What does your father do ?

“What does your father do?”. A question that seemed totally innocuous all through my schooling and the answer to which was a staple in every self introduction that students would be required to make to new teachers at the start of an academic year, has begun to hold a very new meaning to me of late. As social realities dawn on me as I adult, this question reeks of society’s disposition to judge a person based on his birth and that judgement is a reflection of the harsh reality that a person’s place of birth is uncomfortably deterministic of his future. In my late teens and early twenties I subscribed to the view that a person’s hardwork and ability determines success in his career. As such, I deemed questions about a person’s family background inappropriate for a first time meeting or introduction. But as I grow older (and wiser?), I begin to question this and accept the determinism of birth as a fact of life that doesn’t need to be rebelled against. In this article, I narrate two incidents which didn’t hold much meaning to me when they happened, but in hindsight are reflections of this fateful determinism of society.

5 minutes of fame

During my Masters, I got the opportunity to speak to a crowd of 5000 people, a crowd too large to fit an auditorium that the event was hosted in a temporary ‘pandal’ constructed in a football ground. The speech was being telecast live on the organiser’s YouTube channel and was also being covered by Rajyasabha TV. There were at least four different video cameras recording the speech and around a score LCD screens around the venue telecast me from different angles. It was quite like addressing a political rally and was so by design. The event was organised by an institution that claims to be the only one in Asia that trains youngsters to enter politics and the founder’s aim is to encourage youngsters to get into politics. This annual event pulls together luminaries from various fields (not limited to politics) and in turn the presence of these big names pull in a large number of students who pay a fee to attend this conclave. Alongside speeches by the bigwigs, selected students are also provided a chance to speak to the audience. Further, the founder of the institution would present a memento to every student speaker after their individual speeches. It is the largest public speaking experience I have ever had and it is quite likely that it will be the largest I would ever have.

This is indeed a great platform for anyone who has political ambitions. Although I lacked political ambition, the chance to be in such a bright spotlight was enough to motivate me through multiple rounds of selection and a couple of days of training post selection. My speech went well and I was on a high. There was applause and I walked to the the centre of the stage to receive the memento from the organiser. He shook my hand and as we were posing for photographs, he asked me “Tumhare baap kya karthe hain?”. Amidst the camera flashes and outro music playing in the background, I thought I had misheard him. He read my puzzlement for my inability to understand Hindi and repeated himself in English, “What does your father do?”.

Ability or Circumstances ?

A little over two years later, I was working as an Assistant Professor at a college and was therefore part of a panel interviewing students for entry into the BSc Economics programme of the college. It was a two member panel and my co-panelist was a senior professor, much senior to me both in teaching experience and age. Having worked for decades in one of the oldest colleges in Delhi, he must have taught thousands of students from different backgrounds, while I had just completed one year of teaching. This reflected very well in the enthusiasm both of us had towards the interview process, me in excess and my co-panelist in deficit. As the day progressed, I could delineate a pattern in the way the interviews were panning out. I began the interview asking the candidate to introduce themselves and making them comfortable before moving into technical questions. Along with other questions, my co-panelist would always have the question, “Which school are you from?”. And on the very few occasions that he couldn’t get the information he was looking for from the answer, he would further ask what the student’s parents were. Thinking it my duty to judge a candidate’s knowledge, questions about their family background seemed taboo to me. But, it was educative for me to note at the end of the day that there was an unmistakable correlation in the scores we were giving the students and the schools they had gone to. The scores students from private schools in big cities got was without much exception higher than the score students from smaller towns or from less renowned schools got. My conscious effort to evaluate a student from his answers to technical questions produced a ranking very similar to what could have been obtained by just arranging students according to the schools they had attended.

Conclusion

What does your father do” or similar questions that aim to understand a person’s family background or circumstances have held different meanings to me as I grew up. From being an innocuous question in school, to being a prejudiced question that judges a person’s worth by his parentage to being a purely objective question that help one gauge another person, I have grown. Today, I know that when the founder of the political conclave chose to ask me of my father during the very brief interaction we had on stage, he was trying to place me into a bracket within the limited time he had. When speaking about parent’s jobs was a staple in self introductions done in school, it was an attempt to better understand each student. But these questions arise from the uncomfortable reality that one’s circumstances matter more than one’s skills. Note that asking about the father and not the mother is also a reflection of patriarchy, but that is topic for another article.

We have all heard the stories of success through perseverance, from APJ Abdul Kalam to Gita Gopinath. The role models may differ, but we have all been told to work hard for it is what determines whether one succeeds in life. ” Stories of success of people rising from the lower rungs of society based on merit are exceptions and not the norm. Still, it is necessary to tell kids these stories. If it is the young that have to change society and take it on a better trajectory, the stories they need to hear are those of the exceptions and not the norm.

2 comments

  1. Well said Sebin. We have created a new class structure in society – based on the school you attended – who and what your patents are.

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    • Thank you for reading madam. I am glad you visited my blog.
      You are right madam. Growing up thinking that ‘success’ as is commonly defined is a product of skill and hardwork, I am forced to acknowledge that there are far stronger determinants of that. But this needn’t necessarily be unfair as ability itself may be a result of the kind of inputs a person gets. I should not misread success as indicator of skill or lack of performance as lack of skill.

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