About the best lesson in my life came in my first semester at college in Rajasthan. I was this city-bred kid, product of name-brand Delhi (St Columba's) and Bombay (Cathedral, Bombay International) schools, convinced that that alone made me the cat's whiskers and possibly its beard as well. I quickly gravitated towards the others like me in that first-semester class, and we quickly had a mildly disparaging term in place for the others not like us.
Who not like us? You know, those guys from villages and small-towns we hadn't even heard of (Sikar, Tindivanam), those guys whose wardrobe didn't comprise Jean Junction and Van Sobers (what a joke, and honk if you remember those labels and wanna reveal how old you are), those guys whose musical tastes didn't include the Eagles and the Bee-Gees, whose English wasn't the crisp variety we believed we spoke.
Those guys we looked down our silly teenaged noses at, laughing behind their backs at their unsophisticated ways.
Came the first series of quizzes and tests. Came the grades at the end of the semester. To my own and our collective consternation, we nose-in-the-air types had been hammered all through, every which way, by the small-towners we loved to disparage. Their less-privileged, less-English-centric upbringing did not, after all, make them stupid.
The best lesson of my life: get the bejesus off that foolish high-horse I cantered into college on.
Once I did, I learned more lessons. If I wanted to compete and do well, simply resting on my cat-from-Bombay laurels would not cut it. Instead, I'd have to do it the old-fashioned way, working my butt off. And apart from our studies, once I found the grace to get to know the small-towners, to speak to them in their language, I realised that they were no different from me and my other pals, though considerably less snooty. Some were idiots. Many were great company. All were human. Besides, many of them had never heard of the Bee-Gees. Lucky
All of which is why I welcome the recent news about the Right to Education Act; specifically, the directive that schools must reserve 25 percent of their seats for "students from the economically weaker sections". Naturally there are issues to iron out — who will pay for those free seats, how will these students be selected, where are the faculty and facilities, etc. But in principle, this is an idea whose time has come. Whose time had come, actually, that day in August 1947.
But better late than never.
For the truth is, we are one of the world's most socially stratified countries (note to those who want to dig up countries X or Y as exceptions to my assertion: I'm not interested). You and I, we get educated, get entertained, even work, among others pretty much like us. But we have plenty of others, not so much like us here, who deliver our bread and veggies, clean our homes, guard our buildings, wash our cars, serve us when we visit Cafe Coffee Day or Goa Portuguesa, and it goes on.
Strangely, these sets of people who surround us everywhere we go in this city never manage to intersect. Ever. Think of the last time you had a substantial conversation about Kahaani, or the Game of Thrones, or the misfiring stocks on Dalal Street, or going plane-spotting in Saki Naka like some of us did recently, with anyone not more or less like you.
So inured are we to thinking this is just the way things are and must be, that you and I, we apply that delightful label to our existence: "middle-class". Never mind that the way we use it, the label is effectively meaningless. Never mind that by any reasonable estimate of what a "middle" might be, you and I are part of a thinly sliced economic elite in this country. Not the middle, but near the top.
Nothing wrong with being elite, except if we willfully refuse to admit it.
And so the crying need for the RTE 25 percent directive: at least as conceived, it will shake up that rigid stratification. It will do for more Indian kids, and earlier in life, what going to college did for me that I am today forever grateful for. And the need for such shaking up is nowhere clearer than in some reactions I've read and heard since the Supreme Court signed its order last week.
Example: the principal of South Bombay's GD Somani school: "How will a student from an economically weaker section adjust to a school in an affluent area such as Cuffe Parade?" Another example: a former secretary of the Maharashtra school board: "A child living in the slum will find it difficult to adjust to his peers from well-to-do families. He will remain a misfit." (This
Note which students they think will have to do the "adjusting": the kids who will use those 25 percent seats. Whereas here's one more lesson I learned while getting off that foolish high-horse: the definite misfit, the one who certainly had to make some serious mental adjustments, was me. The real question to ask is this: the students like you and me, how will they adjust to their peers from
How will they find a way to fit into this great city, this vast and varied country?
And maybe if we follow this Supreme Court directive through, we might even find the fibre to give up euphemisms like "economically weaker sections". (Note how we say "affluent" and "well-to-do", but not "poor").
Maybe we'll finally call those kids, forthrightly and with no need for shame, what they are: students from poor families. Maybe the real adjustment is simply acknowledging their existence.