As the Indian team, the tournament favourite, exited the cricket World Cup after losing to New Zealand, Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted reassuringly, “A disappointing result, but good to see TeamIndia’s fighting spirit till the very end…. Wins and losses are a part of life. Best wishes to the team for their future endeavours." Modi, fresh from a thumping electoral victory that decimated the opposition, could afford to be magnanimous. On the other hand, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, who knows a thing or two about losing, might have been wistfully talking about himself as he tweeted, “Though they’re (sic) a billion broken hearts tonight, Team India, you put up a great fight and are deserving of our love & respect." Film-maker Karan Johar tweeted, “We must applaud their incredible journey..not just focus on the destination!"
All this is reassuring since we are not always very gracious losers. If India had lost the finals through some statistical number-crunching like New Zealand, all hell would have broken loose along with conspiracy theories about colonial subterfuge. Former Indian cricket captain Chandu Borde once related a story about being thrashed by the West Indies team in a 1966-67 Test at Eden Gardens. Kolkata fans gave the Indians gift-wrapped packets at the railway station. They thought they were getting Kolkata’s famous sweets but when they opened them, they found bangles.
When M.S. Dhoni’s men were trounced in Australia in 2012, TheSydney Morning Herald wrote, “...a whole tray of assorted bangles could be waiting for them as cricket fans vent their scorn" for a team that had gone too “soft". We clearly have a thing for broken hearts and bangles, sexism be damned.
The problem goes beyond cricket and its overly passionate fans. Years ago, a cousin, born and raised in London, visiting Kolkata for the first time, came back from a gathering of the extended clan and asked bemusedly: “Does no one here come second? Everyone I met is first-class first." He had a point. We have a first-class-first culture and love to flaunt it. At least our mothers do. When I won prizes at school, I would be sent over to the neighbours to display them in some kind of middle-school version of a victory tour. Now I think back and cringe. I am sure their sons got an earful later for only managing to come third in English essay and comprehension. We were like obsessed magpies stuck on some conveyor belt going round and round collecting the next shiny bauble that would herd us into the Promised Land of IITs, IIMs and jobs with multinational firms. One year I did unimaginably badly in my mathematics examination. I thought it was the end of the world. Later, I realized it was just the beginning of a certain kind of freedom, the freedom from the burden of always having to excel, always having to come out on top.
There’s nothing wrong with playing to win and the pursuit of excellence. But there’s something deeply rotten when teenagers kill themselves just because their examination results didn’t make the cut. The Telangana chief minister, K. Chandrashekar Rao, had to publicly plead with students not to commit suicide after over 20 teenagers killed themselves this year when the Board of Intermediate Education results came out. Seventeen-year-old Sirisha immolated herself because she was depressed about failing zoology. Union minister of state for home affairs Hansraj Gangaram Ahir admitted in Parliament that some 2,413 students committed suicide in 2016 because of failure in examinations. That’s almost seven students a day. Between 2007 and 2016, that number added up to about 23,000. In a 2012 study, The Lancet said India had one of the world’s highest suicide rates for 15- to 29-year-olds. Instead of a book called Exam Warriors that promises to be a “friend not only in acing exams but also in acing life," it might have been more urgent for the prime minister to write a book called “Exam Survivors".
Taare Zameen Par was one of the first Hindi films I saw that took this asphyxiating culture of grades and scores head on. A dyslexic child, Ishaan, suffers because he marches to the sound of a different drummer, his imagination and creativity counting for nothing in a system that measures success by how much he scores in mathematics or history. Eventually, he finds his wings thanks to an understanding art teacher. In the end, in a rah-rah feel-good moment, Ishaan finally finds love, happiness and acceptance through an art competition which, of course, he wins, thereby proving that even when we are different, we must still be “first-class first different".
Even our WhatsApp fake news forwards feed into the first-class-first frenzy—Unesco declares Modi the “best PM of the world", Jana Gana Mana the “best national anthem" and the ₹2,000 note the “best currency in the world". We eagerly forward them, puffed up with pride, and are indignant when we are informed Unesco has done us no such favours.
This push to the top starts early. At my local neighbourhood sit-and-draw competition, antsy mothers hover around their toddlers shouting encouragement and advice. “Don’t daydream babu, start drawing. See, the little girl next to you is already starting to colour her scenery." She complains to another mother: “We practised at home. And now look at him." At some point, the organizers are compelled to broadcast an appeal to parents. “Please move away from the drawing area. Please let the children draw as they please."
Indians abroad have it just as bad. Shabnam Aggarwal, an Indian American, came to India to launch her own startup. It went belly-up and she wrote a book about it, Freedom To Fail. At one point, she throws her back trying to pick up a big container of water, collapses on the office floor, water pooling around her and realizes she is done. There is no triumphant epilogue where she builds a wildly successful new company out of the ashes of the old one. Her parents, both Silicon Valley engineers, proud stakeholders in the American Dream, were more aghast at the prospect of the book than the actual failure of the company. Her father wrote her a letter saying: “You cannot make failure into some sort of skillset to share with the rest of the world. I have told you before and you have failed to hear me—there is nothing noble about failure."
Our failures live in closets while our successes bask on Facebook. Indians abroad have to live up to being the model minority in countries like the US, the group with the highest median incomes, postgraduate degrees galore, and still having time for their Bharatanatyam arangetrams. And spelling bees.
The Indian-American sweep of spelling bees in the US has become something of a cultural joke. But still they keep coming and winning—earnest bespectacled desi children spelling out aiguillette and koinonia and scherenschnitte with dogged earnestness. This year the 92nd Scripps National Spelling Bee ended up with not one, not two but eight winners, the first time ever that more than two won. Six of the eight were South Asian. It’s endearingly geeky but I remember an Indian-American boy at an all-desi spelling bee in Silicon Valley. He seemed nervous. He had come in second the year before. This would be his last bee. He was ageing out at 13. Sadly, he lost. When I asked him what he had learned, he said, “A lot of words". And then he added with a wry smile, “What I still haven’t learnt is how to cope with failure."
It still shakes me.
Cult Friction is a fortnightly column on issues we keep rubbing up against. Sandip Roy is a writer, journalist and radio host.
He tweets at @sandipr