On Saturdays, I get up before dawn —4:45 a.m. or 5 a.m. at the latest. After downing the equivalent of two cups of coffee (which is the size of my favorite coffee mug), I pour a third cup and log into Zoom at 5:30 a.m. Within seconds I’m facing a screen of what we now call the “Brady Bunch” squares, the ubiquitous boxes showing people’s faces, glimpses of their room backdrops or a black box with a name, a person saving on bandwidth or hiding because of a bad hair day. Mostly there are 10-12 of the faces plus a moderator and myself. It is 6 p.m. in India, specifically New Delhi, and more specifically, in Mehrauli, in south Delhi.
The faces are of young Indians, male and female between 17-20, who are logged in to talk with me and have me guide them (I use the term loosely) in ways that they can achieve or at least further their career goals. Each session is for 60-90 mins and follows a suggested outline of prompts that emphazise skills and practical advice. I use the prompts as a basic scaffold and frequently depart from them so that I can egg, cajole, prod these people into talking and articulating their hopes, desires, and agree on practical steps to reach those neon hopes.
“ How do I get confident?” “ I have trouble finding time to study, take competitive exams for government jobs, cook for my family. What can I do?” “ Sir, why did you go to the US?” “ How can I improve speaking English?” “ I want to be like Elon Musk.” ***
Who are these people and why do I care to talk to them at 5:30 in the morning on a Saturday?
“ This is a generation of Indians hanging between extremes. They are hitting adulthood with the cultural values of their grandparents —-socially conservative, sexually timid, God-fearing—-but the life goals of American teenagers: money and fame. They have the bleakest chance at a real opportunity—-a million Indians enter the job market every month; perhaps 0.01 per cent of them find steady jobs—-but the fanciest possible ideas of success. They are the global young Indians ever, but with the narrowest ideas of what it means to be an Indian , based on language, region, religion and an exaggerated notion of the country’s precolonial past.” ( Dreamers, by Snigdha Poonam, Harvard University Press, 2018).
“ This is a generation of Indians hanging between extremes. They are hitting adulthood with the cultural values of their grandparents —-socially conservative, sexually timid, God-fearing—-but the life goals of American teenagers: money and fame. They have the bleakest chance at a real opportunity—-a million Indians enter the job market every month; perhaps 0.01 per cent of them find steady jobs—-but the fanciest possible ideas of success. They are the global young Indians ever, but with the narrowest ideas of what it means to be an Indian , based on language, region, religion and an exaggerated notion of the country’s precolonial past.”
( Dreamers, by Snigdha Poonam, Harvard University Press, 2018).
50 percent of Indians today are below the age of 25. The average age of an Indian in 2020 is 29. These faces in front of me are the future of India in groups of 10-12.
They don’t live in the better parts of town but in shanty-towns and one-room dwellings, they are the urban poor, a generation or less from rural India. They want to be —-well, the range is pretty wide —-from tour guides to cops to journalists, teachers, accountants to entrepreneurs to engineers. They are also some of the poorest. The organization I work with gives them a scholarship for one year to study English and take online (MOOC) courses and guidance from counselors. The organization was started by Indians in the US and the infrastructure in India is strong. Over 25,000 have gone through these programs, recruited primarily in northern , western and in the center of India.
My friend Subodh, who I’ve known for over 53 years, told me about the organization. He and his wife were doing this. I was skeptical that I could do anything, thinking that I’d have to speak Hindi for 90 minutes. You might as well ask me to swim across Walden Pond. It ain’t gonna happen. He assured me that everything would be in English as the students are encouraged to speak to get more fluent. And Zoom? We do what we can, connectivity issues as par for the course. We use the chat box a lot if the audio malfunctions or spoken English is difficult to understand.
And why English? It’s the most spoken language in India after Hindi. It is also the language of power, of prestige, a requirement for better jobs, a requirement in the global economy. English was traditionally the language of the rich and the upper castes. People in the slums weren’t learning English or were being given an opportunity to dream about it. That was then. This is now.
To be absolutely blunt, given the social hierarchies in India, a few generations ago, we wouldn’t be facing each other in this context. We wouldn’t be talking.
When I was in India, I wanted to share my privilege and my good fortune (I was born lucky and that is more apparent to me in India than anywhere else in the entire world) but I thought of grand, big gestures such as societal and political movements, the churning of the earth types. Now I see, very clearly at 5:30 in the morning on a Saturday that change can happen, albeit in a very small way but significantly at the individual level, if I can make a coherent response to the question” Sir, how do I get more confidence.”
*** Addendum: Intially, I’d used “ I Want To Be Elon Musk” as the title, evocative of aspiring entrepreneurship. However, after a reader pointed out that Mr. Musk is certainly not someone that I’d want these students to aspire to given his propensity for politically volatile and grammatically suspect pronouncements such as “We will coup whoever we want” (“https://www.salon.com/2020/10/20/elon-musk-becomes-twitter-laughingstock-after-bolivian-socialist-movement-returns-to-power/), I have changed the title.
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