Millennium Post

The Great Indian Rote Trick

The Great Indian Rote Trick
It came as an unexpected relief, like a cool thundershower at the end of a searing day. On a recent Sunday evening, as I was ready to watch a much discussed movie that was to be aired on the TV, with 56 'cuts’ reportedly made by its producers to keep the lewd scenes away from the home audiences, news came that the moral police would still not allow it for any slot before 11 pm. Well, I could never figure out why X-rated films are allowed, however grudgingly, only at that hour; isn’t that the time when potential molesters and people with sexually dysfunctional lives are more likely to stay awake? However, in the slot allotted to the film with 56 cuts, the TV station aired
3 Idiots
, a film I’d seen in the theatres some years back, enjoyed, but for some reason failed to grasp its core message.

As it began running, I kept cursing myself for this failure. For 3 Idiots is not merely a critique of the Indian education system as it seems on the surface. It’s surely that, but a lot more. Ranchhoddas Chanchad, or Rancho, played by Aamir Khan (by far the most talented of all the Khans of Bollywood), with his buddies Farhan Qureshi and Raju Rastogi, as roommates and fellow students of a topline engineering college, fill the film not only with their pranks but a volley of questions aimed at the society. A lot of them are education related, though. Like a scathing attack on the great Indian rote trick of memorising examination notebooks chapter and verse, and of turning every competition into a crammer-versus-crammer contest.

But 3 Idiots is also a critique of a mindset that puts ‘success’ above ‘ability’, of kaamyabi ahead of being qabil. In the world that Rancho challenges, machine has a text book definition running over a hundred words which, and which alone, will the establishment accept. You’ll be laughed out of the classroom if you say that a machine is a device designed to reduce human labour. Period. It doesn’t matter that you know a thing until you can reproduce the standard answer to the satisfaction of Professor Sahastrabudhe, the dean (played with great élan by Boman Irani). Parents have put their wards into the college not to tap their true potentials, but to chase success. At any price. And they have no remorse. Sahastrabudhe’s son, we’re told, wanted to be a writer. But his father must have him become an engineer. The boy committed suicide.

As the story progresses, the engineering college becomes a symbol of India — a vast nation of success seekers. Its institutions are rotten as everyone involved with them has sought individual success, be it with unearned money or undeserved fame. Its academia produces many scholars but very few innovators. Even its sporting arena is a stepping stone to success, be it with money or influence, and the road is paved by venality. The students remind one of the entire gallery of India’s leaders —ministers, bureaucrats, lawyers, technicians, journalists — most of whom are misfits in their roles. They wouldn’t dare try out something else that answers to their inner calling. Like it happened with Farhan who had aspired to be a nature photographer, not engineer, and indeed became one. In real life, India’s leaders are ‘dynastic’, ‘well-connected’, or ‘caste’ in their roles. They are not leaders by their own predilections, and feel no remorse on that account. For example, nobody donning a Gandhi cap as inheritance will end his dynastic compulsions as heroically as Sahastrabudhe’s son.

As it is well known, the story of 3 Idiots is inspired by Five Point Someone, a novel by Chetan Bhagat, who, as a novelist, is an acclaimed chronicler of contemporary India. Bhagat has a Dickensian streak in him which makes him look for a fiendish philosophy running through almost all his villains. Sahastrabudhe is the Indian version of Gradgrind in Dickens’ Hard Times, a typical education entrepreneur of the utilitarian school in Victorian England, who demands from his students ‘facts, facts, only facts’. Sahastrabudhe is Gradgrind’s attitudinal sibling. The film carries the utilitarian theory of knowledge further, with a dash of Bollywood thrown in. It reveals that Rancho is not the moneyed lad he was presumed to be but the servant boy Chhote in a wealthy home who was consumed by the quest for knowledge. So his employer, the father of real Ranchhoddas, had lent him the family name for four years and sent him to the engineering college, the deal being that he’d return as an engineer, hand back his certificates and identity to the master’s doltish son, and disappear without a trace.

Aamir kept his word. When he reappeared, it was as Wangdu, a celebrity inventor. So, as a student, his was a pursuit of pure learning, without even the hope of a testimonial which could qualify him for a lucrative job, or a scholarship for further studies. He must invent, or perish.

The film has a happy ending where Aamir, with his lady love and his buddies walk into the sunset. But it leaves several questions unanswered about India’s engagement with knowledge. The country is so proud of its IITs, with five lakh students competing every year for their 5,000 seats. But only IIT Bombay was ranked 187 in the QS World University Rankings of 2010, the only Indian institute in the top 200. We often pat ourselves for our design skills but there is hardly any product designed in India — be it a fountain pen or a wrist watch — that is visible in the world’s best shops. We are a ‘software superpower,’ but in my long years as a computer user I don’t remember having used any India-made hardware or software, except Indian-American Sabeer Bhatia’s ‘Hotmail,’ perhaps, which too has long been overtaken by superior email software. We have plenty of pharmaceutical companies, but show one which has contributed a single molecule that has saved lives.

No wonder that 3 Idiots was a rage across most of East Asia, including China, South Korea, and, interestingly, Taiwan. These, and India, are the sunrise economies of the world when the sun is said to be setting over the West. Their people are undoubtedly productive, but they have an innovation deficit, things made-in China being invented in the US or designed in Italy. And if you can’t design a decent fountain pen, it is unlikely that you’ll be able to create a good society.
Sumit Mitra

Sumit Mitra

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