Two Steps Behind: Being a Runner-Up in a World Full of Winners


Two Steps Behind: Being a Runner-Up in a World Full of Winners

Illustration: Sushant Ahire

There’s a scene in Shakun Batra’s delightful Kapoor & Sons where warring brothers Rahul and Arjun break the ice, days after their homecoming. Distanced irrevocably by time and secrets, the two brothers share a cup of chai, smoke, and talk instead of going for each other’s throats, listen instead of giving the other silent treatment. It is then that Arjun — whose life has been defined by a childhood spent existing in his perfect elder brother’s shadow — makes a poignant admission.

Arjun reveals how as a kid all that he wanted to find out was that one quality which Rahul possessed but he lacked – which made him inferior to his brother. Rahul was always a winner. At sports, at academics, at everything. Years laters, he went on to become a successful novelist and entrepreneur while Arjun became a bartender moonlighting as a struggling writer. Arjun was never the winner. “I’m the runner-up. Second best,” Arjun declares to Rahul and more importantly to himself.

In a world that places an unbending prestige on being the absolute best and sets up never-ending conditions on entering the exclusive superiority club, runners-up like Arjun are like a dusty cassette in the time of Apple Music; an expiry-date-laden book shop in the age of the immortal Kindle; wholly redundant. And yet they exist aplenty all around us, if not in us.

The runners-up are the ones going through their entire lives frantically trying to erase the curse that puts the “second” in front of their destinies; stopping them from being the best. Only, it’s not a curse or a severe case of bad luck but their reality.

But is going through life, two steps behind the winners, such a bad thing?

Runners-up thus exist in a peculiar space that places them a notch above mediocre people and a glaring notch below those able to rise to the top. Their existence is marked by settling on a hesitant middle ground between being decent at something and being good at it. And, yet it’s this feeling of settling that they vigorously attempt to strip themselves off; spending most of their lives trying to bridge the gap between them and the world’s first-benchers. More so, because the world’s told them they’re nothing if not enrolled in the race for the best.

Unlike the invisible mediocres who are almost always written off as a cruel afterthought, runners-up carry an even more disquieting reputation: Being the ones who almost made it. If there’s something worse than being forgotten, it’s being remembered for not being forgotten. The claim to fame of runners-up then hinges on their flawless ability to screw it up at the last moment. It’s not that they’re not hard-working, talented, or charming, it’s just that they are not there yet. So while people around them jump from achievement to achievement, runners-up wallow in their consistency of being the portrait of people who are tasked with making the winners look good.

In Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, Anjali serves not just as the runner-up in the love triangle but also by extension the comic relief (Remember her neon orange-pink outfit?) and the prime contender of our unwavering sympathies. It was only years later, once she has magically defeated her fate as the runner-up, that she is reunited with the love of her life. Even a typical happy ending for these runners-up assumes a tinge of inferiority. The union of Nisha and Ajay aka the dumpees in Dil Toh Pagal Hai  is relegated to the background even as the winners, Rahul and Pooja, take the limelight. Pop culture has conditioned us in believing that there is no greater sin than being the second best – at work, in our love lives, or in our ambitions.

If there’s something worse than being forgotten, it’s being remembered for not being forgotten.

But is going through life, two steps behind the winners, such a bad thing? It’s precisely what Christine asks her mother in the final act of Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird. An afternoon of shopping suddenly metamorphoses into yet another episode of mother-daughter bickering, when Christine accuses her mother of not liking her. To that, her mother replies that all she wants is for Christine to be the very best version of herself. “What if this is the best version,” Christine declares, and in effect takes herself out of contention for the race meant for winners.

For Christine, a runner-up in life, may not end up inventing the next Tesla, but for the first time in the expectations of pop culture, she’s also not burdened by the pressure to do something better than others. The race to be the best is not as much as a fight with others, as it is with ourselves, making it possible for a runner-up to get that elusive gold medal they were forced to chase all their lives. The only difference is that they are now being asked to look inward. To be the best versions of themselves.