Schooled in elitism

Mani Shankar Aiyar's now-famous diss of his colleague Ajay Maken being merely "BA Pass from Hansraj College" drew so much attention only because school snobbery is all around us, but rarely so visible and audible, and rarely wielded as calculated insult.

In India, people who would never dream of talking about how big their house is or how much their car cost, or even people explicitly committed to egalitarian ideals, think it's perfectly acceptable to brag about their schools. It might look like affection and team spirit, but school talk is often just an oblique way of hinting at pedigree.

We know this is a credential-mongering country. In every new social interaction, you can see the antennae quivering, alert for status signals. We sort people by class, last name, neighbourhood, accent, and whatever other subtle codes govern our little social groupings. Like George Orwell, who (sardonically) pinpointed his own status as "lower-upper-middle class" in pre-war England, most Indians are hyper-conscious of the many fine lines that separate us from them. And while preps and toffs are at least mildly comic elsewhere, in India privilege seems wholly admirable. Ascribed status is still valued as much as, if not more than, achieved status.

At the same time, conditioned by decades of discomfort with money and flash, education was the obvious arena where you could preen and compete. College sweatshirts and keychains and car stickers used to be coveted items. There was dignity in a battered old car, if adorned with the sticker of a prestigious university.

So if the grip of the old school tie seems as tight as ever, it has everything to do with class — the having of it, the vaunting of it. There is a particular class fraction, of academics and journalists and information workers, which may lack the money, but has strong ideas about culture and refinement. The books they have read and the music lessons they had matter so terribly much, because that is all they have to communicate their distinction.

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