(Some weeks ago, the editor of The Scholar's Avenue, the student-run campus newspaper of my alma mater, Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur, invited me to contribute a 750-word guest article addressing the student body. The text below appeared in it last month.)
When I came to IIT Kharagpur in 1985, I saw it as my big achievement. Most people I knew saw my All India Rank of 190 as a reward for my academic merit and hard work, and bestowed on me enough awe and respect to embarrass a minor god. I had prevailed in what everyone believed to be an open, fair, and tough competition, for which I — Namit Arora — deserved all the thunder and applause.
This is still how most people see it but I now have my doubts. If I am honest with myself, I can’t really take credit for it. I suspect that much of my achievement was not of my own doing, but was accidental or due to my being at the right place at the right time. I came to this view after reflecting on the three implicit claims that attribute it to my own achievement: (a) my performance in a fair competition (b) my academic merit (c) my drive and hard work.
Consider the first claim: Is it true that the IIT-JEE is a fair competition? Can anyone compete and win? Or is the game strongly rigged to favor some over others, based on socioeconomic factors that are arbitrary and derive from accidents of birth? India lacks equality of opportunity due to many disadvantages, for e.g., of family income, social class, gender, caste, language, etc. So the runners on the racetrack to the IIT don't begin at the same starting point. What does it mean to say that the first to cross the finish line deserve their wins?
Take my own example. I was born into an upper-caste, riding on eons of unearned privilege over 80% of Indians. I was a boy raised in a society that lavished far more attention on boys. In Gwalior, my parents fell closer to the upper middle-class, had university degrees, and valued education and success. I lived in a kid-friendly neighborhood with parks, playgrounds, and a staff clubhouse. I had role models and access to the right schools and books, the right coaching classes, and peers preparing for engineering entrance exams. My background gave me a sense of security and self-confidence that put me ahead of perhaps 96% of Indians—the odds that I would excel in the JEE were huge from the start. This made me think: was it me or my background that won?
As for the second claim about my academic merit, many natural gifts and aptitudes lay at the heart of it, gifts like analytical acumen and good memory and cognition—at least the kind that matter for the JEE. I was lucky to be born with some of these gifts. But can I claim credit for what is a matter of chance? I was lucky in another way too: I lived in a society that happened to value my aptitude for science and maths. It served me well in an India looking to modernize and the U.S. facing a shortfall of engineers. Would I have done as well in an earlier age when rewards favored those with an aptitude for trade or government bureaucracy? Centuries ago, society valued other aptitudes, such as sculpting bronze in Chola India, civil administration in Mughal times, or being a seafaring merchant among the Pandayas.
Which brings me to the third claim: What about the personal drive and hard work I put into cultivating my gifts? Do I not deserve to take credit for my diligence? Besides the fact that many others who worked no less hard didn’t make it, I must consider the countless factors beyond my choosing that shaped my ambition and drive—my family’s work ethic, my childhood experiences, subconscious insecurities, social milieu, career fads, role models, parental and peer pressure, available life paths, lucky breaks, and other contingent factors. I had not even thought much about the career path I stumbled upon. Given all this, it seems reasonable to ask: Did I, or did my socially conditioned ambition and drive get in to the IIT?
But perhaps this is how the system works. It selects us, like selecting actors for roles in a stage play, except we are given the illusion that we fully author the scripts for the parts we play. I realize now that to see through this is to abandon some of the ways in which we mark ourselves apart from our fellow humans, and open ourselves to other stages, other scripts, and other parts we can choose to play.