I grew up in a poor country, India, where a bit of wealth meant everything. To be wealthy was to be an aristocrat, the best. No matter that, to be wealthy, one had to be a warrior, red in tooth and claw. To be a rich landowner, before the industrial age, you had to be a thug and landgrabber and maintain a whole gang of thugs to steal others’ land and retain the land you have stolen. To continue to be rich during the colonial era, you had to lick British boots, pay extortionate taxes and extract the money from poor farmers at baton point. There was nothing respectable, let alone aristocratic, about being an aristocrat in India.
Bengalis are especially thrilled about the land-owing Thakur family which spawned a great many talented writers and artists. Their annual budget for clothes and food would however shock most of their near-destitute subjects. I was aghast that a retinue of servants chopped velvet into small pieces for Rabindranath’s father, for no towel was soft enough for his tender skin. Great poems came from Rabindranath’s travels in a boat, but the brawny men who accompanied him on the boat collected taxes, firmly and often coercively, at every stop.
No more aristocratic were the legendary robber barons of the US, the Mellons and Morgans, Carnegies and Vanderbilts, Rothschilds and Rockefellers, whose names now adorn the portals of museums and churches, universities and foundations. They built their gigantic empires by crushing rivals, fleecing consumers, cheating suppliers, bribing inspectors, evading taxes, corrupting government and above all depriving and enslaving workers. Once again thugs, detectives and brawny men made up their army of enforcers.
When I joined college, I found there were groups from which I was excluded. I did not have the right antecedents, the appropriate lineage, for them. I wasn’t heartbroken, for I felt, like Groucho Marx, I didn’t want to join a group that would accept people like me as members. I became fairly known anyway: I played cricket, I wrote on the wallpaper and in the college magazine, braved the student elections and won every time, and spoke in college debates and crossed swords with the best lawyers and politicos of the day.
I remember too that, when I joined my first job, a large corporation, the boss asked about ‘my family,’ doubtless to ascertain the respectability of my connections. Politely but pointedly, I told him that I had a father, a mother and two brothers, and we were a loving family, and ‘that was the last thing I wanted to say about my family.’ I knew that braggadocio about one’s family was a common custom, but I thought the custom comically inappropriate. Nobody has the opportunity to choose the family in which he or she will be born, and display wisdom or folly in making that choice. It made no sense whatsoever to speak of one’s family with either pride or shame, as if one had anything to do with its glory or ignominy.
Years later, I was interviewing candidates for the World Bank, when an Indian candidate, perhaps encouraged at the sight of a compatriot as interviewer, went on a long harangue about his blue-blooded family, the wealth, status and influence of his forebears. I did not know how to stop him, until he paused to ask about my family, not unlike my first boss. When I used my imagination and said my mother was a maid and my father a taxi driver, he was struck speechless. I took the opportunity to tell him that the Bank was interested in his skills and experience, not his patrician background.
We live in a crassly unequal world and people who compete in the corporate, academic, artistic, professional or any other sphere invariably find that they and their rivals are not all starting from the same starting line. Some have vastly superior advantages, because of the families in which they were born, because of wealth, education, nutrition, healthcare, education, training, social connections, to name just a few. Those advantages are no credit to them, for they did nothing to earn them. On the contrary, those give them an unfair edge of which they should be, if not ashamed, at least modest. Instead of bragging of their aristocratic antecedents, they ought to wonder what earthly use they have made of their disproportionate initial assets.