Barkha Dutt, Managing Editor, NDTV 24×7
Saturday, June 24, 2006:
One of the most awkward – and yet, strangely compelling – things about journalism is that sometimes your work makes you hold a mirror to your own life.
This past week, a quiet, but determined 16-year-old became an unexpected reflection of my education.
I have always believed that my school and college years were the first architects of my personality; like every middle-class Indian, I take pride in where I studied and what I was taught. And yet, the gentle idealism of this young girl made me pause to wonder: Had my public-school education been shamefully elitist?
At first, the story seemed straightforward enough. Garima Godara, a CBSE topper, with an astonishing 97.6 per cent had taken the entrance exam for the Delhi Public School (Dwarka), the school closest to her village.
The daughter of a police constable who earned less than Rs 6,000 a month, the school's fees would have been a problem. But the family was undeterred; perhaps there would be a scholarship or a loan; surely the school would be keen to admit the girl who had topped the national capital's merit list.
Garima's proud father had spent months battling the entrenched patriarchy of his peers, fending off nosy neighbours who gossiped about why she didn't spend enough time in the kitchen. Now, he was even more determined to give his daughter the best education her marks could buy.
This could have been the story of New India and its emerging, self-made middle class; a proud milestone for a country that dares to dream.
Instead, here's what happened: DPS turned her down. Her results were good, it conceded. But marks aren't everything, said the school principal to NDTV, and besides, her English was poor, and just didn't cut the grade.
Later, listening to Garima in the studio, it was hard not to feel both angry and moved. Angry because of the obvious injustice: not only was she as bright as her results indicated; there was nothing about her spoken English that suggested that she would have been unable to keep pace with the syllabus.
Yes, she spoke with a regional accent that some would consider insufficiently sophisticated. But there was no doubt that she could not only follow a complex argument, she could also make herself understood to any English speaker.
But it was her calm that was almost heart breaking; a quiet courage that belied her teen years. It was almost as if we were more outraged and indignant than she was. During the course of the programme, a principal from a well-known school in Dehradun called in, offering her admission and a scholarship; others promised to get DPS to change its mind.
But betraying only the slightest sense of hurt, she said firmly that her aim now was to show DPS that she would do better than any of its students. She had already got herself admitted to another school, and DPS could quite simply, take a walk.
As she spoke, viewers clearly shared my anger. The online poll showed that 90 per cent of viewers believed that the English language exerted a disproportionate influence over the education system.
Yet, were we all being hypocritical and dishonest? This time it was DPS under the microscope, but were any of us any different?
Let's say she continued to do outstandingly well in school. The next stage would be college. I pictured her trying to take the entrance interview at my old college, Delhi's St Stephen's. Would she get in? And even if she made the cut, how would other students react to her presence? Would they admire her for her academic brilliance? Or would they snigger at her accent, titter each time she made a grammatical error and then, melt away, leaving her alone to find her own friends?
Garima's story is a metaphor for India's twisted tryst with the future. I learnt after the programme was over – and it is significant that neither she nor her parents brought this up themselves – that she is an OBC.
For some months now, as the debate over reservation has raged, opponents of the quotas have made the same point again and again: we should be a society where merit matters. It's a compelling argument, and one that I have personally supported.
But what do the anti-quota street fighters have to say now? Here's a girl who competed in the mainstream, her own Hindi medium DAV pitched against the trendier, richer, big names. But her merit was swallowed up by prejudice.
Is it any wonder then that supporters of reservation believe that the system is stacked against them, and that merit is a con-word used by upper-caste tricksters?
Her story is also a scathing comment on the class divide in India. It is fashionable for marketeers and economists to talk about the burgeoning middle class. Each day a new figure is conjured up to demonstrate the size of the Indian market, and the clout of the new middle class; is it 250 million this week or has it already reached 300 million?
We embrace these statistics, because we like the idea of India as this century's favourite financial destination. We feel flattered when Time magazine puts our country on its cover, and we talk glibly, especially to foreigners, of social mobility and how the gap between the rich and poor is closing; we argue that India's tomorrow is being built by its industrious and enterprising middle class, and we feel like the future is unfolding, right here and right now.
But here's what we never admit. We're just the worst sorts of snobs.
The social mobility of the last decade has meant that the new middle class does not consist of people like us. Instead, it is made up of people like Garima, who we still find excuses to exclude; we sneer at their lack of Westernized sophistication; make fun of their accents, and we try and ensure that our children have nothing to do with theirs.
Finally, Garima's story exposes India's paradoxical relationship with the English-language. Nobody in the world speaks English like us. We have our own idioms, our own words and our own accents.
We pretend to love our own English and brag about how it is India's great selling point; the reason we dominate the global outsourcing business. But of course deep down we know that our English is not the English that the West really wants. And so, each time we talk to Britons or Americans, we subtly alter our diction and inflection.
When we set up our call centers, we drop the subtlety entirely and start accent classes to teach our young people to abandon the speech patterns of our own society and to migrate to a virtual, linguistic middle America, where they become impersonators of people they will never meet and never know.
But within India, we still treat our own English as the great social decider. We laugh at regional accents, smirk at those who make grammatical errors and feel most at home with those who talk like us.
Everyone else belongs on the other side of the English divide. And as it turns out, the other side of the class and caste divide as well.
Maybe we cling so tightly to this tiny community because secretly we are just insecure. Outside of our little bubble, India is changing. Every major institution in recent times – Parliament, the bureaucracy, the military, our colleges and schools – is being forced to re-write the rules.
A new breed of Indians who no longer look towards the West for self-affirmation, is making its presence felt. We like to call this a decline in quality. But actually, it's the rest of India waiting to get in.
How long are we going to keep the gates shut?