You can read Part 1 here. In this section, we steer away from epics in our conversation.
Shyamala Rao, a wildlife artist, talked about her journey reading an incredible book called Sonia Sotomayor: Supreme Court Justice by Carmen T. Bernier-Grand. This biography features Sonia Sotomayor, the U.S. Supreme Court’s first Hispanic justice and the third woman to serve the Court. Many of us in the group didn’t know that judges fought elections in the U.S as this is not the case in India.
Sotomayor’s story has some parallels with Leila Seth’s autobiography On Balance, a story of the making of a judge against various odds. However, the challenges are different.
“It’s hard for someone of Hispanic origin in the U.S and no connections to reach the level Sotomayor reached,” Shyamala said. Sotomayor’s is a story of battling the odds. As a young girl of eight, she had juvenile diabetes. Since her mother was out most of the time trying to make ends meet, she had to sterilize her syringes on her own. In spite of her medical condition and her economic limitations, Sotomayor was no whiner. She observed her situation and assessed how she could move ahead.
“This is a rare quality,” Shyamala told us. Which adolescent understands how to fit in and uses observation as a tool not just to fit in, but to excel? As she was bright, Sotomayor was admitted to a posh school, the kind of place where a book like Alice in Wonderland was common fare, a book she hadn’t even heard about. Instead of cringing in shame, she decided to fill in the gaps in her knowledge. She decided to find mentors.
“We can only prepare kids for the world they will know,” Shyamala said as she stressed how important it is that children find mentors wherever they go; parents can’t be mentors in all fields.
Without mentorship, the student is most likely to be ignored right at the time when he needs peers, even in old boys’ club institutions like Ivy League School. But Sotomayor was resilient and for a Supreme Court Justice, she’s full of fun too, considering she got the other Justices to try their foot at salsa.
Arun who hosted the party along with Vaishali mused on the theme of growing up and finding mentors. He talked about his yearly excursions to bookshops as those books sustained him during the long vacatioin. He learnt English from his experience at convent schools and it was when he went to college that he was advised to stick with the English speaking group if he wanted to get ahead in life.
What gets you ahead in the U.S may not necessarily get you ahead in other parts of the world. Everyone seemed to agree that in India merit counted more than it did once, especially in IT companies. In any part of the world, how far you get ahead all comes down to how well you can play the game. “There may be a glass ceiling, but all glass ceilings disappear when people start demanding excellence.”
Excellence is again debatable. There is disgruntlement at the idea of merit being replaced by dynasty. “Yet there is no debating that if you grow up exposed to say film or politics or whatever else, you will end up being good at it, by virtue of swimming in the same ocean,” Jaya said. “Not all of us are fortunate. It will not serve as a reason not to try to succeed.”
Which is why mentoring makes sense.
Arun spoke about how important it is to network and be in the right place at the right if you want to make it in India. It is a contentious issue but being well-versed in your native language is not always enough. There’s a huge disconnect between the English speaking and non-English speaking community, or what Veena, author of Beyond the Call of Duty, called the Pizza Hut vs Darshini culture in India.
“There was a pre-globalization period in India when people grew up the same and dressed pretty much alike. It was hard to make out who was richer than the other. There were just about three brands of cars. We’ve adopted all the wrong things from the US. Competitons for post birthday return gifts. Beauty treatment for young kids.” Shyamala said.
“It was a culture shock,” said Arun who grew up in post independence India,” We were taught about sacrifice but today brands matter.”
“Not to mention what music are you listening to,” said Srishti.
Speaking of mentors and role models, Veena talked about her co-writer Raghunathan’s book called Games Indians Play. Raghunathan is an economist and he uses game theory and economics to understand for instance why Indians in general have a tendency to litter. Veena finds his criticism constructive, though some readers have expressed outrage at how he has painted Indians as privately smart(yes, they clean their own houses) and publicly dumb(they sometimes do litter outside their houses).
“This could be the tragedy of the commons,” Nilesh said. Poverty can aggravate the problem.
Veena disputes this, “Raghunathan didn’t sit on a pedestal and give his advice. He stated the facts and the bottom line is that we all need to be nice and care about our environment.”
Do we care enough to become mentors to the new generation? Look at where talking about books can lead you.
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