Kalpana Chawla died in a space tragedy 15 years ago. But she brought home to me the Hindi Medium Type, or HMT, advantage.
A day after the space shuttle tragedy on 1 February 2003, Kalpana Chawla emerged as a true Indian heroine, albeit posthumously. State governments rushed to add chapters on her heroic life and the Shiv Sena threatened to rename Valentine’s Day after her.
The flurry of profiles that followed also told us about her childhood years in Haryana and the school she went to: Tagore Birla Niketan in Karnal, cradled in the state’s Basmati heartland.
About 35 km to the north, along the Grand Trunk Road, is the smaller but more famous Kurukshetra of the Mahabharata. And 35 km to the south, along the same highway, lies Panipat, India’s most infamous battleground.
In so many ways Kalpana, Karnal and her Tagore Birla Niketan represent the new, once-nowhere India that is now striding to the centre stage. The medium of instruction in Tagore Birla Niketan is probably English. But having been brought up in those parts in schools not very different from this, I can safely suggest it won’t qualify to be an English-medium, elite school of the kind you’d flaunt on your CV.
The Kalpana phenomenon, therefore, affirmed to us the rise of this new, small-town, modestly brought up but ambitious, hard as nails Indian.
For want of another label, we called this Indian the Hindi Medium Type (HMT, in short). The label is not to be taken literally. It doesn’t necessary mean that the type of Indian we are referring to should have gone only to a Hindi medium school.
Kalpana stood out not only because she was so exceptional in her talent and courage but also because as a ‘middle’-Indian in our headlines she was no longer an exception. Our cricket team by then had already been taken over by HMTs.
How many of our younger cricketers over the past 15 years could answer a question in English the way a Ganguly or Dravid would, or a Pataudi would have? Indian cricket over this period has risen to the top in the world as it’s been taken over mostly by tough, ambitious, talented boys from middle India, the ‘rurbanised’ Bharat, who are happy to fight for their place under the sun. What’s more remarkable, indeed, is that the system let them succeed.
Kapil Dev was our first HMT-star of what was always an English-medium game, and when he spearheaded this surge a quarter of a century ago, there were endless jokes about his English diction, grammar and syntax.
But you couldn’t question his ability to bowl the outswinger at will and his captaincy of our first World Cup winning team even when we eternally doubted his ability to get his ‘over’ counts right towards the end of an innings.
But see how many members of recent Indian teams actually sound worse than Kapil when they speak English.
What’s true of Kalpana and cricket is also beginning to work in that last bastion of elitism, the corporate world. The two most prominent stars of Indian business, the Ambani brothers, started out at a modest, HMT school near the chawl where their parents lived.
So nondescript was the school that it has since ceased to exist. Search the World Wide Web for the educational details of Silicon Valley stars and if you notice that the first elite institution most of them list on their CVs is the IIT, you would know where they are originally from.
The Ambanis and the Narayana Murthys have risen while children of so many former A-list families of corporate India are living their lifestyles by scavenging on the properties left behind by their parents, partying and collecting Versaces, their businesses ruined, their share-holders, employees and bankers vacuum-cleaned.
And if you want to see who is powering Indian industry along with the Ambanis in energy and the Narayana Murthys in technology, check where the Munjals, who created the Hero Group, came from. Little Ludhiana in Punjab’s Doab, that produced grain, hosiery and may have boasted of a few tiny foundries by way of industry.
Pawan Munjal is a graduate of Regional Engineering College (REC), Kurukshetra, next door to Kalpana’s Karnal. Sunil Mittal, now battling the Ambanis in the telecom market-place, is no product of St. Stephen’s but of New High School and Arya College, Ludhiana.
Even the world of politics is at a unique turning point. Not one senior political leader in any party now boasts privileged or even English-medium schooling except, perhaps, L.K. Advani and Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh, who must be the only Dosco among the top power elites today, and the younger dynasts.
Even the nattiest dressers in our politics today are HMTs. Contrast this even with the days of the freedom struggle when so many of the key leaders were from privileged families and educated abroad.
Nowhere is the change more visible than in the armed forces. If you’ve been to an army mess two decades back, do so again now. Or just go to the Indian Military Academy (IMA) in Dehradun and see how many officers now come from middle and rural India.
They are sons of former jawans and JCOs, lower-rung bureaucracy, even the medium-sized, post-Green Revolution farmers, from the very heart of middle India, very modest, very HMT, salt of the earth.
Any group photo of a Doon School old boys reunion will include a bunch of former generals and air marshals. But check the pedigree of your military heroes Kargil and after, and you will not trace one to Doon or a school of that kind.
The closest that some of these young officers come to an elite upbringing was Delhi’s Army Public School. The reversal of fortunes in the media has been even more spectacular.
You can’t be judgmental about people hailing from one class or another. Reverse snobbery is no answer to the tyranny of upper crust, Doon-Stephen’s-Mayo-Sanawar-Lovedale-Loyola domination.
Also, please do not celebrate the rise of the HMTs as a revenge of the Bharatiya underclass on Macaulay.
Celebrate it for the larger message it brings, that the system of upper class patronage the British built, and the institutions left behind by them perpetuated, has unravelled under this assault of Middle India.
Further, it is being broken not by executive order, any ideological Indianisation, BJP’s end-of-history textbooks or any constitutional amendments. It is being driven by forces beyond our control.
Forces of free market, globalisation of our minds, worldwide competition and worldwide opportunity, access to the finest universities, the best employers in the world who do not care which school you went to as long as your SAT scores were better than that of the others.
Nor who your father or your uncle was. It is not a perfectly fair world yet, it never will be. But the change is organic, inevitable, has a momentum of its own and is very much part of the larger medley of change: decentralisation of power, rise of the new rich, urbanisation and access to opportunity far beyond the old charmed circles.
In her deeds and her death, Kalpana personalised this remarkable transformation powered by the market, new ideas, the media, globalisation of our minds. Her Middle India continues to power our future, underlining how stupid it was to believe that we could become a first class nation merely by dipping into a talent pool that excluded more than 95 per cent of our population.