The Hurting Talent

By Neerja Singh


Blog , Boomers To Zoomers

Talent hurts in India. We do not respect talent. We do not know what to do with it. As a matter of fact, we do not recognize talent. I would go so far as to say that ours is a culture that seeks to actively suppress talent.

I am talking about the innate, inborn ability that some people just seem to be born with. It could be a remarkable degree of flexibility, there may be a comfort level with words, or your child perhaps has the marbles for figures. The common thread and threat is that the gift stands out in a crowd and therein lays the reason for alarm.

The logical and unquestionable thing to do would be to celebrate the flair and promote it at the highest level with the greatest possible gusto. But that calls for a certain degree of security and we are a people under constant threat of survival. So what do we do? We kill talent. We negate aptitude by ignoring it, by undercutting it, by discouraging it.

Take any field. Sports, the classical performing arts, academics; there is no discrimination; the throttling is across the board. An aptitude alone should be good enough to merit progress; it is instead drowned in a web of politics, corruption, indifference, and unprofessional ignorance. Some of our most prestigious, national-level institutes of learning are manned by coaches and teachers who are at sea themselves. They train half-heartedly and with redundant knowledge and techniques. Out of touch with contemporary realities and bogged down in a maze of community favors and the quick buck, the last thing on their mind is excellence! There are huge gaps in knowledge; they have not stayed current with the happenings and are incapable of placing the skill they impart in any relevant context.

Our academic institutions are no different. The children struggle over the years and work to their bones to make the cut off marks into our topmost universities and colleges, and what do they get after that golden foothold? Intellectual fatigue, mediocrity, and disillusionment. The emotion they come out with is exhaustion. Be it the IITs, the SRCC, or the National Law Schools, there is an institutional indifference to any hunger to grow and learn. The thrill and excitement of ideas are completely missing. The only value addition, if it can be called that, is the networking that comes from attending these highly reputed schools.

Take the knowledge imparters themselves. Do they have any leadership in their own fields? Have they contributed to the intellectual capital of our country? It is no secret that there aren’t all that many blazing trails of work visible on the Indian firmament. Little wonder then that we do not figure anywhere in the world rankings of ideas. The drought is not just of water! We are quite content to be mediocre and do not rue the fact that we are irrelevant in the sphere of learning and academics.

It is not that we are not creative but it does not seem to go beyond the idea of ‘jugaad’, the contextual improvisations born of limitations that are generally not scalable. Do our industrialists invent new things or merely trade for profits? It is said that India copied the industrial revolution; it did not grow from scratch here. It was the real industrialists elsewhere who transformed the agricultural economy into an industrial economy by taking advantage of scientific principles in the 19th century. Some entrepreneurial Indian traders then imported the new order to set up factories in Calcutta and Bombay and earned their fortunes.

The same continues in the digital economy. We continue to ‘copy’ ideas that emerged in Europe and America and apply it to India. China, on the other hand, learned its lesson from its failure during the industrial era. And it began by mimicking the West in the 1970s and now contributes to the industrial and digital economy offering new ideas as innovation. Yet, its power despite its vast ambitions remains restricted by its closed “digital firewall” policy.

There is no concept of individual brilliance. No culture of promoting innate talent above parochial considerations, above personal narrow interests, above community envy, above everything else. We are suspicious of any quest for excellence, attributing it to ulterior motives, more often than not. Our public spaces are crowded with ceaseless chatter of an unproductive kind. Very little peer exchange of ideas or theories or constructive critique takes place. In most office areas, the exchanges invariably revolve around grouses, entitlements, grievances, gossip, and personal travails.

Was it the caste system that kept all the skills locked in and patented within communities, preventing their propagation, growth, and improvement? Why did the ‘intellectuals’ of India, the Brahmins did not invent new ideas? They were focused on the transmission and commentaries of the Vedic ideas. They were famed for memorizations and mental calculations, but not for critical thinking and new ideas. They probably held that all feasible ideas were already contained within the Vedas. Major innovations of the Marwari bookkeeping did not spread to the world. Instead, India adopted the Western systems that were actively spread through education systems, not locked within family units.

Does our doctrine of contentment or santosha keep us from innovating? Innovation calls for a relentless revision, constant dissatisfaction, an ongoing improvement. So every software and hardware in the digital economy is constantly upgrading itself. Every product and service is constantly trying to become more effective and more efficient. This obsessive self-improvement would go against the idea of being content, being happy with what you have. Perhaps this is why, despite being exposed to science, Indians still value old customs, rituals, and practices that celebrate not ambition and restless spirit, but equanimity and tranquility.

The world is not taking note of us in their “intellectual reputation” rankings. Perhaps we need to accept that our strength lies in our diverse cookery, intricate handicrafts, and the amazingly talented Bollywood! We ought to lay a claim on leadership in these fields.

But then Sushant Singh Rajput happens. Rest in peace brilliance!