While so many state governments rush to add chapters on her heroic life and the Shiv Sena threatens to rename Valentine’s day after Kalpana Chawla, would you pause a moment to figure out just who she was, where she came from and, finally, where did she belong: people like us or people like them?
You at least know the school she went to, the Tagore Birla Niketan in Karnal, cradled in the very middle of Haryana’s basmati heartland. Even the town she came from is as nondescript as her school.
Twenty-five miles to the north, along the Grand Trunk Road, is the smaller but more famous Kurukshetra of the Mahabharata. Twenty miles to the south, along the same highway, lies Panipat, another infamous battleground.
Until the rise and then the heroic demise of Kalpana, who knew of a town called Karnal existed twenty or so miles adrift of Kurukshetra and Panipat? Who, indeed, also realised if a modern, successful, virile India was surging beyond the charmed circle of its elite institutions, distinguished families, power elites?
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, elitist school of the kind you’d flaunt on the CV for the rest of your life.
The rise of the Kalpana phenomenon, therefore, is one more example of the arrival of this new, small-town, modestly brought up but ambitious, hard as nails Indian in the national forefront.
For want of another label, let’s call this Indian the Hindi Medium Type (HMT, in short). The label is not to be taken literally. It doesn’t necessary mean that this Indian should have gone only to a Hindi medium school.
It is also synonymous with small-town India, the dehati, anybody who would have been considered an outsider in the upper-crust power structure till the other day, not people like us.
Kalpana counts not only because she was so exceptional in terms of her talent and courage but also because as a middle-Indian in our headlines she is no longer an exception. Our cricket team has already been taken over by HMTs.
How many of your younger cricketers can answer a Tony Greig question in English the way a Ganguly or Dravid would, or a Pataudi would have? It is dangerous to say anything positive about Indian cricket right now, but who are the young people to star in the famous victories of the recent past?
Virender Sehwag, Zaheer Khan, Harbhajan Singh, Mohammed Kaif and Dinesh Mongia are not people with engineering degrees or MBAs, nor do they have blue blood, or even connections with at least the elite schools of cricket, not even a Shardashram of Mumbai.
They are 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 is letting 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 track record as captain of our only 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 this team actually sound worse than Kapil when they speak English. And if you look at the next ten probables, you would know in which language they’d be comfortable answering questions in years to come.
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 on 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 from.
The Ambanis and the Narayana Murthys have risen where scions of so many former A-list families of corporate India are supporting their lifestyles merely by scavenging on the properties left behind by their parents, partying and collecting Versaces, their businesses all in a shambles, the share-holders, employees and bankers vacuum-cleaned.
And if you want to see who is powering Indian manufacturing 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 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 (including the Congress whose chief is more Italian than elite) 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 power elites today.
In any case, the only Doscoite to have made news lately is Raja Bhaiyya’s father, Uday Pratap Singh. 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 heartbeat 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 Kargil heroes and you will not trace one to Doon or a school of that kind.
The closest that some of the young officers who fought in Kargil came to an elite upbringing was Delhi’s Army Public School! The reversal of fortunes in the media has been even more spectacular. Though it’s best to avoid naming names now.
You can’t be judgemental 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 in a fit of boulder-on-the-shoulder liberal piety or as a revenge of the Bharatiya underclass on Macaulay.
Celebrate it for the larger message it brings, that the system of upper class patronage that the British built and that institutions left behind by them perpetuated is now unravelling under this massive assault of Middle India.
Further, it is being broken not by executive order, any ideological Indianisation, Dr Joshi’s end-of-history textbooks or any constitutional amendments. It is happening because of 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 situation yet, it never will be, even in the freest of economies. But the process is natural, 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 charmed circle somebody inherited from his parents.
In her deeds and her death, Kalpana personalised this remarkable transformation powered by the market, new ideas, growth of the media, globalisation of our minds. Her Middle India will power our future now, underlining how stupid it was to believe that we could become a first class nation merely by dipping into a talent pool that excluded 95 per cent of our population.
The rise of this former underclass will create the impetus to further expand this pool, which in turn will create popular pressure for better educational infrastructure across the country.
Why do our children-even those with so called elite schooling- slog for months on their SAT scores and GREs? It is the belief that you are dealing with a system that is viciously competitive but equally fair, where your ability matters more than how well your parents may have done in life. And where performance takes precedence over pedigree. Just as well that the key to that future now lies in the hands of us HMTs.