Mint conference had ended and a few of us—speakers, journalists, members of the audience—had gravitated towards the same table from the dinner buffet, plates in hand. A few minutes later, it was clear most people around the table were connected to most others: One of the speakers had gone to the same school as a few of my seniors from college; another’s sister had gone to college with one of my colleagues; and two of the speakers had worked for the same company and the same boss, but at different times. One speaker insisted on telling everyone a complicated anecdote involving an expatriate colleague and a memorable punch line: “You’re from a country of a billion people, yet it seems like everyone knows everyone else.”
I couldn’t agree more.
As editor of Mint, I know and meet a lot of people, but even if these names were to be excluded, I’d still be connected to a lot of others.
In some cases, the connection is simply the college I went to, the Birla Institute of Technology and Science at Pilani. BITS, as it is popularly known, was and is one of the best engineering colleges in the country and many people who graduated from it have gone on to do interesting things. For instance, I was at a meeting with a partner at the Indian office of one of the largest venture capital firms in the world and we discovered that we had both graduated from BITS (he was much younger, though). Similarly, a young member of Parliament whose father is the chief minister of a large and important state spent some time in the Mint newsroom, talking to some of my reporters and editors and we discovered that we had both graduated from BITS (he was even younger than the venture capitalist). There are a few dozen educational institutions scattered around the country that engender similar network effects: St Stephen’s, LSR and the Shri Ram College of Commerce in New Delhi; St Xavier’s in Mumbai; Presidency in Kolkata; MCC, WCC and Stella Maris College in Chennai; all the IITs and IIMs; XLRI; and even some schools (PSBB, Vidya Mandir and PS from Chennai, La Martiniere from Kolkata, Bishop Cotton from Bangalore, and more such).
In other cases, the connection is a function of where one lives. Last week, I had lunch with an old acquaintance who has now become head of a large HR multinational firm and been posted in India. He is based in Bangalore. I asked him where he lives in Bangalore. He named a gated community in Whitefield where another friend of mine lives. And yes, their families know each other.
And in still other cases, the connection is simply a company. People may have worked for the same company at different times. An organization, especially a respected one such as Hindustan Unilever, ICICI Bank, Wipro, or Mint can provide as good a frame of reference as a school or locality.
As the father of a young boy, I have also discovered that such connections can also arise from the school one’s child attends. For instance, my son goes to Delhi’s Shri Ram School and I’ve gotten to know a lot of people because their children go to the same school. I’ve also gotten to know a lot of people because my dog is friendly with their dogs. In one case, I discovered that one of these dog-friends had worked with a friend of mine at Hindustan Unilever (we’d become friends while he was my junior at BITS. QED).
There are other network nodes. The army is one. So is the bureaucracy.
If you sit back and think of it, drawing little Venn diagrams in the mind like I did, you will realize that at some level, many of us are connected. By us, of course, I mean maybe 5% of India’s population, maybe less (that still works out to around 50 million or less, which is still a substantial number).
That proportion (unscientific as the process of arriving at it may have been) and anecdotal evidence makes me realize what elitism is and why inclusion is such a difficult task in India. The CEO of a large global private equity firm who comes from one of Tamil Nadu’s lesser cities once told me he had not had a good time at IIT Madras where he had felt like he didn’t belong because it was filled with people who had gone to Vidya Mandir or PS or PSBB or Bishop Cotton and read certain kinds of books and listened to certain kinds of music. And this man comes from a middle-class Brahmin household.
Elitism is the enemy of diversity, which, apart from ensuring the Indian Constitution’s promise of equality and fraternity, has also been recognized as an organizational variable that stimulates productivity and innovation. India’s English media is elitist, too. As Robin Jeffrey, a visiting research professor at the National University of Singapore, pointed out during a lecture in New Delhi in March (later reproduced as an opinion piece in The Hindu), there are almost no Dalits in India’s newsrooms. “Stories from the lives of close to 25% of Indians (Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes) are unlikely to be known—much less broadcast or written about. Unless, of course, the stories are about squalor and violence.”
For the record, I don’t think the Mint newsroom has any Dalits. I tend to ignore caste or religious backgrounds, but it’s an inadequacy I hope to address soon.
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