By Kahini Iyer Aug. 16, 2018
Indians are so obsessed with the virtues of a struggle, that it has become a part of our national narrative. But what happens to those who inherit the burdens of inequality and not the fruits of struggle?
y now, everyone’s formed an opinion about Suhana Khan’s Vogue cover. The magazine, which featured Shah Rukh Khan’s teenage daughter on the cover, predictably added fuel to the fire of nepotism, leaving many outraged that an adolescent with no accomplishments to her name should be a leading lady just because of her famous father. A less-than-discerning chunk of the internet even thought that a clearly labelled fake news piece about Suhana’s “struggles” – that she was forced to bear the indignity of riding in an Audi to the shoot instead of a Jaguar – was real.
And yet, the subject of the fake news story is all too familiar. For some reason, when we Indians talk about merit and accomplishment, the conversation is inevitably framed by struggle: Whether it’s making it through a gruelling IIT entrance exam, or defending Suhana’s right to nepotism, as many did, by pointing at Shah Rukh Khan’s struggle to become a self-made superstar. Apparently, his daughter should reap the benefits of his struggle, just like kids across the country inherit the advantages their parents worked hard to get.
Your opinion on that aside, why are Indians so obsessed with the virtues of a struggle? Even beyond Bollywood, it’s become a part of our national narrative. In a recent Mann Ki Baat address, PM Modi sang the praises of ordinary Indians who have overcome the odds, including a CBSE topper who has a disability, and Assamese sprinter Hima Das. In his I-Day speech, he spoke of “humari betiyan” who have scaled the Everest over the past year.
Unless you’re the unholy love-child of Cruella De Vil and Satan himself, it’s hard to deny that these remarkable individuals deserve all the accolades they get – and well, scaling the Everest is still a Herculean task no matter how many people in your circle “do the EBC” this year. Yet, Modi’s speech made a notable omission, one that is all too common when we discuss a struggle: Don’t they also deserve better than a life spent slogging it out?
Every year, we hear about the rickshawallah’s daughter who earns a plum placement at a tech firm, or the boy from the boondocks who wins a medal at the Commonwealth Games. Even the legend of PM Modi himself, who used to be a chaiwallah, has become an inspiration for millions of working-class Indians. These are the people who, the story goes, give the aam aadmi strength to rise above their circumstances and continue grinding through their everyday in hopes of building something better.
And yet, when we doff our hats to Hima Das, or raise a toast to Kangana Ranaut for slaying it in Bollywood as an outsider, it’s because we recognise the astonishing difficulty that they, without the privileges of wealth or power, have had to face. We acknowledge the inherent unfairness of a nation that gives those in the middle and at the bottom such massive odds to overcome in the first place. Odds, that only the very few can win against.
Then why are we so wary when it comes to discussing affirmative action like reservations? Is it because we are comfortable in the knowledge that only a marginal few will be able to reach where we already have, thanks to the accident of birth? Is this not us guarding this exclusionary world, which simultaneously necessitates and then celebrates struggle? Only the outliers are welcome at the finish line in this skewed world – the rest of the population can just suck it up and get on with their lives, without even making it to the start-off point.
As the kerfuffle over privileged communities trying to get reservations shows, affirmative action is far from perfect. But recognising the need for a great systemic leveller requires an answer to two questions: For people who are not like Shah Rukh Khan’s daughter, what is the alternative to struggling desperately to make it into the top .1 per cent of your field? And what happens to those who inherit not the fruits of struggle, but the burdens of inequality?
These are the people who, the story goes, give the aam aadmi strength to rise above their circumstances and continue grinding through their everyday in hopes of building something better.
We all know the answers, and we prove it whenever we laud yet another national hero for their brave struggle. So how come we never finish the conversation by asking why they should have had to struggle so much at all? A tilted playing field will always be an uphill battle, where only a few will make it to the other side. That’s why a single rickshawallah’s daughter, who breaks the cycle of inequality through her struggle, is still worthy of making the news. And that’s why, until we stop glorifying this same struggle, we will never see the stories of dozens of other rickshawallahs’ daughters, who should be every bit as successful as her.