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‘Running Boy’ Pradeep Mehra’s overnight fame shows India’s obsession with merit and success

Feeding the idea ‘hard work will give rewards’, in a country where ‘a chaiwala can become a PM’, helps stave off questions about inequality.

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What would you do if you saw a boy with a bag on his shoulder running down a road in Noida at midnight? One option is to assume you can help, slow down your SUV to match his pace, and start filming your various offers to assist him. You might also benefit from a knack for coming up with questions about the boy’s life even as he answers with a long and moving list of hardships, knowing when to interject with thoughtful hmms and baap res! Finally, if you are Vinod Kapri, you would anticipate this video’s potential to go viral and send it to a savvy editor (maybe his wife Sakshi Joshi).

The final result, with English subtitles in a range of fonts and letter cases, is the appropriately unpretentious viral video that Indian WhatsApp groups are always waiting for — ready for parents to share with their children, as the clip insists at the end.

Filmmaker and author Vinod Kapri would still outdo you, though. After posting such a clip of 19-year-old Pradeep Mehra, India’s ‘Running Boy’ and its latest internet sensation, Kapri followed up with a 20-second snippet 12 hours later. Another 12 hours later, Kapri seemed to be in a house with Mehra, filming him as he received some Puma shoes and overdue attention. Overnight, the boy who worked at McDonald’s and wanted to join the Indian Army, was lauded by politicianscricketers and the media for providing the inspiration—the “Monday Motivation”—that the country needed, especially “those who, even after receiving every comfort,” don’t display his model self-sufficient behaviour. Mehra is the perfect Karma Yogi, news channels reminded us, looping clips of him running up and down the TV studio corridor.

Pradeep’s overnight fame contributes to the narrative that an Indian can move up in life if he only puts in the work. But in reality, children of those from the bottom-most quintile of Indian households have only a 3 per cent chance of ending up in the highest quintile, and it can take seven generations for a member of a poor family to achieve an average income. Still, intentionally feeding the narrative that with hard work, our rewards can be ours, in a country where ‘a chaiwala became the prime minister’, helps stave off questions about why there is so much inequality in the first place.

Also read: Rich getting richer, poor getting poorer — answer to India’s V vs K economic recovery question

Keep quiet and work hard’

A former TV journalist, Kapri’s first film won the National Award in 2015. Can’t Take This Shit Anymore documented the story of six women in rural India who had to leave their marital homes for the lack of toilets, only to return when the government installed some after increasing media scrutiny. His latest book, 1232km: The Long Journey Home, told the story of seven workers’ journey home on their bicycles during the 2020 lockdown due to the Covid pandemic. In similar vein, Kapri’s strange-but-dogged coverage of Mehra has helped him, and perhaps even others like him.

Mehra has now been promised assistance towards his goals, along with much-needed financial aid for his mother’s hospital treatment. Messages from other Army aspirants, also in dire conditions, have prompted officials to consider resuming recruitment rallies, which had been suspended due to the pandemic.

It is, however, worth unpacking why the focus of Mehra’s story is the inspiration he can provide us, ‘despite’ his circumstances. Following their midnight encounter, Mehra might well have been quietly aided by Kapri, but the media storm—seeded as ‘motivation’—actually serves an old pattern, as Rakhi Bose writes in OutlookRanu MondalDancing Uncle, and ‘Warrior Aaji’ are others whose lives were temporarily invaded for spectacle and pop consumption, only for them to return to their original state once the fame subsided. Even if it is argued that such one-time help, however unpredictable, is desirable and at least brings about the rare improvement, the deeper, more ever-lasting communication is that in India, you can improve your life if you only put in the work. Don’t harp on about your circumstances, whatever they are, and just work hard. Don’t talk about how you started the race on terribly unequal footing, just keep running. Maybe you will go viral. And that’s your only hope.

This belief that everyone’s life can improve, if only they work (immensely) hard, has been deeply cultivated. Even though India is among the lowest-ranking countries for upward social mobility, Indians “more than any other nationality”, believe it is “common for someone in their country to start poor, work hard, and ultimately become rich”. In a 2019 study quoted by Ranjan Ray in The Wire, it was found that “Indians born in the 1980s have only about as much chance of outstripping their parents in socioeconomic rank as those born in the 1950s”.

Also read: Tamil Brahmins were the earliest to frame merit as a caste claim, and it showed in IITs

The merit myth

The difference between reality and perception also extends to education, with India being among the top countries to believe that people have access to quality education, even though the 2017 UN Human Development Index ranks it at 132 among 189 countries (in terms of the years of schooling received by individuals in the country).

In his 2017 book Lottery of Birth: On Inherited Social Inequalities, author Namit Arora reckons this push to ‘work hard no matter the inequality’ is because of “a self-destructive meritocratic spell”. Pushed by the corporate control of public institutions and the media, “it parallels a religious spell in more ways than one,” he writes. “Powerful social institutions are invested in clouding our notions of cause and effect. Rather than move towards greater fairness and egalitarianism….They beguile us into thinking that the lifestyles of the rich and famous are within reach of all, and uphold rags-to-riches stories as exemplary (‘If this enterprising slumdog can do it against all odds, so can you!’ goes the storyline). All this gets drummed into people’s heads to the point that they only blame themselves for their lot and don’t think of questioning the rules of the game.”

Higher up the class ladder, the narrative transforms into “hustle culture”, which is pernicious for overemphasising the idea that individuals and their actions in this lifetime are solely responsible for their outcomes. Studies have found that this leads to extremely competitive attitudes, which can also explain the pungency of privileged Indian elites towards affirmative action like reservation in education and jobs.

Breaking this spell, as Arora writes, “requires telling new kinds of stories, engaging in vigorous public debate, and employing our best arts of persuasion.” This interpretation of the Running Boy’s virality is, hopefully, one such story.

Sanjana Ramachandran is an independent writer and marketer. She tweets @ramachandranesk. Views are personal.

(Edited by Neera Majumdar)

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