Urban poor: Why middle class man with 'stable' job is the modern-day loser
An excerpt from Gayatri Jayaraman's book, Who Me, Poor?
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'I had never seen a cappuccino in my life'
- Shamik Chatterjee, 24, remote West Bengal
When I first came to New Delhi, I had never seen a Cafe Coffee Day in my life, and when I went in, I couldn’t order anything, because I didn’t know what a cappuccino was or what a latte was.
I come from a small village in West Bengal and I grew up in a very simple family. I was the first to complete my Masters in engineering in my family, and in 2007, was considered quite the scholar back home. I was the one with the books, the academic bent of mind, great analytic skills, winning debates in school and college. I was, you could say, the pride of my small pond.
When I graduated and got a job in New Delhi, everyone was very excited for me. But for me, the whole experience was a brutal culture shock. Here, I was the bumpkin. What was a virtue back home — reading voraciously but quietly, simplicity of mind and habit — made me an object of ridicule in my swank corporate office.
I was always awkward and out of place. At first I tried to fit in, but then it started to get to a pressure situation. Even if I was good at my job, the social environment at work was too difficult for me to crack. At first, ashamed of my ill-fitting unbranded clothes, I tried to spend to dress like them, go to the events and dinners they went to but it was outside my social comfort zone. I could not enjoy the things they did, and was an awkward addition to most situations, so I slowly stopped being invited even out of courtesy and soon enough, I was left out.
In our education system, they don’t tell you that non-career related skills sometimes matter more. That you have to sell yourself to people a certain way. I had the grades, I had great ideas, but who would listen to me if I couldn’t do all that? Eventually, I gave up trying.
Isolated and penalised despite good work, I was feeling bitter. I kept wondering how I could go back home and disappoint all who took such pride in me. I was spending a lot to keep pace with a life I wasn’t even enjoying leading.
Eventually, I knew I had no choice. I was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. I eventually returned and found work in a public sector company where I was more of a fit. I am no use to the corporate world.
While all who still believe in the traditional systems of what constitutes success do not choose to retreat, and that’s not to say retreat is necessarily failure — after all, Chatterjee chose the integrity of his own personality as more important to him than altering it to fit in, itself a strength of character, just one that puts oneself outside the rat race — many continue to live with the severe pressures of the culture shock.
Sociologically, today the middle class man with a government job he never intends to quit, with his own accommodation and life insurance, is treated like our modern-day loser. He lacks ambition, he lacks experience, and he lacks spirit.
The man without a broad range of experience across companies, locations, sectors offers an incomplete worldview. His tweets will be insipid and he will have nothing to Instagram or Facebook about that earns him likes, or friends, or followers — a common question in job interviews in the media, advertising, and IT industries today.
The measure of success has radically altered itself in about two decades for an emerging mass of Indian society.
Is it practical to expect that the brilliant successes of a Google or a Facebook or an Apple, poster children of the modern age’s idea of wealth creation, will emerge from plodding stability, savings, and nine-to-five jobs? Do we really expect the pathbreaking to be offloaded from traditional boats that may not be rocked by good employees who would never shift their weight around? And is it fair, in the age of enthusiasm for such out of the box creation, to expect future creators to suppress their enthusiasm to join in?
On the contrary, as individuals, we are each, now, engaged in a race to differentiate ourselves from that homogeneous mass in which goals came pretty much preset — doctor, engineer, lawyer — what were seen traditionally as "nation-building" careers that marked us each out to be responsible units of family, society and nation. An entire generation is racing against itself to prove that it is not that.
Who Me, Poor?, by Gayatri Jayaraman; Bloomsbury India; Rs 399.
The path of paradoxes you must walk is manifold. To break in, you must be the break-out, but to stay in and gain acceptance in the new field, you must fit in. There is no manual that comes with this.
The result is the walking of a new wasteland with no road signs — a departure from traditional industries that come with set ways to navigate them. You have set entrance exams and renowned tuition classes, target companies one seeks to work for, and a ready body of knowledge of specialisations within the field, starting salaries resting at a median, and knowledge of experts who can mentor your way forward.
In contrast, the newbie in the new-age career is exploring essentially virgin territory.
(Re-printed with publisher's permission.)