Indianama

A chasm between education and expectations leaves Indians unprepared for their country’s realities

The just-pass philosophy to surviving modern, aspirational India.

I was on a Bengaluru city bus on my way home from the airport recently when I overheard the conductor and the driver animatedly talking to each other about how “just-pass” Indians were the happiest in the country. They realised I was listening and started addressing me in Kanglish, a frequently used Kannada and English street patois. They saw my bemused expression and thought it reflected skepticism.

“Saar, namma maat keli [Sir, listen to what we have to say],” said the mustachioed driver, as he wove his big Volvo through traffic with dexterity, and gestured to his friend. “Eeega nodi [Now look here],” the conductor – a lean man with twinkling eyes and a two-day stubble – took over. “Many people, full education, but not happy. We people see, just-pass people, full happy.”

Adu hege?” How is that, I asked.

The conductor and driver looked at each other in triumph. They had an audience.

“Saar, just-pass people happy with Rs 100,” said the conductor. “Eating, drinking, sleeping anywhere. Naavu maarda kelege santoshavagirruteve [We can live happily under a tree]. Can sleep there, no hotel needed. College people needing hotel, still unhappy.”

Surviving modern India

As I alighted, I ruminated on what appeared to be a well-articulated, if rare, philosophy about surviving modern India, a nation low on education and learning but high on dreams, aspiration and expectation. A yawning chasm between education and expectations particularly manifests itself when thousands of unemployable graduates, including engineers, lawyers, even PhDs, line up for – in what is now a national spectacle – jobs as street sweepers and clerks. The chasm is evident when the media routinely report how jobless or semi-employed young scamsters or criminals get on the quick, easy and illegal path to wealth. The chasm reveals itself as young men – whether stone-throwing separatists in Kashmir, Hindu extremists involved in lynching minorities or various caste and religious groups that vandalise public and private property for a variety of reasons – who take to the streets to vent larger frustrations.

These frustrations are brought about by a heightened awareness of the lifestyles of the rich and famous, and the illusion that the good life – delivered through advertisements on mobile phones and television screens – is just around the corner. The key to understanding these frustrations is an exploration of the inability to find decent employment (although that is not the only reason for despair). “Work”, as the latest annual report of India’s labour ministry notes, “is part of everyone’s daily life and is crucial to one’s dignity, well-being and development as a human being”.

Finding a job and finding a job that satisfies your dignity and fulfills your expectations are different things, and India fails on both counts. “India creates too few jobs to meet the aspiration of its growing workforce, leaving many people underemployed, poorly paid or outside the labour force,” said the 2017 Economic Survey of India, released by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, a group of rich countries. “Despite strong economic growth, the employment rate has declined…and job creation in the organised sector has declined.”

Jobs crisis

Bad as this sounds, the reality may be worse. Less than 20% of Indians have a salaried job (half are self-employed, largely because they could not find a job) and even those who find employment are likely to be unhappy with what they do for a living.

No more than a third of India’s workers have a written job contract, according to the latest available data from the National Sample Survey Office. And of the elite among blue-collar workers – the 28% with a job in organised manufacturing – an increasing number are in jobs with little security. Over 13 years to 2013, the share of contract labour in organised manufacturing almost doubled, according to data from the Annual Survey of Industries. That is not ideal because contract workers earn nearly a third less than one with a permanent job. It is not very different with doctors, teachers and nurses, many of whom find themselves on contract even in government service.

If you consider official statistics, which are clearly unreliable and register partial and distress employment as work, India is doing well. Over two years to 2016, India’s overall unemployment rate rose by only 0.3% to 3.7%, the minister of labour told Parliament in January. (A respected Mumbai think-tank estimated that rate at 7.1% by February, or about 31 million jobless in a workforce of 425 million). But disaggregate even the older, official data, and it emerges that nearly a third (18%) of those with degrees (28% in rural areas) do not have a job. For instance, about six in 10 Indian engineers are unemployed.

The bare national truth about employment was captured by a 2016 report of the labour ministry: 77% of India’s households did not have a person with a regular wage. In short, the majority of Indians are doomed to a job that they do not want or accept in desperation, such as the engineer who lines up to be a sweeper.

In any case, expectations are not, as I said, only a function of jobs.

Almost all Indians – with a good job or not – also have mobile phones, devices that exponentially accelerate expectations. In previous generations, aspirations were limited because few were aware of what they were missing.

Glimpses of what might be comes at us all the time now – through WhatsApp forwards, YouTube videos, tweets, Facebook posts and cable television: Advertisements with perfect families in perfect homes; the lifestyles of the 1%; reality shows that make millionaires out of nobodies; a million ways to dream and aspire to a new life; and the stories of the sons and daughters of masons and auto drivers who became champion athletes or bankers. The message is, study well, work hard and the world is waiting. Much of that message is lost in the process of dodgy education, with only a tiny elite gaining access to the kind of education required to achieve the Indian dream. For instance, the latest National Achievement Survey of 1.54 million Class 10 students in 44,514 schools nationwide found, as the Hindustan Times reported, that students from state education boards – whose students form the vast bulk of schools and come from poorer families – do considerably worse than those of independent, national boards that cater to richer, better schools. Learning levels, as the Annual Status of Education Reports chronicle, are falling in private and public schools meant for the general population.

There is little doubt that life has improved for Indians, particularly over the last 30 years, but the reality is that only a fraction of Indians will achieve their ever-rising aspirations of wanting it all here and now. There is evidence that as Indians become richer, their aspirations are expanding disproportionately, and no government, regardless of the jobs it generates and education it provides, can do anything more than manage those expectations.

Growing inequality

Apart from the jobs crisis, Indians are suffering the impact of growing inequality, weaker social support networks, a less generous society, and fewer reasons to experience positive emotions such as laughter, at a time when they are feeling more negative emotions such as worry and anger, IndiaSpend reported in May 2018, after the UN World Happiness Report found Indians richer but less happy over the last three years and the least happiest people in South Asia.

To be happy then, is a function of moderating expectations. Obviously, that is easier said than done, which is why the driver-conductor duo of Bengaluru were clearly onto something with their low-expectations philosophy.

Just before getting off the bus, I asked them about their educational achievements. The driver braked for a scooter trying to cut in front of him and, with a wide grin, said: “Just pass saar! All classes, just pass; but in life, full enjoy.”

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.