In the New India, Everyone Is Free to Flourish or Fail
Letter from India, The International Herald Tribune
MOLASUR, INDIA — On a rainy day in the South Indian village of Molasur, a dusty warren of thatch huts, tiled roofs and brightly painted temples, I met a man named M. Das. He was 45 years old. He was well dressed, in an ironed blue shirt and leather shoes, and well groomed, with a neatly trimmed mustache and hair firmly in place. He carried a comb in his back pocket.
Das is a dalit, a member of the caste formerly known as untouchables. He grew up in Molasur, living with 12 family members in a single-room hut, sleeping on a mud floor. His father, an agricultural laborer, drank and gambled.
As a boy, Das was restricted to certain parts of the village. Dalits lived in what was known as the colony; they weren’t allowed into the ur, where the upper castes lived. On the rare occasions when he had to go to the ur, Das remembers being afraid. He had to get off his bicycle and push it. He kept his eyes on the ground.
Das was born into poverty, but he got one break in life. His father insisted that he get an education. Das went to school in the nearby town of Tindivanam. He studied at home by candlelight. After school, he moved to Chennai, 130 kilometers, or 80 miles, away, where he went to college and got a B.A. in history.
He moved back to Molasur. He dabbled in village politics and then, with a partner, another dalit, he developed some land. They plotted the land and sold it to middle-class people from the cities.
Das made a lot of money. Today he lives in a two-story house that he built next to the hut where he grew up. The house has an air conditioner, a washing machine, two televisions, a DVD player and a treadmill. Das wears gold chains around his neck and right wrist, and two gold rings.
He doesn’t hesitate to enter the ur anymore. He goes where he pleases. His children, two sons and a daughter, were educated at the same private school as the upper castes from the village.
A few decades ago, Das’s story would have been almost inconceivable. India was a country where you lived the life you were born into. Dalits, in particular, were stuck in place, weighed down by centuries of discrimination.
The new India, however, is a more meritocratic country. Das was lucky to come of age in the 1980s and ’90s, when the nation was waking up, shedding its feudal past and building a society where ambition, education and hard work were rewarded.
Das’s story is a hopeful one. But up the road from Molasur in the village of Palamukkal, I heard the story of another person, a man named S. Saravanan, whose life is similarly emblematic of the new, more meritocratic India, yet far less cheerful.
Saravanan is a Reddiar, historically a privileged caste of landowners. When he was a child, his family lived in a sprawling mansion. They owned hundreds of hectares of land and over 200 cattle. They had a staff of around 85.
Saravanan’s father mismanaged the farms. He took on a lot of debt. He failed to emphasize the importance of education to his children. When he died, Saravanan and his siblings were left helpless, at the mercy of loan sharks and, unschooled, incapable of managing the farm.
Saravanan ran away from home. He spent the next several years drifting, working as a mechanic and driver in various south Indian cities.
I met Saravanan one evening in the town of Pondicherry, on a back road piled with garbage overlooking a smelly canal. He operated a small tea shop there, a portable metal kiosk from which he served low-ranking bureaucrats who worked in the surrounding government offices.
He told me — reluctantly at first, and then dispassionately, as if it was someone else’s life — about his childhood. When his father was alive, he said, the rice harvest from their fields was so copious that the leftover straw covered more than a hectare, about three acres, of land. They planted only the highest quality rice. But after his father died, the farm collapsed and the family could only afford to eat varagu, a cheap millet.
There was a time, after he had spent years drifting, when Saravanan’s life seemed promising. He took out a few loans and bought three vehicles. He started a transport company. But the company lost money and Saravanan was forced to sell the land he inherited from his father to pay off his debts.
Now all he had was his tea shop — a two-by-three-meter frame set by a canal, for which he’d taken out another loan. He lived, with his wife and daughter, in a one-bedroom apartment without a television or phone. He had a cellphone, but he couldn’t afford to top it up, so he took only incoming calls.
He said he hardly ever went back to his village. His childhood home had crumbled, and he was too ashamed to face old friends. He introduced me to his daughter. She was in a bright yellow dress. He said he had never taken her to Palamukkal.
Two men, two lives — one man who freely enters a part of his village from which he was once prohibited, and another who can no longer return home to the fields his family used to own.
It’s true that a meritocratic India is a more hopeful India. It’s certainly a vast improvement over a country in which millions were oppressed for being born into the wrong caste or gender or family. But it’s good to remember that meritocracy inflicts its own harms. It replaces old forms of subjugation with new ones — the tyranny of competition, of competence, of drive and ambition, of education.
Perhaps the best that can be said about meritocracy is that it offers the most egalitarian path to inequality: it gives everyone a chance to lose.
As I left Saravanan, he held his daughter close. He told me the most important thing for him now was to make sure she received a proper education. He understood what was happening in the country, the forces of change that had disrupted his life. He tried not to dwell on that. He focused on the future: maybe, he said, the same forces that had brought him down could lift his daughter up.