Embracing Mediocrity: India’s Deep-Seated Issues With Talented People

Talented people just find closed doors in India


My last blogpost gave me the idea to do a series on India, as I find I have a lot to say about living here. Many of you will disagree with me, and others might feel horrified. You might wonder if I at all have anything good to say about India (I do, and I might post about that as well) and you might hate me for saying these things. It’s problematic, belonging to a Third World country you hate and trying to talk about it without devolving into a “India sucks, the west is awesome” rhetoric. I don’t know if I have managed to do that, but I am trying.

I’ve been back in India for a bit more than 2 months now, and for the first time in my life, I’m really observing the country. I spent the first 25 years here being as detached as I could; I’m still detached, but I’m a detached observer now. Working in media is different from what I am used to as well. A lot of my time is spent reading news concerning startups, entrepreneurs and technology. (It’s not as bad as it sounds, it’s actually a lot of fun!) And yesterday I started wondering what it is about India that makes it so moribund.

Part of my job involves reading about upcoming startups and interviewing the ones I think are promising. One of the ways in which you decide that is by looking at their websites. And almost every single Indian startup I’ve seen has a site that looks like someone designed it in MS Frontpage in 1998. A couple of days ago, we tried out a group messaging app called Zoho at work. It failed to deliver and had a horribly ugly interface to boot, so we switched back to Gtalk. Yesterday, while reading an article about why Indian startups fail, I found out that Zoho is an Indian product. And suddenly its crappiness made sense. I realised that Indian products are mostly characterised by their ugliness and failure to work and I couldn’t figure out why it had to be so. I kept thinking about it and finally had a lightbulb moment of realisation in the bus back from work. It was this: India consistently fails to deliver in almost every field because we prize mediocrity.

Take your brighter-than-average middle-class Indian child. Let’s assume it’s a boy because people still don’t care a great deal about educating girls, even in the middle classes. This kid will learn to read at an early age, probably in English if his parents are rich enough, but will only be encouraged to read till he learns the language well enough to get good marks at it in school. After that, he will be directed towards maths and science and not given books outside textbooks. Anything that detracts from the pursuit of excelling academically in those two disciplines will be banned. From a very early age, he will be taught at school from textbooks that try their hardest to turn even the most interesting of subjects into a collection of statistics and formulae. He will have to memorize the contents of those books and reproduce them exactly, word for word, three times a year when he is tested. Veering away from exact reproduction will lose him precious marks. No one will encourage him to be curious about the world around him. No one will encourage him to think. His most prized quality will be accurate memorization and reproduction of facts. Gradgrind would be happy to meet him.  

If he shows any aptitude for art/music/sports, he will be sent to specialised classes for them where he will again be subject to standardized tests. In all probability, he will not be allowed to continue with any of those pursuits after the age of 8 or 10. He might still have 40 minutes of one of two of those activities at school every week if he is lucky, but not after the age of 14. From around the time he is 8, he will be sent to private tutors after school in order to score even higher marks. His average day, once he is in high school, might consist of one special lesson before school, two after he comes back home and 3 on each day of the weekend. He will have tutors for every subject except languages unless he is either remarkably weak or remarkably good at them. At 16, he will sit for a state or nation-wide standardized test which he would have spent the last two years preparing for. This test will be an exercise in rewarding mediocrity. At 18, he will sit for another similar test, and then he will enter University. Like 95% of his peers, he will study either medicine or engineering. 4 years later, he will graduate and become a Gradgrind in his own right. In all his 20-odd years of education, he would not have had single original thought, not one single creative idea. But he will be an expert at reproducing facts.

Sometimes, one among thousands of children will demonstrate some actual creativity, and a desire to deflect from the stifling path of mediocrity, and be crushed by the system. I was one of those kids. From the time I was sentient, there were two things I loved: I loved to draw, and I loved to read. I was encouraged in these pursuits until I entered high school, and then I was flung into the meat grinder* that is the Indian education system. I would wake up at 7 and go for private lessons with tutors, go to school, go straight to two more private lessons from school, come back home, do my homework and sleep around 2 am. I did this for a year or so before I finally cracked. The rest of my high school career was spent in vicious fights with my mother concerning my grades. Every year, when I won the prizes for English and art, my mother would come with me to the prize-giving ceremony and on the way home, sneer at me about how ashamed she was sitting next to the mother of the boy who got the highest marks in everything. I was regularly excelling in the disciplines I liked in a class of 900 students, but since those disciplines were not science, my achievements were meaningless.

I was talked into taking up science for my plus-twos since I had started loving biology by then, thanks to an excellent tutor I had in the subject. But I hated science, I hated every moment of it. Physics and chemistry and maths all went over my head, and I would end up getting something like 2 out of 200 in them. There were a few others like me, kids whose talent lay elsewhere, and we would compare our science scores on results day. Whoever got the lowest would win. I started skipping classes to go to the library and read the books I wanted to; I was lucky to be in a school whose library had been very well stocked by at least the founders, if not the people who took over later. One day, I was at the library during classes and looking at a book on fashion history, utterly fascinated. Some teachers came in and turfed me out of that section, claiming it was only meant for teachers. They then proceeded to sell sarees to each other. The next day, the chemistry teacher gave us a talk on how he was going to help us prepare not just for the plus-two exams we had to sit for, but also the “competitive exams” which enabled you to get into engineering and medical schools. I was singularly uninterested, since I had decided by then that I was going to study literature. He noticed me and pulled me up and said “Oh Ragini is not interested ofcourse – she only wants to read fashion magazines!” This apparently educated, intelligent man had no clue about the difference between a fashion magazine and a book on the history of clothes from the medieval times to the 20th century.

I lucked out in general though. My parents never stopped me from reading books and bought them for me all the time, and when I was 15, my mum married my stepdad and I moved into a house filled with literally thousands of books. Despite being a failed academic, my stepdad is one of the very few people I know who lives for learning, and he encouraged me to do what I was passionate about. At Uni, I ended up in a literature department where I had oodles of fun, learned something new everyday, was taught by some brilliant people, and came out a lot wiser than I had gone in. But almost NO Indian kid gets these advantages while growing up. This is why we don’t produce scientists; we produce engineers. We don’t have designers; we have code monkeys. Doctors instead of medical researchers. And anyone with any talent runs off to the west like I did because India stifles our creativity and forces us into a mould that drains every original thought from our brains. It’s the problem of being a wretchedly poor nation. We want security, not brilliant ideas that lead to financial uncertainty. Indian parents want their kids to get steady government jobs – they don’t want them to be entrepreneurs. Tumblr’s David Karp has been in the news a lot recently, thanks to the Yahoo takeover. There’s a reason he’s American; no Indian could ever have done what he did. His mother took him out of school when he was 14 and homeschooled him so he could spend more time working on what he really loved: computers. An Indian mother would have taken his computer away and bullied him for not scoring marks at school. My stepdad teaches kids English for a living, and it’s his daily complaint that none of them ever read books. When he tells their parents that they need to read books, the usual response is, “Oh I tell him/her to read the newspaper but he/she never listens!” The newspaper. Because it’s filled with facts. And facts help you score marks.

It’s not that I haven’t known academically brilliant people who are also truly intelligent, but it’s the exception, rather than the rule. Things, however, seem to be looking up in recent times; I have met Indian people who dropped out of Uni, a rare and shocking thing to do in this country, and gone on to do the things they really wanted to. One of them makes games, another is one of my bosses. Cities like Bombay and Bangalore have turned into centres for talented people who were being crushed by the system to escape to and excel. It’s hard to deviate from set paths in a poor nation. For any concrete changes to happen, the entire education system needs an overhaul, but it’s a huge expense for one, and in any case, India’s government is a moribund one, headed by old, corrupt men who want nothing more than to line their pockets while blethering on about the sanctity of traditions. We hate embracing new things in India; we are scared of change. But who knows, maybe my generation might do better. Till then though, we are stuck with making things that look like this.

*I borrowed my analogy from this video – the album it’s from is one of the biggest musical influences of my life and changed my world when I was 14.


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