Home >Opinion >Columns >Gitanjali Rao’s feat should make us ponder more than feel proud

Congratulations poured in quickly for Gitanjali Rao, the 15-year-old American schoolgirl from Colorado, after Time magazine declared her as its first-ever “Kid of the Year". Among the Indians who cheered her were Lok Sabha speaker Om Birla, former union minister and author Shashi Tharoor, former Andhra Pradesh chief minister N. Chandrababu Naidu, actor Priyanka Chopra, chef Vikas Khanna, and others.

The story of an immigrant kid with Indian roots making it big in a fiercely competitive society, her new home, is heartwarming. India loves rejoicing when Indians who live abroad make it big, or when they act like a model minority. Many Indians also rush to claim credit for those achievements, ascribing the individual’s success to genetics, culture, language, heredity, religion, caste, discipline, hard work and other traits that are considered virtues, some of them dubiously so.

For many years, Indian kids had a near-monopoly of the 92-year-old Spelling Bee competition in the US. Since 1999, Indian Americans have dominated it as though it were their birthright: 24 of the last 31 winners have had Indian roots (the numbers don’t add up because there have been joint winners in many years).

The Spelling Bee arguably challenges memory, and to some extent, skills of logic; Gitanjali Rao’s achievements—she is an inventor and scientist, as the magazine describes her—are of a different order. Not only has she spoken at TedX, she sees herself as a mentor and has guided other students pursuing ideas and experiments. She is set to publish a book next year on problem solving and innovation in science, has embraced important causes through invention, such as developing an app that confronts cyber-bullying, and researched carbon nanotube sensor technology at a lab to detect chemical contamination of water. She is working on a product that can diagnose at early-stage prescription opioid addiction based on the production of a specific protein. This is hard science. She is 15, and is busy inventing products that will, as the cliché goes, make the world a better place. She has won national prizes. And she reads the MIT Technology Review (published at the famous Massachusetts-based university), presumably for light reading. Oh, and did I tell you that she is also a fencer, swimmer and dancer? I am awestruck, as I am sure you are. She will go far.

The question to reflect upon in India is: Could she have achieved all this had she grown up in India? What is it like to be a 15-year-old girl in India today? Would expectations of cramming have crushed a similar child’s curiosity, with a routine dominated by text books and coaching classes (if her family could afford private tuition), and no room for fencing or swimming because she had to get a grade as close to perfect for college admission two years away?

Gitanjali has views on society (think of her work against cyber-bullying). How open would India have been if she had contrarian views? Would the uncles and aunties praising her now have asked, “What does she know? She is just a schoolgirl"? Think of how many responded to Gurmehar Kaur, who was 19 in 2016 when she spoke out on India’s relations with Pakistan. She was not even three when her father, an Indian army captain, died in action in the then state of Jammu and Kashmir. But she spoke of promoting understanding, not hate, and for that she was viciously trolled by many.

The young have the right to vote at 18 in India, and in the mid-teens, many are capable of and competent in forming their own opinions on contentious issues. How willing are ‘grown-ups’ to listen to them?

And then the all-important background: How likely is it that people would ascribe her undoubted genius to her genes or faith, and not her own talent and ability? How many would try to figure out her caste, or which province she is from? And assuming she wasn’t politically active or not interested in science, or if she did not have parents to support her ambitions, what would have been her fate, given all the burdens girls and women have to bear in India? Indeed, many Indian girls do have supportive parents and they do brilliantly—is it because of the wider society, or in spite of it?

Gitanjali Rao is immensely talented. Her parents have encouraged her to pursue her dreams in an environment that is conducive, so that she can be what or who she wishes to be. It is a culture where, for all its flaws, an immigrant child can aspire to the top, realizing that her skills and talents will get recognized; that her ethnic origin won’t be an insurmountable barrier.

To be sure, only a few kids are as lucky. There are many kids in America, of all backgrounds, struggling for their place. But Gitanjali’s story has two important messages. One, there is a reason why politicians like Kamala Harris and Nikki Haley, executives like Satya Nadella, Indra Nooyi, and Sundar Pichai, academics like Nitin Nohria and Srikant Datar, and physicians like Vivek Murthy, are where they are. And that’s the second message, about immigration: Outgoing President Donald Trump’s sustained hostility to immigrants apart, keeping borders open is good for individuals as well as society.

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