The descendants

There’s a flip side to “soft” nepotism,you never know the freedom of real self-reliance.

Written by Amulya Gopalakrishnan | New Delhi | Published: March 4, 2012 3:28 am

There’s a flip side to “soft” nepotism,you never know the freedom of real self-reliance.

It doesn’t matter how tall your grandfather was — you’ve got to do your own growing.” Think of what it feels like to go through much of your life being thought of,primarily,as the offspring of prominent parents. And I don’t mean this in any grand dynastic sense,where privilege is relayed down generations,just the mixed blessing of being the second generation in any endeavour. I’ve seen so many youngish people in professional fields — young lawyers,doctors,architects,economists — struggle with the large shadow cast by their own parents in the same field. They have this prickly self-consciousness,they’re proud of their families but resent its certainties,they worry about seeming derivative and yet can’t break away to prove their worth in any other coin. They’re often too defensive about their success to fully enjoy it.

At one level,it seems absurd and indulgent to even consider this a problem — with their recognisable names and ready-made networks,they have a clear head start. Their career is theirs to squander. But what does the great overhang of parental accomplishment do to you psychologically?

In India,it’s hard to even pretend you’re self-made,if kindergarten onwards,someone has exerted influence on your behalf. Elite advantage stubbornly perpetuates itself,from the very first point of open competition. Successful,eager parents tend to script every step of your early life,help with internships,recommendations and resume-padding.

And what’s more,in many cases,you don’t even want to set yourself on some new and uphill path. Your interests often come from the environment you are pitched in,because you know more about something better than your peers do,and have access to a specialised chatter — all of which makes you much more likely to choose a familiar career.

In India,family remains the biggest shaper and influencer of professional inclinations – sure,maybe your parents are historians and you choose to do work at a non-profit,but that’s just the narcissism of small differences.

And yet,having things set up for you makes you scared to mess up,given to looking over your shoulder,sensitive to comparisons. It deprives you of that careless zest that’s so often a part of creativity. You may value schmoozing more than you strictly need to. Maybe everyone needs that Freudian face-off to discover the dimensions of their own talent and drive. If you’re on uncle-aunty terms with the establishment,it’s hard to blow it a raspberry. (Sometimes,rarely,it works the other way around — you rebel by doing exactly what doesn’t come naturally,like being a starlet when your parents are boldface academics,or becoming a Maoist when your family runs an ice-cream business.)

And then,in this favour-mongering nation of ours,there’s the nepotism question. Nepotism,in the Middle Ages,meant placing papal “nephews” (read: illegitimate children) in high positions. It thrives across the world,to greater or lesser degree. Adam Bellow (son of Saul,incidentally),has written a provocative book called In Praise of Nepotism: A Natural History,where he tries to soften the distaste for the concept somewhat. Even the US,so much more militantly individual and meritocratic than India,is beset by a new kind of “family branding”,he says — not just in businesses where hereditary succession is taken for granted,but also in the arts,television,Hollywood. It’s not the classic pick-up-your-phone-and-dial-your-unworthy-child-a-contract kind of nepotism,but a subtler one — where the children mould themselves to be the right candidates. They combine merit and family advantage — making it hard to argue with their being chosen — but it’s still the same phenomenon.

Bellow suggests that we act adult about this softer kind of nepotism,and stop seeing it exclusively as a form of social cheating (while practising it non-stop) — and admit that wanting to pass on social capital to your children,like wealth or anything else,is a natural urge,and the engine of capitalism. All social species,from elephants to ants,want to help out family. Even communist regimes,which replaced narrow family bonds with larger solidarities,have been sunk in nepotism.

But just because it’s natural or even practical doesn’t mean it’s not obnoxious and unfair. It may be wishful to imagine that each generation can have a clean,uncorrupted start,but maybe we can still refuse to make use of chances that aren’t wholly deserved — and trust our own talents.

amulya.gopalakrishnan@expressindia.com

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