Updated: August 23, 2021 7:38:22 am
In the little gem of a movie Yesterday that dropped on Netflix recently, a struggling musician wakes up after an accident to make the startling discovery that The Beatles have been erased from the world’s collective cultural memory, and he is the only person left on earth who remembers their music. He sings Yesterday for his friends and suddenly, he is no longer a Nowhere Man but an artistic sensation. We are never told how or why this happens, this quirky premise directing the focus of the film to bigger existential questions of chance and ethics. Is it plagiarism if nobody knew the band existed? Or merely carpe diem, a down-on-his-luck singer seizing an opportunity that randomly came his way.
In real life of course, randomness rarely proves so fortuitous. Luck, rather the lack of it, is a controlling force in all our lives. Ask the imperiled Afghans. There are an awful lot of good people suffering disproportionately only because they happen to be the hapless citizens of a failed State. It turns out, the single greatest stroke of luck is where you are born. Our personal narratives emerge from this narrow and specific point, nudging us ahead or holding us back. Yet, the conventional wisdom we imbibe growing up is to be single-minded and determined in our pursuits, to take responsibility for our choices, without making allowances for the whims of fate. It is, perhaps, too scary to envision that sincerity and hard work aside, success depends as much on dodging the catastrophes this wildly unpredictable world may throw up.
The birth lottery is one thing, other vagaries of chance play out in subtler ways throughout our lives. For example, the principal of Delhi University’s Hindu College announced recently that the cut-offs this year will begin at (an utterly absurd) 100%. The fact is, there aren’t enough seats at Hindu for everybody who’s good. There aren’t enough seats at Lady Shri Ram College or Mumbai’s St Xavier’s either. So, colleges ruthlessly keep ratcheting up the cut-offs until they are (conveniently) left with the numbers they can accommodate. This is an accepted practice that should violate our sense of justice because we know the student who got rejected at 99.5 % is equally qualified for that seat. But happenstance rears its whimsical head; some people get what they deserve, some don’t and that’s just how it is.
A more honest way to decide college admissions would be the old-fashioned chit system. Put all the 95%-plus candidates’ names in a hat, shake it around and declare a lucky draw. While far from ideal, it spares students a blow to their self-esteem that they weren’t good enough, even with a near perfect score. Surely, they deserve to be validated for stupendous effort while adjusting to the complexity that rewards don’t necessarily accrue, even after exceptional performance. That is not to say humanity should let go of ambition or we must give ourselves up to relentless fatalism; perseverance and intellectual curiosity are necessary to make it in every career. The work of life is to prepare ourselves through education, experiences and habits — for the unexpected. But, with the understanding that sometimes there are forces beyond our control that make us vulnerable to both fortune and misfortune.
It is a sobering thought that while I, as a female journalist, type from the comfort of my air- conditioned room, TV news focuses on my (veiled) contemporaries three hours away in Kabul, marching down a destroyed landscape, demanding they be allowed to work. Imagine the risks of putting up a fiery show of bravery in a country sliding towards a medieval dystopia. This countermovement, women pushing back against a loss of autonomy, speaks a gutting truth to us watching from our private lockdowns: there are millions of people deserving of a great life everywhere. They’re just not as lucky.
The writer is director, Hutkay Films