December 30, 2010
The Caste Buster
By ANAND GIRIDHARADAS
I came to Umred to write about a riot. A few months earlier, power
blackouts that rural Indians always suffered silently triggered a
violent reaction. Why? Umred was just another small town in the middle
of nowhere, dusty and underwhelming. But Umred had begun to dream,
townspeople told me, because of television, because of cousins with
tales of call-center jobs and freedom in the city. Once Umred
contracted ambition, blackouts became intolerable. A psychological
revolution, a revolution in expectations, had taken place.
"Electricity is essential to ambition," an energetic young man named
Ravindra Misal explained to me, "because I need it to do my homework,
I need it to listen to music if I am a dancer, I need it to listen to
tapes of great speakers, I need it to surf the Internet. But I cannot,
so people get angry." Over plates of mutton and chicken, Misal and his
friend Abhay offered examples of the little things that were changing
in Umred: young men hunting online for wives, farmers' sons deserting
the farms to work at a bank in a nearby town, a deluge of students
signing up for English classes. And beauty pageants. "I see Fashion TV
on television, Miss India contests in the big cities," Misal said. "So
I thought, Why can't we have that also?" And so he organized the first
Mr. and Miss Umred Personality Contest, which seemed to be half about
physical appearance and half about the communication skills that are
all the rage in small-town India.
Misal embodies the type of person who will truly transform India: not
an engineer or a financier, but an average person who refuses to be
satisfied with the status he was born to. Umred rioted because its
people had somehow acquired the courage of their own dissatisfaction.
But what kind of India will they build?
The beauty contest was enough of a success for Misal to organize the
second Mr. and Miss Umred Personality Contest just months later, which
he invited me to attend. On plastic chairs in a gymnasium, eight women
sat dressed as if for their weddings, with sequined saris in pink,
green and orange, pinned with white laminated contestant number tags.
The men took their inspiration from Bollywood gangster movies, leafy
collars drooping over the lapels of their ill-fitting suits. Their
belts, the belts of the Indian underclass, were too long for their
waists, traveling all the way around their backs, such that two belts
would have furnished enough leather for three men.
The pageant began with a talent contest. Some of the contenders, most
of them engineers from local colleges, sang; some danced; others told
jokes. All of them seemed to plagiarize television, which was their
main portal to the world. The pouts were lifted from Fashion TV, the
breast shimmying from Channel V, the joke timing from the Great Indian
Laughter Challenge on STAR One.
After a Q. and A. session and a catwalk round, which involved men and
women who were probably not allowed to have lunch with a member of the
opposite sex strutting down a ramp, it was time to choose the winners.
The judges whisperingly reached their verdict and came onstage. One by
one, the contestants thanked them, their hands touching the judges'
feet. The two winners were announced and handed their prizes: 600
rupees each and a gold-colored tiara (including one for Mr. Umred).
Two banners on the stage declaring the name of the contest were
removed and, reimagined as sashes, tied around the winners' torsos.
I realized that night as I watched Misal, dressed in a crisp
white-and-purple shirt and a dark tie emblazoned with the crest of a
family not his own, that he had made himself Umred's ambassador of
escape: part motivational speaker, part revivalist preacher of the
gospel of ambition. When he established the Mr. and Miss Umred
Personality Contest, he was not bringing a new idea to Umred so much
as giving expression to an existing idea. What he understood was that
the young craved an exit, and he had built a personal empire to serve
that craving. Everyone knew Misal. Everyone, regardless of age, called
him "sir." To reach Nagpur or Pune or Mumbai, you had to seek his
advice, learn English from his English academy, learn roller skating
from his roller-skating academy, reach into his network of contacts,
compete in his pageant, learn to dress and think and enunciate like
On the day after the pageant, Misal took me to a restaurant called
Uttam, which, in the small-town Indian way, served every kind of
Indian cuisine except the local cuisine. As he began to tell me his
story, I learned that Misal swept into Umred not from above but from
below — far below. He was born in a village called Bhiwapur, a
half-hour drive from Umred. It is one of hundreds of thousands of such
villages in India. His family lived in a three-room house with
concrete walls, an outdoor latrine and a thatched roof. They had no
land to cultivate, just a small yard with some anemic trees. His
father worked as a laborer, loading foodstuffs on and off trucks. His
mother was a farmhand. Neither parent advanced past fourth grade; they
spoke Marathi but not Hindi. "We are daily-wages people," Misal said,
betraying elements of the old thinking that he hadn't wholly shaken:
daily wages as social identity, not economic circumstance. He grew up
eating plates heaped with rice, covered with watery lentil dal, with a
small dollop of chutney on the side to lend piquancy, and sometimes a
thin piece of roti. From time to time, the family splurged on
eggplants. They bought their clothes secondhand from the village
bazaar, making them poor even by the standards of the poor. They
rarely possessed more than a few hundred rupees in savings — less than
$20 — almost enough for a one-way train ride to a neighboring state.
Misal's family lived in a particular area of the village, a mohalla, a
ghetto. As Misal grew up, he learned that his mohalla was reserved for
low-caste laboring families like his. Their caste, traditionally
tasked with crushing oil seeds, stood some rungs above the
untouchables, belonging instead to the bureaucratic category of "Other
He discovered his inferiority at school, noticing that the Jaiswals
and Agarwals and Guptas, the children of merchants and shopkeepers,
bought 2-rupee ice creams at recess, while his mohalla friends bought
the 50-paise kind. He realized that when guest speakers came to the
school, the children of daily-wages people were rarely chosen to
introduce them. He noticed that at the wedding of a big man in
Bhiwapur, he had to wait until the "guests" had eaten. "You come
afterward," he remembered being scolded. He used to watch his
classmates roar into the schoolyard on the backs of their parents'
motorcycles. He did not even have the two modes of transportation
below motorcycles on the Indian staircase of affluence: the bicycle
and shoes. He wore no footwear until ninth grade. "Whenever I saw
other people wearing expensive shoes and socks and slippers, I used to
get very angry, and I felt very bad," he said. "Why am I not getting
all these things? Why only I don't have all these things? And at that
time I decided that I will earn great money, and I will remove my
poverty. I considered poverty as a disease."
This was not the old Indian orthodoxy: for Misal, the world was not
illusion, maya; it was not enough simply to do one's duty and do it
well and be satisfied with what God gave. "I just believed that we all
are equal human beings, so why do we have differences, as far as
social status is concerned, economical status is concerned, social
recognition and honor and respect?" he said. "What I used to believe
every time is that if one person is getting something big, better and
best, that should be my right."
"Most Indians don't think like that," I interrupted.
"They don't think like that," he said. "They just want to compromise:
it's O.K., we're having sufficient things; let's be settled. But — I
don't know — right from the beginning, I had great anger of my
poverty. The generations after me will not live this kind of life —
that's what I decided. I will change my destiny. I will be good. I
will be rich."
When Misal was in eighth grade, the village school held a
public-speaking contest. He had never stood on a stage before. But now
there he was, with hundreds of people sitting below him, watching. He
spoke for five minutes; the crowd applauded three times. He discovered
that night a power in himself that he had not known: to connect, to
inspire, to cut into people's hearts with his words. And, having
contracted his thirst for money through its absence, he now felt the
first rush of respect. "I felt that I am something different, I am
something special," he said.
Misal's speech, which won the prize, was about the impact of
television on society, and by that time a television bought by the
family was having a great impact on Misal himself. He would spend
hours each day watching "He-Man," "Spider-Man" and "Batman," piously
balanced with the Hindutainment of the "Mahabharat" and "Ramayan"
series. In Misal's world, television was seen, even by parents, as a
force of liberation. "TV is the very hi-fi form of everything," Misal
said. "It's the extreme level of ideas, where they show you everything
at top level, so that certainly gives you motivation. On TV you see
the things of world-class standard. When you see some person on
Discovery catching anaconda, you are looking at the best person in the
world for catching anaconda. On TV we never see the strugglers or
something like that; we see the people who have achieved what they
wanted to be."
For all his dreams, Misal was just another village kid who didn't have
connections and didn't speak English, the language of success in the
India that was beginning to flourish in the 1990s. At the end of 10th
grade, he enrolled himself in an English-language school in Umred, the
nearest town, even though he didn't speak English. He and the other
village kids sat in the back of the classroom gathering fragments of
vocabulary and grammar day by day.
He graduated and moved on to a college in Umred, choosing business as
his major. But he was working numerous odd jobs after school; the
strains became too much, and he failed his second-year exams. He was
In an earlier India, that might have been his story's end: there were
no second chances then, and there were no other routes upward.
Knowledge was the rampart that protected the well-born from the rest.
In an earlier age, that meant confining Sanskrit learning to the
priestly castes; in more recent times, it translated into massive
public investment in elite colleges and universities and the neglect
of basic schooling for most Indians. Even today, the quality of
instruction at all but the best institutions is miserable. And so if
you were like Misal, you were probably not getting a very good
education to begin with, even before an unforgiving examination system
cut you loose.
But the ambitions stirring below created a market for a new breed of
middle-class finishing schools. They catered to young people born into
the lower orders, filled with dreams but shut out by the old system.
The schools were often single-room institutions, taking cash only,
with dubious teaching methods. The most common subject was English. It
was not the archaic English curriculum of many Indian schools and
colleges, with Shakespearean sonnets memorized and not understood. It
was spoken English that could be used in the workplace, language the
quick and dirty way. It gave students the idioms, vocabulary and
placeless accent that would render your lowly origins untraceable in a
land where so much could be deduced when you opened your mouth.
Misal coated himself with one finishing-school skill after another,
learning everything from desktop publishing to how to be an
electrician. One of the schools sensed his talent with people and
hired him as a teacher, paying him 360 rupees a month. Another school
soon poached him for more than double that amount. With the
finishing-school cult spreading, the company even opened a branch in
Bhiwapur. Misal was sent to manage a school there. He had left the
village as the boy who ate last at weddings; he returned as that
loftiest of Indian creatures, a teacher and, better still, a purveyor
of new-economy skills. He was earning 1,800 rupees a month. He had
become a big man.
On his 21st birthday, in September 2002, he bought a motorcycle. It
was the first motorized vehicle owned in the history of his family. He
drove it from the showroom to his home and took his mother for a spin
around the village. "She didn't say anything," he recalled. "She just
cried. And she said, 'Take care of the bike.' "
Misal told me his favorite book was Dale Carnegie's "How to Win
Friends and Influence People," with its tale of the writer's poor
childhood in Missouri, his contemplation of suicide and then his
discovery of a talent for public speaking. "I have read that 28 times
so far," he said. "Whenever I feel nervous or depressed, I open that
In 2004, Misal decided to return to Umred and become its Dale Carnegie
— to start a finishing school of his own. He set up roller-skating
classes and an event-management firm, but the heart of his work was a
spoken-English academy. It offered 90 hours of classes over 45 days
for just 1,000 rupees, the cost of a fancy meal in Mumbai. The
students trickled in at first; then the trickle gathered into a gush
and before long Misal was just about the most important and well-known
young man in Umred.
A year after my visit to Umred, my phone buzzed with a text from Misal:
Sir, last couple of months are full of achievements 4 me. My 2 skating
kids represented India in international skating comp in Belgium. It ws
my greatest dream, turned into reality. I ws busy in passports, visas
n other formalities. Nw im going 2 Hongkong 4 international Skating
Championship as India team manager on sep 26. My life is transforming
rapidly this time. My faith on my abilities raised. Its rising time
4me. My image is getting new shape. Im proving n improving at
personal, social, family n financial areas nicely. At present im
contributory english lecturer at 6 dif school n colleges. Im
constructing my new home also.
The man never stopped.
I began to see self-invention as a theme of India's unfolding drama.
Misal, the shoeless son of a porter, was the manager of an Indian
roller-skating team, was going to Hong Kong, was teaching at six
colleges and was building a house.
We met again at a tea stall in Umred. He came on his motorcycle,
dressed in a silk shirt with green and blue diagonal stripes and a
vast collar, over black polyester pants streaked by a strong
pinstripe. He ordered two cups of tea from the owner.
The English academy continued to do well, but it was his
roller-skating classes that had really taken off. Roller skating was
becoming a major pastime in small-town India, part of the new frenzy
for competitions of any kind. Misal had signed a lucrative deal to be
the area's exclusive distributor of a brand of high-end skates that he
recommended to his students. Meanwhile, he was becoming known as a
groomer of great skaters. One day he got a call from the Roller
Skating Federation of India. The group had heard of his skills as a
teacher, the man on the line said, and they wanted to appoint him
manager of the Indian national roller-skating team. Within weeks he
was shepherding the team through Hong Kong, marveling at the
skyscrapers and the armies of people dressed in coats and ties and
As he delivered this update, Misal received a phone call. It seemed,
from the blend of swagger and nervousness in his voice, to be a call
of love. The last time we met, I asked Misal about his romantic
affairs and was surprised that, for all his daring, he was a dutiful
Indian son on the question of marriage. He would marry a woman to his
parents' liking, chosen by them with the family's interests in mind.
This was the case across much of the society: young people bold and
mutinous in matters of status and hierarchy, yet wholly willing to
submit in this other sphere.
When his call ended, I asked who it was.
"That was my best friend." Giggle.
"Best friend or girlfriend?"
"No, no, best friend, best friend." Giggle. "Maybe girlfriend."
I asked if we could meet her. We drove to a school, just outside of
town, where she was the supervisor of teachers and he was a lecturer
in English. On the way, he told me that they were friends but that he
was "willing" to be more and that maybe it would happen someday soon.
She was also an aspiring trainer and public speaker; she, too, emceed
events like the pageant. He insisted I not publish her full name, so I
will call her Miss S.
"Since we are coming together by means of this profession, she is
getting much popular, she is getting improved, her personality is
getting much fragranced — she said many times to me," he said. "She is
getting very much P.R.," he added. "She gives all credit to me for
that. She says, 'You're in my life, and that's why there are so many
changes occurring.' And I always say: 'You deserve it. I'm just the
medium, maybe.' And she always says, 'You are the best motivator I've
ever had.' "
We walked into the school and into the principal's office, where Miss
S. was sitting with the principal. She was short and pretty, wearing
boxy metal-framed glasses and a white salwar kameez with printed
flowers. She was the second-ranking official at the school, but I
noticed that she called Misal "sir." As we made conversation with the
principal, she stayed silent. When the principal gushed to me about
Misal's galvanizing effect on Umred, she grinned quietly.
I accompanied them on an errand of hers, to print out and mail some
forms. They both got out of the car at the post office and asked me to
wait. A few minutes later Miss S. returned on her own. I sensed that
she wanted to talk. But when I asked about her relationship with
Misal, she instantly became shy. Then something in her stirred, and
she said that she liked him very much but that it was complicated.
They had met in the computer institute where he used to teach; she was
one of his students. She was enchanted by his lectures. "As a person,
I like him very much," she said. "Caring. Hard worker. He has a
helping nature. I call him 'sir' because I met him first as a
When I asked if they had a future together, she demurred. Then,
perhaps realizing the back-channel possibilities I offered, she said
she had thought about marrying him, but he had never spoken of any
feelings for her. Her mother, meanwhile, was opposed to the notion.
They were from the same caste and even the same subcaste. But they
were not from the same sub-subcaste. They were the descendants of
oil-seed crushers of different varieties. This could be overcome, but
it would require some labor, so Misal had to make up his mind.
I promised Miss S. that I would see what I could do.
On the outskirts of Umred there was a restaurant called Machan, whose
village theme, including the terra-cotta ox cart in the muddy
courtyard, suggested an anticipatory nostalgia for the world now
evaporating. During lunch, Misal took call after call, struggling to
look up from his Nokia.
I asked him about Miss S. "She's my first love," he said. "I never had
such kind of feelings for someone before."
A moment later, he added, "I'm thankful to God that he has put that
love feeling in my heart." He didn't know if she felt the same. I
suggested that perhaps she didn't know how he felt.
Then it seemed to dawn on Misal that she might have been dropping
hints for some time. "Many times she talks about marriage — in
general," he said, reflecting as he spoke. "She says, 'I will not get
a good husband; I don't know what kind of husband will I get.' Then I
ask her, 'What kind of husband do you want?' So maybe she wanted to
tell me her expectations through that." He was now listening to
himself as carefully as I was listening to him.
"I will get married in two years," he said rather abruptly. "It's
planned already. That's the age of 30. At that time, I will have many
things: my house, my vehicle, a couple of international tours."
But when did he intend to reveal this plan to her?
"Obviously, I will tell her," he said. "I will just tell her that I
love her and that I would like to marry her — after completion of my
home. That is the most important priority and responsibility at
present for me."
"But you can tell her before also," I said. "You don't have to marry
her now, but you can tell her before. Otherwise, she'll get married to
"Yeah, that's right."
"Why are you so fixed about two years from now?" I asked. "If you love
someone, wouldn't you put that first?"
"There are so many goals," he said, "and I have my sequence set."
I went to see Misal teach the next day. He was a commanding figure in
the classroom. He paced around the room, only a decade older than his
students but, unlike them, a man of his own making, at peace in his
skin. They sat before him in their half-sleeved shirts and ties and
white tube socks and black shoes, listening raptly.
The first class was ostensibly in English communication; the second
was in D.L.S., as Misal called it — development of life skills. But
all his classes were really just different versions of what was now
known as the "personality development" curriculum in India, which
taught everything from how to pronounce words to what to wear to an
interview, from how to work in teams to how to build self-confidence.
It was what the call centers and high-technology firms insisted on:
they claimed to receive too many résumés from brilliant engineers who
could not string together a coherent sentence, could not work with
others, could not make a presentation, could not calm an angry
Personality development was very alien to the traditional Indian
world. Hinduism had always cultivated a sublimation of the self, aimed
at realizing moksha, or liberation, through transcendence and
renunciation of the material world, which Hindus saw as illusion. But
more than that, it was the social fixedness of Indian life that had
limited the usefulness of a compelling personality. Your station in
life was said to be determined by karma. Your position in the family
was determined by your sex and birth order, not by your skills or
manners. Your early peer relationships were with cousins more than
friends. Your marriage was organized by others, based on family
reputation, not on your charm.
Misal, like the students he taught, was in revolt against the old
fixedness. But once that revolt was complete, a person could find
himself utterly alone. Under the traditional system, a person at least
had a domain of certainties. He knew which foods were his foods. He
knew which things his people considered to be polluting. He had a way
of gesturing and an accent. And so when he chose to strike out as a
self-made man, he would need — even before a job and a house and a car
— the rudiments of selfhood. He would need to develop a personality.
Misal fired up his motivational energies for the students, who were in
their late teens, a light black fuzz darkening the boys' faces. "There
is always gap at the top," he said, and it took three things to get
there: knowledge, attitude and skill. Today's lesson was SWOT
analysis, by which business executives around the world assess a
company's strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. But here
in Umred, SWOT was part of the relentless cultivation of the self.
"SWOT is the method by which we can evaluate ourselves," a lanky
teenage boy stood up to say when Misal asked for a definition.
And I had a sense, from this and earlier visits to Indian finishing
schools, of a generation being trained rather than educated. They knew
nothing about industry, art, history, literature, science.
There were now hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of Indians who
were making this bargain and adopting this focus. And they were
liberating India. But I wondered what kind of country they would make
when there were enough of them to change its essential character.
Their heads were filled with SWOT analysis and ways to win friends and
influence people, not with the tolerance of Asoka, the poetry of
Kabir, the universalism of Tagore.
As Misal drove me to the airport, he asked for advice. It was a
request for feedback, a foreign corporate practice imported into this
setting. I told him that my suggestion would be to have a well-rounded
idea of life, to pursue interests other than his own success, to be
humble, to keep space for friends and family and love. And I realized,
even as my words poured out, and in the moments of silent
incomprehension that followed, how empty and out of tune they must
have sounded. Misal did not have the luxury of broadening his vision,
because if he lost focus, the world of degradations that he had
escaped would be delighted to take him back.
Some days after leaving Umred, I received a text message from Misal:
"Bad news! Miss S. denied my love. Her parents r fixing her marriage
with some1 else. I think she is unwilling 4 this. Bt cant resist
When she spoke to me in the car, in secret, it was perhaps a last,
hopeless attempt. She gave him the opportunity; now she was gone. She
refused even to talk to him. He begged me to call her, which seemed
like a terrible idea. But he said that his very life was at stake and
that he needed my support. So I called. Her answer, in five words,
resolved all ambiguities. "I love my family more."
When Misal showed me the thousands of text messages he had stashed in
his computer, sent and received, they seemed to brim with borrowed
emotions: made-up sayings, quotations from people they scarcely knew,
like Abraham Lincoln.
If you find your self in a dark room + vibrating walls and full of
blood, then don't worry. You are at safe place, you are in my heart!
LOVE is 4 LIFE. LIFE is not 4 LOVE. LOVE may fail in LIFE. LIFE should
never fail in LOVE. So dnt spoil LIFE in LOVE. But dnt 4get 2 LOVE in
Ice is a cream, luv is a dream, bt frndship is ever green. Dont mak
frnds b4 understanding, & dont break ur frndship after
Ninety percent of the messages appeared to be forwards. It was as if
they had so much to say to each other, and no language of their own in
which to say it.
Now Misal would suffer for a time. Then he would continue down the
path of becoming everything that India once told boys like him they
could not be.
Anand Giridharadas is an online columnist for The Times and the author
of "India Calling: An Intimate Portrait of a Nation's Remaking," out
this week, from which this article is adapted.
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