringing a new idea to Umred so much as giving expression to an existing idea. What he understood was that the young craved an exit, and he had built a personal empire to serve that craving. Everyone knew Misal. Everyone, regardless of age, called him “sir.” To reach Nagpur or Pune or Mumbai, you had to seek his advice, learn English from his English academy, learn roller skating from his roller-skating academy, reach into his network of contacts, compete in his pageant, learn to dress and think and enunciate like him.

On the day after the pageant, Misal took me to a restaurant called Uttam, which, in the small-town Indian way, served every kind of Indian cuisine except the local cuisine. As he began to tell me his story, I learned that Misal swept into Umred not from above but from below — far below. He was born in a village called Bhiwapur, a half-hour drive from Umred. It is one of hundreds of thousands of such villages in India. His family lived in a three-room house with concrete walls, an outdoor latrine and a thatched roof. They had no land to cultivate, just a small yard with some anemic trees. His father worked as a laborer, loading foodstuffs on and off trucks. His mother was a farmhand. Neither parent advanced past fourth grade; they spoke Marathi but not Hindi. “We are daily-wages people,” Misal said, betraying elements of the old thinking that he hadn’t wholly shaken: daily wages as social identity, not economic circumstance. He grew up eating plates heaped with rice, covered with watery lentil dal, with a small dollop of chutney on the side to lend piquancy, and sometimes a thin piece of roti. From time to time, the family splurged on eggplants. They bought their clothes secondhand from the village bazaar, making them poor even by the standards of the poor. They rarely possessed more than a few hundred rupees in savings — less than $20 — almost enough for a one-way train ride to a neighboring state. Misal’s family lived in a particular area of the village, a mohalla, a ghetto. As Misal grew up, he learned that his mohalla was reserved for low-caste laboring families like his. Their caste, traditionally tasked with crushing oil seeds, stood some rungs above the untouchables, belonging instead to the bureaucratic category of “Other Backward Classes.”

He discovered his inferiority at school, noticing that the Jaiswals and Agarwals and Guptas, the children of merchants and shopkeepers, bought 2-rupee ice creams at recess, while his mohalla friends bought the 50-paise kind. He realized that when guest speakers came to the school, the children of daily-wages people were rarely chosen to introduce them. He noticed that at the wedding of a big man in Bhiwapur, he had to wait until the “guests” had eaten. “You come afterward,” he remembered being scolded. He used to watch his classmates roar into the schoolyard on the backs of their parents’ motorcycles. He did not even have the two modes of transportation below motorcycles on the Indian staircase of affluence: the bicycle and shoes. He wore no footwear until ninth grade. “Whenever I saw other people wearing expensive shoes and socks and slippers, I used to get very angry, and I felt very bad,” he said. “Why am I not getting all these things? Why only I don’t have all these things? And at that time I decided that I will earn great money, and I will remove my poverty. I considered poverty as a disease.”

This was not the old Indian orthodoxy: for Misal, the world was not illusion, maya; it was not enough simply to do one’s duty and do it well and be satisfied with what God gave. “I just believed that we all are equal human beings, so why do we have differences, as far as social status is concerned, economical status is concerned, social recognition and honor and respect?” he said. “What I used to believe every time is that if one person is getting something big, better and best, that should be my right.”

“Most Indians don’t think like that,” I interrupted.

“They don’t think like that,” he said. “They just want to compromise: it’s O.K., we’re having sufficient things; let’s be settled. But — I don’t know — right from the beginning, I had great anger of my poverty. The generations after me will not live this kind of life — that’s what I decided. I will change my destiny. I will be good. I will be rich.”

When Misal was in eighth grade, the village school held a public-speaking contest. He had never stood on a stage before. But now there he was, with hundreds of people sitting below him, watching. He spoke for five minutes; the crowd applauded three times. He discovered that night a power in himself that he had not known: to connect, to inspire, to cut into people’s hearts with his words. And, having contracted his thirst for money through its absence, he now felt the first rush of respect. “I felt that I am something different, I am something special,” he said.

Misal’s speech, which won the prize, was about the impact of television on society, and by that time a television bought by the family was having a great impact on Misal himself. He would spend hours each day watching “He-Man,” “Spider-Man” and “Batman,” piously balanced with the Hindutainment of the “Mahabharat” and “Ramayan” series. In Misal’s world, television was seen, even by parents, as a force of liberation. “TV is the very hi-fi form of everything,” Misal said. “It’s the extreme level of ideas, where they show you everything at top level, so that certainly gives you motivation. On TV you see the things of world-class standard. When you see some person on Discovery catching anaconda, you are looking at the best person in the world for catching anaconda. On TV we never see the strugglers or something like that; we see the people who have achieved what they wanted to be.”

For all his dreams, Misal was just another village kid who didn’t have connections and didn’t speak English, the language of success in the India that was beginning to flourish in the 1990s. At the end of 10th grade, he enrolled himself in an English-language school in Umred, the nearest town, even though he didn’t speak English. He and the other village kids sat in the back of the classroom gathering fragments of vocabulary and grammar day by day.

He graduated and moved on to a college in Umred, choosing business as his major. But he was working numerous odd jobs after school; the strains became too much, and he failed his second-year exams. He was kicked out.

In an earlier India, that might have been his story’s end: there were no second chances then, and there were no other routes upward. Knowledge was the rampart that protected the well-born from the rest. In an earlier age, that meant confining Sanskrit learning to the priestly castes; in more recent times, it translated into massive public investment in elite colleges and universities and the neglect of basic schooling for most Indians. Even today, the quality of instruction at all but the best institutions is miserable. And so if you were like Misal, you were probably not getting a very good education to begin with, even before an unforgiving examination system cut you loose.

But the ambitions stirring below created a market for a new breed of middle-class finishing schools. They catered to young people born into the lower orders, filled with dreams but shut out by the old system. The schools were often single-room institutions, taking cash only, with dubious teaching methods. The most common subject was English. It was not the archaic English curriculum of many Indian schools and colleges, with Shakespearean sonnets memorized and not understood. It was spoken English that could be used in the workplace, language the quick and dirty way. It gave students the idioms, vocabulary and placeless accent that would render your lowly origins untraceable in a land where so much could be deduced when you opened your mouth.

Misal coated himself with one finishing-school skill after another, learning everything from desktop publishing to how to be an electrician. One of the schools sensed his talent with people and hired him as a teacher, paying him 360 rupees a month. Another school soon poached him for more than double that amount. With the finishing-school cult spreading, the company even opened a branch in Bhiwapur. Misal was sent to manage a school there. He had left the village as the boy who ate last at weddings; he returned as that loftiest of Indian creatures, a teacher and, better still, a purveyor of new-economy skills. He was earning 1,800 rupees a month. He had become a big man.

On his 21st birthday, in September 2002, he bought a motorcycle. It was the first motorized vehicle owned in the history of his family. He drove it from the showroom to his home and took his mother for a spin around the village. “She didn’t say anything,” he recalled. “She just cried. And she said, ‘Take care of the bike.’ ”

Misal told me his favorite book was Dale Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People,” with its tale of the writer’s poor childhood in Missouri, his contemplation of suicide and then his discovery of a talent for public speaking. “I have read that 28 times so far,” he said. “Whenever I feel nervous or depressed, I open that book.”

In 2004, Misal decided to return to Umred and become its Dale Carnegie — to start a finishing school of his own. He set up roller-skating classes and an event-management firm, but the heart of his work was a spoken-English academy. It offered 90 hours of classes over 45 days for just 1,000 rupees, the cost of a fancy meal in Mumbai. The students trickled in at first; then the trickle gathered into a gush and before long Misal was just about the most important and well-known young man in Umred.

A year after my visit to Umred, my phone buzzed with a text from Misal:

Sir, last couple of months are full of achievements 4 me. My 2 skating kids represented India in international skating comp in Belgium. It ws my greatest dream, turned into reality. I ws busy in passports, visas n other formalities. Nw im going 2 Hongkong 4 international Skating Championship as India team manager on sep 26. My life is transforming rapidly this time. My faith on my abilities raised. Its rising time 4me. My image is getting new shape. Im proving n improving at personal, social, family n financial areas nicely. At present im contributory english lecturer at 6 dif school n colleges. Im constructing my new home also.

The man never stopped.

I began to see self-invention as a theme of India’s unfolding drama. Misal, the shoeless son of a porter, was the manager of an Indian roller-skating team, was going to Hong Kong, was teaching at six colleges and was building a house.

We met again at a tea stall in Umred. He came on his motorcycle, dressed in a silk shirt with green and blue diagonal stripes and a vast collar, over black polyester pants streaked by a strong pinstripe. He ordered two cups of tea from the owner.

The English academy continued to do well, but it was his roller-skating classes that had really taken off. Roller skating was becoming a major pastime in small-town India, part of the new frenzy for competitions of any kind. Misal had signed a lucrative deal to be the area’s exclusive distributor of a brand of high-end skates that he recommended to his students. Meanwhile, he was becoming known as a groomer of great skaters. One day he got a call from the Roller Skating Federation of India. The group had heard of his skills as a teacher, the man on the line said, and they wanted to appoint him manager of the Indian national roller-skating team. Within weeks he was shepherding the team through Hong Kong, marveling at the skyscrapers and the armies of people dressed in coats and ties and dresses.

As he delivered this update, Misal received a phone call. It seemed, from the blend of swagger and nervousness in his voice, to be a call of love. The last time we met, I asked Misal about his romantic affairs and was surprised that, for all his daring, he was a dutiful Indian son on the question of marriage. He would marry a woman to his parents’ liking, chosen by them with the family’s interests in mind. This was the case across much of the society: young people bold and mutinous in matters of status and hierarchy, yet wholly willing to submit in this other sphere.

When his call ended, I asked who it was.

“That was my best friend.” Giggle.

“Best friend or girlfriend?”

“No, no, best friend, best friend.” Giggle. “Maybe girlfriend.”

I asked if we could meet her. We drove to a school, just outside of town, where she was the supervisor of teachers and he was a lecturer in English. On the way, he told me that they were friends but that he was “willing” to be more and that maybe it would happen someday soon. She was also an aspiring trainer and public speaker; she, too, emceed events like the pageant. He insisted I not publish her full name, so I will call her Miss S.

“Since we are coming together by means of this profession, she is getting much popular, she is getting improved, her personality is getting much fragranced — she said many times to me,” he said. “She is getting very much P.R.,” he added. “She gives all credit to me for that. She says, ‘You’re in my life, and that’s why there are so many changes occurring.’ And I always say: ‘You deserve it. I’m just the medium, maybe.’ And she always says, ‘You are the best motivator I’ve ever had.’ ”

We walked into the school and into the principal’s office, where Miss S. was sitting with the principal. She was short and pretty, wearing boxy metal-framed glasses and a white salwar kameez with printed flowers. She was the second-ranking official at the school, but I noticed that she called Misal “sir.” As we made conversation with the principal, she stayed silent. When the principal gushed to me about Misal’s galvanizing effect on Umred, she grinned quietly.

I accompanied them on an errand of hers, to print out and mail some forms. They both got out of the car at the post office and asked me to wait. A few minutes later Miss S. returned on her own. I sensed that she wanted to talk. But when I asked about her relationship with Misal, she instantly became shy. Then something in her stirred, and she said that she liked him very much but that it was complicated. They had met in the computer institute where he used to teach; she was one of his students. She was enchanted by his lectures. “As a person, I like him very much,” she said. “Caring. Hard worker. He has a helping nature. I call him ‘sir’ because I met him first as a teacher.”

When I asked if they had a future together, she demurred. Then, perhaps realizing the back-channel possibilities I offered, she said she had thought about marrying him, but he had never spoken of any feelings for her. Her mother, meanwhile, was opposed to the notion. They were from the same caste and even the same subcaste. But they were not from the same sub-subcaste. They were the descendants of oil-seed crushers of different varieties. This could be overcome, but it would require some labor, so Misal had to make up his mind.

I promised Miss S. that I would see what I could do.

On the outskirts of Umred there was a restaurant called Machan, whose village theme, including the terra-cotta ox cart in the muddy courtyard, suggested an anticipatory nostalgia for the world now evaporating. During lunch, Misal took call after call, struggling to look up from his Nokia.

I asked him about Miss S. “She’s my first love,” he said. “I never had such kind of feelings for someone before.”

A moment later, he added, “I’m thankful to God that he has put that love feeling in my heart.” He didn’t know if she felt the same. I suggested that perhaps she didn’t know how he felt.

Then it seemed to dawn on Misal that she might have been dropping hints for some time. “Many times she talks about marriage — in general,” he said, reflecting as he spoke. “She says, ‘I will not get a good husband; I don’t know what kind of husband will I get.’ Then I ask her, ‘What kind of husband do you want?’ So maybe she wanted to tell me her expectations through that.” He was now listening to himself as carefully as I was listening to him.

“I will get married in two years,” he said rather abruptly. “It’s planned already. That’s the age of 30. At that time, I will have many things: my house, my vehicle, a couple of international tours.”

But when did he intend to reveal this plan to her?

“Obviously, I will tell her,” he said. “I will just tell her that I love her and that I would like to marry her — after completion of my home. That is the most important priority and responsibility at present for me.”

“But you can tell her before also,” I said. “You don’t have to marry her now, but you can tell her before. Otherwise, she’ll get married to someone else.”

“Yeah, that’s right.”

“Why are you so fixed about two years from now?” I asked. “If you love someone, wouldn’t you put that first?”

“There are so many goals,” he said, “and I have my sequence set.”

I went to see Misal teach the next day. He was a commanding figure in the classroom. He paced around the room, only a decade older than his students but, unlike them, a man of his own making, at peace in his skin. They sat before him in their half-sleeved shirts and ties and white tube socks and black shoes, listening raptly.

The first class was ostensibly in English communication; the second was in D.L.S., as Misal called it — development of life skills. But all his classes were really just different versions of what was now known as the “personality development” curriculum in India, which taught everything from how to pronounce words to what to wear to an interview, from how to work in teams to how to build self-confidence. It was what the call centers and high-technology firms insisted on: they claimed to receive too many résumés from brilliant engineers who could not string together a coherent sentence, could not work with others, could not make a presentation, could not calm an angry customer.

Personality development was very alien to the traditional Indian world. Hinduism had always cultivated a sublimation of the self, aimed at realizing moksha, or liberation, through transcendence and renunciation of the material world, which Hindus saw as illusion. But more than that, it was the social fixedness of Indian life that had limited the usefulness of a compelling personality. Your station in life was said to be determined by karma. Your position in the family was determined by your sex and birth order, not by your skills or manners. Your early peer relationships were with cousins more than friends. Your marriage was organized by others, based on family reputation, not on your charm.

Misal, like the students he taught, was in revolt against the old fixedness. But once that revolt was complete, a person could find himself utterly alone. Under the traditional system, a person at least had a domain of certainties. He knew which foods were his foods. He knew which things his people considered to be polluting. He had a way of gesturing and an accent. And so when he chose to strike out as a self-made man, he would need — even before a job and a house and a car — the rudiments of selfhood. He would need to develop a personality.

Misal fired up his motivational energies for the students, who were in their late teens, a light black fuzz darkening the boys’ faces. “There is always gap at the top,” he said, and it took three things to get there: knowledge, attitude and skill. Today’s lesson was SWOT analysis, by which business executives around the world assess a company’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. But here in Umred, SWOT was part of the relentless cultivation of the self. “SWOT is the method by which we can evaluate ourselves,” a lanky teenage boy stood up to say when Misal asked for a definition.

And I had a sense, from this and earlier visits to Indian finishing schools, of a generation being trained rather than educated. They knew nothing about industry, art, history, literature, science.

There were now hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of Indians who were making this bargain and adopting this focus. And they were liberating India. But I wondered what kind of country they would make when there were enough of them to change its essential character. Their heads were filled with SWOT analysis and ways to win friends and influence people, not with the tolerance of Asoka, the poetry of Kabir, the universalism of Tagore.

As Misal drove me to the airport, he asked for advice. It was a request for feedback, a foreign corporate practice imported into this setting. I told him that my suggestion would be to have a well-rounded idea of life, to pursue interests other than his own success, to be humble, to keep space for friends and family and love. And I realized, even as my words poured out, and in the moments of silent incomprehension that followed, how empty and out of tune they must have sounded. Misal did not have the luxury of broadening his vision, because if he lost focus, the world of degradations that he had escaped would be delighted to take him back.

Some days after leaving Umred, I received a text message from Misal: “Bad news! Miss S. denied my love. Her parents r fixing her marriage with some1 else. I think she is unwilling 4 this. Bt cant resist against family.”

When she spoke to me in the car, in secret, it was perhaps a last, hopeless attempt. She gave him the opportunity; now she was gone. She refused even to talk to him. He begged me to call her, which seemed like a terrible idea. But he said that his very life was at stake and that he needed my support. So I called. Her answer, in five words, resolved all ambiguities. “I love my family more.”

When Misal showed me the thousands of text messages he had stashed in his computer, sent and received, they seemed to brim with borrowed emotions: made-up sayings, quotations from people they scarcely knew, like Abraham Lincoln.

If you find your self in a dark room + vibrating walls and full of blood, then don’t worry. You are at safe place, you are in my heart!

LOVE is 4 LIFE. LIFE is not 4 LOVE. LOVE may fail in LIFE. LIFE should never fail in LOVE. So dnt spoil LIFE in LOVE. But dnt 4get 2 LOVE in LIFE!

Ice is a cream, luv is a dream, bt frndship is ever green. Dont mak frnds b4 understanding, & dont break ur frndship after misunderstanding.

Ninety percent of the messages appeared to be forwards. It was as if they had so much to say to each other, and no language of their own in which to say it.

Now Misal would suffer for a time. Then he would continue down the path of becoming everything that India once told boys like him they could not be.

Anand Giridharadas is an online columnist for The Times and the author of “India Calling: An Intimate Portrait of a Nation’s Remaking,” out this week, from which this article is adapted.



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