September 27, 2006

Sliding Doors¹

It was a mild spring afternoon in Minneapolis, USA, 2000 CE.

I opened the door to my right, and walked in.

The press room at the University of Minnesota was full of reporters. Dr. Feigenbaum and Dr. Kim entered behind me and took their seats, as I moved to the podium. "Ladies and gentlemen, I am pleased to inform you that I have been awarded the Nobel Prize in medicine for this year", I began. "Specifically, I have been awarded this honour for my work on the neural basis of consciousness. Indeed, I'd like to share this honor with my colleagues here, Dr. Feigenbaum and Dr. Kim, who have worked jointly with me on several research projects in this area. I could not have accomplished what I did without their significant contributions." I cleared my throat while I waited for the applause to die down, and then continued.

It could have been, but it was not the right door. It was not the press room and there were no reporters either. Only a few graduate students of business administration. I would teach them what I did not care to teach. And they would learn what they did not care to learn.

I sat on a cement bench in the grounds of Loyola College, holding the application form in my hands. My father stood next to me, waiting for me to complete the form. Just one item remained to be filled in, the choice of a major field, mathematics or biology (natural science then). I was quite pleased with the turn of the events that day. I had not only stood first in the school, but also scored the highest marks in the state in science. It was considerably higher than what my father had said that I must score, in order for me to have my way in the choice of the major.

It had been a stressful summer for both of us, as I waited for the results of my school finals. Not a day passed without a heated argument between my father and me. I stood my ground that I wanted to choose biology as my major. My father was equally adamant that I chose mathematics as my major. In those days, it meant that either I could become a doctor or an engineer. I wanted to be a doctor, but my father wanted me to be rich. Why did this man care so much for me to have what he did not?

With the dubious distinction of being born to an upper caste but poor parents, my father didn't think that I would be granted admission to a medical college. Engineering was relatively easier to get into. Even though the state colleges were notorious for caste based discrimination in admissions, there were the IIT's and the BIT's, and they admitted students based excusively on merit. My father was quite certain that if I chose natural science as my major, I'd end up graduating in botany or zoology, destined to be a clerk for the rest of my life. Just like him who had a worthless degree in another basic science, physics. I could only choose natural science over his dead body.

I brought home piles of books on anatomy and physiology every week from the library. I spent hours poring over them, while my friends were playing cricket, and making sure that the neighborhood girls didn't feel unnoticed. I desperately hoped to prove to my father how committed I was to studying medicine. At one time, I even threatened to run away from home and join the Sarvodhaya Movement. That'd show him! I would be poor and shirtless for ever. My father eventually relented, but he set a cutoff score in science for me. It didn't seem impossible, and I accepted. These days, the secular, socialist, democratic, Government of India sets impossibly high cutoffs based on how high your caste is, I hear. In the interest of equality and social justice, of course. Individual be damned. It's the society, stupid!

A month later the marks were announced.

I looked up at my father's face, worn out from years of trying hard to make ends meet. Worried, forlorn, pleading, as if his life depended on my choice. Would he be proved right? Would my caste be my nemesis, and my dreams and his remain just that? Was there anyway to disown one's caste? What if I issued a legal notice to that effect? I, ..., hereby abdicate my ...hood. Would it help if my father and my mother declared so, too? What did it take to become a Muslim? I was furious. Velayutham, Abdul, and Vincent were my classmates for six years, my best friends. Why must I pay for the injustices done by my forefathers to their forefathers, decades ago, centuries ago?

A moment in time, but it seemed like an eternity. I bent down and wrote in the application form, "Mathematics". I stood up and walked towards the Principal's office.

I opened the door to my left and walked in.

It was a hot summer afternoon in Madras, India, 1963 CE.

In the court of Either Or, I plead temporary insanity.

1The title for this post was inspired by a movie of the same title, Sliding Doors, directed by Peter Howitt.
  1. Your link points to Eyes Wide Shut by Stanley Kubrick.

  2. Thanks for pointing out the error. It has been corrected.

  3. Kododu kodidu varumai kodidu
    adaninum kodidu ilamayil varumai.

    I have felt the truth of it many times when your choices in life get limited because of economic compulsions.Pursuit of passion seems like a luxury destined only for ones with means.Or was it again something to do with that time? I am sure a 17 year old in that situation today would have followed his heart.
    It must have taken a lot of you to take that decison and still do your best in your field ( or do you feel you are not doing your best?)

  4. Usha,
    Although poverty, caste, etc. do interfere in one's choice, in this case it was ultimately my choice. I believe that I did follow my "heart". Hence the bottom line (literally) in the blog.

    As for doing my best in my field, I would never know, would I?

  5. "Only a few graduate students of business administration. I would teach them what I did not care to teach."

    That sentence made me wonder if you felt you were just doing it without passion.
    I think I should have worded my question differently:
    "Do you think you are not happy doing what you are doing?" You have answered it already by saying it was your choice.

  6. All that I can say is a quote by Stephen Hawking.

    "Every body in this world has to grow up and understand that the world is unfair. And one has to make a decision which he chooses to be the best in given circumstances."

  7. If circumstances had permitted you to pursue Medicine, perhaps you would have had the opportunity to proudly announce "I am pleased to inform you that I have been awarded the Nobel Prize in medicine for this year".

  8. Do you still regret for that temporary insanity which besieged you from making the decision you wanted to make?

    I'm curious to know what dawns on you when you look back?

  9. first things first- loved the Richard Dawkins quote at the bottom of the page.

    as to the rational choice theory, life is obviously made up of the choices we make but the factors which drive the rationale behind each of them is debatable.

  10. Yes, these situations are hard. I think poverty has more to do with it than caste. It is a double whammy if you are lower caste (by that I mean the "real" lower caste, those who would be classified based on data). It is a triple whammy if you are a woman/"real" lower caste/poor. I have personally seen 3-4 first rank kids belonging to the real lower caste, who were forced to drop out of school due to circumstances. One very bright girl had to give in to pressure and got married cutting short her adventure with education.Social justice has not reached them at all. If the government disagrees with that - it needs to produce data to show the caste/ income/ educational distribution of quota beneficiaries for the past 10,20,.. years.

    In my view the social justice policy has the following effect on different groups.

    1. For Upper Castes (DOWN): A major check on opportunities due to restriction of open competition, having to compete with equally bright students from dubiously classified OBC castes, an exam system that is designed to crowd the top rankers with insufficient differentiation.

    2. For the poor lower castes. [NO CHANGE] The quota system does not reach them at all. They cant compete with either the OC or the OBC, because it is a stretch for them to even go to school. They dont even know it, because this is how it has always been for them. If dad laid tar for a living, the son can hope to one day drive the paving machine. You know whey, because the son isnt going to school, or he is going to a horribly broken government school.

    3. For the OBCs [GOOD BUT] While they have eliminated the OC competition from a large chunk of seats, the gains to them are debatable. The tradeoff is calling yourself "backward", when there appears to be no social, educational, or economic reason to do so. It gets even stranger because most of the OBCs are quite competitive, and would have got in anyway - even if their respective castes had been classified as FC.

    The real losers in this whole deal are the poor and "real OBCs". Ironically, this is the exact target group of the entire quota regime.

    I would not worry too much about the creamy layer situation, because there is no way it can get past the Supreme Court. This is based on the very strong language used by the court in Indira Sawhney II.

  11. Sorry for the longish comment. One more question.

    Did you feel the pinch way back in 1963 in TN ? The total quota at that time was only 41% (25% OBC, 16% SC).


  12. swathi,
    Thanks for the compliment on the Dawkins quote. I'll pass it on to Richard, if and when I meet him next:)

    realitycheck, anonymous,
    I am presuming that you are avatars of a single entity. Yes, I did feel the "pinch" back in 1963. My post says it all. I believe that negative and positive discrimination on the basis of irrelevant criteria are both wrong. It sacrifices the individual for an irrational objective, be it to appease the gods or to appease the masses.

  13. I believe people of exceptional intelligence make up with their cerebral gifts and work ethics what they might lack in passion. Ultimately, excelling becomes a passion, even if the field is not of one's own, initial choice.
    Once your choice is made, you have to do your best you likely have been doing.
    Thanks for pointing me to this post. I am impressed once again by your prose and your thoughts.

  14. Rambodoc:
    Once your choice is made, you have to do your best you likely have been doing.

    I tried, but I can't help but wonder about the counter-factual :(


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